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Understanding Inter-Communal Conflict in the Sahel – Professor Hussein Solomon

April 7, 2019

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Understanding Inter-Communal Conflict in the Sahel

by Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 6 (April 2019)

By the time government forces reached Ogossagou in central Mali, on the 23rd March 2019 the charred remains of women and children in their still-smouldering homes was all that remained of a once-vibrant Fulani village. 153 people were brutally killed that day as members of the Dogon ethnic group – a hunting and farming community – attacked the village in their long-simmering dispute with the Fulani over land use.

All across the Sahel the situation mirrors that of central Mali with inter-communal violence escalating. On the 11th February 2019, UngwarBardi, an Adara settlement was attacked by Fulani in which 11 people were killed in Kaduna State in Nigeria. Whilst media attention is often focused on Nigeria’s restive north-east with a Boko Haram insurgency going on for years, it is often forgotten that since January 2018 these inter-communal conflicts have killed six times more Nigerians than that of the militant Islamists.

Whilst these conflicts have existed for decades and fundamentally involve disputes over land between herders like the Fulani and Hausa and farmers like the Tiv and Tarok, these conflicts have grown more violent in recent years and has spread over wider parts of the Sahel. Several reasons account for this intensification in conflict dynamics. First, the Sahel is one of the most environmentally degraded regions in the world with climate change contributing to temperature increase 1.5 times higher than the global average. With this comes desertification and increased competition for arable land. The centrality of arable land is also highlighted by the fact that more than 33 million people in the region are defined as food insecure. Add to this a regional population growth of 2.8 percent per annum and the conflict dynamics escalate further.

Second, there is the question of weapon flows emanating from Libya and other countries into the Sahel which increases the lethality of inter-communal conflict. The need to secure borders to prevent this illicit flow of arms is imperative. Third, the inability of governments in the region to secure the peace together with the breakdown of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms have compelled local communities to form tribal militias which have further reinforced cleavages along ethnic and religious lines. In some cases, governments have exacerbated inter-communal conflict with the enactment of legislation which bans the open grazing of cattle. In 2018, Benue State in Nigeria passed such a ban in an ill-advised attempt to prevent conflict. This worsened the situation since herders viewed the ban as a direct attack on their way of life and lost faith in the government’s ability to serve as an honest broker.

Fourth, there is the question of individual governments attempting to respond to the problem on a national level without understanding the full implications of the regional crises they are confronted with. Consider the Fulani. They constitute the world’s largest semi-nomadic group and are found across West and Central Africa – from Senegal to the Central African Republic. Policy, therefore, needs to be informed by both regional dynamics and local particularities and cooperation amongst states need to be paramount.

Governments in the Sahel need to be more creative and be less reliant on brute force in responding to this conflict. Some countries are demonstrating this creativity. In the case of Senegal, tensions between farmers and herders are muted on account of the enforcement of a legal regime which insists on cattle being registered and the designation of alternative areas for grazing land following government consultation with both herders and farmers. In Dori, in north-eastern Burkina Faso, the local government has provided financial support to farmers, introduced beekeeping and assisted with the reforestation of areas. More holistic solutions such as this are needed if one wishes to see a de-escalation of inter-communal violence in the Sahel.

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