Igangan, Nigeria – One sunny afternoon in April, Rahmata Adeagbo, was seated on a bed in her brother’s house where she now lives, staring blankly at the visitors.
“Ade-lo-wo … Ade-a-gbo,” the 50-year-old muttered after a long silence, painfully stringing the syllables of her late husband’s name.
On June 5, 2021, he had stepped out after receiving calls that nomadic herdsmen had laid siege to their town, Igangan, some 176km (109 miles) away from Lagos. The next time she saw him, his body was ridden with bullets, one of 11 deaths during the attack.
Before that episode, Igangan and six neighbouring towns – all in Oyo state – had experienced a number of clashes stemming from disagreements between Indigenous Yoruba farmers and nomadic Fulani herdsmen.
At the root of the crisis is cattle grazing on farmlands across Nigeria but the battle for resources has been exacerbated by climate change across the Sahel, worsening economic conditions and in some cases, ethnicity and religion; the nomads are mostly Muslim and the farmers are predominantly Christians.
Entire villages have been displaced and schools closed for successive sessions. Interstate food supply chains are disrupted as cattle markets have been razed and farmers have been unable to tend to their crops or have seen them destroyed.
In central Nigeria, the hotspot, as many as 13 million people are at risk of hunger, the World Food Programme said earlier this year.
Between 2016 and 2018, there were 3,641 deaths nationwide due to the conflict, according to Amnesty International. The majority of the reported victims were Indigenes and herdsmen were reported as the aggressors, launching deadly raids frequently.
But even in the southwest, where interfaith households are common and religious tolerance is deemed the highest nationwide, these clashes have become rife. In recent years, it has morphed into more dangerous dimensions involving kidnappings, rape, highway robberies, and coordinated destruction of farmlands.
In 2019, an anti-open grazing law addressing what many experts have identified as the root cause of the disagreements – resource sharing – was passed into law in Oyo. But it has not yet been implemented.
Two years later, as attacks in Igangan continued without perpetrators being apprehended, non-state actors led by a Yoruba ethnic rights activist, Sunday Adeyemo Igboho, demolished property belonging to Fulani residents.
Residents told Al Jazeera that this eviction and the controversies that followed likely spurred the June 5 attack.
According to a report [PDF] by the International Crisis Group, factors that have allowed Nigeria’s pastoralist crisis to fester range from impunity and eroding confidence in the country’s security forces to the government’s poor response to early warnings.
For years, the national security architecture has been overstretched by armed groups running riot in northeast, northwest and central Nigeria.
In January 2020, as cases of insecurity spiked in southwest Nigeria, the six state governors in the region agreed to create a regional security network. It was codenamed Amotekun (Yoruba for leopard). The federal government kicked against the move citing constitutional concerns so the governors redesigned it into a state-based security vigilante to support the police, which is controlled by Abuja.
In Oyo State, the outfit launched in November 2020.
Even though the June 2021 attack remains the last full-scale one coordinated by herdsmen on residents of any of the seven neighbouring towns, residents told Al Jazeera that neither the recent reduction in attacks nor the government’s efforts had eased their fears.
Matthew Page, an associate fellow at the UK-based think-tank Chatham House, says their decision not to trust the authorities’ promise of safety is justified, explaining that “security agencies are ineffective because authorities have tolerated endemic corruption and turned a blind eye to their operational failures”.
Idayat Hassan, director of Abuja-based CDD, agreed, saying it is difficult for residents to trust the state because it has lost the monopoly of violence.
“The inability of the state to respond even when furnished with information ahead of attacks also makes citizens believe they are either complicit or abetting,” she said. “This further eroded the thin trust existing between citizens and governments.”
Peace and unease
Before her husband’s death, Adeagbo was a housewife who occasionally engaged in farmwork but her mental health has begun to suffer since and she can no longer work.
“When her husband died, she suffered a serious emotional issue,” her brother, Akeem Rasheed, told Al Jazeera. “Her husband’s death and the unavailability of resources to cater for her kids pushed her to the brink.”
Initially, he took her to the closest neuropsychiatric hospital, 77km [48 miles] from the town, for treatment. After two months, he had to take her back home because he could no longer afford her hospital bills.
“They allowed me to take her away only because I promised to keep bringing her for regular check-ups, something I have not done because I don’t have money again,” Rasheed said.
As her mental state declines, her family is clinging to the hope that she will get better and that the town will not be attacked again.
But despite no attacks in recent months, residents of other communities in the region are choosing pragmatism over hope.
Across villages in Ogun state, next door to Lagos, residents are relocating to the neighbouring Benin Republic. One of them is Clement Oyebanjo, a teacher in Agbon village who moved there briefly last February after an attack in his village killed four people.
“We are not at ease and sleep with our eyes half open because we know as long as open-grazing is not banned, these Fulani herders will come back,” says Oyebanjo who is prepared to return to Benin if another attack happens.
After Igangan was attacked in June, its residents created a new vigilante group. One of its members was Emmanuel Oguntoyinbo whose younger brother was shot dead on his motorcycle by the attackers while returning from a party.
“We, the youths of the town, that decided that we needed to do that because initially, the community employed some vigilantes from outside, but when the government refused to pay, they left,” the 35-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Every night, armed with Dane guns and charms, they take positions across the town while others patrol strategic places in groups. The community’s youth leader, Olayiwola Olusegun, told Al Jazeera that every household contributes money every month to provide ammunition.
In Agbon, the local vigilante group continues to recruit new members. In neighbouring Ibeku, residents are now wary of visitors and report unknown faces immediately to the town’s traditional ruler.
In Ondo State, dozens of elder residents of communities like Okeluse and Molege, have fled too, while youths who stayed behind have picked up arms to protect themselves.
Meanwhile, Wasiu Olatunbosun, Oyo State commissioner for information, told Al Jazeera the government had put in place the machinery to secure towns like Igangan. He insisted that residents who claim to stay up at night because of their fear of another attack must be opposition members.
For experts like Page, the outcome of these dynamics could be an “expansion of violence entrepreneurs” and more instability even if residents embracing self-defence is justified.
The only difference, he said, between “a vigilante, political thug, insurgent, or bandit is for whom or what cause he fights”.