Akwanga, Nigeria – On the heels of an insurgency launched seven years ago by the armed group Boko Haram, Nigeria is embroiled in another conflict that has divided people across ethnic and religious lines with thousands killed over the past few years.
It’s a conflict that 16-year-old Haruna Mohammed and his cow-herding family know all too well.
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Not only are they at the centre of it, but they are also being blamed for it.
“They call us killers,” he says. “But we don’t kill. We are peaceful.”
In a wide-open field in Akwanga, central Nigeria, Haruna guides his father’s flock of nearly 200 cows to a stream in a forest. The cattle hustle past him in a mad dash for the cool, freshwater. Haruna touches them fondly. He knows each cow by name. He knows when each cow was born. He knows the lazy cows and he knows the playful ones. He knows which ones produce the best milk, and which ones produce the most dung.
“The cows are special to us Fulani,” Haruna says. “They are part of our family.”
Every weekend, Haruna walks several kilometres through pastures and roads with the cows as they chomp on grass.
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He says that he enjoys this chore. It’s a break from his secondary school studies and a way for him to preserve his culture. His family hails from a generations-old cow-breeding tradition.
West Africa’s cattle herders
The pastoral Fulani people – also called Peul, Fulbe, Fula and believed to be the world’s largest semi-nomadic ethnic group – follow their cows today as they have done for centuries across the West African Sahel, from Senegal to central Africa.
In the past, farmers welcomed the seasonal migration of the Fulani and their cattle. The cows fertilised the farmers’ fields with dung and the farmers reserved land for the cows to graze. It was somewhat of a mutual relationship, dented every now and then by conflicts, particularly when the cattle would trample the farmers’ crops.
But today, the relationship between Fulani cattle-herders and farmers in Nigeria has taken a deadly turn.
Haruna and his family are viewed with suspicion.
As the last of the cows finish drinking water from the stream, a woman runs towards Haruna and his younger brothers. She shoos them away with her hands. Speaking Hausa, she tells the boys to get away from her field.
Haruna beckons his two younger brothers. They direct the cows towards another route.
In the past five years, fights over land and water between Fulani herders and farmers across Nigeria have left thousands of people dead. The farmers accuse the herdsmen of instigating the violence because the roaming herdsmen end up in communities where farmers have already settled for decades, even centuries.
“This is our ancestral land and we have been living here. Then these Fulani people come here once or twice a year with their cows and they are killing us,” says Ngozi Ugwu.
Dozens of people were killed in her town of Nimbo in southeastern Nigeria when masked gunmen descended in an early morning raid.
The residents blamed the Fulani herdsmen. Last month, Nigerian police officials released photos of the assailants.
“For years now, the Fulanis have been coming here to fight us and on April 29 they did their worst attack yet,” she says in tears. She is consumed in a fit of rage that makes it difficult to understand what she’s saying.
Her brother was among those killed in the April attack and she hasn’t yet recovered from his death. Her neighbours fear she may now be mentally unstable.
She and others have seen horrendous killings allegedly committed by Fulani herdsmen.
Pieces of bodies laid in a pile after the April raid. Chopped-off hands and severed feet aroused terror among the people in Nimbo.
“They were slaughtered like bush meat,” says John Orajiaka. He saw the assailants as they entered his church compound, shouting and shooting with Kalashnikov assault rifles. He said that he saw tesbih, prayer beads, dangling from their hands.
Every few weeks, more Nigerian communities join the growing list of those attacked by suspected Fulani herdsmen: Agatu, Nimbo, Galadima, Obiaruku, Abraka, Tarka, Buruku, Ngodo and Biogbolo.
A new brand of criminals tagged by security analysts as “Fulani militant herdsmen”, has emerged to describe people travelling with large flocks of cows and raiding communities.
The 2015 Global Terrorism Index reported that “Fulani militants” are the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world, responsible for the deaths of 1,229 people in 2014 – up from 63 in 2013.
“They now pose a serious threat to stability,” the report says.
In 2010, survivors of an incident that left 500 people dead in the central Nigerian state of Plateau said their attackers shouted at them in Fulani language, according to Human Rights Watch.
This year, suspected herdsmen have killed more people in Nigeria than Boko Haram has, according to statistics from the Council on Foreign Relation’s Nigeria Security Tracker.
In May, exiled Nigerian human rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe testified before a Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives to tell American politicians that “the atrocities perpetrated by Muslim herdsmen of the Fulani tribe” is “a clear and present danger to national peace” for many Nigerians.
Ogebe describes details of a fact-finding mission to the farming community of Agatu in central Nigeria where soldiers were deployed after suspected Fulani herdsmen allegedly killed about 300 Agatu residents in February. Corpses and bloodied pieces of bodies were left at the scene of the violent attack, which happened in a locality too remote for even local journalists to venture.
“The sight was unnerving,” Ogebe’s claims in his testimony. “The tales of victims could not possibly capture the extent of the devastation. Travelling on end, mile after mile on bumpy dirt roads, there were no humans to be seen in village after burned down village.”
Mohammed Husseini, a Fulani leader, explained that in Agatu, young men were stealing the Fulani’s cows and that cattle theft is a crime that frequently goes unpunished.
Husseini is the head of one of the state chapters of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association. He claims that the constant thieving of Fulanis’ cows puts the Fulani people at risk, and that they deserve to protect themselves.
Apart from the cow thefts, analysts also attribute the rise in violence to climate change. The landscape of northern Nigeria – where many of the Fulani in Nigeria originate – is changing as desertification from the Sahara encroaches. Fulani cow herders are staying longer in the south, where the rainy season lasts longer and produces rich, dense greenery. But in the south, they are trespassing on farmers’ lands.
But not everyone supports this theory.
“It’s nonsense. It’s just Western propaganda by people who don’t know what is really happening in Nigeria,” says a prominent Fulani politician, who asked to remain anonymous. He says that the rise in criminality among Fulani cattle-herders began in the 1980s, the same time that organised crime – drug trafficking and gang violence – increased across Nigeria.
“Nigeria should be very alarmed. These Fulani boys are armed with dangerous weapons and they know how to use them. I am Fulani, so I know what is happening,” he tells Al Jazeera. He is working behind the scenes with Fulani community leaders to find a solution to the criminality. He suggests that the perpetrators must be disarmed.
The Nigerian government is yet to find an effective means of tackling arms proliferation, and even the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has admitted the free flow of arms trafficking that surged in the region after the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi compounded Nigeria’s security challenges.
Furthermore, the ignition of religious hostilities has sparked a furious flame.
“The Fulanis are against Christians. They see us as slaves,” says 51-year-old Paul Odiegwu. He is an elder at the church in Nimbo where most of the destruction took place during the recent assault.
He is among many Nigerians who believe that this wave of violence by herdsmen is a continuation of the Fulani uprising of 1804. The historic raids, led by Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, shaped the political and cultural landscape of what was to become the nation of Nigeria more than 100 years later.
A cavalry of Fulani fighters – some on horseback, others on foot – took over communities across north and central Nigeria and parts of Cameroon with the aim of propagating a purer version of Islam.
They subjected people from other ethnic groups as slaves, established an empire, dethroned local leaders, and set themselves up as the ruling aristocracy. Their rule continues in many communities today. Many of the most revered Muslim leaders in Nigeria are from Fulani families.
This history is what many Nigerians fear is playing out again.
So communities in the predominantly Christian southeastern region are employing local defence strategies to protect themselves against the herdsmen.
In the southeastern state of Abia, the governor congregated men of a vigilante group known as the Bakassi Boys to train youth to assist in community policing.
At the federal government level, President Buhari – who is also a Fulani who owns many cows – has ordered a crackdown on herdsmen. After a backlash from outraged Nigerians who went on social media to complain about what they perceived as silence and ethnic bias from Buhari, the president came out to declare his administration will not tolerate violence and ordered security officials to “secure all communities under attack by herdsmen”.
But despite this order, attacks continue. Recently, a community in the southern state of Bayelsa reported an attack by herdsmen and concerns over a possible link between Fulani and Boko Haram. But details of ties are unclear.
Ballama Mustapha, a civil society activist based in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where Boko Haram began, says there are elements of Boko Haram within the herdsmen.
“The issue is that some Fulani herdsmen have joined Boko Haram and also some Boko Haram members have stolen cows that belong to Fulani and are now moving with those cows disguising as Fulani,” Mustapha tells Al Jazeera.
Mike Ejiofor, a security analyst and former senior official at the Nigerian Department of State Security, says Boko Haram members have infiltrated Fulani communities in an attempt to flee Nigerian soldiers who have advanced on them.
Nigeria’s chief of army staff, Tukur Buratai, said last month that herdsmen might have ties with Boko Haram.
Ejiofor and Mustapha fear the violence may be a more fatal security threat than Boko Haram because the herdsmen roam across the country.
While escalating tensions threaten to destroy any semblance of national unity, Haruna is just trying to live a normal teenager’s life. He watches locally produced Kannywood movies, but he says he prefers American action films. Rambo is his favourite.
“Sylvester Stallone is cool,” he says.
Just before the mosquitoes come out in droves in the evening, Haruna walks the cows back home. He plays with his younger siblings. He lies out on the grass and listens to news on the radio, hoping to one day be a journalist.
When his mother calls him, he goes inside to eat dinner. This night, it’s soup made of moringa leaves scooped on top of white rice.