Herders vs Farmers: Resolving deadly conflict in the Sahel and West Africa

Ousman Tall, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC/OECD)

©Obie Oberholzer/LAIF-REA

In the Sahel region of West Africa, herdsmen traditionally head south across the semi-arid strip below the Sahara desert and above the Sudanian Savanna, towards the coasts during the long dry season to graze their animals. The farmers in the host regions used to welcome the herdsmen’s arrival, as the grazing cattle fertilised their cropland. In the last decade, however, economic, environmental and population pressures have turned this mutually benefitting symbiosis into deadly conflict.

From 2011 to 2016 more than 2,000 people were killed annually in Nigeria during clashes between herders and farmers, most notably in Benue and Taraba states in Nigeria’s Middle Belt. Now, in the Sahel area, similar violence has erupted, particularly in Mali and Senegal. The need for mediation and resolution strategies is critical.

For centuries, pastoralism—the use of extensive grazing on rangelands for livestock production—has sustained both nomadic and sedentary communities throughout the Sahel. Roughly 50 million people, most of them poor, economically depend upon livestock-raising in the region. However, the pastoral way of life is increasingly under threat. Armed conflict, trafficking and terrorism have made vast areas off-limits. Desertification and climate-induced changes have wiped out grazing areas, forcing pastoralists to look elsewhere for fresh pasture and water. Crop farming has increased, and with it a further loss of available rangeland. Meanwhile, livestock density per hectare of grazing land increased by 41% between 2006 and 2016 while forage and fodder production significantly lowered. This has led to earlier cross-border transhumance—the seasonal movement of cattle from one grazing ground to another—increasing pressure on croplands and the risk of conflicts in host countries. Many of these centuries-old transhumance corridors no longer exist, further impeding the movement of herders.

Nomadic pastoralists are key to the region’s stabilisation. The UN’s Economic Commission for Africa reported last year that marginalised herders are involved in most African conflicts, including those in the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, northeastern Kenya, Somalia and Sudan. A 2016 paper from the Global Center on Conflict, Security and Development makes the point succinctly: “With their superior knowledge of the terrain, they [pastoralists] can become key allies that can help government to monitor and control illicit activities, but that if not included in the different political and social processes can also help criminal groups navigate these challenging areas. Being the only food-producing group in these vast regions, they can sustain or constrain terrorists or other criminal groups. Finally, they are a relatively well-defined target group for development initiatives. Any long-term development effort aimed at stabilising the region would be doomed without the pastoral population’s involvement.”

International and regional efforts to help pastoralists survive and adapt are underway. At the fore are three projects initiated by the World Bank. The Regional Sahel Pastoralism Support Project (PRAPS), developed in 2015 for six livestock-producing Sahelian countries–Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal–seeks to improve access to essential products, services, and markets for pastoralists and agro-pastoralists. The Regional Investment Programme for Livestock and Pastoral Development in Coastal Countries (PRIDEC) promotes policies designed to support pastoralism and cross-border transhumance in the five West African coastal countries that host nomadic livestock–Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. Pastoralism and Stability in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa (PASSHA) works with PRAPS to assess and resolve conflicts in trans-border areas and along transhumance axes. Its goal is to help the six PRAPS countries better respond to pastoral crises and emergencies.

An early end to the rains last season means many Sahelian and West African countries are facing the prospect of very lean times ahead, particularly in the pastoral zones of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Mauritania. According to the Cadre Harmonisé (CH), which helps prevent food crises by identifying affected populations and recommending measures to improve food and nutrition security, grain production is significantly lower compared to the five-year average, particularly in Mauritania (deficit of 95%) and Senegal (deficit of 80%). Fodder production is almost non-existent in the major agro-pastoralist areas, which has led to a massive and much earlier departure of pastoralists to regions where conflicts could occur.

Creating a venue for dialogue is the best way to help the region better anticipate and prevent such crises. The Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA) Restricted Meeting (Paris, 16-18 April) at the OECD is exactly that—an opportunity for regional institutions, government officials from Sahelian and coastal countries, crop and livestock producers, civil society organisations and technical and financial partners to exchange views and find a lasting solution.

©OECD Insights April 2018

Rory Clarke

Editor-in-Chief, OECD Observer, OECD Insights, OECD Yearbook

Has one comment to “Herders vs Farmers: Resolving deadly conflict in the Sahel and West Africa”

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  1. EMMANUEL MUNYENEH - 21/04/2018 Reply

    This is a very practical article that speaks to the situation in most African countries. If not critically resolved with consideration for all the factors mentioned, the crisis could increase putting challenges on the already fragile nature of our nations. It could also increase migration raising conflict of land rights and ownership, natural resources and well as ethnic division.

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