Where Islamophobia Meets Anti-Nomadism: The Struggle of the Fulani of Africa
Author: Thomas Shacklock
April 25, 2023
The Fulani are a diverse, traditionally nomadic and pastoralist, and mainly Muslim population who face stigmatisation and persecution across West and Central Africa. Widely associated with jihadism, their continent-wide struggle has been exacerbated by the consequences of climate change affecting many communities and fuelling extremism across the continent. Notably, the case of Nigeria has displayed a polarisation of narratives on “farmer-herder” violence involving Fulani militants at the national and international level, with such violence being viewed through a religious lens. This article closely analyses narratives on Nigeria’s complex crisis and unpacks ways in which they exemplify the intersecting undercurrents of Islamophobia and anti-nomadism that affect Fulani across Africa.
In recent years, the Sahel region of Western Africa has experienced an intensification of extremist violence. Environmental degradation linked with climate change, compounded with different policies concerning land and resources, has placed immense pressure on resources across the region and the communities that rely on them. Governance and conflict resolution mechanism failures also have an impact on conflict in some contexts. The impact of these environmental conditions has varied in significance in different contexts across the region and over time. Yet, amidst this complex regional crisis, one particular community, the Fulani, has found itself in an increasingly precarious situation. While this article cannot capture the experiences of Fulani in all countries they inhabit, it presents examples of the undercurrents and consequences of their stigmatisation and narratives in which they are implicated.
Variations of persecution
The Fulani are a diverse, traditionally nomadic and pastoralist, and mainly Muslim population spread across West and Central Africa. Altogether, Fulani across Africa constitute the world's largest nomadic pastoralist group. They are not a homogenous group, as the experiences of elite, sedentary, and nomadic Fulani have differed throughout history. Yet, they are generally subjected to stigma, stereotypes, and hostilities related to their ethnicity. Notably, the experience of Fulani pastoralists (or “herders”) compares with that of nomadic communities worldwide, who are normatively marginalised regarding land rights, citizenship, and access to services. Fulani are also collectively associated with jihadism across the region. This is partly based on the vulnerability of some Fulani to join jihads. Nevertheless, this issue is inseparable from the Fulani’s wider struggle of marginalisation, compounded by the effects of climate change.
Since 2015, over 3,000 Fulani civilians have been killed in Mali and Burkina Faso. Two new jihadi insurgencies emerged in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso in 2015 and 2016 respectively, with both recruiting significantly from marginalised Fulani herder communities. The Malian and Burkinabe militaries reacted with repressive measures, targeting Fulani civilians accused of collaborating with jihadis. Suspicions of Fulani jihadism have influenced actors beyond the military. In 2019, a vigilante militia massacred over 150 people in the mainly Fulani village of Ogossagou. This incident exemplified an ongoing systematic targeting of Fulani in Mali that International Crisis Group has called ethnic cleansing. In 2022, the Malian military launched another offensive with the support of Russian Wagner mercenaries, causing an increase in killings of Fulani civilians.
In other contexts, Fulani are mistreated principally for their nomadic way of life. In Ghana, media outlets portray Fulani herders as a threat to livelihoods and national security. This demonisation of nomadic pastoralists is familiar across Africa, as they are often perceived to encroach on farmers’ land, and their cattle may trample over farmers’ crops during transhumance (cattle migration). Such frustrations around territory and transhumance sometimes trigger incidents of farmer-herder violence within Ghana. Yet, the Ghanaian state has also led repressive campaigns, known as “Operation Cow Leg”, entailing the expulsion of Fulani herders from the country. Given Ghana’s status as an overall peaceful country, its state-led repression of Fulani demonstrates the extent of dehumanisation the community faces across the region.
In Nigeria, the Fulani’s struggle presents notably complex dynamics. Northern Nigeria is majority Muslim, while southern Nigeria is majority Christian, with Fulani constituting just six percent of the country's population. In northwestern Nigeria, mainly ethnic Hausa farmers have facedattacks from Fulani pastoralist militants, known as “bandits”. This banditry is driven by socioeconomic deprivation and marginalisation among Fulani pastoralists. Meanwhile, farmer-herder violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt has fallen along religious lines between mainly Muslim Fulani and Christian farmers and has spread to southern Nigeria. There have been attacks on all sides in both contexts, including counter-attacks from farmer vigilantes. Though decentralised and without a clear unified agenda, Fulani militants have been considered the main perpetrators. Furthermore, violence involving Fulani militias has in recent years been deemed deadlier than the jihadist insurgency Boko Haram.
Narratives on Nigeria’s Middle Belt crisis have been polarised. Several scholars, activists, and Christian organisations have claimed the region's Christian community faces ethnic cleansing or even genocide. On the other hand, a range of academics, United States government researchers, international think tanks, and mainstream media outlets have analysed the crisis as a “farmer-herder” conflict, driven by increasingly limited availability of land and water, exacerbated by climate change. Not only have they emphasised the complexities of the crisis, but they have also displayed an understanding of the vulnerability of Fulani herders, given the seriousness of genocide allegations. Fulani also face abuses in counter-terrorism operations, including in a recent military airstrike killing 40 mainly Fulani herder civilians. Despite these concerns, those viewing the crisis through a religious persecution lens consider the “climate change” and “farmer-herder” narratives to downplay its seriousness for Christians.
Some authors have sought to grapple with the extremity of the crisis. In 2020, a United Kingdom parliamentary committee published a report indicating Nigerians could face genocide. In response, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams penned a supporting article in The Independent. Both publications underlined the complexities and religious dimensions of the crisis, with Williams emphasising the need to address the marginalisation of Fulani herders. Nevertheless, the underreporting and downplaying of Christian victimhood among mainstream sources has overall left a vacuum filled by Western Christian and right-wing organisations and outlets with more harmful reporting styles. Notably, reports by Nigerian and Western Christian outlets often reinforce age-old stereotypes of the “nomad savage.” Additionally, narratives employ language describing farmers as “indigenous,” implicitly positioning nomadic Fulani as “outsiders.” Reports of attacks also frame suspected Fulani as confirmed perpetrators.
In Nigeria’s Middle Belt and southern states, Fulani are widely considered primitive. Meanwhile, the state does not sufficiently accommodate nomadism and cattle grazing while prioritising sedentarism. When unfavourable environmental conditions lead pastoralists to find new cattle grazing areas, they are perceived as non-indigenous “invaders”. Hence, the movement of herders and accompanying clashes with farmers have triggered draconian anti-grazing laws in southern and Middle Belt states. These laws have conflated the violence with the pastoralist way of life, threatened livelihoods, and fuelled the crisis. Fulani militants are associated with Boko Haram, even though their links have been limited and strategic. Furthermore, Boko Haram does not operate in this part of Nigeria, and its violence is another cause of Fulani migrations southward. Nevertheless, Fulani herders are still accused, in one unevidenced conspiracy theory, of seeking to Islamise Nigeria.
In Nigeria, Fulani have been viewed with suspicion since the pre-colonial Fulani-led jihad that resulted in the Sokoto Caliphate. This history informs narratives about ‘killer herdsmen’ leading a jihad in the Middle Belt today. Additionally, the Fulani elites’ cooperation with the British colonial administration solidified their power in postcolonial northern Nigeria, where Hausa-Fulani elites have imposed Sharia Law. Outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani, has been suspected of enabling such a threat and even using Fulani herders to Islamise the region. His government's policy to counter the effects of the anti-grazing laws by creating grazing spaces for pastoralists to reduce conflict with farmers was rejected by Middle Belt leaders as a "Fulanisation" agenda. Such stigmatisation rather risks pushing more marginalised Fulani into jihadism.
An intersectionality lens can humanise discourses explaining the resort of some Fulani to extremism, however the violence itself is described. The employment of the term “genocide,” whose applicability is contested in many contexts, seeks to explain the scale of death and destruction among Christians. Yet, conspiracy theories about “expansionism,” “Islamisation,” “jihadisation” and “Fulanisation” interpret the intent and agency of Fulani militants in ways that disregard their reality of socioeconomic deprivation and their struggle for survival, mischaracterising the power dynamics of the crisis. They also render Fulani so suspicious that they hinder solutions addressing the community's structural vulnerability, such as the allocation of grazing spaces. Recognising the intersectionality of factors could enable a nuanced understanding of the relation between environmental insecurity, marginalisation, and religion, helping bridge polarised interpretations of the crisis.
Persecution in perspective
Through reports by Western Christian and right-wing organisations, Nigeria's Fulani have been incorporated into a mainly Christian-Muslim dichotomy within global Christian persecution narratives. The framing of Christian persecution within the Western evangelical movement reflects a tendency to identify with victims of persecution. Christians are sometimes described as the world’s most persecuted religious people at a time when the Christian right has fueled Islamophobia in the West. Thus, narratives that narrowly focus on and generalise the persecution of Christians globally, combined with the dehumanisation of Muslims, can have the effect of causing Muslim persecution to be overlooked in certain contexts. For example, the Christian advocacy organisation Open Doors claims that Christians are persecuted in the Central African Republic (CAR). While CAR's complex crisis has impacted Christians, its primary victims have disproportionately been Muslims, particularly Fulani.
In 2013, Muslim “Séléka” rebels led an insurgency in CAR, following decades of marginalisation based on ethno-regional inequality. This prompted Christian “anti-Balaka” militias to emerge in reaction, and the ensuing conflict drove 85% of Muslims from the country. While the Western media employed the term "genocide", a United Nations inquiry later established there was “ethnic cleansing” but no genocide. Fulani, who are often perceived as outsiders, have been particularly targeted, and internally displaced Fulani have lived in camps without their cattle. More recently, Fulani have been targeted by other Muslims due to divisions among Muslim groups. Though unlikely alliances have formed between anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka groups from 2020, Fulani remain vulnerable. Notably, Russian Wagner mercenaries supporting the CAR government have targeted Fulani in "counter-insurgency" operations, as Fulani are collectively considered security threats.
Nigeria’s farmer-herder crisis illustrates the Fulani's continent-wide struggle precisely because of its complexities, which necessitate a delicate balance in related conversations. Narratives addressing the victimhood of Christian farmers need to be accompanied by a sensitivity towards the Fulani’s vulnerability and prejudices and conspiracy theories feeding into such narratives. They also need to be accompanied by efforts to demonstrate acceptance of Fulani herders and structural measures accommodating their way of life. Reports and descriptions of the violence could easily avoid conflating “Fulani militias” with all “Fulani herders”. More balanced and enhanced reporting within and beyond Nigeria could give more visibility to the Fulani’s story as it intersects with Islamophobia, anti-nomadism, and variants of insecurity affecting many communities across Africa.
Glossary of terms
Boko Haram: An Islamist militant group based in Nigeria’s northeast [...] The overarching aim of the group, which began as an offshoot of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam, is to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state with sharia criminal courts. [Source: Council on Foreign Relations]
Climate Change: Long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. [Source: United Nations]
Conspiracy Theory: A belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Dehumanise: To deprive (someone or something) of human qualities, personality, or dignity. [Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]
Dichotomy: Division into two parts or classifications, esp when they are sharply distinguished or opposed. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Draconian: Draconian laws, government actions, etc. are extremely severe, or go further than what is right or necessary. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Encroach: To enter by gradual steps or by stealth into the possessions or rights of another. [Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]
Environmental Degradation: A process through which the natural environment is compromised in some way, reducing biological diversity and the general health of the environment. [Source: European Environment Information and Observation Network]
Ethnicity: A large group of people with a shared culture, language, history, set of traditions, etc., or the fact of belonging to one of these groups. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Ethnic cleansing: The forced removal of an ethnic group from a territory [...] Unlike crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes, ethnic cleansing is not recognised as a standalone crime under international law. However, the practice of ethnic cleansing may constitute genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. [Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum]
Expulsion: The act of forcing someone, or being forced, to leave a school, organisation, or country. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Farmer: A person who farms; person who operates a farm or cultivates land. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Genocide: An internationally recognised crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. [Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum]
Grazing: Land where farm animals feed on grass. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Herder: A person who takes care of a large group of animals of the same type. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Homogenous: Consisting of parts or people that are similar to each other or are of the same type. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Indigenous: Used to refer to, or relating to, the people who originally lived in a place, rather than people who moved there from somewhere else. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Insurgency: A violent attempt to oppose a country's government carried out by citizens of that country. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Intersectionality: The state of being linked through various common qualities. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Islamophobia: Irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam. [Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]
Jihad: A holy war fought by Muslims against people who are a threat to Islam. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Jihadi: A person who takes part in a jihad. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Jihadism: An Islamic fundamentalist movement that favours the pursuit of jihads in defence of the Islamic faith. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Marginalisation: The act of treating someone or something as if they are not important. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Mercenary: A soldier who fights for any country or group that pays them. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Middle Belt: A long belt region stretching across central Nigeria between the country’s northern and southern regions.
Militant: Vigorously active and aggressive, esp. in support of a cause (adjective); a person engaged in warfare or combat (noun). [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Militia: An organisation that operates like an army but whose members are not professional soldiers. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Nomadic: Moving from one place to another rather than living in one place all of the time. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Pastoralist: A person who raises livestock, esp. a nomadic herder. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Persecution: Cruel and unfair treatment of a person or group, especially because of their religious or political beliefs, or their race. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Polarise: To cause something, especially something that contains different people or opinions, to divide into two completely opposing groups. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
The Sahel: The vast semi-arid region of Africa separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south. Countries include Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. [Source: United Nations]
Sedentary: Not migratory (settled). [Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]
Sharia Law: Sharia means “the correct path” in Arabic. In Islam, it refers to the divine counsel that Muslims follow to live moral lives and grow close to God [...] Sharia isn’t the same as Islamic law. Muslims believe sharia refers to the perfect, immutable values understood only by God, while Islamic laws are those based on interpretations of sharia. [Source: Council on Foreign Relations]
Stigmatisation: The act of treating someone or something unfairly by publicly disapproving of them. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Terrorism: Involves the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through the threat or perpetration of violence, causing death, serious injury or the taking of hostages. [Source: OHCHR]
Transhumance: The seasonal migration of livestock to suitable grazing grounds. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary ]
Vigilantes: People who organise themselves into an unofficial group to protect their community and to catch and punish criminals. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary ]