A growing challenge in Nigeria is a conflict between nomadic Fulani herders and local farmers. Growing population pressure, gradual creep a desertification from the Sahara Desert in the north, and flooding and loss of land in the south have resulted in an increased collision for resources – needs it for Fulani herders and farmers to grow the food they need support their families. What was once an occasional conflict that arose mainly in the north of Nigeria is now a bloody conflict that has taken thousands of lives all over Nigeria.
While Franca and I were working with a community development Organization in Yola in northeastern Nigeria we began to hear about the challenges this community of mostly farmers face with the herders in this area. And as they began to learn about the way we work with conflict using nonviolent communication and restorative circles they began to ask us if we could support them in dealing with this conflict. For it was harvest time in the region, a time when many of these conflicts explode into violence.
So we began to make contact with the various groups involved in the conflict. Our starting point was meeting with the local chief who is responsible for the well-being of all people in this area. We sat down with him and several of his advisers in his compound to explain what we were asked to do and sought his support and blessing. Like so many places in Nigeria this conflict had been troubling him and he had been trying to work with it to support his people to find peace. So he readily agreed to offer his support by letting the various groups know that he was behind our work. With his support in hand we contacted the Groups involved to set up an chance to sit with them to explain our purpose and to begin to explore if they were open for dialogue with each other.
We first met with 12 farmers from this local community and listen to their pain and frustration and anger in having their crops destroyed – eaten by the cattle. These crops are the most important way for the farmers to sustain their families and when this happens they feel devastated. They really want accountability and responsibility, and they were needing support in achieving this. They so wanted to care for their families and were at a loss of how to do this when their crops – their main supply of food and source of income for the year – were destroyed. After we listened to them deeply and explained the process in more detail about how we would dialogue together, they eventually agreed to move forward, and expressed their appreciation having some support in working with this conflict since they were feeling at a loss of how to move forward.
We then met with the group of 5 vigilantes – these are local men who take on the responsibility of providing security for the community – they are often lightly armed and with limited training but have volunteered themselves to contribute to safety and security in the community. They are frequently the first responders when conflicts happen between farmers and herders. They spoke of the challenges and fears of doing this work; the fact that violence can happen easily and quickly and that their lives are on the line as a result.
The local Fulani herders were the next group we were set to talk with but initially they did not show up for this first Pre-Circle even though they had agreed to the time and location. When we sat with this result and began to explore what were the good reasons behind their staying home we surmised that safety and security were among their strongest needs in this situation as well as perhaps respect and equality. We offered to go to them, to meet them in their home area where they would feel most comfortable and most safe; and they readily agreed. At the appointed time we piled in to an old car and bumped and jostled our way over the potholed track into the countryside to where the Fulani herders live. It was amazing to drive through the dry and dusty Savannah sprinkled with Boabab trees amidst the sparse vegetation and to pull up to the small settlement of mud and thatch-roof homes cordoned off within small compounds where the local Fulani herders had settled.
About 10 men have gathered, Including the Abdo – The chief – sitting outside the chiefs compound on mats. We joined them there and began to explain in more detail through an interpreter why we were there and what we had hoped to achieve. As frequently happens in this type of conflict all over the world the two groups we met before had told us how doubtful and hopeless that they were that the other group – the herders in this case – would even show up let alone want to have a dialogue. Yet before we had even explained fully the dialogue process or even why we were there, their unanimous response was, “whatever it is we will do it! If it’s going to bring more peace we wanted it, and we’ll do it.” Through a spokesperson the chief and a few of the others began to share their side of the story. They told us that unlike some of their brethren currently in the area, they now are no longer fully nomadic; but rather they had settled in this area and were farming small plots of land in addition to having cattle and goats. They explained that it was not their cows they get into farmers fields, They take great care to prevent that from happening; and in fact they themselves have been victims of nomadic herder’s cows eating their own crops.
What was most painful to them though was when the farmers complain to the police about cattle eating their crops, and then the police come and arrest them; without any evidence that it was the local herders cows who had done the damage. This results in the local herders then having to go to the police station and pay what sometimes can be a large fine to release their community members from jail; all this despite it not being their cows that did the damage. Locating the fully nomadic herders can be extremely difficult for the police.
As we sat there listening deeply to the experience of the herders, slowly more and more men began to gather around to listen and to be heard for their own input. By the end of our dialogue together there were over 30 men sitting in a circle with us. It was fascinating and a little surreal to be sitting on the dusty ground with these 30 men listening to the stories of their life while the Boababs gently sway in the breeze, and the cattle and goats stroll by. It was an experience I won’t soon forget. In the end, once the herders had heard the full dialogue process they reported that they were comfortable with what they heard and were very willing to have a dialogue with the farmers and the vigilante in this way. As we drove away my happy heart rejoiced in seeing once again that when human beings are given the option of fighting or the option of dialoguing in a way that they trust they will be heard, almost every time they choose dialogue.
We set a time a few days hence and a safe location agreeable to all and waited in excited anticipation for the circle. When the day arrived we went early to the venue – the regional chief’s covered carport with dirt floor and one light bulb – to prepare the site for the circle. As the time drew near and near and no one showed up we began to wonder what it happened – everyone had promised they would be there. Finally we discovered what happened.
Literally one hour before the appointed time for the circle some cows got into the field of one of the farmers from our dialogue and ate it up. The vigilantes had called the police and the police had arrested one of the local herders who was also part of the dialogue. So no one was going to turn out for the circle as the farmers were off guarding and protecting the fields; and the herders were off trying to bail their brethren out of jail. We tried to reconvene the circle in the few remaining days before we left the area, but the conflict was too fresh and attention was still on dealing with the aftermath of the event. Although we fully understood why none of the groups wanted to go ahead with the dialogue at that time; still it was a deep disappointment – we had so hoped to support these groups in finding another way through this conflict; and by extension using the learning that would come from experience to support other groups suffering in the same situations all over Nigeria.
This was a powerful learning experience. Although we had built the restorative system as best we were able given our time and resources, the end result was that the system was not strong enough to contain the conflict as it was manifesting. Our container for dialogue could not withstand the level of pain in all its forms that this new incidence of the conflict brought with it. The participants in the dialogue had only the limited experience of the pre-circle without having ever sat in the circle thus their trust in the process and its ability to bring results that would benefit them was very limited. Their connection with me and my team was also quite brief so their sense of us to be able to support them through this conflict was also less than optimal. We only had this verbal backing of their local leader he has no direct experience of dialogue in this way and thus his advocacy for the process and his willingness to use his influence to encourage participation was also low.
If we had more time in the region we could have use that time to build and strengthen our connections with all these groups in the area. We also would have had the capability for more input into how do process functions from the locals, for them to develop some experience with the process, and thus to have more trust in and own the process more fully. It would’ve also been useful to have made contact higher up the chain of influence so that the influence of these leaders to support participation would’ve had a greater impact.