Conflicts between farmers and pastoralists in the Sudano-Sahel have been going on for centuries. Over time communities have developed techniques to resolve these conflicts and mitigate their destabilizing effects. These resolution mechanisms were usually informal, and ranged from customary courts, to assess compensation for livestock or crop damage, to dispute mediation by reputable traditional figures or councils of elders. In recent years, these informal tools have struggled to cope with the rapid spread of small arms, the growing power of NSAGs and terrorist networks, and deteriorating social and political stability. Customary leaders and local institutions are seeing their influence diminish or be co-opted by the State or insurgent groups. Relations between the nomadic and sedentary groups who have long lived together in diverse societies have deteriorated. As they travel to other regions, pastoralist groups are treated as “strangers” or “foreign invaders” and subject to exclusion and suspicion. Disputes over livestock have sparked horrific acts of tit-for-tat violence.
In Mali and central Nigeria, farmer-herder is a major element of ongoing tensions between pastoral Fulani and other ethnic groups. In 2018 in Plateau State, Nigeria, ethnic Fulani and Berom herders blamed one another for a series of unresolved cattle thefts, which eventually escalated into a two day massacre of civilians in Barkin Ladi in which more than 200 people lost their lives. The attacks inspired a reprisal where Berom youth attacked Fulani travelers on a highway. A similar massacre occurred in the Malian town of Ogossagou, when members of an ethnic vigilante group killed 160 people in a town largely populated by a rival herder community, which sparked further reprisals.
Such exclusion has become more severe in recent years with the rise of violent extremism and ethno-nationalist militias. In CAR, for example, self-defense militias formed with the stated goals of defending against armed bandits who included Arab and Mbororo pastoralists, even as state security forces clashed with NSAGs who claimed to be defending pastoralists. As fear and suspicion intensified following the uprising by the rebel Seleka coalition in 2013, “anti-balaka” militias began attacking all Muslim communities, including Mbororo pastoralists who were presumed guilty by association. These attacks led to a spike in mobilization by Mbororo communities to retaliate and defend themselves, as well as new iterations of NSAGs led by Mbororo such as the Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique and 3R.
Many pastoralist and farming communities prefer to resolve disputes by allowing trusted elders or chiefs to mediate, particularly as they are often unable to depend on state justice institutions that are absent or unfamiliar. Traditional mediation practices have been an important tool for resolving complaints over crop damage, livestock theft, or assault before they escalate into something worse. However, many of the traditional dispute resolution practices in the Sudano-Sahel have been corroded by years of instability, political and social polarization, and armed violence. Without credible channels for parties in a dispute to agree upon a resolution, pastoralists and farmers increasingly turn to militias or mob violence to get justice. Increasing the capacity of the formal justice sector in these regions is a critical step (see Strategy – Access to Justice), but it is also important to support options for alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Dispute resolution practices that rely on trusted community leaders will be familiar to many pastoralist and farmer communities and are necessary for finding flexible solutions to the kinds of problems they encounter. When a group of farmers begin cultivating land in the middle of a well-established transhumance route in public land, there may be few legal solutions available to pastoralists, but they may be able to negotiate a solution if there are trust mediators who can intervene. External interventions may involve, for example, providing technical training to local leaders or helping to set up a local peace committee.
Programs build upon existing customary practices and leadership.
Most pastoral groups have well-established practices to handle low-level disputes among themselves and with other groups. This may include, for example, set compensation schemes for livestock theft or crop damage that are administered by customary courts. Wherever possible, programs should look to complement and build on these systems, rather than establish new, competing mechanisms. There is not, however, always one system that works for every stakeholder. Pastoralists, for example, may prefer to resolve disputes through mediation between traditional leaders who will recognize their existing claims to access public water or grazing resources, while settled communities may wish to turn to the police whose decisions will likely favor settled citizens.
Interveners cultivate partnerships with development, conservation, and security actors. Disputes taken to local mediators or customary courts are often rooted in more fundamental tensions over communal land use, cross-border movement, or predation by armed groups. For instance, a 2020 analysis of the Liptako Gourma region conducted by FAO highlighted land sales and property speculation as a principal reason why traditional conflict resolution mechanisms in that area have broken down. Local mediators can provide short-term solutions, but often do not have the capacity to address the systemic issues that are causing and perpetuating conflict. Programs that aim to have a transformative impact on conflict need to be designed and delivered in close collaboration with other interveners who are supporting land tenure reform, facilitating service delivery to pastoralist communities, or influencing commercial investment in the livestock sector.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Analyse Des Conflits Liés Aux Ressources Naturelles Dans La Région Du Liptako-Gourma: Résultats Des Trois Analyses De Conflits Réalisées Au Burkina Faso, Au Mali Et Au Niger. Food and Agricultural Organization (Rome: 2020)
Programs reinforce exclusion of women, youth, or other marginalized populations. Programs that focus on revitalizing customary dispute resolution practices or institutions can run the risk of further excluding those groups that were traditionally left behind by those institutions. Simply because there are long-standing leaders or practices in place does not make them representative, trustworthy. Youth who are desperate for alternatives to traditional lifestyles may be alienated by ADR interventions that reinforce existing power structures. Interventions should be careful to balance the need to build on existing dispute resolution practices with the need to have a system that works for all parties.
ADR mechanisms are dominated by settled leaders. It is important for interveners to be sensitive to the inherent advantages available to settled communities. Settled leaders will have an easier time being physically present to participate in a peace committee or other dispute resolution mechanism than their nomadic counterparts. Pastoralists who travel from other countries or live in societies that are set apart from settled populations may find that these dispute resolution mechanisms do not reflect their accepted norms and customs. If one group believes that the mechanism is partisan, they will simply seek a resolution through a competing forum, creating further cause for conflict.
Though pastoralists and farmers have cohabitated in eastern DRC for generations, political tensions and the proliferation of armed groups in recent decades have eroded the traditional mechanisms by which these communities resolve disputes. Clashes between armed groups and military forces have displaced many pastoralists, who are forced to take their animals to new areas where they do not have established agreements with farming communities and inevitably the animals stray onto farmland. Many of the herders – who often do not own the livestock themselves – are stretched thin. Despite laws requiring that there should be one herder for every eight cows, some are managing a hundred or more.
In the absence of effective mediation options, these disputes have incited cycles of retaliatory violence – farmers killing trespassing livestock or pastoralists taking up arms to protect their herds. In response, Search – along with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and South East Asia (ZOA) – established a series of local peace committees in 18 villages in coordination with local leaders and village chiefs. Committee leaders were trained on contemporary mediation techniques and have used their expertise to settle upwards of a hundred disputes within a year period. This has allowed local communities to have a viable alternative to either violence or reliance on higher authorities that are often inaccessible.
Conflicts between pastoralist and farming communities are often deeply interwoven with group identity and interethnic tensions among different pastoral groups or between pastoralist and sedentary groups. Many established practices for building intergroup trust are grounded in Contact Theory – the hypothesis that regular contact between two groups can increase tolerance and acceptance. However, building intergroup acceptance through programs that rely on regular people-to-people contact can be challenging given that the nomadic livelihood of pastoralists involves social and political distance from local residents. Yet pastoralists are never completely isolated from settled communities – many live in their own settlements when they are not on migration with the livestock, or maintain regular contact with the people they meet along their migration routes or when they travel to markets. There may be a number of opportunities to bring pastoralists in contact with their settled counterparts through common interests such as markets or cultural events. Leveraging these common interests, people-to-people interventions can uproot the fears and skepticism between pastoralist and sedentary communities or among conflicting pastoralist groups.
Programs reinforce a shared sense that all groups are part of common, pluralistic community.
While pastoralists may not be residents of the communities they pass through during migration, they are predictable actors in the landscape as service providers or trading partners. Even so, they are often seen as ‘outsiders,’ and not just by sedentary communities. Many pastoralists would define themselves outside any national identity, as their independence and distance from settled life is integral to their lifestyle and culture. While it is important to acknowledge how these communities chose to see themselves, people-to-people interventions should not be framed as linking settled residents with “strangers.” Instead, these interventions are an opportunity to appreciate that all the many and varied peoples who live in the landscape are part of a common society in which people practice different cultural practices and lifestyles. Program implementers should also help ensure marginalized groups, such as pastoralists, are represented throughout the program cycle, including aiming for diversity in local staff by recruiting from diverse ethnic, religious, and livelihood groups.
Programs reinforce services that are mutually beneficial to sedentary and nomadic populations.
Interveners need to identify and corroborate which basic services are in demand across otherwise divided communities – local markets, cultural events, veterinary services – and leverage those spaces. These spaces are often distant from the population centers where program implementers are generally based and may require additional travel and security provisions to access remote areas.
Interveners adopt a long-term view.
Opportunities to connect highly mobile populations with sedentary groups are determined by seasonal fluctuations, patterns of violence, and the timing and location of markets. Given such unpredictability, interventions will need a longer time horizon and multi-country presence in order to plan and produce successful people-to-people engagements. Agile funding instruments and flexible planning cycles are also key.
Programs leave systemic political issues unresolved.
Tensions between pastoralist and sedentary communities are not just a function of different customs and social distance. People-to-people interactions may be ephemeral if they are not complemented by efforts to address the systemic inequalities in resource access that create polarization in the first place. In the northern DRC, for example, Mbororo pastoralist groups who have relocated or been displaced from Chad and CAR (but also Cameroon and Sudan to a lesser extent) maintain tense relations with local populations due to disagreements over land use and concerns that the Mbororo are supporting local armed groups, which are exacerbated by the spread of false rumors of other Mbororo threats to the population. Dialogues between the Mbororo and local residents have created some measure of good faith between groups. But this is one part of the deeper question of whether the Mbororo should be allowed to stay or forced to return to their countries of origin.
Instability or violence threatens the shared spaces supported by people-to-people programs.
The spaces where pastoralists and settled communities interact may be threatened by the proliferation of armed groups. Local cattle markets, for example, are prime targets for criminal syndicates, which drives away traders and opportunities to form bonds through commerce. Providing security solutions may be an essential component in building people-to-people interventions.
Programs are not designed to address root causes of hostility between diverse pastoral and sedentary groups.
There are tens of millions of Africans who practice pastoralism, and the pastoralists operating in a given area can come from a wide range of ethnic, national, or cultural backgrounds. Widespread armed conflict, absence of basic services, and shrinking state presence across the Sudano-Sahel today are pushing pastoral groups into new areas where they encounter settled communities with whom they have no prior relationship. Goodwill between local residents and one pastoralist group does not automatically extend to all other pastoralists. Settled communities in the CAR may maintain relations with Mbororo herders who pass through seasonally but react angrily toward Arab guards protecting large herds arriving from Sudan. People-to-people interventions need to be designed with an awareness of the multiple relationships between pastoralist and settled groups and different interventions may be necessary over time to address new intergroup tensions brought on by displacement or changing migration patterns.
In response to rising hostilities between Fulani pastoralists and sedentary farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt in 2016, Search for Common Ground hosted a series of public performances of a dance production called “I Follow the Green Grass.” The performance presented Fulani pastoralist lifestyles rarely seen by outsiders. Part of this portrayal involved community conflicts and how these were overcome. A film version was later screened as part of a mobile cinema project. These screenings allowed citizens from diverse ethnic backgrounds to share their reactions and concerns about the state of intercommunal hostilities.
Photo: Boy participates in a discussion during a screening of “I Follow the Green Grass” in Jos, Nigeria. Credit: Search for Common Ground
The pastoralist way of life is more than a means of survival; it is both the source of group identity and a unique cultural heritage. This cultural pride is a defining asset and an opportunity to educate others who inhabit the same lands but fear pastoralists. Events designed to highlight the diversity of cultural heritage among all those inhabiting these unique landscapes can reinforce solidarity and help prevent the escalation of future conflicts. Such events can also remind state officials and the wider public that pastoralism is more than an ancient means of survival, but a celebration of human adaptation and perseverance in a harsh, demanding climate.
Programs celebrate the diversity among the communities that share Africa’s rangelands and acknowledge their shared history.
Efforts to celebrate cultural heritage should provide opportunities for pastoralists and other groups to celebrate their distinctiveness. Rural communities may share landscape and resources, but their experiences, customs and traditions are unique. Rarely do they have occasion to convene and share in this way, or to learn directly from others about themselves. Showcasing the diverse traditions of herders, farmers, or fishers who share remote terrain through cultural festivals or community events can help participants acknowledge differences and communicate their own self-understanding.
Programs acknowledge the diversity among pastoralists.
Often misunderstood as monolithic, pastoralist groups are hugely diverse in their practices and worldviews. In some cases, these differences can be a source of intragroup conflict – more sedentary herders frequently occupy positions of political, social, or economic power relative to their more nomadic counterparts. Celebrations of cultural heritage should accommodate this diversity rather than including a small sample that is not representative.
Programs inadvertently increase group polarization.
Efforts to promote cultural heritage can highlight some groups and alienate others who are unable to participate due to distance, group dispersion, or other constraints. In designing activities, interveners should be mindful of the barriers to equal access and the historical forms of exclusion that have prevented some minority groups from being visible.
Lack of participation from mobile communities.
Pastoral groups can be difficult to engage as participants in programming. They rarely figure in national censuses or possess identification papers, and their mobile lifestyle may make it difficult to commit to time-bound activities. Commercial livestock breeders, herders, and traders who are part of pastoral groups but practice a sedentary lifestyle may be more accessible but are not necessarily representative of their nomadic counterparts.
Traditional wrestling is a popular sport in South Sudan that has served as a cultural connector between communities that have been divided by civil war, including pastoralist groups like the Mundari or Dinka. Tournaments in Juba and other urban centers bring together groups from across various tribes and ethnic groups to compete over prizes like cattle. The events can attract large public crowds and help to restore good faith between communities that may be parties to conflict or cattle raiding.
Transforming relationships between mobile and sedentary communities can be complicated by physical distance across remote landscapes with little communications technology, digital or otherwise. The absence of face-to-face encounters in a region dominated by violence can intensify this polarization. Where people-to-people programming is unrealistic because of conflict or physical distance, mass media (radio, television) and direct communication tools (phone services, social media) can help bridge groups across dividing lines, rebuilding trust and solidarity. Telecommunications services may be limited or inaccessible to communities living in remote areas, but there are still a variety of ways in which communications tools can be used creatively to reach mobile populations.
Programs use communication channels that are familiar and trusted by pastoralists.
Even among those outside the reach of phone services or internet, long-distance communication is still possible, such as through the use of mobile SD cards. Long-distance analog communication techniques used by peoples without access to telecommunication may be limited to word-of-mouth (scouts, messengers), but this makes them no less effective. Interveners should focus on identifying and utilizing the communication channels that are in use and validating these practices with pastoralists.
Programs institute channels for regular information-sharing.
Consistent communication is a key component in managing resources in shared landscapes, which is challenging for communities that have infrequent contact. Where telecommunication services are accessible, programs may encourage direct links between mobile and sedentary leaders. Pastoralist leaders can alert the nearby village chief when cattle will be in the vicinity. If the herds begin trampling or eating local crops, complaints can be quickly transmitted and addressed. Information on subjects like migration timing and routes may also be shared via radio programs, or other mass media, where telephone coverage is scant. Though this kind of information sharing is most effective when accompanied by face-to-face communication. Communication tools can also be used for educational purposes (such as the radio-based literacy programs run by Nigeria’s National Commission for Nomadic Education).
Local communities lack communication services or digital literacy.
Pastoralists migrating their livestock through remote rangelands are often far beyond the range of telecommunication networks. This isolation, as well as the low levels of literacy generally, may limit digital literacy in pastoral communities.
In eastern Central African Republic, conflicts have arisen between mobile Peuhl and local farmers. In response, Invisible Children enlisted all parties, including local authorities, in messaging campaigns to counter these hostilities. Messages and music were recorded in Fulfulde (the language spoken by Peuhl pastoralists across Central Africa), with civil society leaders even traveling to a Peuhl wedding to record traditional music. The messages and music were then loaded locally onto micro SD cards to be disseminated among pastoralists, copying a popular way for pastoralists in that region to share music or other media.
Photo: An SD card used by Invisible Children in phone. Credit: Nathan Garcia for Invisible Children, 2018
Public messaging around pastoralism and conflict risks stoking hostilities through implied blame or accusation, fueling deeper identity-based tensions. Media personalities, diplomats, and other public figures play a critical role in shaping whether people see pastoralists as violent invaders or members of a common community (see also Module – Law Enforcement & Counterterrorism).
Officials solicit diverse perspectives.
Conflicts rooted in subsistence practices, such as livestock production and farming, reach to the core of cultural identity and can evoke strong emotions that reverberates beyond the immediate parties involved. It is easy for public messaging about these conflicts to become reductive and polarized by those in capital cities or urban areas as misinformation is amplified in the media. But the narratives popularized in media or by prominent figureheads may not accurately reflect the lived experience of pastoralists or the remote rural populations. Journalists, diplomats, and public figures should prioritize a range of voices – not only pastoralists but all those at the periphery – reaching judgement or conclusions about pastoralism-related conflict events.
Public messaging acknowledges the multiple drivers of conflict and empathizes with victims of violence.
As illustrated throughout this Toolkit, pastoralism-related conflicts are often driven by an intersection of multiple factors and causes, from land-use policies to ethno-nationalist movements. Isolating one cause of conflict while neglecting others can signal to certain communities that their experiences or grievances are insignificant. To focus narrowly on criminal activity, for example, is to dismiss the legitimate concerns of populations who are excluded from resources on ethnic grounds. Public messaging should acknowledge the intersectional and historic nature of these conflicts but not ignore the government duty to secure the safety, rights, and access to services for all citizens.
Messaging justifies collective blame of whole populations.
When a news headline or public statement fixates on the ethnic or religious identities of a perpetrator, it can contribute to the false perception that all members of that group are to blame. This is a frequent challenge in the description of attacks involving Fulani. The use of monikers like “Fulani terrorist” reinforces the perception that Fulani ethnic identity is somehow a cause for violence. This can be a difficult line to navigate when discussing conflicts involving militia or insurgent groups that are organized around a particular ethnic base or religious identity. Interveners can address this risk by supporting training for local journalists in conflict-sensitive reporting practices and by ensuring that any statements from public officials avoids language that stigmatizes specific identities.
Officials appear biased by disregarding the testimony of minority groups.
Parties to identity-based conflicts perceive themselves as the victims, never as the perpetrators. Efforts to highlight or prioritize one group’s perspectives or demands, even if in the interest of fairness, can be perceived as a slight to other groups. This Toolkit has focused on the concerns and realities facing pastoralists, but the perspectives and experience of rural farmers are equally valid. The concerns of all communities need to be inventoried and incorporated into any public exercise, from messaging campaigns to public hearings.
Various insurgent movements in the Sudano-Sahel have built support by appealing to pastoralist grievances or ethno-religious identities, from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara to the UPC in the CAR. A principal part of the platform of the Katiba Maacina insurgency in Mali, for example, is free access to the rich grazing resources of the inland Niger Delta and these appeals have resonated among Fulani pastoralists who make up a significant portion of the group’s membership. The participation of (traditionally pastoralist) Fulani communities in organized insurgencies and intercommunal violence is often portrayed in the media and public discourse as a move toward “Fulanization” or “Islamicization,” rather than a response to competition over resources. Even when this rhetoric is employed to draw attention to violence committed against civilians – as in the case of violence against Dogons in Mali or Christian farmers in Nigeria – it can have damaging consequences. The use of such charged language can erode the important distinction between the Fulani as an ethnic people numbering in the tens of millions and the small number of people who engage in insurgent or violent activities.
Photo: Fulani men in Mali. Credit: Leif Brottem