Far from urban centers of decision-making, pastoralists and the rural populations with whom they share the landscape often have little voice in State government. These populations face barriers to participation in public institutions, formulating their concerns in policy-ready language, and ensuring these interests are represented. However, pastoralists seeking to protect their freedoms from central authorities may not see policy measures as a solution, see the government as their ally, or see a lack of civic participation as a problem. Most pastoralists find their interests better served through long-standing peer networks or customary institutions, rather than the centralized governments found in many states of the Sudano-Sahel. Interventions that strengthen state institutions at the local or national level that are known to neglect pastoralist concerns risk inciting further polarization.
The tensions between pastoral communities and central authorities have a long historical legacy, beginning in colonial land management and continuing through post-independence. While land tenure policies and border controls in some states have been revised or superseded by legislation that protects pastoral livelihoods, this legacy of state hostility is not quickly forgotten. These suspicions are confirmed when states impose fees on border crossings, restrict pastoral movements, or privatize public lands. Circumventing state control by avoiding border checkpoints or rejecting cattle licensing systems are common practices. This non-compliance, in turn, feeds stereotypes of pastoralists as criminals.
Increasing the representation of pastoralist communities in state institutions can help assuage these tensions but is not always feasible. Malian pastoralists who migrate into Nigeria are directly affected by Nigerian policies but will not have the same opportunities to affect political decision-making as Nigerian citizens. In many regions, pastoral groups are an extreme demographic minority who face the same obstacles to inclusion as any minority group but compounded by their lifestyle that keeps them distant from political centers.
Yet the problem of exclusion varies between contexts. In some sub-regions, pastoralist ethnic groups comprise large and influential political constituencies that dominate local politics, even if they are a minority at the national level. This is a concern of farming communities in central Mali, for example, who decry that they have been marginalized by pastoralist influence in policy circles. This favoritism is reportedly due to the political elites who own large herds that are serviced by paid pastoralists, a common phenomenon across the Sudano-Sahel.
Operating in remote areas and at the margins of state authority, pastoralists are rarely in a position to advocate effectively or to challenge state policy through official channels. They often lack direct experience with legislative process and familiarity with participatory governance. Supporting the formation of representative bodies to help pastoralists defend their interests is a starting point. Trade associations for pastoralists are present already in most Sudano-Sahelian countries. However, they, and other civil society networks, may lack the technical knowledge to pursue legislative reforms on complex issues such as land tenure or may serve primarily as a platform for traditional leaders rather than representing the diverse voices of all pastoralists in their network.
Interveners build capacity for both local and transnational advocacy.
Pastoralist livelihoods depend on supportive policies and institutions at the local, state, national, and transnational levels. Access to basic resources such as water can be mediated by local institutions, whereas land tenure laws are set at the state or national level. Cross-border mobility can be dependent on national legislation or multilateral agreements. Pastoral representation at only one of these levels is often insufficient, and more effective alliances organize nationally or regionally for optimal strategic leverage. Program planners should anticipate the need for capacity-building at multiple levels, support operational linkages between these different points, and ensure a regional perspective.
Capacity-building programs for trade associations or civil society networks incorporate conflict literacy.
Conflict dynamics are not taken into consideration in the development of livelihood interventions (see Module – Rural Development). Trade associations that include pastoralists and farmers are a logical mediator to help determine how policy reforms or development programs will impact their constituencies and help anticipate conflict triggers. Yet these skills need to be developed, and interventions involving local trade associations can start with basic training on conflict sensitivity and political economy analysis.
Programs support communication and joint action between farming and pastoral interest groups.
Programs to build advocacy capacity can have a greater impact on policy when they link divergent populations around common goals. Farmers and pastoralists often belong to distinct ethnic or religious groups, yet they share a common stake in the future of Africa’s dryland economy. Programs that facilitate consensus-building and joint action across these dividing lines can help frequently marginalized rural stakeholders have a louder voice in policy decision-making.
Support for one association or group reinforces exclusivity.
Pastoral communities are not homogenous and may not agree on policy concerns, strategy or tactics. Trade associations and other interest groups are often formed to represent a specific ethnic base or voice the opinions of traditional leaders. When working with such alliances, it is important to assess their claims to fair representation, how well they prioritize constituency interests, and address internal accountability and transparency. Women and youth are often excluded and may require their own groups to defend their interests.
Interveners overlook the role of certain interest groups as actors in conflict.
There are a wide array of different interest groups that are involved in livestock production, including associations formed to represent the interests of specific pastoralist ethnic groups. Some such interest groups may be directly or indirectly involved in conflict or maintain links to ethno-nationalist militia groups. Interveners should be careful to assess the risks of engaging with potential partners.
External support raises unrealistic expectations.
When authorities show no concern for pastoral or farming interests, enthusiasm for advocacy and engagement with the state will wane. Effective channeling of pastoral voices requires pressure on policymakers to take civil society input seriously. Natural allies for this task include other interest groups with overlapping agendas, such as nature conservancies or other trade associations that benefit from livestock value chains.
Across the Sudano-Sahel, trade associations and civil society networks work to bridge the gap between centralized policy decision-making and remote pastoral populations. Founded in Burkina Faso in 1998, Le Réseau de Communication sur le Pastoralisme (RECOPA) is one such network that serves both as a focal point for disseminating information on livestock management to the pastoralist member groups, and to advise local and national institutions on policies impacting pastoralists. In Nigeria, the Forum on Farmer-Herder Relations in Nigeria (FFARN) brings together academics, civil society, and representatives of pastoral and farming associations to share research and pursue joint advocacy. The FFARN has served as a platform for civil society voices to produce locally-led analyses of Nigerian state and federal policies, and to advise policy makers within Nigeria and internationally on the local dynamics of farmer-herder conflict.
Photo: Members of the Forum on Farmer-Herder Relations in Nigeria meet to discuss advocacy strategies. Credit: Search for Common Ground
Pastoralists, who have limited access to information and low levels of trust in central authorities, are often unfamiliar with the policies that govern their livelihoods. Local customs are generally far more important, as the State has limited capacity to enforce official policies in peripheral territory. However, low levels of familiarity with state policy can leave pastoralists vulnerable to being penalized for violations that they are unaware of, further exacerbating tensions. It also limits pastoralists’ ability to hold duty-bearers accountable for upholding their established rights, such as the right to move livestock freely across borders, which is enshrined in regional agreements like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Transhumance Protocol. Awareness-raising initiatives tailored to pastoralist populations can help prevent real or perceived abuses by government authorities. Connecting pastoralist communities with mobile paralegal services is one way to bridge this gap.
Communications are tailored to reach pastoralist populations.
New legislation drafted in state capitals may never reach the remote populations subject to them. Pastoralists in Mali or Chad, for example, are often unaware of which specific tree species are protected until they are fined for cutting branches to make a temporary shelter. Publicizing policies through written materials are often less effective for pastoral audiences given high levels of illiteracy, but there are many ways in which information can be communicated to mobile audiences. This includes publicity on radio programs or by word-of-mouth via mobile veterinary clinics, pastoral associations, or outreach to local customary leadership.
Capacity-building programs increase legal expertise within pastoralist communities.
Rights education or paralegal services can be most effective when provided by trusted intermediaries who understand the needs of pastoralist populations and can become community mobilizers in their own right. Providing training or support to local organizations or individuals who come from pastoralist groups ensures that communities have sustained access to legal expertise.
Legal aid programs help communities navigate the balance between state and customary law.
The existence of overlapping customary and statutory laws can create tensions by allowing parties in a dispute to invoke competing rules and authority. What happens when one group wishes to assert its legal ownership over land that has been registered with the state, but another group asserts that they have been traditionally allowed to access water on that land? When the state has limited capacity to enforce decisions, this kind of disagreement can escalate into something much bigger. Rather than privileging one system over the other, mobile paralegal experts can help communities make sense of the application of state and customary laws for themselves.
Programs train officials to respect the appropriate rights and policies.
Pastoralists are not the only ones who follow rules other than those prescribed by central authorities. Local officials have also been known to defer to customary institutions or demand brides to allow livestock to pass. Many pastoral codes or land tenure laws are ambiguous about how they are meant to be applied in practice, which makes it challenging to hold officials accountable to consistent practices. In West Africa, for example, the ECOWAS Transhumance Protocol requires pastoralists to obtain a certificate to exercise their right to cross-border movement, but some border regions simply don’t have government staff who are trained in how to issue or update these certificates and so don’t follow this practice. Efforts to familiarize local populations with existing regulations should ensure that authorities and citizens receive the same information. Such programming can be linked to anti-corruption campaigns.
Programs raise expectations that cannot be met by governing bodies or development agencies.
Even with access to expert legal advice, pastoralists will still face obstacles to protecting their rights given the widespread gaps in rule of law in remote rural areas. Holding duty-bearers accountable or working through the legal system may not be a feasible solution for communities that are under the effective control of insurgent groups, or where state officials are corrupt or under-resourced. Initiatives that promote awareness of legal rights can raise and frustrate expectations, further widening the trust deficit between citizens and state authorities or other development actors.
Existing policies do not support pastoral livelihoods and may serve as a focusing event for conflict.
Expanding awareness of statutory law may have a mixed impact on local conflict dynamics when the laws themselves have been a source of conflict. Settled rural communities may benefit more from legal support than pastoralists, because it may help them assert claims to land ownership while pastoralists’ secondary rights are not protected by law. Expanding rule of law may be disadvantageous, in some ways, to pastoral communities who need a flexible system where they negotiate access with different local leaders. Interveners should be careful to assess and adapt to the potential secondary effects of these initiatives, particularly where the benefits of legal services differ between mobile and sedentary communities.
Pastoralist communities in Kenya, as elsewhere, have depended on the ability of their community to hold land in common so that they can maintain large areas for grazing and mobility. This practice was given legal recognition through the 2016 Community Land Act, which allows groups to register their land as a collective, so that the land cannot be divided and sold off without the consent of the group. This practice has become common and, in some cases, pushes pastoralists to search for new grazing land, creating competition and conflict with neighboring communities. To help communities assert their claims to communal land ownership, organizations like Namati, Samburu Women’s Trust, Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation, Kenya Land Alliance, and Il’laramatak Community Concerns have trained members of pastoralist communities as paralegals. Pastoralist paralegals in communities like Lengurma and Kuku not only guided their community through the process of registration, they also helped organize demonstrations and advocacy to local officials that helped safeguard their rights and prevent the private sale of land.
Photo: A farmer in Kenya looks over his land to monitor for passing cattle. Credit: Omar Mwandaro.
Along the border between the CAR and Chad, low levels of trust between pastoralists and border agents has undermined effective border management. Pastoralists, concerned that they will be detained or fined for taking their cattle across the border as they have done for years, avoid official checkpoints. Border agents, in turn, are frustrated over their inability to monitor who is coming and going in a region that has been heavily impacted by criminal activity and NSAGs. In an effort to establish a baseline of trust, in 2019 the International Organization for Migration (IOM) developed a guide to help pastoralists understand their legal rights, so they could feel confident that they could move through border checkpoints without being unfairly exploited. The guide has been used as a tool to educate both pastoralist civil society networks and law enforcement officials on the existing frameworks.
Photo: Livestock and pastoralists on the move in Chad. Credit: A. Hissien/I. Bourdjo,
Project Transhumance at Crossroads
While pastoralists and farmers have long maintained customary or informal practices for mediating disputes, these practices are not always appropriate or adequate for providing justice in pastoralism-related conflicts. In South Sudan, for example, some have argued that traditional compensation mechanisms for acts of theft or homicide have broken down as elites have accumulated such large herds that the usual cattle payments no longer have the same impact. Customary justice systems may also be ill-suited to assist traditionally marginalized populations, as is the case for victims of sexual and gender-based violence (see Module – Gender and Women’s Empowerment ). Yet without trusted third parties to address complaints over crop damage, livestock theft, or assault, pastoralists and farmers increasingly seek restitution through violence.
Access to formal justice mechanisms is often limited in the rural and remote areas where pastoralists live and operate. State justice institutions may not be present, their procedures may be unfamiliar, and they may have limited capacity to enforce their decisions. Where the State does exercise control, pastoralism-related crimes may be referred to a wide range of authorities (security forces, municipal government, customary courts) that don’t work in concert and don’t follow the same procedures. In the short term, external interventions can help address these gaps through mobile courts or programs to build consensus among the various local authorities.
Programs invest in local justice mechanisms before violence escalates.
Even rural communities in stable regions often lack systems for adjudicating and enforcing disputes between pastoralist and host communities. Displacement from conflict or severe weather events can push pastoralists into new regions where no accepted agreements or traditions exist to resolve resource disputes, as demonstrated through the influx of Mbororo pastoralist communities in the northern DRC. Building strong justice and mediation systems should be a priority before unresolved local disputes escalate into mass violence.
Programs link justice systems across borders where feasible.
Pastoral cross border movement complicates conflict mediation. Stolen Nigerien cattle taken to Mali or Nigeria cannot be returned without coordination between a number of security agencies and community leaders, who themselves lack formal cooperation protocols and procedures (see Module – Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism). External actors can play a valuable role in facilitating these linkages, although such activity requires programs that have the legal or budgetary flexibility to work across borders.
Intervention strategies balance the need for both short-term support and long-term capacity building.
State-run justice and rule of law has been chronically limited across the insecure and remote areas where pastoralists often operate. Building effective justice institutions in these areas may be a long-term goal that is hindered by limited resources or instability. In the interim, external interveners can support stop-gap solutions that expand legal services to these communities. This can include, for example, the use of mobile courts or paralegal services.
“Forum shopping” undermines effective justice.
Who has jurisdiction to resolve pastoralism-related crimes or disputes? While the exact authorities vary from one community to the next, there are often multiple potential channels available to the parties in a dispute. Individuals may have the option to take their claim to the municipal government, security forces, an ardo, a village chief, a NSAG, or others. Each of these authorities may have their own set of rules to establish compensation for victims, which can encourage each party to “shop” around for the option that best suits their needs. This practice creates opportunities for local authorities to exploit the system for their own gain and allows each group a different legal basis for their grievances. In CAR, for example, though a standardized metric for compensation payments is supposed to be set by the Ministry of Livestock, in practice the existence of competing authorities leads to confusion and opens the door for racketeering and influence-peddling. Where parallel justice systems exist, the priority should be to harmonize and reduce distortion, rather than elevating one system over another.
 A title held by traditional leaders among some pastoralist communities.
Local authorities are intimidated or threatened.
Interventions that aim to build the capacity of local authorities may make them targets for armed groups that want to maintain a monopoly on the right to administer justice. Similarly, when court systems are perceived to challenge or undermine established customary practices (e.g., fighting hereditary slavery in Mali), members of the local populace have been known to intimidate prosecutors and threaten legal personnel. Expanding the role of the formal justice system in resolving pastoralism-related crimes or disputes may be see as a threat by some customary leaders who have traditionally exercised authority in these matters.
Decentralization has been a public sector reform strategy employed by some Sudano-Sahelian states to increase autonomy for local communities who have been frustrated by years of systematic exclusion from political authority. Devolving administrative authority over natural resources from federal to local government ideally creates more accountability to local interests. Vesting control over migration corridors or grazing reserves to local village councils, though, does not automatically result in more inclusive governance of these resources. Interventions that support decentralization should be designed to help reconcile competing rules and customs in resource governance and set into motion participatory governance practices that are accessible to mobile populations.
Policy reforms protect established customs for accessing resources.
Pastoralists often depend upon tradition or customary laws to guarantee their right to access certain pasture, migration corridors, or water access points. These are practices that are not codified or validated legally, and decentralization may jeopardize their access when local authorities exercise more direct control over public resources. Interventions to support the decentralization of resource governance can assist local authorities and community leaders in identifying and reconciling points of tension between state law and local customary practices. Interveners should consider how pastoralist groups may be disenfranchised through decentralization. For example, devolving authority to an elected body may disadvantage non-resident pastoralists who are not a part of the electorate. Similarly, delegating authority to customary leaders may further exclude minority groups (who could be pastoralists, farmers, or others) whose customs differ from the established leadership.
Interveners provide technical training in participatory land management practices, where needed.
Rangeland management is a complex and resource-intensive responsibility that may exceed the technical capacity of local government, even in stable contexts. Administering the shared use of territory requires infrastructure, advance planning and sufficient resources to ensure grazing reserves, water access points, migration corridors, and technical expertise in land use planning (see Module – Rural Development). Without sufficient resources or capacity to support their work, local pastoralists and farmers will see no dividends from decentralization. External interventions can support this process by providing technical training to governing authorities and civil society on how to balance the interests of pastoralists and local farmers.
Strengthening local governments leads to competition with traditional leadership.
The existence of dual or parallel administrative systems, where state and customary authorities preside over resource management, complicates decentralization. The ability of local governments to exercise control over natural resources may be undermined by local customary leaders who are reluctant to support reforms that threaten their authority. Where tribal leaders and state agriculture agencies find themselves leading parallel negotiations over cattle migration routes, which authority holds?
Devolving political authority to local levels provides an opportunity for better-organized interest groups to consolidate control.
This can disadvantage pastoralist minority groups, who may be pushed off land as dominant sedentary groups leverage their control over political and governing institutions. In other cases, pastoralist ethnic groups who are politically powerful at the local level will be the ones to benefit. External support to decentralization reforms can encourage local power-sharing agreements among the local resident groups – including pastoralist populations who reside in the area between seasonal migrations – but these arrangements may not benefit pastoralists who travel through the territory but are not long-term residents.
Mali’s long history of centralized government from the colonial era forward was reversed in 1992 with a new constitution announcing major administrative reforms that decentralized oversight and management of public services, including lands. The aim was to accelerate the pace of rural development by granting sub-national authorities greater autonomy over local resources, infrastructure, jobs and growth, all while strengthening national unity. While promising greater local control over budget, planning, policy and service delivery, the move from theory to practice took years of parliamentary deliberation to draft, approve and transfer legal responsibilities to newly created local communes. These reforms, however, largely failed to accommodate customary laws regarding land ownership and access, resulting in competition between proponents of state rule and traditional authority.
Photo: Pastoralists watch over their herds in Mali. Credit: Leif Brottem