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By Greg Cochran, Ph.D., ICC Fellow 

What does coffee have in common with violence in Nigeria? Not much. But one similarity comes to mind. Consider the following facts about America’s number one beverage. In 2021, consumers spent more than $6 billion on liquid coffee, and consumption is expected to increase another 33% by 2029.  

Part of the increase is due to the proliferation of coffee drinks. Far from the dark, watery liquid served in white Styrofoam cups, coffee has morphed into a luxury item describing everything from high-tech espresso in tiny demitasse cups to parfait-like confections of whipped cream with caramel ribbons. Regardless of the seemingly endless iterations of syrups and creams, one essential ingredient abides intact in each one of these caffeine-laden concoctions: coffee! Coffee drinks may prove to be much more than coffee, but they are never less.  

In the same way, violence in Nigeria enjoys wide-ranging expressions, but for Christians it is never without a religious root. As the essence of coffee drinks is coffee, so, too, the essence of violence against Christians is religion; this is the prevailing Christian perception. Consider the violent clashes between herders and farmers. A growing consensus fears that the Fulani herders have killed more Nigerians than Boko Haram, with estimates as high as 7,400 Christians killed since 2015.  

In media accounts, the conflict is described as farmers against herders. Experts invoke various causes to explain the violence: ethnic strife, Saharan desertification, climate change, food insecurity, globalization, terrorism, immigration, and criminal activity. Like the whipped cream and chocolate syrups topping popular coffee drinks, these factors exist and play a part in the overall mix of explaining violent clashes between herders and farmers. Nevertheless, none of these ingredients captures the essence of the conflict. According to Christians in Nigeria, religion does. For Christians, conflict between herders and farmers might be more than a religious clash with Muslims, but it is never less.  

The reason the Muslim dynamic controls Christian interpretations of the Herder-Farmer conflicts is simple: Attacks against Christian farmers are always carried out by radical Muslims. An outsider might wish to train Christians in Nigeria to think more broadly about the attacks, understanding them to be stressors connected to the climate or to globalization or immigration. Such retraining of Christian thinking is unlikely to succeed so long as Muslims continue carrying out the attacks.  

An article in the UK Telegraph made this same point five years ago:   

“But whatever the motivation, the conflict is increasingly being perceived as one between Muslims and Christians, a view only reinforced by an attack on a church in Benue state in April when two priests and 17 of their congregation were killed as they said Mass. That attack has had a profound effect on Nigeria’s Christians, persuading many, justifiably or otherwise, that the Fulanis’ real intent is dispossession, territorial acquisition and the expansion of Islam — all to be achieved by the ethnic cleansing of Christians.”   

The Christian belief has further galvanized in the five years since this attack, which leads to a question: Is the Christian perception justifiable? The answer might be yes. Far from being irrational zealots or hyper-sensitized victims, Christians in Nigeria own a tragic abundance of evidence demanding their interpretation be taken seriously.  

When the Telegraph ran the article about the 2018 church attack in Benue State, the newspaper presented the matter as a continuation of the age-old conflict between cattle ranchers and farmers. They further emphasized the role of climate change causing herders to retreat into the middle belt and even further into Christian areas—clearly framing the portrait as one of land scarcity and food insecurity. Yet even in that article, two interpretive keys supporting the Christian perception emerged. First, the reporter noted that not all the Fulani attackers owned cattle. Second, the article included this quote:  

“’The reverend fathers were not farmers,’” said Samuel Ortom, Benue State’s Christian governor. “’They were not in the farm. The church where they were holding the Mass had no grass.  

“The armed herdsmen have moved the narrative of the current crisis from search for grass to other obvious motives.’”   

Even while framing the attack as part of the prevailing narrative of land scarcity and climate change, the Telegraph article could not prevent the Christian perception from leaching through. In the five years since that article was written, only more evidence has surfaced with similar threads which render the controlling narrative (land scarcity) dubious.  

For example, just this past April a mass burial was held for 33 Christians killed during an attack against Runji Village in the Zangon Kataf LGA of Kaduna State. A Fulani militia was implicated in the attacks, which happened late on a Saturday night without reference to cows or grass. In the attacks, a five-year-old boy was beheaded. How does beheading a little boy alleviate grass shortages for cows or counter the effects of climate change? This incident—like many others—makes sense when the Christian interpretation is allowed a hearing.  

Of course, violence against non-farming Christians by non-herding Muslims isn’t the only evidence Christians put forward in support of their narrative. Government response to the violence has confused Christian farmers—if not caused them utterly to despair. Stories abound nationwide about government ineffectiveness on the herder-farmer clashes (see here and here and here). At best, the government response has been tepid and ineffective. At worse, the government has been accused of being complicit in the violence.  

The accusations grew particularly acute after the election of President Buhari in 2015. An ethnic Fulani himself, Buhari has often been accused of treating Fulani attackers with “kid gloves.” Whether this characterization is true or false is less relevant now that Bola Tinubu has replaced Buhari, but Tinubu is a Muslim and a member of the same political party (APC) as Buhari. Beliefs will not change quickly or easily. And feelings most certainly will not change with inactivity against the violence. But perceptions can change.  

Researching for the Berlin Social Science Center, Daniel Tuki agrees that “herder-farmer conflicts catalyze the process of resource conflicts turning religious.” What he means by this is that the root conflict is not religious, but land scarcity; however, the experience of violence seems to have turned the interpretation of the conflicts to religion. The Fulani attackers become representative of Muslims in general (not unlike Boko Haram or ISWAP).  

To be clear, Tuki believes the conflict at root is one of land scarcity (“resource conflicts”). Yet he concludes, “Christians and Muslims do not view pastoral conflicts from the same perspective; the former group is more likely to ascribe pastoral conflicts to a religious cause.” Tuki acknowledges the evidence bearing on the Christian interpretation, as he notes, “When culprits are not brought to book, this erodes institutional trust….”   

From his research, Tuki calls for remedies closely aligned to the remedies proposed by the International Crisis Group. This group proposes five steps to avoid further violence and promote peace:   

  1. Bolster security for farmers and herders, meaning a show of force responding rapidly to calls of distress. In addition, this recommendation includes disarming ethnic militias and vigilantes. Christians would push for the disarming of radical Fulanis carrying AK47’s into villages a point of contention with the Buhari administration.  
  1. End impunity, meaning holding each person accountable who takes part in violence—particularly violence against innocent actors such as church (or mosque) goers and five-year-old boys, whether Muslim or Christian.
  1. Implement the new National Livestock Transformation Plan, encouraging buy-in from herders and state governments.
  1. Freeze enforcement of and reform state anti-grazing legislation. Here, the International Crisis Group is calling for a suspension of controversial prohibitions against grazing in Benue state, helping herders become ranchers, diminishing the need for nomadic roaming.
  1. Encourage herder-farmer dialogues and support local peace efforts.

Of course, these recommendations would not be immediately easy to implement nor quickly agreed upon by either farmers or herders. For Christians, however, implementing the first two recommendations would go a long way toward rebuilding institutional trust. Christians would not be out of line if they insisted upon the condemnation of violent attacks against churches and children—and the prosecution of those carrying out the attacks—before agreeing to any sort of land allotments or grazing rights to the herders. This sounds controversial, but when is beheading a five-year-old boy ever an acceptable form of action?  

If Tuki and others are correct in saying that the essence of the conflict is really resources and not religion, then the condemnation and elimination of gross violence should be a reciprocal commitment for Christians and Muslims alike. Likewise, the prosecution of those engaging in such terrible acts against humanity should be a collective aim that both religions could jointly secure. If such unity proved successful in rooting out the atrocities, then further agreement might be reached on the matter of what is the essential ingredient of the herder-farmer conflict.   

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