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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

What’s in a Name? Making the Case for the Sahel Conflict as “Eco-violence”

By Olumba Ezenwa

The Sahel region of Africa is a semi-arid, arc-shaped landmass that stretches 3,860 kilometres from Senegal across portions of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and even Sudan. It is also the most neglected and conflict-ridden part of the planet, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

At the heart of the conflict in the Sahel region in recent years is violence between sedentary farmers and nomadic herders. These persistent battles have caused thousands of deaths, displaced millions of people, and destroyed properties worth millions of dollars. Although these conflicts primarily occur between nomadic herders from the Fulani ethnic group and sedentary farmers living in rural communities in the Sahel, many different labels and names are used by conflict scholars to describe this violence.

This diffusion in terminology obscures key elements in these conflicts. In research published with three of my colleagues in June 2022 in Third World Quarterly, we advocate for a change to this practice. Many of the labels given to this violence are politicized and not neutral. They emphasize the social identities and occupations of the contending groups, make the conflict seem as if it is caused by single-issue events, and suggest that it exists only between non-state actors.

We believe that a consistent use of the term “eco-violence” would be more exact, and refocus our attention on the essential elements of these conflicts. It would also promote much-needed clarity both in analysis and seeking sustainable solutions to end this violence.

Many Names, Many Causes

The scale of eco-violence and the damage it has caused in the region is immense. It also has been characterized by bursts of lethal ferocity.

For generations, conflicts over water and agricultural resources have raged in Africa’s Sahel region. Scholars have begun to observe a heightened escalation since 2014 due to various reasons, including changes in who gets favoured within the political system. Such developments resulted in nepotism, impunity, and other forms of insecurity, as well as the deployment of military-grade weaponry in the conflicts. The situation has resulted in thousands of people being killed within the rural community due to the conflicts over water and land, while millions have been displaced to IDP camps and into makeshift camps.

These widespread killings and destructions are not unique to anyone particular country in the Sahel but it is widespread. For instance, on March 23, 2019, Dogon farmers slaughtered around 175 Fulani inhabitants in Mali.

Recently, the killings and spates of kidnappings associated with eco-violence have skyrocketed in Nigeria. Weekly reports of the massacre of hundreds of people, especially in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, have been recorded by reputable Nigerian and world news agencies.

For instance, over 50 people were killed in three separate attacks by suspected herders in the Tarka local government area of Benue State in April 2022. Similarly, about 37 individuals were reportedly killed in the early hours of June 19, 2022 when suspected Fulani herders stormed Igama, a rural village in Nigeria’s Benue State. The next day, suspected armed herders killed about 16 people in Benue State’s Udei and Yelwata districts.

The violence is becoming common—and even normalized. According to local reports in Nigeria, “there was a sort of relief in May as only five people were killed in the only attack carried out in Guma, while a couple were also killed at Ikyangwa Tombard near Ayilamo on June 7.” It is a frightening testament to both the severity and barbaric nature of these conflicts when “a sort relief” is felt when “only” five human beings are killed.

Getting a handle on this violence is difficult enough. But the practice of labelling these conflicts in multiple ways has added to the challenge for scholars studying the violent conflicts between sedentary farmers and nomadic herders in Africa.

Among the terms used in several studies to label these conflicts over water and other agricultural resources are: Fulani herdsmen and farmers conflicts, farmer-herder conflicts, herdsmen militancy, resource conflicts, land-use conflicts, and ethnic violence. All these terms (and others) refer to the unending violent conflict between Fulani herders and sedentary farmers in rural communities across the Sahel of Africa.

Yet these terms do not capture the complexity at the root of these conflicts. Indeed, they reflect some contradictions. In some cases, either violence is said to be caused by the scarcity of water and agricultural resources resulting from adverse climatic conditions and migration, or an abundance of agricultural resources or investments.

Others blame these conflicts on uncompensated agricultural devastation, rape, murders on both sides, cattle rustling, and grazing opportunities limitations. The violence also has been attributed to government incompetence and the availability of military-grade firearms, which produced ungoverned zones, or from grievances resulting from discriminatory practices and the depiction of people and their lives through prejudicial frames.

As we can see, many factors contribute to these violent conflicts in the Sahel region. But our overall understanding is constrained by the multiple labels used to describe them. These varied and at time contradictory terms highlight certain aspects of the conflicts while obscuring other critical issues, such as social and environmental injustices and political failures. The result is an unsettling lack of clarity.

Clearing Up Definitions

Our proposal to use the term “eco-violence” is a way to gain more clarity and insight into the conflict over water and other agricultural resources in the Sahel between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers.

Our paper argues that the use of this new and more expansive definition should become standard practice. We suggest that eco-violence be deployed by scholars when they are referring to “conflicts in which competition for water and agricultural resources occurs within or between social groups or state actors, often resulting in mass murder and destruction of the environment and properties; such conflicts are exacerbated by the states’ failure to address resource redistribution challenges, institutional failures, and environmental and social injustice.”

The term eco-violence encompasses more dimensions of these violent conflicts than framing them as single-issue problems. Adopting it as a description also changes our focus from the identities and occupations of the warring social groups. Shifting the lens in this way illuminates other (and often ignored) factors that sustain these violent conflicts, such as government failures to address resource scarcity, insecurity, climate change challenges, and primordial sentiments (resource captures). It also better captures the range of effects created by the violence, including mass murder and human displacement, ecological destruction, and social injustices.

If scholars and opinion leaders do adopt eco-violence as the umbrella terminology for these conflicts, they will divert attention away from the trivial and primordial descriptions of the violence in the region, and focus our attention on significant issues and causes. It will represent a significant step to further enhance our understanding of these violent conflicts.

Ezenwa Olumba is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London. His geographical expertise focuses on the West African sub-region. Sources: The Conversation; Norwegian Refugee Council; Third World Quarterly; African Security Review; Transborder Pastoral Nomadism and Human Security in Africa (Taylor & Francis); American Political Science Association; African Security; Vanguard; Premium Times; Punch Photo Credit: In the Mentao Nord camp in Burkina Faso, a pastoralist leads three goats, courtesy of flickr user Oxfam International/Photo Credit: Pablo Tosco.

This post first appeared on New Security Beat.

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