Don’t Call It Farmer-Herder Conflict

As violent conflict rises across West Africa, the phrase “farmer-herder conflict” has taken hold from the local to international levels. Farmer-herder conflict is an umbrella term for a range of interactions, typically describing resource competition between pastoralist herders and sedentary farmers. Beneath this seemingly innocuous label lies a complex web of assumptions, ethnic implications, and obscured dynamics.[1],[2],[3] In West Africa, the term herders commonly connotes the Fulbe, the largest regional pastoralist ethnicity.[4] Therefore, farmer-herder conflicts allude to events involving Fulbe—even non-herders—without explicitly mentioning ethnicity.[5],[6],[7] Opposing herder against farmer implies inevitable ethnic conflict between two homogeneous groups with conflicting lifestyles.[8] It conveys ahistorical enmity despite this inter-communal violent conflict spiking only within the past decade.[9] Such conflicts do not result from innate ethnic differences but rather from interrelated external factors plaguing the region: climate change and associated droughts and desertification; climate-induced migration and changes in herding patterns; environmental scarcity; population growth; unequal social and gender dynamics; and rising regional extremism resulting in displacement, weapons proliferation, and insecurity.[10],[11],[12],[13],[14],[15],[16],[17],[18],[19]

West African governments’ systemic marginalization of Fulbe further compounds these factors. Pastoralism (the seasonal herding of cattle) is a highly resilient, adaptive, and productive practice.[20] Yet policies continue to be made based on anti-pastoralist prejudices that consider pastoralism archaic and conflate Fulbe with criminality and environmental destruction.[21] The media and policymakers cannot continue using language like farmer-herder conflict that obscures the true drivers of conflict: marginalizing policies that fail to address worsening climate and resource governance issues. We must unpack the state’s role in perpetuating a cycle of oppression and confront the urgent need for transformative governance and inclusive policies for the Fulbe.

Beyond Herders

The Fulbe people—also known as Fulani, Fula, Peul, or Peuhl—are incredibly diverse and spread across West Africa.[22] They aren’t a single unified group but a collection of communities with a long history in the region and various ways of life.[23] While traditionally known for pastoralism, their lives are far more intricate than just herding animals. They engage in intercommunal trade, fishing, farming, and information sharing. Some Fulbe practice traditional transhumant pastoralism (moving herds seasonally for grazing), while others have settled lifestyles combining farming, trade, and livestock. Only 30 percent rely solely on livestock income.[24] Labeling them simply as herders oversimplifies their complex realities.

Figure I. Vernacular Languages in West Africa. [25]

The term “farmer-herder conflict” implies opposition between Fulbe and farmers, obscuring their traditionally symbiotic relationship.[26] In pre-colonial times, they exchanged goods, and today, many modern Fulbe both herd and farm, using cattle excrements for fertilization. [27] Many farmers of other ethnic regularly entrust their cattle to Fulbe herders, and after harvest, Fulbe calves help clean agricultural land. This mutual dependence fosters cooperation and reduces conflict, contrary to popular belief. [28] The simplistic farmer-versus-herder narrative obscures these connections and the actual political drivers behind conflicts.

Reducing Fulbe to herders perpetuates harmful stereotypes that lead to violence and marginalization. They are commonly stereotyped as criminals, alien outsiders, and violent jihadists.[29] Stereotypes are so ingrained that non-Fulbe criminals often imitate the appearance of Fulbe. The conflation of Fulbe with terrorists further deepens these biases.[30]

Unveiling Injustice

Across West Africa, deep-rooted structural issues negatively affect Fulbe communities. Many West African governments hold misconceptions about Fulbe livelihoods, especially their traditional transhumant pastoralist livelihoods. [31] Coastal states, like Benin and Ghana, view “transhumant pastoralism as an archaic and conflict-prone practice and would wish to abolish it completely.”[32] States instead promote ranching systems and other sedentarization policies despite evidence that pastoralism is more viable in arid environments.[33] Fulbe settlements are often treated as temporary and not provided essential services, even for permanent residents.

Fulbe Representation in Ghana
In Ghana, the Fulbe are not formally recognized as an ethnic group and are excluded from official population records. When documenting the Ghanaian population, Fulbe were either refused registration or forced to pay officials to gain citizenship.[34] The state also denies citizenship to Fulbe without grandparents born in Ghana before 1957, excluding many second or third-generation Fulbe.[35]

Fulbe’s outsider status also impacts Fulbe participation in local governance.[36] West African governments contribute to deny Fulbe basic rights, such as voting and political representation. In Benin, Fulbe civil society leaders claim police confiscated their identity papers because Fulbe aren’t considered Beninese citizens. Political candidates often promise to help solve so-called farmer-herder conflicts with solutions that further disadvantage the Fulbe.[37] The lack of recognition of Fulbe citizenship deprives them of essential protections and civil rights.[38]

Biased judicial institutions add to the systematic exclusion of the Fulbe. Across West Africa, both state and customary institutions play a role in mediating disputes.[39] However, customary institutions are often more prevalent than formal state structures, especially in remote localities where many Fulbe communities. These systems are marred by corruption, as personal gains and bribes sway chiefs, leading to biased decisions.[40] This corruption, coupled with governance gaps owing to the coexistence of dual legal systems, results in ineffective and unfair resolutions that fuel intergroup tensions.

Failed Resource Governance

Policymaking spaces often don’t include Fulbe even when policy decisions would directly affect their livelihoods, particularly around land and governance use. The political underrepresentation of Fulbe is a consequence of and a contributor to Fulbe socio-political marginalization. States tend to underinvest in public resources for pastoralists, invest resources disproportionately in non-pastoralist areas, and favor non-pastoralist policies. Inadequate natural resource governance—combined with structural undermining of pastoralism and the promotion of privatization—magnifies inequalities and state grievances, limiting available resources and driving conflict.[41] The root cause of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists goes beyond resource scarcity, reflecting a combination of misguided land and resource management policies.

Natural resource governance is hindered by overlapping land tenure systems in West African states, leading to competition and confusion while failing to address fragility and security challenges.[42],[43] As with judicial systems, state and local institutions share governance of resources and territory, differing by state and region.[44] Across the region, natural resource governance is strongly decentralized, resulting in governance primarily occurring at the local level.[45] Village or commune authorities, such as village development councils, land tenure commissions, and chiefs, allocate natural resources and make decisions on land use. Examples of land tenure commissions include the Commissions Foncières (COFOs) in Mali, the Commissions Foncières Villageoises (CFV) in Burkina Faso, and the Commissions Foncières de Base (COFOB) in Niger.[46] Traditional authority over land is either derived from personal land ownership or state delegation of control. In Ghana, 80 percent of the land belongs to traditional authorities, giving them control over the who and how of land use.[47] In Burkina Faso, policymakers planned to delimit new pastoral territories using local authorities as the vessel to ensure distribution.[48]

Aspects of customary resource and land allocation are exclusionary, discriminating against Fulbe and other minority groups. In the absence of state governance, individuals can secure land use rights directly through chiefs or “membership in groups that appropriate land jointly in competition with other groups.”[49] Written titles are often replaced by the sovereignty of these groups and established through a variety of mechanisms, such as culturally sanctioned entitlements, political skill, or military prowess rather than an administrative and legal authority.[50] Some chiefs attempt to gain personal economic advantages from land and resource distribution by accepting bribes to allocate land in a certain way.[51] In northern Ghana,[52] for example, the flexibility of customary land tenure has enabled traditional authorities to reinterpret customary laws and enrich themselves in the process. The commodification of land and centralized decision-making facilitates a state of ambiguity and tension, primarily benefiting those with significant political, traditional, and economic influence. The result is increased exclusion of other groups like the Fulbe.

Inconsistencies in customary authorities’ policies and state and regional policies further obstruct Fulbe mobility and access to land and resources. West African states have laws that attempt to safeguard pastoralists’ property rights, but local authorities and sedentary village chiefs undermine them.[53] Benin has a strict law prohibiting cultivation within livestock corridors, but farmers frequently disregard these laws because the corridors pass through traditional farming lands. Furthermore, the state allows the expansion of farming lands into official transhumant corridors. This directly contradicts the ECOWAS Protocol on Transhumance (1998) and supporting Regulation (2003), a regional regulatory framework for cross-border transhumance in West Africa based on ECOWAS’ principles of free movement.[54],[55] Other West African states have not followed through on ECOWAS’ transhumance protocol, disturbing pastoralists migration in the region. Benin began closing its borders to pastoral movement in December 2019, commencing a series of cross-border transhumance bans by other West African states.[56],[57] During the COVID-19 crisis, there were many restrictions on border crossings by Ghana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Niger, immobilizing cattle and people in border areas.[58] These bans on transhuman border crossings have further escalated conflict. In Niger, border closures have spiked conflicts between pastoralists and farmers as well as between pastoralists themselves as they compete for limited resources along the Benin and Burkina Faso borders.[59]

Privatization over Pastoralism

Throughout West Africa, domestic and foreign investment in commercial projects related to agriculture, mining, oil, and infrastructure has increased, co-opting large tracts of land.[60],[61] As a result, there is less land for herding and farming; pastoral corridors and grazing areas are fragmented; diminished resource access; and environmental degradation diminishes resources and access to them.[62],[63] Since 2000, the discovery of 275 new oil wells across West Africa has brought an increase in Chinese and American oil companies, dispossessing pastoralists of historic transhumance corridors.[64],[65] These projects adversely affect the quality of grazing lands and water availability.[66] Furthermore, pastoralists are more vulnerable to armed robbery, cattle theft, and abuse at border crossings.[67] As a result, pastoralists are forced to adapt by utilizing new corridors and moving into new grazing lands, often clashing with sedentary communities.

The recent increase in large-scale land investments has led to the transfer of land from local pastoralists to foreign investors.[68] In Ghana, foreign multinationals have acquired approximately 8.6 percent of the country’s arable land.[69] Endeavors to formalize ownership through titles and market creation have diminished marginalized groups’, such as the Fulbe’s, access to land as they have less access to resources and political power. For example, the World Bank initiated efforts to protect land users through formal land ownership.[70] Instead of protecting all stakeholder access, the initiative unintentionally resulted in more commercialization. Commercialization of land rights has created a market for land that Fulbe can’t compete in, further constraining herd mobility.

Figure II. Large-scale land investments and forests in Africa.[71]

Government support for land privatization across the region further exacerbates pastoralists’ marginalization.[72] In Côte d’Ivoire, the adoption of land privatization policies promoted by the World Bank and the European Union is creating new land use patterns in rural areas.[73] A key component of these policies—the 1998 Rural Land Law—aims to “restructure rural economic life along agrarian capitalist lines.”[74] In the Cross River State of Nigeria, the government has established the Cross River State Agricultural Development Project (CRADP), which aims to attract private investment in agriculture through land leasing. Ghana’s government has embarked on the Land Administration Project (LAP) to improve land tenure security and promote land privatization.[75],[76] The program aims to formalize land rights, facilitate land transactions, and attract private investment. Government-supported privatization directly impacts pastoralists by shrinking available grazing areas. As a result, land privatization intensifies conflict by limiting pastoralists’ access to traditional grazing areas, forcing them to move to unfamiliar territories; undermining customary land rights, causing disputes over land ownership; increasing competition for water resources; and attracting external investors that can further marginalize local herders. Government-backed land privatization reflects a broader failure to support pastoralists through policies that impede their livelihood and mobility.

Sedentary Solutions?

For decades, West African states have invested in sedentary agriculture by allocating agricultural budgets to favor agronomy, resulting in the expansion of croplands that encroach upon traditional grazing areas.[77],[78],[79] These policies stem from deep-seated misunderstandings about pastoralism, including disproven arguments blaming herders for resource mismanagement, overgrazing, and land degradation.[80] Livestock mobility has actually been proven essential to dryland ecosystem health (e.g., carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation).[81],[82] Many of these state policies follow the guidance of other countries and international institutions, resulting in both state and international development policies either not considering pastoralists or directly citing sedentarization as a tool to reduce resource conflict.[83],[84] Adding to the problem, Fulbe and other pastoralists are politically under-represented and are under-consulted during pastoral development program design. One can trace this historical trend back to the colonial era, where systematic attempts to sedentarize mobile populations occurred, as seen in the French approach towards mobile communities in the Sahara.[85] The resulting policies reflect pro-sedentarization biases and perpetuate pastoralist marginalization.

In the past five decades, governments’ efforts to make pastoral land use and its practitioners more “legible[86] through sedentarization projects continue. These sedentary “alternatives” have proven economically, socially, and environmentally unviable, especially in dryland areas where “traditional pastoral systems have an estimated 2.5 times greater efficiency of resource use than meat-only (‘ranching’) systems.”[87] Nevertheless, pro-settlement initiatives persist, such as cattle ranching in Ghana and the limiting of pastoral territories in Burkina Faso.[88],[89] These efforts reflect colonially-rooted beliefs that pastoralists need to “modernize” via sedentarization, aligning with the contemporary push to modernize agriculture in general seen across the developing world.[90],[91],[92]

Sedentarization in Practice: Benin
In 2021, Benin’s Office of the High Commissioner for the Sedentarization of Livestock Breeders began implementing a sedentarization policy to “modernize” traditional transhumance practices among herders. The policy offers a “unique model of alternatives to transhumance” while gradually implementing sedentarization. Operating in eleven departments until 2026, the policy aims to formalize lease agreements between breeders and the State, establish a functional pilot pastoral camp, and strengthen livestock breeders’ encampments.[93]

This push towards sedentarization and pastoralist “modernization” neglects pastoralism’s value as the “most viable form of production and land use in” dryland areas when properly managed.[94] Pastoralists’ resilience in harsh conditions allows them to continuously adapt to sustain livestock production in challenging environments.[95] This adaptability helps maintain food security in regions with limited agricultural potential—like the Sahel—by ensuring a more stable and varied food supply. Pastoralism and pastoralists are not the problem. Legal, economic, social, and political disincentives, as well as barriers to livestock mobility and communal management of rangelands, limit pastoral production by limiting pastoral livelihoods.

Resulting Violence

Fulbe marginalization—through reductive stereotyping, socio-political exclusion, and harmful land and resource governance—has gone beyond biased policies into overt violence, fueling insecurity throughout the region. The categorization of Fulbe as criminals inflames ethnic violence at the communal level. On March 28, 2023, Fulbe communities in Ghana were attacked. 800 Fulbe were displaced after their homes were burned, and two hundred cows were stolen during the assault.[96] On April 6, 2023, the district made a public declaration stating Fulbe living in the area must vacate in one month.[97] Both the March attack and the subsequent request for removal were founded on the assumption that Fulbe are criminals. An accusation against a Fulbe “herder” for an assault promoted this raid on Fulbe communities. However, when the district security council launched an investigation into the attack, an anonymous eyewitness stated that the allegation against the Fulbe man was false. Fulbe community members were asked to vacate the district because they were allegedly “terrorising” the community.[98] However, the speaker failed to provide evidence for this claim and cited a robbery by persons “suspected to be Fulani herdsmen.”[99] While assumptions of criminality are not the only factor at play in these acts of violence against Fulbe communities, such stereotypes perpetuate ethnically targeted violence.

Heavy-handed state policies across West Africa actively seek to target and remove Fulbe communities. Common perceptions that Fulbe are foreigners and thus do not belong legitimize such policies.[100] Ghana has some of the most direct instances of forced expulsion using military and police task forces, dating back to the 1969 Aliens Compliance Order that classified Fulbe as aliens that needed to be expelled.[101] This order informed repeated government expulsion operations in 1988, 2011, 2017, and 2018, including Operation Cow Leg and Operation Livestock Solidarity.[102],[103],[104] Nigeria has displaced Fulbe from the state through multiple Anti-Grazing Laws.[105] By prohibiting open grazing of cattle on Nigerian land, Nigeria has rendered Fulbe unable to move freely and practice their livelihood in Nigeria. Further, state governments have indirectly removed Fulbe communities by supporting militias targeting Fulbe.

State security forces have perpetrated and ignored increasingly violent attacks on Fulbe. In 2020, Human Rights Watch found mass graves in Burkina Faso containing at least 180 men. Most of the victims were identified by clothing and physical features to be Fulbe men.[106] Informed by eyewitness testimony, Human Rights Watch believes that security forces were responsible for the mass execution. There is yet to be an official statement from security forces or other state representatives from Burkina Faso. After a mass shooting of Fulbe occurred in Zakuli in 2022, Ghanaian police released no statement or addressed the incident.[107] In Burkina Faso in March 2022, Malian armed forces and government-associated foreign soldiers executed an estimated three hundred civilian men in the town of Moura.[108] The majority of those killed in the Moura Massacre were from the Fulbe ethnic group. Targeting of Fulbe by militias and military groups is legitimized by the risk of violent extremism, with security forces contending that they were targeting jihadists.[109] In December 2022, “a government-supported militia” in Burkina Faso “went house to house killing dozens of civilians,” specifically targeting Fulbe men.[110]

The stereotyping of Fulbe as jihadists in news media outlets, government reports, and social media posts has been used to justify ethnic killings.[111],[112],[113] Incomplete histories about Fulbe and ostensibly unbiased sources that overemphasize violent characterizations of Islam and jihad reinforce this inflammatory narrative.[114] As a result, Fulbe are stereotyped as militant threats. Upper East Regional Minister Stephen Yakubu went so far as to claim in a Ghanaian media outlet that Fulbe and jihadists “speak the same language and… are the same people.”[115] One article from the Combating Terrorism Center stated, “For Islamist militants, the Fulbe represent an enormous potential pool of armed, highly mobile fighters with intimate knowledge of local terrain and routes.”[116] Such statements characterize all Fulbe as recruitable militant agents. Global indexes and reports on extremism have wrongly categorized violent events in West Africa, conflating any violent events, including those concerning Fulbe, with extremist violence. Social ostracism is recognized as a key factor in radicalization, and thus, socially marginalized Fulbe may be more vulnerable to extremist recruitment.[117] However, arguments that Fulbe are disproportionately represented in extremist groups remain uncorroborated. Regardless, Fulbe involvement does not equate to innate extremism in Fulbe communities.[118] Moreover, it is proven that “ethnicity is not a very useful explanation for violence across West and Central Africa.”[119] Therefore, this unfounded conflation of Fulbe with extremist violence does not prevent the spread of violent extremism. Rather, it is fueling further grievances and violence across the region.

The state’s role in failing to address—and even directly committing—violence against Fulbe communities highlights the severity of Fulbe marginalization beyond “farmer-herder conflicts.” Increasingly violent conflicts involving Fulbe are not caused by ethnicity, livelihood strategy, or Fulbe involvement in extremist groups. Rather, pervasive prejudice compounded with systemic political exclusion of Fulbe continues to inflame ethnically targeted violence.

Towards Peace

As international efforts focus on rising conflict and extremism in West Africa, it is a critical time for action against the ongoing socio-political exclusion of Fulbe pastoralists.[120] Continuing to use the term farmer-herder without interrogating its implications further reinforces Fulbe marginalization by reinforcing negative stereotypes and obscuring the challenges impacting residents across the region. Conflicts between Fulbe and other ethnicities are not a result of inevitable ethnic clashing, nor of resource scarcity alone. These are intercommunal conflicts that stem from harmful policies, governance practices, and social attitudes that impact not only Fulbe herders but entire communities. National and regional policymakers must address climate change, unjust judicial systems, underdevelopment and a lack of state services, privatization of land and resources, and increasing regional extremist violence. All these factors limit livelihood opportunities and increase mistrust of the government and other ethnic groups. State marginalization and social exclusion further magnify inequalities between groups, pushing vulnerable populations to seek extrajudicial justice or even join extremist groups. Continuing to use thinly veiled ethnically coded language like farmer-herder conflict won’t reduce conflict in West Africa. It only further deepens misunderstanding and mistrust of transhumant and settled Fulbe communities alike, fueling grievances, sparking conflicts, and continuing the cycle of violence and human rights abuses. Policymakers must focus on addressing the root causes of extremism and resource scarcity. They must support—not exclude—Fulbe through policies that safeguard their sustainable resource utilization and grant them full socio-political inclusion. Failure to do so will only exacerbate the dire issues facing West Africa.

Claire Kendrick is the Program Associate at the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, where she conducts research and coordinates programming on gender and conflict issues. She was previously a researcher at Cetus Global where she focused on the nexus of conflict, migration, and climate in West Africa. She has conducted conflict analyses and designed program strategies for USAID and other US government funding related to conflict and humanitarian crises, with a focus on the Sahel. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Vassar College and a master’s from Sciences Po in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action with a specialization in gender studies.

Laura Sanders specializes in conflict analysis, peacebuilding, and crisis response. She has advised international organizations, development agencies, and local peacebuilders on strategies to prevent and mitigate violence for over twenty years. She engages peacebuilders at the highest and lowest socio-political levels to design impactful programming at the intersections of climate, economics, gender, and governance. She has designed and implemented peace building projects in Mali, Ghana, and Benin, as well as East Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Laura holds a bachelor’s degree in geography from Vassar College and a master’s in Latin American Studies from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Laura is the founder of Cetus Global and is currently writing a book about pastoralism, conflict, and climate in West Africa.

Many thanks for their contributions.

Ella Phillips is a junior at Vassar College studying History and Economics. Her academic focus is on 19th and 20th century American foreign relations and economic policy and reform.

Elaine Perkins is completing her final year of studies in International Relations at the College of William and Mary and the University of St. Andrews. Elaine contributed to this article and other research on conflict dynamics in West Africa while interning for Cetus Global during the summer of 2023. 

Marina Navarro  works at the Palladium Group on the PROPEL project delivery team, providing operational support to  Global Health projects in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Marina graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2023 with a B.S. in Global Health and International Studies.


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Claire Kendrick and Laura Sanders
Claire Kendrick and Laura Sanders

Claire Kendrick is the Program Associate at the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, where she conducts research and coordinates programming on gender and conflict issues.

Laura Sanders specializes in conflict analysis, peacebuilding, and crisis response. She has advised international organizations, development agencies, and local peacebuilders on strategies to prevent and mitigate violence for over twenty years.