The true role of ethnicity in Sahelian herder-farmer conflicts

by Massimo Equizi

The Sahel is inflamed by violent conflicts that are usually traced back to an ethnic matrix, an alleged atavistic hatred between communities of nomadic herders and settled farmers. But this narrative is highly reductive and does not take into account the complexity of such conflicts. There are, in fact, many more actors involved and varied interests pursued.

The Sahelian strip is an inhospitable environment, subject to unpredictable famines, where water and fertile land are scarce. The first populations that settled there were aware that their survival depended on a judicious exploitation of the few resources available, and on joining forces.

Both farming and pastoral communities practised extensive subsistence activities. The concept of enrichment was completely absent in both the former and the latter: the greatest of riches would not be enough to compensate for a wave of drought and a missed harvest. Far better was the pursuit of the welfare of the entire social body so that it could intervene to support individuals in need. All this was regardless of ethnicity.

Forms of cooperation

The most typical form of cooperation between farmers and herders was alternating the use of the most fertile land. After spending the rainy season in the north, in the lands temporarily wrested from the desert, the shepherds drove their animals back south, where the settled farmers had finished harvesting and were happy to lend their plots to grazing. The dung of the animals would in fact accelerate the regeneration of the soil.

Cooperation did not stop there. In fact, farmers used to own a few cattle to diversify their sources of livelihood, but they preferred to leave them to the much more skilled livestock professionals. Farmers granted these professionals the right to exploit the milk and dairy produced from these animals.

Respect between communities with different ethnicities and traditions was also evident in non-economic spheres. Conflicts within one group were not infrequently healed by relying on the mediation and advice of influential members of the other; moreover, inter-ethnic marriages were by no means uncommon.

Ethnicity was thus far from being an issue. Of course, conflicts between shepherds and farmers did arise, but in the form of frictions between individual members of the two communities that were healed thanks to established compensatory rituals. In this way, tensions were prevented from escalating and spreading.

If, therefore, historical and ethnographic data rule out the possibility that deep-seated ethnic issues and ruthless competition for resources existed in the early Sahel – suggesting instead that the value of cooperation was universally recognised and applied – it is logical to ask why today’s conflicts are explained by ethnicity. The solution to the puzzle can be found by analysing a specific case, that of Burkina Faso, where the quarrel between Fulani herders and Voltaic farmers has been experiencing a significant violent escalation in recent years.

The starting dynamics were in line with those described above. Alternation in the exploitation of fertile land, cattle fostering, inter-ethnic marriages and fair legal mediations were practised on the Volta plateau, just as elsewhere.

Particular mention must be made of the ritual of ‘kinship joking’, which allowed members of the more than sixty local ethnic groups to engage in ethnically motivated insults, spite and petty revenge at specific times of the year, at the end of which the ‘joke’ had to give way to ‘kinship’ and thus to peace, on pain of dishonour for the entire group. The fact that the joking kinship also involved the Fulani confirms that they were originally considered an effective part of the highland society. It was colonialism that turned the tables.

The effects of colonisation

Burkina Faso was long neglected by the Europeans, who believed that the exploitation of its mineral resources required the creation of an overly expensive infrastructure. However, once occupied by the French, it suffered the same treatment as the other colonies. The new masters stimulated the indigenous people’s perception of ethnicity, in order to create a divided front, and slavishly applied administrative models designed for the Old Continent – hence, for sedentary populations, not mobile ones.

The Fulani, until then protagonists in the life of the plateau, suddenly found themselves sidelined, when not explicitly persecuted, because of their nomadism and because they were considered less malleable than the agricultural ethnic groups. It was a dramatic turning point: centuries-old harmony was replaced by ethnic tension.

Another heavy legacy of colonialism was the replacement of extensive cultivation with intensive profit-driven crops, which were far too aggressive for soils that were already ungenerous by nature. The result was that the desert began to advance inexorably southwards, this time permanently.

CIA map of ‘Africa, administrative divisions, July 1960’, a month before the Republic of Upper Volta gained full independence from France. Source: Library of Congress

Independence brought no substantial changes, as the leadership of the new state was taken over by the same elites who had collaborated with the French until then: the style of government remained the same.

Perceived as a foreign body, the Fulani even became a nuisance in the eyes of public opinion when a series of droughts further reduced the availability of water and fertile land. With the northern regions now perennially dry, the shepherds were forced to move south even if the harvest was not yet finished, arousing the wrath of the farmers who saw their fields devastated by animals in search of food.

The governments that alternated in the palaces of Ouagadougou until the mid-1980s did not rise to the task. Interested in maintaining their caste privileges, they preferred to hide their ineptitude by seeking the consent of the settled farmers, more numerous and active in the political arena, granting them exclusive rights of exploitation over lands and springs that until then had been free for the Fulani. For the latter, the situation became increasingly untenable, as the severe restriction of their freedom of movement, which was de facto imposed on them, made their nomadic lifestyle practically impossible.

Lasting impacts

The ideal elimination of the Fulani from the society of the plateau, opportunistically initiated by the French colonisers, could be said to be complete: only the shining example of Thomas Sankara could have reversed the course, but his presidency was too short. The collapse would come with his successor Blaise Compaoré: with a burning desire to centralise all power in his person, he wiped out those local elites – a legacy of the pre-colonial era – who still guaranteed a minimum of mediation in the conflicts between shepherds and peasants.

The Fulani, in need of external support to counteract the Voltaic political protection, ended up falling into the trap of terrorism. At the end of the Libyan civil war, in fact, a mass of ‘professional’ guerrillas had poured into West Africa in search of new theatres in which to expand their activities. Behind them, the largest multinational terrorist groups of Al Qaeda and Daesh were fighting a double battle: together against the Western presence in the area, among themselves for the leadership of African jihadism.

In their eyes, Burkina Faso, rich in untapped mines, strategically located at the origin of important trans-Saharan routes and nestled between no less than six states, proved to be a too tempting target to be ignored. The co-optation of the Fulani was not difficult; however, it was based not on their convinced adherence to a fundamentalist ideology that historically did not belong to them, but on their need for protection from the anguish of a state that considered them a convenient scapegoat for its own inefficiencies.

Tensions and hitherto latent conflicts exploded in all their lethality and, since 2014, the number of attacks has progressively increased. The image of nomadic pastoralists has become even more damaged and ethnic rhetoric has become even tighter. At the same time, the conflict has widened and now also involves the Koglweogo, self-defence militias operating on the fringes of the law, and foreign powers pursuing their economic and strategic goals.

What happens now?

In today’s Burkina Faso there is indeed a violent conflict between nomadic Fulani pastoralists and settled Voltaic and Mande peasants. However, behind these two main groups of actors lie fragile governments, terrorist formations, irregular militias, foreign powers, supranational institutions and non-governmental organisations. Driving this multitude of actors are economic, political and strategic interests. Ethnicity is not the cause of the conflict, but merely a trigger that allowed it to erupt and ensured its perpetuation and escalation.

All this does not only apply to the Burkinabé theatre. Mali, Darfur, South Sudan, Congo and Rwanda are just a few examples of conflicts in which ethnicity conceals – or has concealed – much deeper and deadlier interests, pursued by powerful actors who greedily profit from wars.

A transformative intervention aimed at de-escalation cannot disregard the overcoming of ethnic rhetoric and the search for common narratives that enable the rediscovery of traditional cooperation between all the people of the Sahel. Narratives – it should be emphasised – must not limit themselves to paternalistically considering nomadic shepherds as foreigners to be integrated by assimilation into a society with a sedentary traction: herders have been part of the Sahel microcosm since its origins. Shared institutions, for instance in the education system and the administration of justice, should be implemented in which they can be protagonists while continuing to live according to their own traditions.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that these traditions, daughters of a superior and proven capacity to adapt, represent a resource for all. The communities of nomadic herders, today conflicting actors, in a peaceful Sahel would in fact be the best vanguards of institutions in those harsh regions that today are no man’s land.

About the author

Massimo Equizi’s research interests gravitate around conflict dynamics, particularly those related to ethnic stereotypes, diasporic phenomena and religious dissent. He holds a BA in History from the “Sapienza” University of Rome and a MA in Anthropology from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

Massimo Equizi’s MA thesis is here: Il Sahel in fiamme: analisi di un conflitto multidimensionale