Understanding Herder-Farmer Conflicts in West Africa: Outline of a Processual Approach

By Moritz, Mark | Human Organization, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Understanding Herder-Farmer Conflicts in West Africa: Outline of a Processual Approach


Moritz, Mark, Human Organization


While West African herders and farmers have long coexisted in symbiotic relationships that endure both peace and contentious engagements, reports of violent clashes between these two groups are becoming more frequent. It is urgent that we understand when, how, and why resource-related conflicts between herders and farmers escalate into widespread violence between whole communities. Until now, we have not been asking an important question: Why are most conflicts peacefully resolved while others in the same area escalate into violent engagement? In this paper, I outline a processual approach of addressing that question. While structural approaches have offered fruitful explanations of why there are herder-farmer conflicts, viewing these conflicts as dynamic processes can explain variability in outcomes across the many conflicts that may occur within the same context. I present this analytical approach by discussing studies of herder-farmer conflicts in Burkina Faso and Cameroon that, escalating, resulted in multiple deaths.

Key words: herder-farmer conflicts, conflict theory, processual analysis, pastoral systems. West Africa

Introduction

In West Africa, agriculture and pastoralism have coexisted side-by-side for centuries. Over time, many herding and farming communities in the same area have developed interdependent relationships through reciprocity, other exchange, and support. At the same time, conflicts between herders and farmers have arisen for centuries. Recently, a small number of these disputes have escalated into widespread violence and displacement of people. In some cases, herderfarmer conflicts articulated with other ethnic, political, and religious conflicts. For example, in 2004, President Obasanjo of Nigeria declared a state of emergency in Central Plateau State, when herder-farmer conflicts resulted in "near-mutual genocide" of Christians and Muslims and more than 20,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring Cameroon. Because herderfarmer conflicts are often considered local, endemic, low-intensity conflicts and not wars, they have been largely ignored in the burgeoning literature on violent conflicts in Africa and elsewhere (e.g., Chabal, Engel, and Gentili 2005; Lind and Sturman 2002; Richards 2005b). Herder-farmer conflicts not only have a direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of those involved, they also disrupt and threaten the sustainability of agricultural and pastoral production in West Africa. Ignoring these clashes is unwise because local conflicts may escalate into "real wars," argues Richards (2005a: 14), who writes that Burkina Faso may well be at the brink of ethnic violence along the "occupational boundary of farming and herding."

The increasing number of reports of violence at this occupational boundary makes understanding herder-farmer conflicts an urgent task.1 We need to know not just why friction begins, but also why and how, as some conflicts unfold they articulate with religious, ethnic, and political conditions. Perhaps the most crucial question is why some conflicts between herders and farmers escalate into widespread violence. I define escalation as the transformation of a disagreement, argument, or dispute between a single herder and a single farmer, for example over crop damage, into widespread violence between communities that results in multiple fatalities.

Explanations of farmer-herder conflicts have generally been structural in nature, invoking factors shared by all members of both communities. Herders and farmers in many locales make their livelihood within the same geographical, political, and sociocultural conditions, which may be characterized by resource scarcity (e.g., Braukämper 2000) or political inequality (e.g., Bassett 1988). While structural factors may and do give rise to many herder-farmer conflicts, it is not the case that all disagreements occurring under the same structural conditions escalate into large-scale, violent clashes that engage whole communities. …

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