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Niger: Ethnic conflict along the Komadugu River and the shores of Lake Chad

20 June 2023

The Komadugu or Yobe River flows across the borderlands of Nigeria and Niger Republic, along an extensive plateau that covers most of Kano state and Hadejia Jama’are, until finally flowing into the fast-receding Lake Chad. The Komadugu River has been an important historic waterway and resource both for farming and pastoralist communities living in this semi-arid part of West Africa.

For hundreds of years, the Fulani people have lived by the side of the Komadugu River; indeed, for many members of this cross-border community, their livelihoods and cattle farming are inextricably linked to river access and the availability of nomadic routes. The Komadugu River provides a key route for the movement of cattle, as well as an important sense of cultural connection, continuity and belonging for many local groups.  

On a sunbaked and mud-cracked bankside on the outskirts of Diffa, in the south-eastern part of Niger Republic, I meet a local Ardo, which is the title given to the chief of a Fulani band of cattle herders. His name is Haru Jauro. Fulani are considered an ethnic minority both in Nigeria and the Niger Republic, where their numbers have dropped considerably due to climate change and drought.

‘You could say this river is our life, so anything that deprives us from free use of water is a form of violence on our way of life.’

Environmental pressures have pushed pastoralist groups further south, across the border into Nigeria. Difficulties in accessing water for pastoralist communities in Niger is further exacerbated by discriminatory government policies that have prioritized the building of dams on various rivers across the region. One impact of water use for hydropower has been drastically reduced water levels in Lake Chad and its tributaries, including the Komadugu River. 

Ardo Haru Jauro explains: 

We are nomadic. We live with our cattle. After grazing we need to take our cattle to the water to drink. You could say this river is our life, so anything that deprives us from free use of water is a form of violence on our way of life. Did you know that migration of Fulani to the south means insecurity in Nigeria? But do you know what the cause of migration is? It is the scarcity of water. The cause of all the violence and other insecurity problems in Nigeria is water scarcity. 

Ardo Haru Jauro’s story is typical of many Fulani herders, whose way of life has been severely threatened due to the lack of water. Many members of this Ardo’s Fulani community in Niger have become displaced. Others have resorted to organized violence, including armed conflict techniques reminiscent of those adopted by Boko Haram and other extremist groups still active in the Lake Chad Basin. 

‘At the beginning,’ Ardo Haru Jauro reminisces:

This river was for us. Only the Fulani were using this water. We called our route burtali, and we used this route to move around between grazing areas to provide drink for our cattle. The Fulani way of life depends on being able to move around freely between the two countries, Nigeria and Niger Republic. At the time there were no names like that, or boundaries. All we cared about were our routes, which we inherited from our forefathers. 

Cultural rights for the Fulani do not involve claims over ancestral lands, yet routes and the ecological understanding of land as an ever-changing flux are nonetheless vital to their worldview and heritage. This perspective seriously questions many existing state models of customary land recognition, titling and land rights. The right to routes which are not necessarily fixed or which can shift due to environmental conditions, makes the Fulani claim to their ancestral burtali hard to recognize within existing legislation on both sides of the border. 

Ardo Haru Jauro further explains that, as some farmers have started enlarging their farms and have destroyed forests, so the encroachment on Fulani routes has continued to worsen, further exacerbating this conflict. Farmers have introduced irrigation systems which have restructured many riverbanks, especially around Diffa province in Niger. ‘Farmers took our grazing area around the river, converted it into farms and blocked our access to water,’ the Ardo explains. 

‘The rules regarding the time when the herders stop grazing is based on our rain seasons’, the Ardo maintains: 

The problem is that the timing for grazing in enclosed lands is now unclear because the rains are becoming more and more unpredictable, which is changing the time of harvesting and the time when grazing is allowed. Sometimes rains end earlier than expected. In this case there is no problem. Farmers finish their harvesting before herders move through. But in a period where the rain season is prolonged, sometimes herders move in, and clashes occur.

The Ardo adds:  

Another issue has to do with the planting of guna crops, which is a crop planted after harvesting the millet, and which farmers hope to harvest before herders move in. Sometimes, due to climate change, it takes longer for the guna to ripen than usual time, and because the plant does not grow tall it is hard to see from afar when you are passing through.

Fulani herders are eager to move into enclosed lands due to inadequate provision of reserved grazing areas for them. Ardo Hauro Jauro laments that the Fulani community has been vilified, and not only in Niger and Nigeria. The escalation of violence between herders and farmers is not, the Ardo insists, a problem caused by Fulani. Mass killings and protracted cycles of revenge have become commonplace in the region, yet the true position of Fulani herders remains obscured by public perceptions marred by negative stereotypes, discrimination and hate.

‘We are a minority,’ the Ardo explains: 

So our rights are not considered. People know about us only when we carry out a revenge attack, or when our cattle eat the grasses that they weren’t supposed to. We cannot stop our cattle from trespassing sometimes, because the farms have encroached on our ancestral routes.

The Ardo continues:

We have been denied access to water around the river, which is why we have had to respond in desperate ways. We are making three important demands. The first one is water. We are being forced to change the way we move around as the waters of the Lake Chad disappear, especially here on the Niger side. The competition for water for both farmers and herders sometimes causes violence and it is obvious that the majority will always get the upper hand.

The Ardo goes on:

Another demand we would like to make has to do with the man-made dams. We have heard that many dams have been built from the source of the river in Nigeria, which has turned the Komadugu here in Niger into a seasonal river. For instance, the Tiga Dam in Kano and Kafin Agur in Bauchi, those dams built especially in Kano state, they are taking the water from the river to supply cities in Nigeria. But what about us? 

The third demand has to do with the way in which the riverbank has been transformed. Irrigation systems were built here without considering our ancestral right to accessing the water for our cattle. Actually, this harms us. We can say that the violence starts when we are left without water. How are we meant to survive if the irrigation systems leave us without water for our cattle and our families? What would you do if someone took all your water? Would you not stand up and defend yourself?

The words of Ardo Haru Jauro express a sentiment that is widely felt among Fulani communities. Although Fulani communities have been portrayed as the cause of widespread violence across the Sahel, inter-ethnic conflict is the result of extreme conditions and the desperate competition for survival in a part of the world fast becoming uninhabitable due to climate change. Legislation and government policy are inadequate when it comes to addressing the farmer/herder conflict. Neither farmers nor herders in this region abide by central government rules, but instead follow traditional and religious leaders. The only way to begin a process of peace-brokering between herders and farmers is to involve the communities themselves, including their religious leaders, heads of clans and other chiefs.  

The Niger and Nigeria governments would have to reimagine water governance and policy by developing completely new frameworks based on the authority of local religious leaders, heads of towns, chief herders (Ardo) and civil society organizations, to begin a process of mediation and de-escalation of inter-ethnic violence. As to the question of climate change, and the devasting drought and desertification affecting Lake Chad, the solutions are even harder to imagine for communities surviving along the Komadugu River.

We are grateful to members of Al Fitra Academy for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Fulani men from northern Nigeria stand in the Awaradi refugee camp in eastern Niger. Awaradi Refugee Settlement, Diffa, Niger. Credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Kamilu Hassan Hamza

Ardo Haru Jauro