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Nigeria, Mbawa, MSF, IDP's, refugees, farmers, Middle Belt


The forgotten farmer-herdsmen conflict in the Middle Belt

Women pass through the streets of Mbawa camp at sunset. Nigeria, June 2020. © MSF/Scott Hamilton
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There is a substantial and neglected humanitarian crisis in Benue state, indicative of a wider crisis across the Middle Belt. This is a long-term crisis and requires sustained solutions, incorporating humanitarian agencies, local and federal government and the UN.

    Nigeria’s Middle Belt states, Adamawa, Benue, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa and Taraba, host the largest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country, outside of the north-east region.

    Most people have been uprooted by the so-called ‘farmer-herdsmen’ conflict. At least 160,000 displaced people are scattered across Benue state, according to 2019 estimates.

    Here, displaced communities, mostly farmers, are living either one of eight official camps, or in informal camps or settlements – such as markets or schools –or are reside with families in the ‘host community’ (i.e. with people who were already settled in the area).

    We get assurances about the future – we hear the crisis will end and we’ll be able to go home. But in reality, we don’t even think about going home; we know we need to make the best of it here... I hope that people will hear my voice.
    John Alenda, Old Market, Benue state

    The official estimates do not yet include many thousands more people who have been displaced in 2020. In addition, there are more than 58,400 Cameroonian refugees living in Nigeria – mostly in middle belt states; more than 8,000 in Benue.

    The farmer-herdsmen conflict

    Although multi-layered and complex, the farmer-herdsmen conflict is in large part driven by competition for resources, in particular food and water. Migratory herders are being pushed ever further south in search of land for their cattle to graze upon.

    Some of the underlying causes include environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change, such as desertification, reducing available fertile land.

    In addition, ongoing violence and insecurity in traditional grazing areas in the north is forcing many herders to flee. The land that herders settle on, however, is claimed by farmers.

    In 2018, a sudden violent escalation of previously seasonal clashes between herdsmen and farmers, forced an estimated 300,000 people from their homes and killed 1,300.

    MSF has been working in Benue since 2018, predominantly with displaced farming communities.

    There is much more to be done to understand what is happening in other middle belt states. In particular, to understand more about often overlooked herding communities and the impact that the violence – including from cattle guards and vigilante groups – has on their lives. 

    In Benue, we provide a range of primary healthcare services, including treatment for malaria and sexual and gender-based violence; health promotion, including for COVID-19; and shelter, and water and sanitation services, such as building and maintaining latrines and boreholes, and distributing soap.

    Across our project areas in Mbawa and Abagana (two of the official IDP camps), and in the Old Market informal setting, we have seen the number of displaced peoples nearly double in 2020, from 6,619 in January to 11,735 by July.

    The crisis has not gone anywhere, but global attention and the humanitarian response has. A small fund set up by the UN in 2018 ($4 million for Benue and Nasarawa states) ran out long ago. Most agencies had already left by 2019.

    COVID-19 further impacted on the few that remained, as many suspended activities because of travel and staffing constraints, or diverted limited resources to preparing for the pandemic.

    Some organisations have since returned, bringing an increase in food distributions and improvements in water and sanitation. This is a positive development, but it is not enough.

    The needs continue to outweigh the response. Reports from June 2020 that the Nigerian Ministry of Health budget may be slashed by 43 per cent is another cause for serious concern.

    No chance to plant or harvest

    Many once successful farms have been destroyed. Even where land is still usable, many people report being too scared to return to plant or harvest. “

    “I’ve been here a long time. We used to come and go – returning home to farm and then coming back here for safety – we’ve been doing that since 2015. But as of last year, it became much more dangerous to go home anymore,” says Orchi, Naka camp's resident.

    Today, many of those who used to produce crops in an area known as the ‘food basket’ of Nigeria can no longer afford to buy food for themselves. As food supplies diminish, prices increase.

    “Now when you go to the market for a bag of corn it costs 15,000 naira. It used to be just 5,000 naira. I used to be a corn farmer and now it’s difficult to even buy it !” says Edward Nyam, a former farmer in Mbawa camp.

    Testimony of Ousange, displaced in Mbawa camp

    Last April, the herdsmen attacked my home but God saved my life and brought me here. The herdsmen had almost surrounded the house, but we were able to sneak out the back. As we fled they killed my nephew – he was 12.

    Our home was Tse-Ovihin. It’s far from here. After leaving we trekked to Tse-Yeh, where a passer-by saw how exhausted we were. They brought us here with their car, we didn’t have any money to pay.

    Back at home, we had a big farm. As I am old, I would usually just pick grass when I went to the farm. But when I was young, I would plant, weed and harvest. We would plant before the rainy season – things like grains and yams and groundnuts, and in September we would harvest. June is always the hungry period, when we put everything into the ground. In September people are always excited – we know that we’ll have plenty of food again.

    Living here was strange at first, you share everything with strangers and you no longer have the comforts of home. Here you don’t just share with family, you share with everyone and nothing is ours. I am learning to adjust though, because I have no choice – this is reality.

    Food is the big challenge here – my son has to go and find work as a day labourer. If he manages to find work, life is a bit easier for us. But without that work it’s pretty hard. The food distributions here seem like a lot, but when they’re divided among all of us, it’s not much.

    I live here now with my brother-in-law and my three children. My husband died three years ago – he was sick.

    Since 2019, food distributions have been less regular and reduced further with COVID-19. There have been improvements recently, but distributions still tend to cater only to official camps.

    According to John Alenda, MSF health promotion supervisor, in Old Market, “We have two major challenges here, food and shelter. Before the pandemic, there were more food distributions. There are 5,000 people living here. As this isn’t an official displacement camp, it’s harder to get supplies.”

    People resort to desperate measures. “There isn’t any food here. When she was well, my mother would go to the market and scoop up the grains that fell to the ground, then she would use a sieve to separate the grains from the earth.” says Orchi, and he is not the only person to share this experience.

    Exposure to the elements, and to malaria

    I have no mat to sleep on, nor soap to wash with. Getting clean water is also a big challenge. I only have one mosquito net and I use it to protect my youngest child
    Agbobo Philomena, resident of Naka IDP camp

    In Benue, most displaced people arrive with few or no possessions, and little waiting for them.

    During an assessment of the Naka IDP camp, resident Agbobo Philomena told MSF, “After they killed my husband, I took my five children and came here... I arrived just as you see me now, with no possessions. The herdsmen burned my home and everything I had. I have no mat to sleep on, nor soap to wash with. Getting clean water is also a big challenge. I only have one mosquito net and I use it to protect my youngest child.”

    In the Mbawa IDP camp, our teams have seen two or three families sharing a single shelter. In Old Market, multiple families huddle together under trees or disused market stalls as they desperately attempt to shelter.

    “We sleep outside on the porch [of an old school building] here and we don’t even have mosquito nets... The women sleep indoors so that they have their own space. There are more people arriving here and some of them have nowhere to sleep at all...”, Orchi Godwin tells us.

    Overcrowding, poor waste management and problems with drainage mean many sources of water are dirty and unsafe. Diseases thrive in these conditions.

    Malaria is a particular concern, as mosquitoes breed in pools of stagnant water. Our teams have seen an exponential rise in patients with malaria in recent months, from 119 in May to 666 in June and 1,269 in July, the majority children under five years old.

    Their exposure to the elements also increases the risk of skin diseases and respiratory infections.

    Return is nowhere in sight

    Despite the challenges, none of the people we speak to think they can go home, at least not in the short-term. “When I think about going home, I remind myself that a live dog is better than a dead lion. There have been others who tried to return to their villages and were killed. We have no hope for now, but perhaps one day,” says Ugber Emmanuel.

    Testimony of Ugber Emmanuel, Mbawa’s camp secretary

    I’ve been here since January 2018, with my wife and three children. We come from a village called Kasayo in Guma.

    It was New Year’s Day when the herdsmen attacked; many of our relatives were killed and we narrowly escaped with our lives. It was around seven in the evening and people were still drinking and celebrating the new year when the shooting began. People died; women and children died.

    Even before the attack, the herdsmen would graze their cattle on our crops, but we didn’t know it would become violent.Nigéria, Mbawa, MSF, déplacés, refugiés, Middle Belt, Scott Hamilton,

    When we left, there was no displacement camp set up, so we found shelter in a nearby school as the children and teachers were on a break. When it re-opened, we came here and built tukuls – that was before MSF built the shelters we live in today. I was appointed Camp Secretary by the community here because I’ve been here since the beginning.

    When we first arrived, there was no shelter and many of us slept outside. But when it rained we had to go to the school to shelter. Finding food and firewood were our first challenges. Things got easier later in the year when MSF began distributing materials for shelter.

    Food is still a major challenge for us – there’s also no school for our children to go to. Some people go to the market and scoop up the grains that fell to the ground, then they sieve them to remove the dust and earth. Other people sell firewood, or work on other people’s farms for money or food.

    We know about the coronavirus, but social distancing is hard with limited space. Some rooms accommodate two families. There are still people arriving. Even last week there was another attack that forced people to leave home and come here.

    When I think about going home, I remind myself that a live dog is better than a dead lion. There have been others who tried to return to their villages and were killed. We have no hope for now, but perhaps one day.

    Emmanuel Ugber, Mbawa Camp secretary. Nigeria, June 2020.
    © MSF/Scott Hamilton

    Many people talk about the challenges in adapting to their new lives. “You no longer have the comforts of home. You don’t just share with family, you share with everyone and nothing is ours,” says Oussange.

    Often people tell us about their fears for the future, “Even if we went home without violence, we would have to start all over again. There is no food or shelter waiting for us at home. I hope that people will hear my voice and understand that we need help,” concludes Agbobo.

    This humanitarian crisis can no longer be ignored. As MSF, we intend to do more, to reach impacted communities on all sides of this crisis; to reach beyond Benue, further into the Middle Belt.

    We cannot do it alone. At a minimum, basic water, sanitation, shelter, healthcare and protection measures must be introduced. Achieving this requires engagement and commitment, both financial and physical, from Nigeria’s state and federal governments, humanitarian agencies and the UN.