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Shall The ‘Free Movement’ Concept In The ECOWAS Protocols Be Used As Shield For Herdsmen Criminality?



The Oasis Reporters

January 21, 2021

Fulani Herdsmen Attacks on Crop Farmers in Nigeria: An Interrogatory Discourse around ‘Free Movement’ and Cross-Border Nomadic Pastoralism.


Zacharys Anger Gundu
Department of Archaeology
Ahmadu Bello University,


Text of a Paper Presented at the Middle Belt Forum Conference held at the Benue State University, Makurdi. July 2018.


Fulani Herdsmen Attacks on Crop Farmers in Nigeria: An Interrogatory Discourse around ‘Free Movement’ and Cross-Border Nomadic Pastoralism.

Zacharys Anger Gundu
Department of Archaeology
Ahmadu Belo University,


In the past few years, crop farmers in all parts of the country have been at the receiving end of Fulani herdsmen who have continued to relentlessly attack, kill and displace crop farmers from their ancestral lands in the name of nomadic pastoralism. The paper interrogates the Fulani herdsmen narrative especially the ‘Free movement’ concept and the ECOWAS Free Movement and Transhumance Protocols to see the extent to which the concept and the protocol allow for and justify nomadic pastoralism and its disruptive and bloody expressions in the country and other parts of the sub region. We argue that the ‘free movement’ concept and the ECOWAS Protocols may have their merit in terms of trade and integration but cannot be used as shields for herdsmen criminality masquerading as nomadic pastoralism.

We must be clear on the limits of ‘free movement’ and the ECOWAS protocols in the Sahel. The Fulani commitment to vengeance and impunity in host communities and countries of the Sahel through organized terror rings is a security risk, which must be handled firmly and without equivocation.
Key words
Nomadic pastoralism, free movement, ECOWAS, free movement and transhumance protocols, crop farmers, vengeance and impunity.

‘The herdsmen, almost all of whom are Fulani cannot claim access to any land they choose in an age of personal property and well defined national and state borders. The question has to be asked of the utility of territorial laws if some groups can claim a right of way anywhere they find themselves to the detriment of others’- What will happen if others make the same claim? (SBM Report December 1, 2017)

Introduction: Nomadic pastoralism is largely responsible for rural instability in all parts of Nigeria today. Though dominated by the Fulani, there are several other groups including Shuwa Arabs, Kanembu/Kanuri, Saharans and others like Yedim who are also nomadic pastoralists.

While the Fulani seek to operate in all parts of the country, these others are limited in the Greater Lake Chad area even though Boko Haram has ravaged the area and lake Chad has significantly shrunk in size as a resource area.

The Fulani are also distinguished from these others through a tradition of aggression and impunity in protecting their livestock while sourcing for pasture and water (see Blench et al 2006).

In the past several years, Fulani herdsmen in line with their tradition of aggression and impunity have attacked crop farmers in virtually all parts of the country and in several places in the Middle Belt taken over lands belonging to crop farmers.

The Udawa, a cross border transhumance (CBT) Fulani group who are the vanguard of this impunity and bloodshed were the first Fulani pastoral group to carry arms in Nigeria, (see Blench et al 2006) ostentatiously for self-defense. They were also the first to retain armed militia for their protection in the country.

Unfortunately, in several instances, these militia elements turned and started rustling the very cattle they were retained to protect causing a state of lawlessness in some core states of Northern Nigeria. The Udawa were quickly expelled from some of these states like Gombe with the support of the Nigerian Military and ‘strategically guided’ towards core Middle Belt States perceived by the Fulani as ‘wastelands’.

As ‘wastelands’, communities in the Middle Belt were not only aggressively raided for slaves in the pre-colonial period; they were also targeted for other types of exploitation including ‘the spread of Islamic and other Hausa and Fulani cultural influences’ (see Kukah 1993 and Ochonu 2008). Outposts (Zangos) for Hausa Fulani traders were built and nurtured as ‘islands’ of Islamic influence in these ‘wastelands’.

Communities of the wasteland ‘lived with the traumatic experiences of war, slavery, compulsory conversions to Islam and the destruction of their cultures and habitats’ (Kukah 2018:3). It is these same ‘wastelands’ that are today coveted as ideal grazing lands to be taken by force to strengthen the Fulani monopoly of nomadic pastoralism.

In the many and dynamic narratives by the Fulani and their agents and spokesmen in government, the concept of ‘free movement’ and the ECOWAS free movement and transhumance protocol have featured prominently as justifying nomadic pastoralism and the convergence of the Fulani of the West African region on Nigeria. We argue that this justification is misplaced.

Before we clarify the ‘free movement’ concept and the ECOWAS protocol, it is important to look at the Fulani challenge in the West African sub region.

The Fulani Challenge in the West African Sub Region: The Fulani number about 20-25 million (see Mailafia 2018 and McGregor2017) and are scattered across many African countries including: Nigeria, Benin, Mauritania, Sudan, Benin, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mali, Ghana, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Cote d’ivoire , Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic.

They are also argued to be the largest single ethnic pastoralists in the world. (Mailafia 2018).

Climate change, population increase, reduction in forage, changes in grass species, reduction in quantity and quality of surface water, reduced complementarities between herdsmen and crop farmers and other factors are at the core of the incessant violent clashes between Fulani herdsmen and crop farmers in countries of the West African sub region. (see 2012 Report of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in Collaboration with ECOWAS).

Fulani herdsmen are also increasingly ‘entering regions they have never traveled through before’ with a mindset regarding ‘punitive violence’ against host communities as ‘just and appropriate’ (McGregor 2017: 34 and 35).

In some areas where crop farmers have been overwhelmed and pushed from their ancestral lands, herdsmen have effectively taken over such lands and tempered with place names, giving credence to fears of land grabbing as part of the bigger agenda driving the violence.

The failure of governments in many States of the sub region to regulate livestock production and the nomadic lifestyle of the Fulani has exacerbated the violence and emboldened the Fulani who have continued to carry out mass murder, gang rapes, destruction of property and livestock theft with impunity.

In countries like Ghana, violence associated with Fulani herdsmen has been flagged as ‘a national security issue’ (see GhanaWeb, 1st November, 2016).

In Mali, Fulani herdsmen have not only armed to protect their nomadic pastoral life style, they are enlisting in droves into Jihadi movements especially the Moment for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and the Front de liberation du Macina (FLM) also known as Kabita Macina led by Hamadoun Konfa (McGregor 2017).

FLM is reputed to have similar goals and operational techniques with al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb(see GTI 2017).

Though a few Fulani armed groups in Mali like The Mouvement pour la defence de la patrie (MDP) and The coordination des mouvement et fronts patriotriques de resistence (CMFPR) are not Jihadi inclined, Fulani herdsmen activities in Mali are tending towards Jihad with serious regional consequences.

Between 2010- 2016, Fulani herdsmen had carried out more than 466 terrorist attacks and killed 3,068 people in Nigeria and other African countries. Even though, ranking Nigerian Fulani leaders including the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Saad Abubakar lll, have continued to deny an ‘islamization agenda’ behind the incessant herdsmen attacks in the country(see Daily Post, October 11th, 2016) the Sultan’s admission that those involved in the violence are ‘foreign terrorists’ (see Vanguard September 12th, 2016) not only complicates his argument that the violence is economic but betrays more than a passing knowledge of the violence.

For if the issues here, were economic without more, why would ‘foreign terrorists’ be involved fighting deep into the country and at whose instance would they be fighting?

Nigerian security has also re echoed this ‘foreign angle’ by admitting the involvement of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) in the violence in North Central Nigeria and parts of Southern Nigeria.

Some of the people arrested are said to speak no Nigerian language except French. The foreign angle was also underscored by the Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El Rufai who in 2016 admitted making payments to Fulani fighters outside the country in a bid to stop them from incessant retaliations against communities in Southern Kaduna.

In his words ‘We took certain steps. We got a group of people that were going around trying to trace some of these people in Cameroon, Niger Republic and so on to tell them that there is a new Governor who is Fulani like them and has no problem paying compensation for lives lost and he is begging them to stop killing’. (see Vanguard December 3rd, 2016).

Governor Nasir El Rufai is also reported to have said ‘Fulani herdsmen from across Africa bring their cattle down towards the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria from Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Senegal’ (see Vanguard 3rd December, 2016).

Only recently President Muhamadu Buhari admitted that Libyan trained fighters were responsible for the violence being carried out in parts of the country (see…)

From the above, it is indisputable that there is a foreign element in the herdsmen violence in the country.

Though the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2017 did not list Fulani herdsmen amongst the top 4 terrorist groups in the world, the GTI of 2015 had listed the herdsmen together with Boko Haram, ISIL, Taliban and Al-Shabaab as the top most terrorist groups operating in the world in 2014. The West African sub region is therefore largely unstable and insecure and the concept of ‘free movement’ uncritically adhered to, in our opinion is at the core of the instability and insecurity.

The ‘Free Movement Concept’: The Nigerian Constitution Section 14(1) provides that ‘every citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely within Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof and no citizen of Nigeria shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry or exist therefrom’.

Fulani herdsmen and their umbrella associations have made reference to this section of the constitution in rejecting the anti-open grazing laws by states. The Nigerian Working Group on Peace Building and Governance led by Professor Ibrahim Gambari et al had also taken the position that since the constitution of the country guarantees ‘free movement’ of citizens, any law prohibiting open grazing by pastoralists is in breach of the constitution.

Their position articulated in a memo titled ‘Pastoralists –Farmers Conflict and the Search for Peaceful Resolution’ dated 8th January 2018 coming a few days after Fulani herdsmen killed more than 70 people including children, women and old men in their sleep in parts of Benue State was totally oblivious of the public safety issues that underlie the ‘free movement’ concept.

Within national borders, the concept is supposed to foster integration, trade and the flow of labour. The concept as a ‘right’ ’is enshrined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to the Covenant:

1)‘Everyone lawfully within the territory of a state shall, within that territory have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.

2) Every one shall be free to leave any country, including his own.

3) The above mentioned rights shall not be subject to any restrictions, except those which are provided by law, are necessary to protect national security, public order (ordre public), public health, or morals or the rights and freedoms of others, and are consistent with the other rights recognized in the present covenant.

The African charter on Human Rights and Peoples Rights on the other hand provides in Article 12 that the right of free movement ‘may only be subject to restrictions, provided for by law for the protection of national security, law and order, public health and morality’.

A combined reading of the Nigerian constitution and other international instruments in support of ‘free movement’ is ONLY in support of legitimate, lawful and peaceful business pursuits. Free movement cannot be used as cover for illicit, criminal and violent activities.

States as federating units also have rights and powers under the constitution and other international instruments to make laws that would regulate their economies in the overall interest of the citizenry. It is therefore good governance for states to ensure that all economic activities including livestock production using whatever template be conducted within the various jurisdictions peacefully and in accordance with the law.

Such activities must in no way compromise state security, public order, health, morals and the rights and freedoms of other citizens.

The Fulani monopoly of nomadic pastoralism is in direct breach of good governance as well as the rights and freedoms of others. Fulani herdsmen have continued to undermine national security through the use of military grade weapons, mass killings of citizens each of which have been slaughtered on their ancestral lands and in their sleep.

States of the Middle Belt including Southern Kaduna, Zamfara and Enugu states have been worst hit. Only a few days ago, citizens of Rizat, Ruku, Nyarr, Kura and Ganna Rop in Gashist District and other villages in Bassa, Bokkos and Mangu Local Government Areas of Plateau State were brutally attacked by Fulani herdsmen.

According to the Plateau State Governor, over 200 people including children, women and old men were slaughtered. Fulani herdsmen are a clear and present threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence. For this, alone, federating units must take responsible measures to set the boundaries of ‘free movement’ to ensure the protection of property rights by restraining Fulani herdsmen from indiscriminate open grazing and forceful pursuit of the nomadic pastoral livelihood at the expense of crop farmers and other citizens.

The ECOWAS Free Movement and Transhumance Protocols: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has two protocols with implication to livestock production. The 1979 Protocol on ‘free movement’ guarantees citizens of states within the community the right ‘to enter, reside and establish in the territory of member states’. The right is in three phases. The right of entry, residence and establishment. It is subject to the possession of valid travel documents and an international health certificate.

The protocol on free movement was not only conceived to promote trade and economic activities, it was also conceived to enhance integration.

The ECOWAS Transhumance Protocol was signed in 1998. Chapter lll (5) of the protocol makes allowance for all transhumance livestock to be allowed free passage across points of entry into and departure from each country of the community on the condition that they have the ECOWAS International Transhumance Certificate, the certificate has details on the composition of the herd, what vaccinations they have received, their itinerary, the border posts they will cross and their final destination.

The aim of issuing the certificate is to allow authorities monitor the herds before they are permitted to leave their country of origin. Additional aims are to protect the health of local herds and to inform host communities of the arrival of transhumance animals. Aside from the above the protocol also provides for:
The identity papers including permits for the herdsmen accompanying the animals each of which must be at least 18 years.
Documented evidence of the owners of the transhumance animals.
Destination states to determine areas of destination and their carrying capacities.
Resolution of disputes through an arbitration commission in the first instance and the law courts incase parties are not satisfied with the commission.

Though there maybe some merit in these two protocols, both are responsible for the pastoral related instability and increased Islamic radicalization in West Africa and the Sahel.

Studies (Opanike et al 2015) have linked the implementation of these protocols with trans border criminality, proliferation of small arms and light weapons all of which implicate Fulani herdsmen in host communities. As argued by Opanike et al (2015), rather than serve the purpose of integration and promotion of commerce, these protocols are actually contributing to insecurity in the West African sub region. Even though, these protocols in their conception do not negate property rights and the liberal theory that underscores the fact that a citizen’s liberty ends where the other starts, the Fulani culture of impunity and stealth has continuously emboldened them to take the law into their hands and refuse to acknowledge geo political boundaries as well as the property rights of others in their exercise of ‘free movement’ and cross border transhumance (CBT).

It must also be noted that even before the eruption of the pastoral crisis in West Africa, the ‘free movement’ protocol especially has had its unique challenges. The application of the protocol in the community coincided with a regional economic recession, which led to a very large inflow of other nationals into Nigeria, which at the point seemed to be doing better economically. (see Agyei and Clottey 2007).

Unfortunately, the Nigerian economic situation also deteriorated in the early eighties leading to the mass expulsion of non-national residents most of which were Ghanaians in 1983 and 1985. These were illegal migrants into Nigeria who had subverted the ECOWAS free movement protocols and were living in the country illegally.

Other ECOWAS countries have also had cause to expel community citizens. Cote d’ivoire in 1999, Senegal (1990), Liberia (1983) and Benin (1998). Though these expulsions are against the spirit of the ECOWAS free movement protocols, it is clear each was done in the national interest since the target was illegal and undocumented migrants living in host countries at the detriment of the local population.

Besides expulsions, 44 Ghanaians were killed in the Gambia in 2005 following attempts to enter the Gambia ‘illegally’. These together with 6 others had been arrested at the Senegalese border village of Amadalaye for illegal entry into the Gambia. These were subsequently transported to Barra from where they were transported again this time by the Navy to their Headquarters in Banjul from where they were taken and killed. (see The Gambia Echo, 10th September, 2006 and Gambian President ordered killing of Ghanaians –Revealed Top Govt Official. ).

In our considered opinion, the protocol is not supposed to undermine the national interest of countries within the community. This means that each country has the responsibility to ensure that the protocol is not implemented in a way that can be interpreted as injurious to the national interest.

This responsibility also means countries must be vigilant enough to know when non nationals are taking undue advantage by using the protocol as a shield to move into other countries for nefarious activities.

Fulani herdsmen and the danger they pose to the national interest as they engage in transhumance and stand on the ECOWAS free movement protocol is real because of several reasons.

First is the argument that there is a striving illicit trade in arms, ammunitions and drugs using livestock ‘moving in flocks.’

This point has been made by Lt Col. Sagir Musa,(see Vanguard of 11th March, 2013) who argues that small arms and light weapons many of which are collapsible are easy to carry using skin and thatch bags on the back of animals. According to him, this has been one of the preferred ways of bringing weapons into Nigeria from other countries and carrying them within without detection.

The second complication is the retaliatory and vengeful culture of the Fulani that has continued to put them on bloody collusion courses with host communities.

The Fulani by the admission of some of their leaders like Governor El Nasir of Kaduna State do not forgive and forget injuries. They do not respect the law and will wait even for a hundred years to avenge a perceived infraction against them. They retain an international militia, which has chapters in the different countries where the Fulani have a significant presence.

Going by the name Tabital Pulaaku, this armed group is at the beck and call of Fulani cattle owners. These owners are the only ones with responsibility to order cross border reprisals, finance them and coordinate action against targets many times, hundreds of kilometers away from the target communities.

Besides Tabital Pulaaku, the Fulani have used local and foreign mercenaries. President Muhamadu Buhari has not only confirmed the use of these mercenaries but also identified them as Libyan trained. (see Ochonu 2018).

Local criminal elements have also confirmed fighting on behalf of the Fulani as mercenaries.

The third complication is the fact that ‘free movement’ and the transhumance livelihood in West Africa are poorly documented. Though Nigeria receives the bulk of transhumance animal traffic in West Africa, the country has no way of knowing the number of herds coming in from other countries and their destination areas. The carrying capacities of these destination areas are also not known. Herdsmen accompanying the animals across borders and the real owners of the animals are also not known and remain undocumented.

All these, make it difficult to tackle the instability and security risks that are associated with Fulani pastoralism.

The situation is further exacerbated by two other factors. Nigeria is literally a failed state with large swaths of ungoverned spaces in the rural areas. Security agencies for several reasons are known to respond very slowly to attacks on rural communities even when those attacks take place over several hours.

Nigeria also has very porous borders through which ‘free movement’ and transhumance takes place.

According to the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) Nigeria has 84 approved land border control posts as against over 1,400 illegal border crossings into the country. (see

In the absence of a credible national identity system in the country, which would make it easier to check illegal immigrants and identify foreign mercenaries especially those from outside the country, the illegal border routes have literally overwhelmed the system and by flooding the country with herdsmen.

Conclusion: The right of free movement enshrined in the Nigerian constitution and the free movement and transhumance protocols are not supposed to vitiate the principle of private property and the liberal state.

Though the Fulani are not the only nomadic pastoralists in the country, they have elected to impose this unsustainable way of life on the country through their insistence to graze violently across states of the country.

The violent and bloody claims the Fulani are making on all states of the country to sustain their livelihood of nomadic pastoralism cannot stand. It is an invitation to chaos and cannot be accepted especially when we contemplate what will happen when each group begins to make similar claims on the country.

Free movement as enshrined in the constitution does not vitiate regulation especially of economic activities that require movement over long distances and across multiple territorial jurisdictions. No one should trespass on private property, kill, maim, rape and displace another in the name of ‘free movement’.

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Opanike A, Aduloju AA and Adenipekun(2015) Covenant University Journal of Politics and International Affairs (CUJPIA) Vol 3(1) pp 41-47.

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