Conflict in Plateau State

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In the most recent ethnic violence in Nigeria's Plateau State, the victims were "members of Plateau’s leading ethnic group, the Berom, in the villages of Ratt and Dogona Hauwa" (Adam Nossiter, "Clashes kill dozens in central Nigeria", NYT 3/7/2010, update with fuller casualty count here), and the perpetrators were "Fulani herdsmen".

Some excellent background on this conflict can be found in a report by Roger Blench, "Access Rights and Conflict over Common Pool Resources on the Jos Plateau, Nigeria", Report to the World Bank on Jigawa Enhancement of Wetlands Livelihoods Project, 9/13/2003:

Plateau State is distinctive for its high level of ethnolinguistic diversity, and it is populated by a great variety of small groups living in hamlets, with a complex clan organisation and ritual kingship systems. This has ensured that no one language or people is dominant, although the largest ethnic groups are probably the Berom, Ngas and Tarok. Gunn (1953) gives a useful overview of the main ethnic groups of the Plateau region.

Fulɓe movement into the lowland regions is less well chronicled, but it is generally more recent than the movement onto the Plateau. A low human population, low levels of tsetse and mosquitoes and unlimited grassland drew Fulɓe pastoralists from all over the semi-arid regions. Fulɓe established themselves in all parts of the Plateau and originally lived alongside cultivators with minimal friction. To judge by interviews, Fulɓe settlement began in the late nineteenth century but was given a great boost by the end of warfare consequent on colonialism (Morrison 1976).   [links added]

This suggests a cowboy-vs.-farmer range war, of the kind that forms the background for Shane, Oklahoma! and many other works. And indeed Dulue Mbachu, "Death Toll in Nigeria Sectarian Attack Near 500", Business Week 3/8/2010, writes that

Fulani herders say scores of their kinsmen were killed and they lost 216,000 head of cattle in the fighting in January, according to [Shehu] Sani [of the Civil Rights Congress in Jos].

The Blench and Dendo report clarifies some of the pressures behind this conflict, while making it clear that the general ethnic-religious situation in Plateau State is quite complicated:

[T]he last thirty years has seen a significant change in the farming systems, with important
implications for the economy of the Plateau, as well as for the interaction between pastoralists and farmers. Dry-season, or lambu, farming was probably brought to the peri-urban regions of Jos in the mid-1960s by migrants from Hausaland. They initially cultivated vegetables, typically peppers and potherbs, using the shaduf lift. At this period, the mine-ponds and river valleys were virtually unused and there was no competition for the land. Shortly afterwards, the dry-season cultivation of sugar-cane and potatoes was introduced, perhaps through agricultural extension. At any rate, in many areas this was remembered as the first impetus towards dry-season gardens. However, the cultivation of vegetables soon became more profitable, as the expatriate population expanded in the 1970s and regional products began to be shipped long distances within Nigeria. Migrant Hausa appeared in greater numbers, but, perhaps surprisingly, many of the settled
Fulɓe began to buy or rent land and began gardening. Uptake by the indigenous farming populations was much slower, but by the 1970s it had begun in villages close to Jos. Since then it has been gradually spreading throughout the Plateau, with remoter communities only adopting it in the late 1990s. A major change in the production system occurred in the early 1980s when small pumps for lifting water became available. These were distributed by the ADPs in Bauchi but seem to have been available on the open market in Jos. Even those who could not afford pumps hired them from entrepreneurs thereby expanding then potential size of plots and making possible large-scale commercial market-gardening.


The Fulɓe have historically depended on riverine grazing for part of the year and indeed they regarded this as land over which they had some rights. But as more and more land has been turned to gardens, this not only has the effect of blocking access to water for their stock, but reduces the basis for interchange between farmer and herder. Vegetable residues are typically fed to goats and pigs and farmers are not willing to allow Fulɓe to enter the plots; indeed they try very hard to exclude the cattle. Effectively, in many areas, Fulɓe have accepted that all they can hope to retain are access tracks, and even these are in danger of being encroached. For this reason, herders now only leave the bulk of their herd on the Plateau for a relatively short time every year. [..]

There has thus been a major shift in migratory patterns among pastoralists. They originally established bases on the Jos Plateau because its high-value grasses and presumed their large herds could pass the majority of each wet season there. They began to farm and indeed took on many of the values of their agricultural neighbours. However, as the density of farmed land increased it became necessary for the cattle to spend longer in the dry season grazing areas off the Plateau and only return during a specific window when the rain has fallen but the crops were not yet above ground. As it became more and more difficult to remain on the Plateau as the wet season advanced, most pastoralists began sending their herds to Bauchi, more particularly the open and still sparsely populated areas off the eastern edge of the Plateau. This also required more labour since the herds had to be managed while in movement for most of the year and thus the pastoralists had to hire increasing numbers of herdboys from other tribes. The situation is now that most herds make a brief visit at the beginning and end of the wet season but essentially live elsewhere for most of the year.

Another source of background information is Roger Blench, "The Expansion and Adaptation of Fulɓe Pastoralism to Subhumid and Humid Conditions in Nigeria", Cahiers d'Éudes Africaines 34(133/135, 1994.

You might think from all of this that Roger Blench is a political scientist or sociologist, but in fact his Wikipedia page describes him as "a British linguist, ethnomusicologist and development anthropologist", and a scan of Google Scholar, or the materials available on his web site, suggests that he probably has done as much work as a linguist than in any other area. (Though he's done enough for several people in each of several areas.)

I first ran across his work about fifteen years ago, when we studied Eggon in a field methods course that I taught. With respect to the linguistic background of the situation in Plateau State, I'd like to draw your attention to two of his works: "Recent research on the Plateau languages of Central Nigeria", 2004; and "Nominal morphology chaos in Plateau languages: trees versus networks", 2006.

The latter paper is presented as a provisional draft, but since Blench has made it available on his web site, I'm going to go ahead and quote a particularly interesting passage:

The proposal to be launched in this paper takes a radical approach to Plateau internal classification: that none of [the traditional] groups exist and that they are simply artefacts of fragmentary language data and an inappropriate approach to classification. This idea develops from some key observations;

a) loans of even fundamental vocabulary are extremely common between adjacent languages
b) there is no reliable method for recognising such loans
c) loans usually include morphological elements, notably in nominal and verbal plurals
d) a consequence of this is extreme complexity and diversity in morphology even within one language
e) this leads to waves of simplification or regularisation of morphology often only partially completed
f) roots often incorporate fossil morphology
g) speakers disagree about the ‘correct’ plural pairing of verbs or nouns
h) some strategies for regularising morphology spread across regions, rather than being adopted simply within individual languages
i) sound-correspondences always exhibit numerous ‘aberrant’ cases

The paper draws principally on unpublished sources to suggest that Plateau would be better analysed as a ‘network’, as a set of languages linked by innovations, but for which a single common innovation cannot be established because of the historical pattern of interaction of these languages. This study focuses on nominal morphology simply because the data is considerably richer than for other areas of the lexicon. Concord systems show comparable diversity, but less adequate data suggested that they are best excluded from the discussion at present. However, the same demonstration could be made for other elements of morphology, notably verbal extensions. The paper also suggests some sociological correlates of the linguistic situation.

[Note that the herders' language is a variety of Fula, spoken widely across the region of Africa just south of the Sahara, and not one of the the Plateau languages that Blench is writing about here.]


  1. John Cowan said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    A political scientist or sociologist probably wouldn't bother to write Fulɓe with a ɓ. That said, far be it from me to make a low pun on Dog-ona, Ratt.

  2. Steve Janeway said,

    March 9, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    For more insight into the situation in Jos, refer to Phil Ostien's paper "Jonah Jang and the Jasawa: Ethno-Religious Conflict in Jos, Nigeria" at

    [(myl) This interesting paper seems to treat the troubled relations between the indigenes (e.g. the Berom) and Hausa settlers, rather than the relations with the Fulani herders who were involved in the most recent violence. Ostien writes:

    The conflict situation in Jos arises primarily out of ethnic difference, pitting Hausa3 "settlers" vs. the Plateau "indigene" tribes of Afizere, Anaguta and Berom.

    3 Or as they themselves sometimes prefer to say, "Hausa/Fulani", but in fact the dominant culture is Hausa and many groups besides the (town) Fulanis have been more or less absorbed into it, often preserving traces of their older ethnic identities well-known among themselves. The cattle Fulani are separate. They too sometimes get into fights with other people, not because they are "settlers" but on the contrary because they are nomadic cattle-herders intruding on other people‘s farmlands.

    But it's precisely "cattle Fulani" who are accused in the most recent massacre.]

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