YOLA, Nigeria — In late December 2022, Alagie Umaru Mamadu, along with his five wives and over a dozen children, once again found themselves packing their belongings onto a bus and abandoning their homes. While the men loaded metal trunks full of clothes, the women double-checked that all their cookware was present before wrapping it in a large bedsheet. Only a year after arriving in Taraba state in central Nigeria fleeing violence at home in the northwest, Mamadu and his family were once again being forced out of their homes by bandits and vigilantes.

“We waited too long before leaving the northwest, and the bandits attacked us twice,” the 49-year-old wiry ethnic Fulbe herder told me. “Once we saw other [northwestern] Fulbe fleeing the same fighting in Taraba, we decided not to wait too long again.”

Mamadu and his family are among the thousands of Fulbe herders from the northwest who have fled rising banditry at home and settled in central Nigeria. However, as crime has also risen in many of the places they settled, they are now being forced to leave by locals who blame an increase in kidnappings and cattle rustling on them. Banditry in Nigeria is almost always portrayed as conducted by Fulbe pastoralists against settled farmers. However, Mamadu’s story shows that northwestern pastoralists also suffer from banditry, not only as direct victims but also by being perceived as guilty by association.

*          *          *

Mamadu was born in 1974, the third of eight children in the small village of Binoni in the northwest of Nigeria on the border between Kebbi and Zamfara states. Binoni is bisected by a small river. The south bank was settled by a Fulbe community that kept livestock and farmed, while the north bank was populated by ethnic Hausa who stuck to agriculture. The Fulbe side’s 100 residents all belonged to the Sulubanko’en clan, who only speak the regional lingua-franca Hausa language instead of the Fulbe language, Fulfulde.

As an infant, Mamadu accompanied his mother and other women washing clothes and collecting water from the river. When he was a little older, he left the women and spent his days exploring every nook and cranny of the grasslands and sparse forest that surrounds Binoni. Sometimes in the afternoon, he would accompany his elder brothers ensuring the families’ cattle returned to their evening pasture next to the seasonal pond at the edge of the village.

Life in Binoni followed the flow of the seasons. During the rainy season, the men grew millet, sorghum and maize in nearby fields. After the harvest in November and December, a few young men from each family would commence the transhumance, an annual migration of their cattle herd south where plentiful grasslands and forest enabled their livestock to survive the dry season.

Mamadu was around 16 years old the first time he joined his father and older brothers on the transhumance. They spent their days following the burti, broad cattle corridors designated over time between neighboring communities, and stopping in government-implemented grazing reserves where pasture and water were abundant. Nights were usually spent camped in the forest or on the outskirts of a town or village where his father knew someone. The first few days of each transhumance were the most difficult but Mamadu found that his callouses formed quickly and his body fell into a natural rhythm.

After around 30 days of walking, they arrived at the banks of the mighty Niger River on the border of Kwara state. They crossed and returned to the same large Nupe-speaking village on the outskirts of Pategi town. Once they greeted the chief, who showed them where they could begin grazing their livestock, they resurrected their makeshift dwellings from the previous year and settled in for four months.

“We returned to the same place every year because we had good relations with the people there,” Mamadu said, explaining how they traded their milk for cereal and helped look after their hosts’ livestock. While he missed the comforts of home—no one could make corn couscous as fluffy as his mother—he enjoyed the feeling of independence and respect that came with learning how to live in the bush.

In the late 1990s, Mamadu married his first wife, moved out of his father’s compound and had his first child. His father, now an old man, had long stopped coming on the transhumance, leaving Mamadu and his brothers in charge of escorting the cattle south. It was a period of good rainy seasons and farmers in Binoni had no problem growing enough cereal to last the year. Still, despite the favorable climactic conditions, Mamadu and other semi-nomadic herders found their annual transhumance was steadily becoming more difficult.

Alagie Umaru Mamadu (on the right) and two of his brothers, in the shade on the outskirts of Yola in Adamawa State

As populations grew and land became scarcer, farmers, real estate developers and industrialists began cultivating and building in the grazing reserves. A similar encroachment was also taking place in the cattle corridors. Elected governments, which are far more responsive to the needs of those who vote and contributed to political campaigns, did next to nothing for the herders who largely avoided politics.

Feeling the pinch, Usman, one of Mamadu’s younger brothers, decided to move south to Taraba state. That was not unusual as pastoralist communities often adapt to changing circumstances by seeking out greener pastures elsewhere. Despite the challenges of remaining, Mamadu and his family saw no reason to leave however difficult their lives were in Kebbi state. “My father was born in Binoni, my grandfather was born in Binoni… Binoni is my home, that is where I am indigenous,” he said.

*          *          *

While Mamadu and his brothers were struggling to adapt to increasing pressures on the land, similar tensions in neighboring Zamfara state were boiling over into violence. What began as small-scale raiding on farming communities by aggrieved pastoralists around 2011 developed into a proliferation of bandit warlords. The groups remained fragmented as they engaged in widespread cattle rustling, kidnapping and armed robbery. Although the bulk of the outlaws hail from a few specific pastoralist clans, they indiscriminately targeted both farmers and fellow herders. In response, farming communities, generally from the Hausa ethnic group, formed vigilante groups known as Yan Sakai. While some took on the bandits, other blamed the Fulbe for the banditry and attacked them, which had the effect of pushing more pastoralists into the bandits’ ranks.[1]

By the time Mamadu’s sons were old enough to accompany him on the transhumance, the banditry next door in Zamfara state was already changing the pastoralist’s annual migration. Herders began taking all their cattle south in case their village was attacked while they were gone. Instead of camping in the bush, they spent nights by police stations for safety. Host communities also grew suspicious as Fulbe from the northwest became synonymous with the instability.

Despite the risk, after a few years of bringing his sons on the annual migration, Mamadu felt they were capable enough to do it on their own and he began staying back in Binoni year-round. “It is tiring, walking all that way,” the normally reserved man said, breaking into a chuckle. “That is young person’s work, and I am no longer a young person.”

One of Mamadu’s calves

Around 2020, the insecurity in Zamfara began to seep into Kebbi state. In response to incursions across the border and a rise in kidnapping, communities formed vigilante groups called Yan Sakai. In some places, the vigilantes perpetrated indiscriminate violence against Fulbe communities, which escalated the conflict. While the Fulbe in Binoni were not harassed by the neighboring vigilante groups, Mamadu decided to explore whether moving to Taraba state, where his younger brother Usman had relocated a decade earlier, was an option. He called Usman, who reported that his chief in Taraba had given them permission to settle. However, that was still considered a backup plan, and Mamadu did not follow up.

One morning in mid-2021, while his sons were still in Kwara with the bulk of their herd, Mamadu heard the sound of around a dozen motorcycles approaching the Binoni from the north. On the Hausa side, men from the vigilante group fetched their locally made rifles and began firing at the attackers. However, their artisanal rifles were no match for the bandits’ automatic weaponry, and the Hausa’s resistance only angered the assailants, leading to further pillaging.

Meanwhile, on the opposite edge of the village on the Fulbe side, Mamadu managed to escape with his cattle before the bandits arrived. He later heard that one man, an uncle through his mother’s side, stood between the attackers and his cattle. Without a word, one of the bandits raised his automatic weapon and fired a dozen rounds into his body. Everyone else got the message. The assailants rounded up all the cattle in sight and drove them out of the village. In the space of a few hours, a good portion of the village’s assets disappeared.

A few days after the attack, security forces visited Binoni. Mamadu remembers them asking questions, taking notes and leaving after an hour. But following their visit, Mamadu saw no increase in army or police patrols in the area as he had expected.

Around six weeks after the first attack, Mamadu was in a neighboring village reciting the Quran when he heard the firing of guns as men on motorcycles again approached Binoni. This time, the bandits began their attack by encircling the Fulbe side of the village to ensure no one escaped with their livestock. Mamadu’s sons, who had since returned from the transhumance, tried to sneak some of the cattle out of the village but were caught and immediately turned over their livestock. “The bandits were there to steal the cattle,” Mamadu said. “If my sons had resisted, they would have killed them. That is the only reason they are alive today.”

Mamadu and his brother inspect the mosque they are building

The second attack was the last straw. Not wanting to give the attackers a third opportunity to strike, Mamadu and his family decided to leave. He called his younger brother Usman, who confirmed that the invitation in Taraba still stood. Over the next few weeks, they sold their furniture, motorcycles, farming implements and even a few cattle. The voyage to Taraba state would be expensive and once they arrived they would have to pay a fee of 700,000 naira ($1,000) to settle there.

It took a month to gather enough money. Once all the clothes and cooking supplies were packed, Mamadu’s elder brother drove his motorcycle to the small town of Wasagu and negotiated with a bus driver to take the entire family to their new home over 700 miles away. They returned to Binoni, packed the bus and rolled out around mid-day, not knowing if they would ever return.

*          *          *

Two days later, the bus trundled across the border into Taraba state, through its dusty capital Jalingo, and 20 miles down a dirt path to the small town of Dakka. It sits in a small valley on the edge of the Mambilla plateau, flanked by low forested hills to the north and south. The bus was met by the village chief of Binoni, who had also moved to Taraba a few months earlier. After bringing them food and water, he led them to a Fulbe encampment on the edge of town where Dakka’s leader had permitted them to settle.

For centuries, different clans of Fulbe herders have spent the dry season grazing their animals on pasture in Taraba state. During the expansion of the Sokoto theocracy in the early 19th century, some herders settled permanently, creating a large indigenous Fulbe community. In recent decades, many more Fulbe have arrived in Taraba trying to escape land pressures in other parts of the country, or, like Mamadu and his family, fleeing insecurity in the northwest. By the time Mamadu arrived, there were already around 100 other Fulbe from the northwest camped outside the town.

Two months after Mamadu and his family erected small huts, his sons finally arrived, having walked all the way with what remained of their livestock. While he had communicated with them via cell phone and knew that they had lost some to the difficult conditions, he was still disappointed when he saw their herd had dwindled to around 20 cattle. Following the first rainy season, his sons again departed with their livestock, this time to neighboring Adamawa state.

“Allowal” in Fulfulde, the wooden boards used by children studying the Quran, sit at the base of a tree by the partially constructed mosque

Mamadu did not know it, but his arrival in Taraba coincided with a sharp rise in crime—particularly kidnapping, armed robbery and cattle rustling. The criminals, who many suspect were the same bandits who were terrorizing the northwest, initially targeted Fulbe from the northwest, but before long they also began kidnapping and cattle rustling among Taraba Fulbe and other indigenous ethnic groups. These crimes were blamed on recent arrivals from the northwest. Indeed, a Sulubanko’en leader who had lived in Taraba for decades named Ardo Kiri said it is widely known that bandits from the northwest had followed the herders south.

After having lived outside Dakka for around a year, Mamadu was called to see the chief one day. Thinking the meeting would discuss where to graze his animals, he was surprised when the chief informed him that he had received an order from the police station that all Fulbe from the northwest should be forced to leave Taraba immediately. As the news spread, some families packed up and immediately left. However, having already seeded their fields, Mamadu and his brothers decided to wait until after the harvest.

Around a week later, a group of fellow Sulubanko’en passed through Dakka. They told Mamadu that they had been attacked by a group of local Fulbe vigilantes, as opposed to bandits from the northwest. During the attack, they said, their cattle were stolen and huts burned to the ground. A few days later, they heard of a similar event from another group. In both cases, the vigilantes—themselves Taraba Fulbe—were targeting specific clans from the northwest.

Indeed, public figures in Taraba state had been calling for the expulsion of northwest herders in response to the rising crime for over a year. In late 2022 reports of vigilantes targeting those specific clans emerged in different parts of the state. In January 2023, a collection of pastoralist associations held a news conference in which they alleged that the vigilantes had killed 314 pastoralists between October and January with state support.

A security source in Taraba state confirmed that vigilante groups of local Fulbe were indeed targeting herders from the northwest, but said there was no evidence of state support. Among Fulbe, there is not a lot of sympathy for herders from the northwest, given some of their involvement in crime. However, as Ardo Kiri told me, “that does not give people the right to kill or attack all the herders from the northwest.”

Those who can afford it live in thatch huts made of mud brick

Remembering what happened in Binoni, Mamadu and his family decided not wait to learn where the orders were coming from or who was supporting the vigilantes. In December, he again called relatives to ask for help finding safe haven. An older brother in neighboring Adamawa state suggested his family settle next to him outside the state capital, Yola. Once again, Mamadu and his family sold the few belongings they had accumulated and organized for a bus to carry them to their next place of refuge.   

*          *          *

I met Mamadu and his family about three months after they had arrived in Yola. They initially stayed with their brother in a small settlement outside town until the local chief let it be known he was not keen on their presence. Luckily, someone who knew about their plight contacted Dr. Girei, a Fulfulde linguist who is involved in Fulbe causes. He offered one of his fields for them to settle. Today, around 10 families live there.

 “Since we arrived, we haven’t heard any gunfire nor seen people fleeing for their lives,” Mamadu commented, comparing Adamawa favorably to Taraba. In the distance, their calves frolicked in the shade of a large tree while young girls tended a cooking fire.

Girei’s promise to let them stay for a while gave them confidence to build the small huts that dot the landscape today. The next big challenge will be finding a place to farm before the rainy season starts in May. “This place is peaceful,” Mamadu said when I asked about what the future holds. “If the owner of the land allows us, we will stay here for a long time. But if the owner wants the land back, or if we find ourselves under attack, we will do as we have always and find another place to move.”


[1] For background on banditry in the northwest, see Conflict Analysis and Assessment of Potential Support to Transitional Justice in Northwest Nigeria, European Resources for Mediation Support (ERMES) III and Facility on Justice in Conflict and Transition, January 2022, by Adam Higazi and Idayat Hassan.