In July 2020, Jeune Afrique published a widely read article on the links between pastoralists and violent extremist organizations (VEOs) in the Sahel.[1] The article paints a bleak picture of the position of pastoralists, caught between the rock of VEO rhetoric, propaganda and recruitment attempts and the hard place of farmer community-defence forces who target (Fulani) pastoralists as they suspect links with VEOs. Why did Sahellian pastoralists end up in this precarious situation?

VEO rhetoric seeks to capitalize on longstanding tensions between pastoralists and farmers. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in Mali for example, exploited grievances over cattle thefts in order to intensify conflicts between Tuareg and Fulani nomads. Katiba Macina draws on narratives of the historical Macina Empire and alludes to the reinstalment of the Macina Empire, dominated by Fulani Pastoralists. While it is clear that VEOs are not exclusively driven by pastoralists’ concerns and recruits, VEO rhetoric does seem to tap into a reality that is widely felt within pastoralist communities and therefore resonates with some. Why does it resonate?

This report takes an empathetic approach to pastoralists as it explores what drives pastoralists and probes into structural problems. It argues that deep-seated socio-political and economic relations have changed at the micro and macro levels and uncovers the underlying structural causes and driving forces that stand at the heart of various conflicts in the Sahel. This empathic approach is not meant to justify violent activity nor is it meant to increase sympathy for pastoralists over the real concern of farmers in the Sahel. But it is driven by the conviction that understanding the real drivers of a resonating discourse of Sahelian VEOs among pastoralists is the pre-requisite for an effective and durable solution to the conflict.

Specifically, this report explores the underlying drivers in the Sahel, Boucle du Mouhon and East regions in Burkina Faso (where pastoralism constitutes 40 percent of the workforce). Research was conducted in 21 villages where farmers and pastoralists share resources. The research found a rapidly (changing) political economy of pastoralist production modes as it explored pastoralist value-chains and the place of pastoralists in land regulation. While both pastoralists and other resource users were integral to the research, most research activity was aimed at pastoralist communities in an attempt to have the voice of this marginalized community represented in the debate.

This report thus provides an understanding of the causes and drivers fuelling grievances that have sidelined pastoralists. To this end, it unpacks the relationship between pastoralism, conflict, and stability in Burkina Faso. The study finds that pastoralists face structural trends working against them.

First, a legal landscape combined with the discrepancy between national law and the local implementation of pastoral rights and a lack of enforcement of pastoralists’ access rights are a major driver for pastoral concerns. This distribution of land use has had major implications for social relations governing the use of natural resources, but has also changed the local political economy of pastoral production. The net effect is that pastoralists have been losing out on the current arrangements. What this means is that “resource scarcity” is not the root cause of pastoral concerns. Rather it is that social and economic processes, and a wider political marginalisation of mobile groups, are unequally impacting pastoralists in competition over natural resources. It means that power dynamics at the local and national level shape unequal access to resources and, in turn, creates more instability and exacerbates conflicts.[2]

Second and closely tied to the first observation is that existing systems for local dispute resolution are increasingly breaking down. This is a real cause for concern as these mechanisms have historically proven to be effective in managing conflict and were a key mode for national and international policymakers to intervene. The problems are that these mechanisms, both customary and statutory, suffer from corruption, impunity and politicization. The effect of this mounting pile of grievances over this dispute-settling mechanism is causing even higher levels of distrust among state and local actors and affects the legitimacy of (customary) governance structures. This is exacerbated as customary and statutory systems are competing which has created legal confusion, creating instances whereby both parties turn to other – often more violent – means to control or negotiate access to resources. Where violence has wiped out central state structures, resource conflict is presently mediated through vigilante violence. It is this very immediate reality that provides a fertile ground for VEO recruitment among pastoralists as long-standing intercommunal conflicts are more and more stripped of any means to regulate them.

Third, the commercialisation of the herding sector is another major reason for a deep feeling of marginalization. Generally, it seems that commercialization, which is in part a product of development policy, is not benefitting pastoralists. Pastoral market integration is hampered by many constraints and other (often urban) actors such as middlemen are the ones that profit from changes in the production market. The immediate security situations in the Burkina aggravates livestock trade and again disproportionally affects pastoralists’ livelihoods. As they are affected by longstanding economic changes and increasing conflict and instability in the regional market, many pastoralists are currently forced to sell their animals at a loss or they lose their herds when they flee the violence or are attacked by armed groups.

Fourth, the economic, environmental, and socio-political reasons in combination with the spread of violence and insecurity throughout the country are finally undercutting the resilience mechanisms that pastoralists have traditionally used to deal with setbacks, particularly mobility. Agricultural expansion and the spread of insecurity have fragmented pastoral corridors and grazing areas. Pastoral mobility or transhumance is a key asset of sustainable livelihoods for pastoralists and an essential resilience and adaptation mechanism. This mobility, already challenged by issues related to demographic growth, farmland encroachment and policies governing natural resources that do not protect pastoralist access to necessary resources such as pasture and water points, is further threatened by the rise of violence and conflict spreading through the region. Security has become the main decision-making factor for pastoralists engaging in the practice of transhumance, and for many this has meant the current abandonment of the practice. While transhumance trajectories in the past have sometimes been adjusted because of farmland encroachments and closed corridors to deviate from potential conflicts, the current security situation has now paralysed important trade flows.

From this the following recommendations transpire: A) Pastoralist communities need to be better included in the political decision-making processes as they are presently underrepresented both at national and local level. Addressing the root causes of violence is meant to adjust this unequal playing field of land and resources; B) Pastoralists’ livelihoods have to be supported by diversification, intensification and training. The policy challenge is to develop new thinking as to how pastoral livelihoods can be sustained and combined with the new economic realities. This can take the form of new roles in the value chain, improving the place of pastoralists in the market, protecting mobility and pastoral intensification and these are the key policies that need to be put in place; C) An integrated approach to agricultural development needs to be taken. Rather than supporting either farmers or pastoralists, projects focusing on development and resilience should seek to focus on the idea of multiple resource users within targeted landscapes; D) Explicit support should be given to pastoral conflict mediation agents to prevent the escalation of localized grievances and conflicts. Clear links exist in the Rural Land Tenure Charters of the 2009 law. Revamping and supporting them is needed to mobilize support for community leaders, pastoralist mediation agents, traditional and religious authorities to help identify local solutions.

Jeune Afrique. ‘Peuls et jihadisme au Sahel : le grand malentendu’, 7 July 2020.
De Haan et al. 2016. Pastoralism Development in the Sahel A Road to Stability?, Washington: World Bank Group.