In July 2020, Jeune Afrique published a widely read article on the links between pastoralists and Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) in the Sahel.[3] 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 pastoralists – amongst which are many Fulani – as they suspect links with VEOs. Why did Sahellian pastoralists end up in this precarious situation?

Conflicts around pastoral resources have escalated in the Sahel in the last few years. Many conflicts are between sedentary farmers and nomadic pastoralists. Since October 2015, VEOs have appeared in Burkina Faso which has led to a toxic tit-for-tat dynamic between self-defence forces, VEOs and various pastoralist groups.[4] By 2019-2020, community-based violence, VEO attacks and violence against civilians from both formal state security forces and informal self-defence groups have reached unprecedented levels.[5]

VEO rhetoric capitalizes on inter-communal tensions, mainly between pastoralists and farmers. While it is clear that VEOs are not exclusively driven by pastoralists’ concerns, that they target not only Fulani but all pastoralists and that many pastoralists are unwilling to join VEOs, VEO rhetoric nevertheless seems to tap into a reality that is widely felt within pastoralist communities. Why does it resonate?

Pastoralism is an important economic activity contributing to the livelihoods of an estimated 50 million people living on the fringes of the Sahel and Sahara. In Burkina Faso pastoralists represent 40 percent of the workforce and livestock production is a significant economic force, representing 13.5 per cent of the national GDP and 19 per cent of export value.[6]

The Fulani are the dominant pastoralist group, but in Burkina Faso (agro-)pastoralism is the vocation of different ethnic groups that benefit from this sector.[7] Pastoralists sell manure for the agricultural sector, and their animal production fulfils the meat and dairy demands of an ever-increasing population in growing urban centres. Apart from domestic markets, Burkinabe livestock are exported to Nigeria and other states.[8] Bordering six ECOWAS countries, Burkina Faso has become a major hub for increasing flows of trade including livestock. Cattle markets support additional industries, such as butchers, abattoirs, vets, people supplying forage and water, and the skin and hides industry.

However, despite its economic value, pastoralism is under threat. According to pastoralists, the root causes of the problem are unequal access to pastoral resources, government policies and biased local governance systems. In addition, pastoralists argue that they face challenges to their livelihoods, driven by a structural change to the economic modes of production. As a consequence, long-standing socio-political and economic relations have changed at the micro and macro levels and they uncover the underlying structural causes and drivers that stand at the heart of various conflicts in the Sahel.

This report finds a breakdown of intercommunal trust and social cohesion between pastoralists and farmers at the local level. This allows various extremist groups to spread their operational field and recruit local militants. Instead of relying on religious ideology, groups such as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are employing identity-based arguments to tap into pastoralists’ grievances and stigmatization to spur their recruitment. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) mainly aims to weaken social fabric and establish the authority and legitimacy of militant extremism. Katiba Macina – another VEO – has played a particularly effective role in destabilizing the region by specifically using a rhetoric focused on Fulani grievances to fuel existing tensions (see section 1).[9]

Pointing at mobile pastoralism and ethnic Fulani as an objective and homogeneous security threat is a practice that is in dire need of correction. In fact, what is needed is a better understanding of why VEO propaganda is resonating with (Fulani) pastoralists. This study, therefore, takes an empathic standpoint and tries to explore the real underlying driver of grievances. It points to the multifaceted problems that underpin the observed dynamics: changing socio-political and economic relations at the micro and macro levels. Understanding the real drivers of a resonating discourse of Sahelian VEOs among pastoralists is a pre-requisite for an effective and durable solution to the conflict.

Research objective and approach

This report finds that issues of resource competition or socio-political grievances form the core of the problems for pastoralists in Burkina Faso. Pastoralist communities face economic and political marginalisation having either been neglected by the government and international development agencies or suffering from poorly designed interventions.[10] The narrative of pastoralists as a security threat de-links pastoralism-related conflicts from structural trends disrupting pastoral livelihoods and disenfranchising an ever-growing number of pastoralists in Burkina Faso.

While pastoralism is found to be at the heart of the current conflicts, a perspective on the current security crisis that starts from pastoral communities at the margins is underrepresented. This report thus aims to provide an understanding of the causes and drivers fuelling grievances that have pushed Fulani and other pastoralists to join extremist groups or engage in violent acts. It asks: what are these underlying causes and drivers of conflict and what solutions are there for the challenges that Burkinabe pastoralists face? To unpack this relationship, this study addresses three sub-questions:

How does the relationship between pastoralism, resource and land conflicts, and instability manifest itself in Burkina Faso?
How is the pastoral economy affected by the current insecurity situation in the region?
What governance interventions could be adopted to achieve the peaceful co-existence of competing resource users in areas under pressure and what governance interventions could be adopted to support the pastoralist economy while enhancing regional stability?

Data collection

In order to answer these questions this report draws on data collected between November 2019 and January 2020 as well as in August 2020. Data was collected in a total of 15 municipalities in Burkina Faso’s East, Sahel and Boucle du Mouhon regions.These regions are particularly hit by the spreading violence in the region (see figure 1).

In 15 municipalities access was gained to 19 locations where farmers and pastoralists share resources. A total of 47 focus group discussions and 81 key informant interviews were took place. These focus group discussion and key informant interview were conducted with herders, farmers, traditional authorities and state authorities, persons who operate water points and markets as well as security forces. In Boucle du Mouhou we find mainly Fulani pastoralists, while in the Sahel and East region the actors in the livestock sector are not only Fulani, but also include other ethnic groups. Given this reality, in this research we did not limit our analysis to Fulani communities, but included different groups of pastoralists in our data collection.

Figure 1
Fieldwork locations and pastoralist-related violence (2018-2020)

Interviews with policy makers, experts, (I)NGOs, the Liptako Gourma Authority and herders’ and farmers’ associations were conducted in Ouagadougou to identify the main policies that are currently being adopted to address resource conflicts and transhumance, their degree of implementation and effects on the livelihoods of and relationships between different pastoral actors.

Finally, detailed market information was gathered at various cattle markets. The goal was to identify the different steps in the value chain and the position of relevant stakeholders in every step. In short, the research adopted a political-economy lens to identify socio-economic and political dynamics that contribute to conflict and to identify opportunities for policy initiatives in at-risk regions of Burkina Faso. Many lessons are more widely applicable to the Sahel (and West Africa).

Structure of the report

The report is structured in five sections. The first section describes pastoral-related violence. The second section discusses governance at the local level to understand the pastoral resource governance regime at the national and local level. This section illustrates how inequality between farmers and pastoralists has less to do with formal rights than with the power relations that shape these. Pastoralists’ grievances stem from their unequal capacity to secure access to resources, and the role of customary justice mechanisms in preventing the escalation of resource conflicts.

The third section of the report delves more deeply into pastoralist grievances by looking at the economic structure of pastoral livelihoods and value chains (and how these are affected by the current violence). First, the position of pastoralists in the cattle value chain is discussed showing how market dynamics drive major changes to pastoral livelihoods. Second, the unsustainability of mobility as a coping mechanism is discussed showing that violence further undercuts this key strategy employed by pastoralists to manage vulnerability and uncertainty.

The report concludes with a summary of the findings (section four) and recommendations for donors and international partners (section five) pointing at governance solutions and development initiatives.

Box 1
A note on terminology

The scholarly literature and policy debate on pastoralism and conflict in sub-Saharan Africa are complex with numerous actors and a rich terminology. For the sake of brevity and clarity, this study uses some umbrella terms that we believe best encapsulate the spirit of this study. We recognize, however, that these terms can be used to describe a broad range of practices and peoples.

Pastoralism – a livelihood system whereby more than half of the income is derived from livestock production, characterised by an extensive livestock production system that relies on spatial and temporal mobility to access land and resources.[11] This may include the consistent nomadic movement of livestock over long distances or the practice of moving livestock over short distances or only on a seasonal basis. Pastoralism is an adaptive practice, and the timing and the extent of pastoral mobility can vary across different ecological zones.

Transhumance – Transhumance refers specifically to regular seasonal livestock movements that typically correspond to the region’s rainy and dry seasons.[12]

Pastoralists – This term broadly refers to the people who practise some form of livestock production and to whom this livelihood is constitutive of their identity. To some extent, the profile and ethnic groups of livestock keepers also vary from country to country, and there are also subtle differences related to the type of pastoralism practised. In Burkina Faso, the Fulani have historically been the biggest cattle owners. Today, they still herd about 70 per cent of the total cattle population, but only own about half thereof.[13] Transhumant pastoralism is practiced mainly by the Fulani. Although some of them have settled and practice crop-livestock mixed production systems – or agro-pastoralism – in society they are seen as pastoralists and as such are compared with other groups considered to be farmers. Indeed, agriculture and pastoralism are increasingly being integrated in Burkina Faso, and some farmers now own more livestock than sedentary pastoralists. The distinction between who is and who is not a pastoralist relies more on social representation, property regimes, and practices that are typical of pastoralism and mobility patterns than who owns the cows.

Farmers – Similarly, this term broadly refers to the people who mainly practise agriculture.

Customary/traditional authority – refers to “an institution that derives full or partial legitimacy from the tribal / ethnic / cultural values of a group of people (wherever they are) who share them.” Throughout this report, we will use the terms traditional leaders and customary leaders interchangeably. They are an informal source of governance, as the Constitution of Burkina Faso recognizes traditional leaders as “moral authorities” and “custodians of traditions and customs in [Burkinabè] society.[14]

Jeune Afrique. ‘Peuls et jihadisme au Sahel : le grand malentendu’, 7 July 2020.
Cissé M. G. 2020. Understanding Fulani Perspectives on the Sahel Crisis, Africa Center, April; Pellerin, M. 2019. Armed Violence in the Sahara. Are we Moving from Jihadism to Insurgency?, IFRI, November.
The number of attacks on civilians and defence and security forces is escalating rapidly: one in 2015, 38 in 2016, 66 in 2017, 173 in 2018 and 349 in 2019. Data retrieved from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
Ouédraogo, Moussa. Land tenure and rural development in Burkina Faso: Issues and Strategies, FAO, Issue paper 112.
UNOWAS. 2018. Pastoralism and Security in West Africa and the Sahel. Towards Peaceful Coexistence.
USAID. 2017. Burkina Faso Staple Food and Livestock Market Fundamentals. September 2017.
Katiba Macina – the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) – is one of the brigades that forms part of JNIM (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin), a group that is mainly operational in Mali. International Crisis Group. 2020. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence. Africa report 287, Brussels: ICG, p. 12.
De Haan et al. 2016. Pastoralism Development in the Sahel A Road to Stability?, Washington: World Bank Group.
Roy H Behnke et al., “Pastoral migration. Mobile systems of livestock husbandry,” in Animal Migration–A Synthesis, ed. EJ Milner-Gulland, J. Fryxell, and A. Sinclair (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Robin S Reid, María E Fernández-Giménez, and Kathleen A Galvin, “Dynamics and resilience of rangelands and pastoral peoples around the globe,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 39 (2014), 217-242.
D Turner, M and Schlecht, E. 2019. “Livestock mobility in sub-Saharan Africa: A critical review,” Pastoralism s9, no. 1 (2019); De Haan et al. 2016. Pastoralism Development in the Sahel: A Road to Stability? Washington, D.C: World Bank.
Gonin, A. and D. Gautier. 2015. ‘Shift in herders’ territorialities from regional to local scale: the political ecology of pastoral herding in western Burkina Faso.’ Pastoralism 5(7).
For our definition of traditional or customary authorities we refer to the interpretation as described in Molenaar, F., Tossel, J., Schmauder, A., Idrissa, A. and Lyammouri, R., August 2019, The Status Quo Defied: The legitimacy of traditional authorities in areas of limited statehood in Mali, Niger and Libya, The Hague: Clingendael Institute, p. 26. « La Constitution de la IVème République du Burkina Faso,” June 2, 1991.