Generalizing Pastoralist Groups Ignores Violence Against Them
A Fulani herdsman waters his cattle (©AFP/Getty Images)
By Christopher (Kit) Mawer
“Once a Fulani passes by you, the scent of his/her perfume, soap, or pomade is milk”
This quote appears harmless – a racist joke at the expense of livestock herders. Yet it encapsulates how stereotypes turn complex ethnic groups into a single identity for the ease of persecution. A "Fulani” is a misnomer. The “Fulani” is a vast group constructed out of eighteen million people spread across the Sudano-Sahel region of Africa, who due to their shared language, were amassed into a singular identity for the sake of European colonial administration. Ahistorical, colonial ideas of “singular” pastoralist ethnicities can be found throughout Africa and have persevered and transformed into a tool through which genocide is directed against pastoralist communities.
Localized herder-farmer conflicts often establish stereotypes against pastoralists that are then transferred into the larger political discourse. In Ghana, for example, the Fulani are seen as “destructive like monkeys [who] destroy farms within a matter of seconds”. On the back of local conflicts over the damage done by cattle and access to resources, an image of an inhuman and deadly group of people is born. This stereotype is transferred into the political consciousness of African countries with articles running headlines like “Ashanti Police Gun Down Seven Fulani Armed Robbers”. In this headline, the robbers’ ethnicity is singled out. However, other crimes aren’t framed ethnically and so a conscious linking of violent crime to the Fulani grows. This process continues until much of the general population end up viewing all Fulani (whether pastoralists or not) as criminals.
Around the Sudano-Sahel region, this broad and simplified stereotype of Fulani herders gives local legitimacy to African governments' repressive policies against pastoralists. For example, Ghana’s ‘Operation Cow Leg’ is a policy enforced by government soldiers and police which targets Fulani by shooting their cattle. This deprives Fulani of their wealth, status, and ability to live, which pushes many out of Ghana and eradicates their way of life in a genocidal manner.
Some jihadist “Fulani militants” are committing genocide against Christian farmers in Northern and Central Nigeria. Nigerians believe Fulani want to drive out the ‘native’ Christian agriculturalists in what they claim as “Fulanization”. In Nigeria, a 2018 law which pushes nomadic pastoralists onto government-owned ranches would result in denial of the Fulanis core nomadic identity.
In central Mali, government backed foreign mercenaries massacred 300 mostly Fulani men whilst looking for jihadists in 2022. This highlights how ethnic stereotypes of all Fulani as jihadist sympathizers can result in atrocities against Fulanis. These policies also help push pastoralists into the illegal activities they’re stereotyped for which only furthers persecution.
The international community, and specifically the United States, further legitimizes local governments' persecution of Fulani groups. In 2015 “Fulani militants” were placed Number Four on the Global Terrorist Index based on Fulani-Jihadist connections. Yet this idea of all “Fulani militants” being terrorists is a deadly misconception.
There are eighteen million Fulani. This generalized view can lead to reciprocal violence against pastoralists led by farmers, as seen in Mali. Effective understanding of pastoralist groups can only come at the household level as this is where the main decision-making power lies. Sweeping and inaccurate statements that oversimplify huge ethnic groups only further pastoralist insecurity.
It’s not just the Fulani who suffer from generalization. Congo pastoralist “Rwandaphones”, also known as the Banyamulenge, are persecuted in part because of the popular belief that all Tutsis are ‘invaders’ and ‘non-autochthons’ or non-indigenous. This has resulted in the “slow genocide” of the Banyamulenge. Concurrently, the pastoralist Maasai people frequently suffer from hate speech in Kenyan society where they are also viewed as alien, while in Tanzania they’re evicted from their land which is turned into national parks.
While there are certainly pastoralists in Africa who join criminal gangs or jihadist groups and massacre civilians, the idea that all Fulani pastoralists comprise a single ethnic and cultural identity has been utilized to conduct persecutioin against them. For the sake of African pastoralists, their story must be revised into the many stories they deserve.
Christopher (Kit) Mawer is an Early Warning Analyst at Genocide Watch
The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch