Africa’s Sahel region, the long stretch of scrubland that extends from Mauritania to Sudan, has emerged as a critical global hotspot in recent years, as national governments struggle to contain growing insecurity, rampant criminality and waves of violent extremism. But efforts to stabilize this transcontinental belt just south of the Sahara have largely overlooked one critical driver of tensions: the centuries-old but increasingly violent disputes between nomadic herding and sedentary farming communities. A recent influx of weapons has given these conflicts new and deadly force, with grave implications for international security.
The scale of the recent violence stemming from herder-farmer tensions is shocking. Arms proliferation throughout the Sahel has transformed what were once local disputes over land and resources into intractable cycles of escalating, retaliatory violence. In Nigeria, herder-farmer conflict killed six times as many people as the violent jihadist group Boko Haram in 2018. Human Rights Watch has reported that violent clashes in central Mali killed over 450 civilians last year, many of which were driven by disputes between herders and farmers.
Across the Sahel, herding and farming communities are obtaining weapons from a variety of sources, including artisanal weapons produced locally as well as industrially manufactured arms from national stockpiles and foreign suppliers. A recent study conducted by Conflict Armament Research, an independent investigative organization, traced weapons that were recently used in mass-scale violence by herding and farming communities in Nigeria to faraway countries like Iraq and Turkey, smuggled in by sophisticated arms-trafficking networks. Craft-produced weapons, which are regionally sourced and typically made by hand in relatively small quantities, have historically contributed to arms proliferation throughout the continent.