By DIONNE SEARCEY
A hired hand watches over grazing cattle at a camp in Nigeria. (Adriane Ohanesian for The New York Times)
DAMINIYA, Nigeria — Hundreds of horned cattle wandered back to camp after a long day of grazing. Manu Baka walked into the middle of the herd and lit a small campfire. Cows began to gather around the flames.
It’s an evening routine that he and other herders have repeated their whole lives, moving their livestock across Nigeria in search of fresh grazing land.
In his years as a herder, Mr. Baka has overcome poisonous snakes, outbreaks of disease, cattle rustlers and counterfeit veterinary drugs. Now the herdsmen are facing a serious threat to their way of life: Nigeria’s rapidly expanding population means more people want to farm on land that has been used by herders for centuries.
Across parts of Nigeria, conflicts have broken out between farmers and herdsmen vying for land.
In the first six months of this year, these clashes killed an estimated 1,300 people.
About 300,000 people have been forced from their homes because of violence between farmers and herders, conflicts that are often exacerbated by religion, ethnicity and even the erratic weather patterns that accompany climate change.
Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Kenya and other areas across the continent where populations are rising struggle with the problem as well. In Nigeria, where the population has quadrupled in the past 60 years to nearly 200 million, the fighting has been so fierce that the government deployed the military to contain some of the battles.
Numerous regional bodies have pledged to protect the rights of herdsmen, but little action has been taken. Nigeria’s federal government has proposed setting aside land for herders, yet the country is also grappling with widespread unemployment. So it is pushing more people into farming, adding to tensions.
Some states have banned open grazing entirely. Local laws that aim to address the conflicts are largely unenforced, especially in rural areas where government is virtually nonexistent.
Like the majority of herdsmen, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, is ethnically Fulani Muslim. And though he has done little to contain the violence or help herdsmen, he is often perceived as siding with Fulanis, who are one of the major ethnic groups of the north.
In much of Nigeria, especially the mostly Christian south, Fulani herdsmen are considered terrorists. News reports often focus on killings by herdsmen without mentioning deadly attacks by farmers.
Gombe State, where Mr. Baka has migrated with his herd, is known for its wide-open spaces and peaceful relations between farmers and herdsmen. Many of the farmers here are also Fulani, like the herders, and ethnic tension is minimal.
But even in this state, open land is being squeezed. The population of villages near Daminiya, the closest settlement to Mr. Baka’s camp, has grown threefold, to 7,000 inhabitants, in the past 15 years.
Mr. Baka and his relatives, along with their cattle, sheep and handful of pack donkeys, set up camp here in early September. Each cow can fetch as much as $600 at market.
Mr. Baka led his clan to the same spot in Gombe State just last year, letting the cattle graze freely for three months. But this time, the day after Mr. Baka showed up, the owner of the land said he wanted to cultivate the area for farming.
Saleh Abdu, one of Mr. Baka’s relatives, recalled how herding was easier in his youth. Back then, his cattle could fill their bellies in just an hour or two feeding on thick grasses. Now it takes all day to fill up on the patchy, dry grass. Sometimes his cows go thirsty for two days before finding drinking water. “If I could afford it, I’d move to town and sit around and give up this kind of life,” Mr. Abdu said.
Nearby villages beckon. They are full of former herders who have taken up farming or joined the booming logging business.
“Even with all this pressure, I have never even thought of settling and leaving behind what I’m doing now,” Mr. Baka said. “This is the best thing I like in life, to be with my cows and move from place to place.”