LYNN NEARY, HOST:
For the past decade, Boko Haram has been killing thousands across northeastern Nigeria, causing millions to flee from their homes. But now there's another conflict in Nigeria that's killing more people than Boko Haram and threatening a way of life. And it involves cows and climate change. Julia Simon reports from the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Nasir Abdullahi is sitting in a mall in downtown Abuja, sipping fresh juice and eating plantain chips. Small, distinguished with an embroidered cap, Nasir looks like your typical Northern Nigerian businessman. But he's also a farmer. A few years ago, he got a call from an employee on his millet farm.
NASIR ABDULLAHI: He was even crying when he called me. I said, talk. He said, there is something serious. There is something serious. I said, did anybody die? What is it? He said, no. It's cattle herdsmen. Cattle herdsmen? What have they done?
SIMON: Nasir got in his car, drove a few hours to the farm. He learned the herdsmen and their cows had spent the night destroying some of his crops. Later, his employees told the herdsmen to leave.
ABDULLAHI: There was some fight, and some people were wounded.
SIMON: What exactly happened? Were they - what happened?
ABDULLAHI: Yeah. They - one of them was stabbed with a knife. And the other one, they beat him up was some sticks.
SIMON: In a herdsmen clash near his other farm, it was worse. That time, more than 50 people died.
S.K. USMAN: I told you about Ninte. I told you about Kin Kogi. I told you about Ashim. Then you look at Kaduna state...
SIMON: Brigadier General S.K. Usman is a spokesman for the Nigerian Army. He's listing sites of clashes between cattle herdsmen and farmers. According to a Lagos-based consulting firm, last year, more than 1,400 people died in these conflicts, more than were killed by Boko Haram. Usman says a lot of the problems come down to land, land that was originally set aside as a grazing reserve back in the '60s.
USMAN: Areas that actually were supposed to be greenland have been taken over by populations. And this was supposed to be grazing routes, so the area is becoming narrow and compressed.
SIMON: And policy analyst Sani Musa says there's another thing going on.
SANI MUSA: Yes. It's climate change, even though some people are living in denial of it. But I think we are seeing it.
SIMON: The Sahara Desert is growing, he says. Lake Chad, for instance...
MUSA: It is just 10 percent of what it was in 1963.
SIMON: The nomadic herdsmen who live across West Africa now have to travel further and further south with their cows to graze. Musa says that's why many of those implicated in these attacks aren't Nigerian.
MUSA: Sometimes they come as far as Niger, as far as Senegal, as far as Mali.
SIMON: Some states have taken action, setting aside grazing reserves for nomads. And the Nigerian senate is talking about a new national grazing reserve bill. But aside from all that, there's an existential discussion going on.
MUSA: (Foreign language spoken).
SIMON: In a fancy Abuja neighborhood on a hill overlooking the city, I find policy analyst Sani Musa on the phone with a nomadic herdsman. The herdsman watches Musa's cows. They check in about once a week.
You have how many cattle yourself?
MUSA: Well, you know, normally a Fulani does not say his cows because it's like talking to you about my account in the bank (laughter). But I have a lot.
SIMON: Musa's cows are nomadic. They move all over northeast Nigeria. But some cattle owners are saying enough. Let's keep our cows in one place to minimize chances for conflict, like about Abba Abubakar. You can find his cows...
ABBA ABUBAKAR: Near Yola. And some are in Gembu in Taraba state.
SIMON: So your - now your cows, they stick basically on one piece of land.
SIMON: But Musa's cows will stay nomadic for now. He says it's important to remember that nomadism is a way of life.
MUSA: You cannot legislate it out of existence. You have to convince these people, and a lot of them feel it's the philosophy of their existence.
SIMON: Still, given the conflicts over land and water, he knows which way nomadism in Nigeria is headed. It'll be sad, he says, but maybe someday grandparents can show kids videos on YouTube, saying this is how we used to be.
Julia Simon, NPR News, Abuja.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.