GOLKOFA, Nigeria – The shouting started in the distance, but Zulai Bello knew it would soon reach her front door. As the voices got louder, she grabbed her seven children and ran from their home in the Nigerian village of Golkofa. Minutes later, the mob of angry men reached her house and burned it to the ground.
Bello and her children spent a week walking through the Nigerian bush, unable to contact her husband, who was out with his cattle when the attack took place.
“Twenty goats and many chickens were taken from me, and everything was burned,” Bello said. “I couldn’t even eat, not knowing whether my husband was dead or alive.”
After seven days without communication, Bello and her husband found each other in a village where she had been taking shelter with other women from the area. They stayed for eight months before finally returning to Golkofa to try to rebuild their home.
For generations, Nigerians from different ethnic groups have lived alongside one another in the north-central region now known as Kaduna State. The Fulani, who are mainly Muslim, have typically worked as semi-nomadic herders, like Bello’s family. The Numana, who are mainly Christians, and other ethnic groups farm the fields nearby. Over time, the herders and farmers have shifted between times of relative peace and episodes of violent ethnic conflict, often sparked by disagreements over land ownership and access to natural resources.
Violence broke out most recently in May 2016, when a few Fulani herders walked their cattle down a rural route they claim their families have used for decades. They found rows of planted crops in their way, the work of a Numana who expanded his farm due to increasing land shortages in an area grappling with massive population growth.
The herders trampled the farmer’s crops, and when the farmer confronted them, the conversation turned violent: The herders beat him nearly to death. Local youth, believing the farmer to be dead, raided a nearby Fulani community, and murdered the chief. Within days, retaliations had escalated to burnings of entire Fulani villages and total destruction of nearby Numana farms.
By the time the Numana arrived in Golkofa last August and burned down Bello’s house, much of the surrounding area had already been destroyed. Since then, what started as a seemingly small disagreement over a cattle route has led to a series of ongoing attacks that have left more than 130 dead and some 18,000 displaced, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Still, both sides deny culpability for attacks on the other.
“It’s very difficult to stop something that’s started, especially when people are aggrieved,” said Aliyu Dawobe, an ICRC field worker who helps deliver aid to people from both sides.
Although peace-building efforts have been under way for months, negotiations are difficult in this part of Nigeria, where long-standing ethnic tensions overshadow many conversations, and natural circumstances – including population growth and climate change – have forced the two groups to inch closer to each other.
Women from the region say they have tried to fix the failed, male-run peace-building process, but that this has been tricky because the patriarchal society tends to exclude them from community meetings.
While the men from each group tend to avoid interacting with each other, Fulani and Numana women have a long history of a more peaceful coexistence. They often sell goods side by side in a shared market, and are sympathetic to the effect violence has had on families on both sides.
In conversations in Golkofa and the surrounding area in April, many Numana and Fulani women told News Deeply they still visit the homes of friends in different ethnic groups, and that there is a shared belief between women from both sides that if they were included in conversations about the conflict, it would have ended a long time ago.
Frustrations among women in the community peaked last August, when more than 100 Numana women marched to their chief’s palace, demanding better negotiations for peace. But eight months later, many men still refuse to accept the role the women want to play.
This spring, local NGOs have hosted training sessions for women across Kaduna to learn how to broach conversations in their own homes and start scaling down the conflict on a one-on-one basis. But Fulani women say they their husbands don’t seem interested in hearing their opinions.
Fulani women tend to be denied access to education as children, and then married off to older, polygamous men as teens. As a 30-year-old, unmarried Fulani schoolteacher, Maryam Adamu is one of the few exceptions. In Golkofa, she is encouraging small-scale peace-building, but says that with Fulani men going off to graze cattle for months at a time, it becomes complicated for their wives to influence them at home.
“The men and women are so separated in this community,” she said. “Many husbands won’t even give answers to questions about the conflict when their wives ask.”
In this year’s budget, the Kaduna State government launched an action plan to train more women in security and peace efforts, in an attempt to finally put an end to the ongoing conflict. But most women in southern Kaduna have yet to see that written commitment translate to action.
In May, Kaduna governor Hafsat Baba announced he would soon launch a tracking committee to follow up on commitments to train women.
Until then, it’s up to the Fulani and Numana to try their best to keep the situation under control themselves.
During the month of Ramadan, Maryam Salitu, a community organizer from the town of Kafanchan in Kaduna, organized peace-building meetings for Fulani women. Through the Federation of Muslim Women Association of Nigeria, Salitu has been trained to empower women to participate in conversations from which they might normally be excluded.
She advertises the meetings as being women-only gatherings in a religious school, in an effort to make them look harmless to Fulani husbands. Once inside, she helps break down root causes of conflict, and then gathers participants’ input on how the crisis has grown out of control, and encourages them to talk about peace at home.
“It’s just like politics. Some men will not like women to go out of their homes to participate in political activities, but when it comes time for voting, they allow them to go,” she said.
“So when you try to bring peace, the husband might not allow them to go to meetings outside, but he will listen to them if they bring it up carefully at home.”
This reporting was made possible through a grant from the International Reporting Project.
This story is part of our in-depth series, Women of Peace, which examines the contributions of women peacemakers throughout the world, as well as the challenges they face in the field. To explore the collection, please visit our dedicated mini-site.