An encroaching desert intensifies Nigeria’s farmer-herder crisis

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Nigeria

Publishing organisation: CCIJ; HumAngle

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-04-11

Language: English

Authors: Reporters: Kunle Adebajo, Murtala Abdullahi.

Data Analysis Team: Mansir Muhammed, Yuxi Wang.

Editorial and Design Team: Lydia Namubiru, Yaffa Fredrick, Scott Lewis, Jillian Dudziak.


HumAngle is a niche media platform committed to insightful and objective coverage of Africa’s conflict, humanitarian, and development issues. Our intentional approach through the lens of the people — victims, survivors, and other stakeholders — has helped the audience better understand the dynamics of these issues, leading to louder calls for positive and effective changes.

The Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) is a non-profit that convenes and leads global investigations that are grounded in strategic mentorship. We lay bare overlooked issues with gripping visual and data-driven storytelling. Above all, we strive for accountability and seek solutions.

Project description:

Climate change’s impact on the worsening conflict between farmers and herders in Nigeria has provoked prior speculation, but for the first time we did on the ground research to corroborate these claims. We discovered the extent of the Sahara Desert’s encroachment by visiting communities swallowed by the shifting sand dunes and speaking to locals about how this has affected their livelihoods. We also established patterns in herders’ migration that lead to a struggle for resources and exacerbated armed violence in the communities they move to as a result of harsh environmental conditions. The report also exposed systemic governmental failures.

Impact reached:

The report was republished by many platforms, including ZAM Magazine, The AfricaBrief, MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism, TheCable, and Circle of Blue. It has been referenced by other media groups as well, including the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), the Reuters Institute, Earth Today, The Daily Climate, and Climate Change Resources.

The project received one of the inaugural Visual Journalism Awards from the Institute for Nonprofit News and was selected to be presented at the continent-wide African Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. We also received and accepted an invitation to give a virtual masterclass by the JamLab in South Africa.

Techniques/technologies used:

The softwares we used include: Arcgis 2.7 professional (licensed) for AI and ML land cover satellite analysis; Quantum GIS or QGIS 3.14 (Pie version) to organise data for GIS visualizations; Google Earth Pro to identify and visualise the disappearing communities; Microsoft Excel (Office 2019); Google Sheets; Python and Jupyter Notebook for data analysis. Antv G6 Geo visualisation tool (https://g6.antv.antgroup.com/); Visual Studio Code; Adobe Illustrator for data visualization.

Metaverse tools: A virtual space was designed and built on the Web3 voxels platform Voxels.com. The venue consists of multiple rooms with different functions: immersion in a reconstructed environment from the reportage, exploration of the Data and focus on the pictures and videos. Voxels models and architectural environments were created to fit the virtual storytelling. Software used: Magicavoxel, Adobe Photoshop, Voxels.com building engine.

We used the following websites to source data: United State Geological Survey Agency – NASA Landsat Project (https://www.Earthexplorer.usgs.gov), the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (https://acleddata.com), Office of the Surveyor-General Of The Federation OSGOF – Administrative district location shapefile data (https://osgof.gov.ng), and OpenStreetMap Project (https://www.openstreetmap.org/).

Context about the project:

The reporting environment was harsh for several reasons. The reporters had to travel to Nigeria’s northern states of Yobe and Adamawa. There was still the presence of Boko Haram terrorists in parts of the region. Geidam and Yunusari, which were critical to the report, could not be visited, for example, because of the activities of insurgents. The environmental conditions were harsh, especially the desert area that needed a special vehicle to penetrate. Another challenge encountered was hostility from Fulani pastoralists, who were not as accessible as the farming communities. This made it difficult to balance the sides to the report about clashes between the parties. Additionally, accessing some of the data about migratory patterns of herders and government budgetary approvals and expenses was difficult.

The reporters had to build their capacity for photography and videography before traveling because it would be unwise to move with an additional person as well as heavy equipment. They worked with a fixer who spoke multiple languages and understood the environment. We timed the trip to a period that was relatively safer and were deliberate about the mode of transportation. Precautionary measures were also taken in the event that the field reporting did not go smoothly. These included documenting emergency contacts, agreeing on a regular progress reporting arrangement, and constant sharing of GPS coordinates.

On the data side, we encountered a few difficulties, starting with the satellite assessments. Satellite data are not absolute and may be affected by cloud and other interferences especially without a corroborated field measurement but these satellites and methods were designed to give the researcher the essential big picture of environmental issues including obvious large scale changes to land surfaces. However, we sifted through numerous satellite images until we found the ones appropriate to run the analysis. This process took almost as long as the analysis itself.

Another challenge is regarding the use of ACLED data. When we were trying to approach the logic to which we would summarize pastorialist attacks from the data. We needed to decide whether we looked for the attacks specific to “Fulani” pastoralist or those carried out by all pastorialists. The ACLED database also doesn’t code farmers, only pastoralists so we couldn’t get the exact numbers of farmer-herder conflicts. We emailed Leif Brottem, an expert in the area who had also used the same data source to analyse farmer-herder conflicts. He confirmed that when the data were coded as involving “militias”, they usually consisted of an inter-communal farmer-herder conflict. In the end, we following Leif’s practice in his report and used the title of “Conflicts involving pastoralists as perpetrators and victims in Nigeria from Feb. 2019 to Feb. 2022” in order for the graph to be accurate.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

The best works of journalism are often products of collaborations between people with diverse skill sets or different newsrooms. They also take time and need heavy investments in research. The success of the reporting was determined by contributions from many people from the reporters to the researchers, data scientists, open source intelligence experts, visual editors, copeditors, fact-checkers, and so on.

On CCIJ’s side, this work came from an internal pitching process in which our data fellow from China wrote the strongest pitch and brokered the initial connection with HumAngle after exploring their work. In addition to working on the data analysis and visualization elements, she then helped present the work to a continent-wide audience at the African Investigative Journalism Conference. We’re proud of her role in the project and would suggest that other news organizations consider providing similar opportunities for their fellows, interns, and other non-staff members.

Another highlight from this reporting project is the varied styles of presentation, including the written article with interactive elements, a metaverse exhibition, and a video documentary. This provides the audience with different ways to experience the story and also allows for inclusivity, especially for people with disabilities.

Project links: