The Fulani number more than 35 million, spread across some 15 countries, from the Atlantic coastline of Senegal to the dense forests of central Africa. With their millions of heads of cattle, they follow centuries-old routes, speak a common language, and maintain their traditions in the face of mounting influence from extremist Islamic preachers and communal violence.
But the Sahel is being transformed at terrific speed into a vast area of no-go zones where access has grown ever-more difficult. Conflicts explode, peter out and rekindle themselves further down the road.
These historical trading routes have become among the most dangerous in the world
In Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, there are frequent clashes between herders and settled farmers over what remains the most treasured commodity: land. Whether searching for new pastures, or to protect their crops, all are in a desperate battle for survival.
The resulting spirals of violence are easily exploited by radical jihadist groups, and the Fulani find themselves stigmatised and held responsible for many of the region’s problems.
An AFP team spent months in 2019 following the Fulani on their journeys across Mali, Nigeria and Niger, seeing how they are adapting and fighting in order for their way of life to survive.
They are no longer fully masters of their destiny, facing the many great challenges of the century, from a demographic explosion and rapid urbanisation, to mass migration, climate change and Islamic extremism.
The following is a story of people often hidden behind the headlines of the Sahel’s wars.