Cattle herdsmen as the new Boko Haram?
By Reuben Abati
'No matter how far the town, there is another beyond it' - Fulani Proverb
There has been so much emotionalism developing around the subject of the recent clashes between nomadic pastoralists and farmers, and the seeming emergence of the former as the new Boko Haram, forbidding not Western education this time, but the right of other Nigerians to live in peace and dignity, and to have control over their own geographical territory. From Benue, to the Plateau, Nasarawa, to the South West, the Delta, and the Eastern parts of the country, there have been very disturbing reports of nomadic pastoralists killing at will, raping women, and sacking communities, and escaping with their impunity, unchecked, as the security agencies either look the other way or prove incapable of enforcing the law. The outrage South of the Sahel is understandable. It is argued, rightly or wrongly, that the nomadic pastoralist has been overtaken by a certain sense of unbridled arrogance arising from that notorious na-my-brother-dey-power mentality and the assumption that 'the Fulani cattle' must drink water, by all means, from the Atlantic ocean.
It is this emotional ethnicization of the crisis that should serve as a wake up call for the authorities, and compel the relevant agencies to treat this as a national emergency deserving of pro-active measures and responses. It is not enough to issue a non-committal press statement or make righteous noises and assume that the problem will resolve itself. Farmer-pastoralist conflict poses a threat to national security. It is linked to a number of complex factors, including, power, history, citizenship rights and access to land. Femi Fani-Kayode in a recent piece has warned about Nigeria being 'on the road to Kigali', thus referring to the genocide that hobbled Rwanda in the 90s as the Hutus and the Tutsis drew the sword against each other. Fani-Kayode needs not travel all the way to Rwanda. Ethnic hate has done so much damage in Nigeria already; all we need is to learn from history and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
Ethnic hate, serving as sub-text to the January 1966 and July 1966 coups, for example, set the stage for the civil war of 1967 -70. The root of Igbo-Hausa/Fulani acrimony can be traced back to that season when Igbos were slaughtered in the North, the Hausa/Fulani were slaughtered in the East and Nigeria found itself in the grip of a 'To Thy Tents, O Israel' chorus. Ethnic hate also led to the Tiv riots, crisis in the Middle Belt since then, and the perpetual pitching of one ethnic group against the other in Nigeria's underdeveloped politics. We should be careful.
We need to remind ourselves that the current friction between the pastoralists and their farming host communities is one of such potential factors that can further tear the nation apart. Nigeria cannot afford a second civil war, or mass-scale genocide. Today , every other Nigerian is afraid either of the Boko Haram or the nomadic pastoralist. It is not likely that the populations south of the Sahel will continue to stand idly by and allow herdsmen to trample upon their lands, destroy their crops, kill, maim and rape and then get away with it. A resort to self-help such as occurred in 1966, could have serious national security implications. With the economy in crisis, with anger in the land, and the people feeling disappointed, we cannot afford any evil trigger to deepen the nation's woes. So, the state cannot afford to be aloof or indifferent.
Nomadic pastoralism is at the heart of the Fulani cultural lifestyle, and that is why there has been so much labeling of the Fulani in the emerging narrative, whereas the violent herdsmen certainly do not represent Fulani interest. For centuries, the Fulani, living across West Africa, have herded cattle from one part to the other, across borders. In Nigeria, the migration is seasonal or cyclical: as the dry season begins in the North, the herdsmen travel with their livestock down south in search of pasture and water, and to avoid seasonal diseases. After about six months, with the onset of the rainy season and farming in the South, they travel back to the North. Along the route, they sometimes settle down, develop a relationship with the farming communities and function as transhumance pastoralists, in fact, many herders used to pay homage to the local hosts, but over time, the politics of power, identity, and access to land as well as differences in culture, lifestyle and religion began to cause friction. It is an old problem that has gotten worse as the sedentary farmers whose land is violated by the nomads complain and the local power elite who are soon displaced by the settling nomad fight back in protest, thus creating a relationship fuelled by fear and mutual suspicion.
The new phenomenon of the nomadic pastoralist now behaving as a conquering group of invaders, ready to inflict terror, and not ready to ask for permission for land use, is where the big problem lies. The bigger problem perhaps is the refusal of the nomadic pastoralist to give up an old tradition that has become antiquated in modern times, or perhaps in urgent need of modernization and reform. And to insist on that old mode on the grounds that the life of a cow is more important than that of a human being is worse than the Boko Haram phenomenon. There are Nigerians, including the Fulani, who consider the lives of human beings far more important. Even if there is an ironic interdependence between the pastoralist and the farmer: both provide food, both trade with each other, the farms provide grass and crop fodder, the cattle provide manure: the disruption of this economic interdependence and its replacement by fierce competition for space, power and resources is the source of the present tragedy.
The politicization of the relationship between the pastoralist and the farmer as an extension of national politics, and the failure of Nigeria's leadership elite, is part of it. Most of the herdsmen making the long seasonal or cyclical journey North to South and back, now wielding sophisticated guns, with rounds of ammunition, are actually hired economic agents. The real herdsmen are big men in high places; the ones with the resources to buy herds of cattle, and hand over guns to their boys on the roads of Nigeria. That is the source of the arrogance, the impunity, and the meanness of the herdsmen. That is why you'd find herdsmen with cattle and goats on major expressways and no security agent will stop them. It is also why they go to the airports and actually herd cattle across the runway.
A few years ago, there was a head-on collision between a cow and an aircraft at the Port Harcourt International Airport. Rather than get the herdsmen arrested, airport staff, including the security agents on duty were busy scrambling for a share of free meat. The people to talk to are those men in high places, and this includes an emerging crowd of non-Fulani investors in the cattle-rearing business (yes!), whose support and acquiescence allows this kind of madness to happen in 21st Century Nigeria.
There used to be in Northern Nigeria, a Grazing Reserves Law. Grazing Reserves were created across the North, but these were not maintained and later, the big men converted the reserves to plots of land and shared them out. To avoid the clash with farming communities in the South, those reserves can be created afresh in the 19 Northern states. More ranches and farms for livestock production and management should also be established. There is no need for National Grazing Reserves, which would bring the nomadic pastoralist into worse conflict with other communities insisting on their right to land in their geographical territory. Nomadism may have been a way of life for centuries, but we are in the 21st Century and there are better ways to manage livestock. The argument that nomadic pastoralism is cultural is on all fours with that equally silly argument that child marriage is cultural. Certain things just must change if society must make progress.
One of the original reasons the pastoralist goes to the South with his cattle is desert encroachment and the lack of pasture during certain periods of the year. What makes the life of the herder worse is global warming and climate change: the seasons have become unpredictable and the life of the nomad has become riskier than ever. This was a foreseeable problem; hence, for years, Northern governments spoke about afforestation, irrigation projects, and the urgent need to check the menace of desertification. Obviously, managers of the project seemed to have been more interested in money and contracts. Rather than think ahead and provide pasture for livestock, a major element in the agricultural business of the North, the leaders chose to provide pasture for their own stomachs. They have in the end turned what could have been managed with vision into a nightmare for the rest of Nigeria.
One way forward is for Government to take steps to sedentarize the nomads. In many parts of Africa, climate change and the transition to a modern way of life have turned many nomads into agro-pastoralists, spending more time farming than moving up and down as the elements and the herds dictate. Herdsmen are usually young men, and children. They probably would be of better value to society if they are encouraged to go to school, and not sentenced to a life of risk and violence. Insisting on the establishment of ranches and farms and more sustainable and modern methods of livestock management will also rescue many of those children who are recruited as nomads so early and place them on the path of a more productive future.
The story of the gun-totting herdsmen should also draw attention to the proliferation of small arms and ammunition. Our borders are porous allowing herdsmen from across West Africa to enter Nigeria unchecked, wielding dangerous weapons, left-overs from wars in Mali and Libya. Border controls must become stricter, and Nigeria should take a more serious interest in the ECOWAS Convention on small arms and light weapons. The cost of negligence in this regard is to be measured by the frightening number of persons that have been killed by herdsmen since January 2016 alone. The herdsmen must be stopped; impunity must be punished not condoned. Every step should be taken to prevent a slide into anarchy.