Competition for access to land has heightened the violence between herders and farmers, as criminal gangs look to profit from the chaos. With elections in 2019, will the politicians find a long-term solution?
Clashes and conflict The battle for land and water will be a key issue in 2019’s elections as herder/farmer clashes escalate and criminal gangs profit from the chaos
Once a promising athlete, 43-year-old James Pam Gwom ran the race of his life this year – and lost. On the weekend of 2324 June, dozens of men armed with AK-47S and machetes ran down from the surrounding hills to attack Gwom’s hometown of Farin Lamba in Plateau State, central Nigeria.
Locals suspect the attack on Farin Lamba and neighbouring villages was retaliation for the murder of four Fulani cattle traders on the road to a market in the Barkin Ladi area two days earlier. It was the one of the bloodiest episodes in the cycle of clashes between farmers and herders. This battle over land and water has become a key issue in national elections due next February. In two days, the gangs killed more than 80 people. Another 100 perished in the area in further clashes and reprisal attacks. Gwom could not escape the attackers, but his wife Amina and their two children got away and are living in a camp set up by the state government’s emergency agency. At least 38,000 people have been chased from their homes in Plateau State alone, say officials. It is a similar story in Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba states. Most of those in the camps are farmers, like Amina; their attackers were mainly herders. In other areas, the farmers have gone on the offensive against the herders. Vigilante groups and criminal gangs, some with political connections, are joining in, capitalising on grievances. President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is on the back foot, accused of inaction. That is why he highlighted the issue in his Independence Day speech on 1 October : “The age-old conflict between herders and farmers that was being exploited by those seeking to plant the seeds of discord and disunity among our people is being addressed decisively.” After commending attempts by state and local governments, community and religious leaders to contain the clashes, Buhari urged “all peace-loving Nigerians to reject any simplistic portrayal, at home or abroad, of this conflict as either religious or ethnic-based.”
For Buhari’s critics, the herder-farmer clashes fit the stark categories of identity politics. They define the conflict as pitting herders from Buhari’s Fulani people, mainly Muslims, against farmers who are mainly Christians from minority ethnic groups. Several Christian groups, from the mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches to more colourful evangelical movements, accuse Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) of indifference or worse, even providing military support for the herders. Vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, a devout member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, and other top Christian figures in the APC government, push back against such accusations. They encourage communities to settle disputes locally. In some states, village chiefs hear complaints between herders and farmers over land because the official legal system is not trusted. Activists on both sides of the herderfarmer divide are polarising communities, casting a shadow over the 2019 elections. Buhari’s APC won control of most of the states in the north-central region in the 2015 polls.
Now the region is in play again. Two state governors, in Benue and Kwara, have quit the governing party for the People’s Democratic Party. Personal and policy grievances are fuelling political dissent in other states, and campaigners are using anger over the clashes to win more support for the opposition. Agriculture minister Audu Ogbeh argues the matter goes way beyond politics. He tells The Africa Report: “We had what we called grazing reserves in Nigeria, across the country covering a landmass of 5m hectares.” Ogbeh continues: “We forgot this culture, people encroached, the water systems in the grazing reserves went to naught, the grassing up of the grazing reserves was abandoned. [...] And as climate change started affecting the vegetation, the cattle had nowhere to stay on these reserves.”
These shifts have speeded up as more people, encouraged by government loans and grants, have gone into farming across the central and northern regions. This farming boom in crops such as rice, maize, sorghum and soya beans is driving economic growth outside of oil and gas production. But sharing out land between farmers and pastoralists means complex negotiations with statutory and traditional authorities, says Ogbeh. “We still have about 45m hectares of land uncultivated, lying wild, usually owned by communities, not individuals. So you have to approach the governor of a state […] who then has to help you talk to the traditional chief, who will talk to the community leaders and then they will eventually allow you entrance.” Although there is less uncultivated land in the south, the worst disputes over land use are in the north and are part of a growing criminalisation in the region. Many herders from the far north have been chased from their homes by armed gangs making billions of naira from cattle rustling. Some of those ill-gotten gains are financing militias such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa. Security forces have been slow to act. The vacuum has been filled by ethnic militia among the Bachama, Tarok and Berom people who claim to protect the farmers. At the same time, herder militias have joined the fray, raising the stakes and casualties. Former defence minister and army chief General Theophilus Danjuma led the charge for government critics: “The armed forces are not neutral. They collude with the armed bandits. They facilitate their movements, they cover them.” Speaking at a university convocation ceremony in his home state of Taraba in March, Danjuma warned: “If you depend on the armed forces to stop the killings, you will all die one by one. The ethnic cleansing must stop. I ask everyone one of you to be alert and defend your territory, your state.” Muhammad Nura Abdullahi, chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, in Plateau State, dismisses reports of Fulani herders as aggressors, instead talking of pogroms against them by vigilantes working with the farmers. He explains: “They start rampaging into the hinterlands, looking for Fulani villages, their cows, their children, burning houses, start killing cows, start killing people.”
He agrees with Danjuma that there is a cover-up. “The real killers are there, they know themselves, the security know them. They [attackers] are covering themselves with black cloths so that you will not see them and identify who they are.” Reverend James Davou of St John Vianney seminar y at Barkin Ladi, who looks after people hit by herderfarmer clashes, sees a mixture of people caught up in the crisis. “There’s foreign herdsmen and also homegrown ones. […] Some are not Nigerians,” he says. “Buhari’s government has banned the importation of foreign rice but cannot ban importation of foreign herdsmen? Does that make any sense?” Devou tells The Africa Report that one of the suspects rounded up by mobile police deployed to Barkin Ladi had confessed to being from the neighbouring country of Niger and part of a 17-man cell recruited on a three-month contract. Environmental pressures are driving people southwards from Nigeria’s neighbours, according to agriculture minister Ogbeh: “Nigeria has about 20m cows and Niger probably 10m. The rest of West Africa has another 30m. So once the dry season sets in […] cows from Niger and Chad and Burkina Faso,
The worst disputes are in the north and are part of a growing criminalisation in the region
for lack of grass, move into Nigeria in search of fodder and water.” There is no easy way to accommodate that. Calls for the national assembly to establish new grazing reserves were rejected because they would usurp the powers of state governments. But some state governors refuse to concede land, or anything else, to the herders. Governors in Benue and Taraba say that herders should pay to establish ranches. Interior minister Abdulrahman Dambazau proposes setting up cattle colonies, setting aside land for herders to be protected by rangers. It’s not clear who would pay for that scheme. Political conditions make these solutions more difficult, according to Cheta Nwanze, head of research at Lagosbased SBM Intelligence. “First thing is the establishment of trust before you talk about grazing colonies. You can’t have a solution if communities don’t trust the umpire.”
LOANS FOR RANCHES
Any long-term solution would need a national response and hefty government investment, says Andrew Osogbo, an investment analyst in Lagos. “Government might be right when it says we need to allocate land for ranching. But looking at the North Central [region] – that land isn’t available. The most probable answer might be rearing cattle in farms, then transporting feed grown elsewhere using rail.” For that to work, the government should provide basic veterinary care and water, adds Osogbo. “The herder crisis can be prevented with proper logistics. You can grow grass in the south and transport up north during the dry season.” Miyetti Allah’s Abdullahi and other cattle breeders want the government to give start-up capital and loans to herders to build ranches in phases. “In Plateau State, let them allocate, say, 10 grazing ranches for this year. And we will select 10 people and train them on how to manage the ranch and then support them,” he suggests. Most of the herders will be sceptical at first, he says, but “after some time when they see you get more beef, more milk and healthy animals, they will join.” That could work, says Osogbo. “Money can be recouped from the grazing fees. Herders are very organised in Nigeria, so give the funds to the Miyetti Allah and hold the organisation [responsible] for any default.” The danger is that the clashes and criminality spread before these solutions are set in train. In Zamfara State to the north-west, cattle rustlers and bandits have been attacking communities, abducting people and demanding ransoms. Amnesty International reports more than 350 people killed there this year. Almost every major agrarian economy has seen farmers and herders vying for land as the social order changes. But few are as complex and diverse as Nigeria, or have faced the devastating droughts and extreme weather that come with climate change. Holding back the crisis will stretch communities to the limit.
On Independence Day President Buhari said the conflict was “being addressed decisively”