Greener pastures: The war for Africa’s grazing lands
Nomadic cattle farming in Africa is often imagined as picturesque and idyllic. But presentday nomadic cattle herders in east and west Africa carry pump-action shotguns, AK-47s and other automatic weapons. They trample farms, raze villages and displace communities in search of fading green pastures.
Vigilante farming groups, also armed, are retaliating in a war authorities ignore, which in some areas has become ‘deadlier than Boko Haram’. The land has been taken by drought, climate change and urbanisation. Also having an impact on grazing is the exploitation of resources and land-grabbing by elites, from the oil wells of Nigeria, to the marble and limestone quarries in Uganda, some of which are owned by President Yoweri Museveni’s family.
In the last 20 years, clashes between farmers and herders evolved from sticks-and-spears affairs to machinegun-armed invasions, in which between 5 000 and 10 000 people are believed to have been killed.
Last year, Nigeria-based intelligence consulting firm SBM rated the Fulani herdsmen militias as ‘even deadlier than Boko Haram’, and according to the ACLED database on armed conflict in Africa, herdsmen caused 11% of all civilian casualties.
In Nigeria’s north, Fulani herdsmen have also battled Boko Haram militants. As Boko Haram requisition crops and young recruits from villages, herdsmen raze farmlands.
Some farmers said they could no longer distinguish between herdsmen and Boko Haram.
In Benue State, Chief Godwin Onah (70), paramount ruler of Agatu, speaks of the destruction of both his palace and his community. I live with friends. The lush land was once good for grazing and cow dung helped fertilise the soil. There were occasional skirmishes, but these have increased dramatically, he says.
Since January 2014, when the area was invaded, all the buildings – churches, schools, hospitals, markets, and houses – were razed by AK-47-wielding herdsmen, and dozens of residents were killed. Different accounts put the number of destroyed Agatu communities between 22 and 60. ‘We labour without knowing when next our harvests will be destroyed,’ says Chief Onah.
But Benue State Myetti Allah Cattle Breeders’ Association chairperson Garus Gololo blames ‘foreign Fulani’. ‘They come from Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Chad through forest routes with their weapons. They destroy communities, then disappear.’
But Chief Daniel Abomtse of Gwer, whose own farm was destroyed ‘alongside many villages’, has lost patience with government’s excuse that they can’t fight such ‘foreign invasions’. ‘The Makurdi air base is nearby here. The army could use surveillance planes. Is Nigeria saying it allows foreigners to come and destroy Nigerian farms?’ Now young Agatu men guard the river themselves, infuriating Fulani Chief Ardo Boderi, the deputy chairperson of the recently established Benue Agatu-Fulani Reconciliation and Peace Committee. ‘These young men have also killed Fulani and stolen cows,’ he states, adding that ‘the [Nigerian] Constitution states free movement for all citizens [so] they cannot continue to stop us from finding pastures’.
But Gwer’s Paramount Chief Daniel Abomtse disagrees: ‘The Constitution talks of the rights of people, not of cattle,’ he says. ‘Movement of people doesn’t destroy crops.’
The road to Empaemu in Ghana’s Kwahu East district can only be accessed by motorbikes. Homes of mud and brick have been washed away. A school houses only rodents now.
Fields of yam, plantain, maize and cassava have been grazed bare. Traditional leader Nana Kwaku Ansong (58), who has found refuge with his subjects in nearby Afuni village, chokes back tears. ‘They have AK-47s and pump-action guns. We are too weak to confront these.’ In Agogo in the Ashanti region, once Ghana’s bread basket, Kwame Wiafe, a father of seven and proud owner of a Toyota Matrix, packs up his belongings. He used to harvest seven truckloads of plantain a day on his 40ha farm, but 30ha of it was lost to cattle in two days last year. So he defaulted on his bank loan and can’t go on farming. Nana Adwoa tried to protect her plantain with barbed wire, but she came home one day to find her crop destroyed. Issah Dauda is a carpenter now, but will have to leave.
‘People are no more putting up new homes and neither is there demand for new furniture. We are all running away. Sometimes they [Fulani] pass here with guns.’ Remaining farmers report that the herdsmen instructed them to stop spraying their farms with weed killer. The most recent figures show that the production of cocoayam fell 10% in Agogo between 2014 and 2015 alone; maize by 7%, yam by 6%, cassava by 5% and plantain by 4 %. The 2016 figures are expected to be worse.
Ghanaians and Nigerians largely blame foreign Fulani herders for the problem, and at a herders’ camp in Ashanti, 43-year-old Malian, Ibrahim Ahmad, herds 1 000 cows. He works for a Ghanaian businessman who leases land in the area, despite a court order forbidding it. Another herdsman, Issaka, asks why the government ‘doesn’t address the food security situation’. The Fulani have always been meat and milk providers for west African populations, so why can’t they be helped to continue doing so, he asks. When the mutilated and bullet-riddled body of a beloved Agogo priest was found in January last year, angry farmers resolved to kill any Fulani on sight. The violence has now escalated.
Between January and April this year, four people were murdered: two farmers and two herdsmen. Ghanaian Interior Minister Ambrose Dery failed to respond to requests for comment.
The body of a man shot, allegedly by Fulani herdsmen, being carried home by villagers in Agogo, in Ghana’s Ashanti region
Chief Godwin Onah, the leader of Agatu Community in Benue State