As violence between herdsmen and farmers has grown and developed into criminality and rural banditry, popular narratives creating meaning, context and (mis)understandings have been emerging. The manifesting narratives on rural banditry in the media and in popular discourse are becoming part of the drivers expanding conflicts in the country.
People often talk of the Fulani being in power in Nigeria but the majority of Fulanis are pastoralists and the reality is that they have very limited voice in national narratives, and are constantly maligned. There is a consistent presentation in the media of pastoralists as “armed herdsmen” rampaging all over the country, killing farmers and taking over their land. The narratives are reinforced by social media, which presents pictures of alleged armed pastoralists slinging Kalashnikov rifles on their shoulders and marching on to create mayhem each day. No one wants to know that the pictures are photoshoped on the Internet and are part of the growing industry of fake news. As kidnapping grows all over the country, the emerging narrative is that the kidnappers are Fulani youth on a mission to extort innocent Nigerians.
These narratives gain credibility because, in any case, people have great difficulty understanding the logic of pastoralism. In the popular imagination, nomads are often conceived of as people wandering from place to place without any logic. What is better understood is the culture of farming, which is rooted in a specific location and has activities that take place in a regular pattern. This lack of understanding of the culture of pastoralism makes some people susceptible to the temptation of subjecting its practitioners to gratuitous innuendos and aspersions. Today, they are the Nigerian armed robbers, cattle rustlers, rapists, kidnappers, and even perpetrators of a scorched earth policy.
Transhumance pastoralism involves the regular movement of herds between fixed points to exploit the seasonal availability of pastures. This mode of animal husbandry in Nigeria involves sending part or all of the herd to access crop residue in adjacent farms or graze in open ranges and in some cases even move further southward as the dry season becomes more severe, to return home (North) with the advent of the rains. Transhumance pastoralism is an enduring form of livestock production, involving seasonal and cyclical migration between complementary ecological zones which is today under threat in Nigeria and indeed in West and Central Africa.
Pastoralism is the main livestock production system in much of Africa. It is above all an efficient way to produce livestock at relatively low prices through the use of non-commercial feeding stock. Historically, pastoralists have been able to meet the meat demand in West Africa with a relatively high level of efficiency without government subsidy for generations. Different methods, through the use of farm residue and open range grazing, have allowed this trend to flourish. Nigeria has a landmass of 98.3 million hectares, and 82 million hectares of arable land, of which about 34 million hectares are currently under cultivation. Farmers utilise only about a quarter of the total biomass they produce. The other three quarters is in the form of crop residue and low quality crop, which is not directly useful to people. It is this residue that cattle (ruminants) convert into meat and milk. In addition to this, cattle also utilise the grass on fallow lands, non-arable poor quality lands, open ranges and fadama in the same manner. Pastoralists move their animals to these locations to access these opportunities. The normal practice is that to access crop residue on farms, pastoralists usually negotiate with farmers. If, however any conflict arose from this arrangement, including from encroachment of farms into stock routes, these are usually amicably resolved, with the pastoralist often paying fines to settle the matter.
Pastoralists-farmers’ conflicts in Nigeria have grown, spread and intensified over the past decade and today poses a threat to national food security and livestock production. The pastoralists are often vulnerable because they are concentrated in zones that are too dry to permit intensive farming. They are the most affected by the vagaries of nature, such as climate change, given their migratory lifestyle.
Over the past thirty years, major changes have occurred that have created mayor challenges to pastoralism. There has been an increase in population of the country, leading to an expansion of urbanisation, accompanied with infrastructural and industrial development. At the same time, the surface area used for agriculture has increased significantly, as more farmers engage in subsistence farming, and the impact of these trends has been the reduction of available land for grazing. The irony is that the same population growth and urbanisation have also increased the demand for food of animal origin, which in turn calls for the expansion of animal production. One of the indices of the economic development of a country is measured in terms of the amount of meat consumption per person. Therefore, as our economy improves, so will the demand for more cheap meat and milk by all, including those calling for the heads of pastoralists today.
We should not forget that historically, pastoralists, even in pre-colonial Africa, are known to be generally law abiding. They paid cattle tax (Jangali) and any other legitimate state tax, for the right of passage and also to secure state protection. This makes sense as they own a relatively large quantum of mobile capital (cattle), move around with their entire families and would therefore be ready to pay for protection. Nigerians must try to understand that, fundamentally, trouble and unrest works against the interests of pastoralists because they can lose their herds, and general insecurity in society leads to attacks and further loss of their cattle. When threatened or attacked, however, they will fight to protect their honour, family and asset. And when they fight, they fight hard because they can lose everything and also need to make the point that they no weaklings or ease preys.
Pastoralists-farmers’ conflicts in Nigeria have grown, spread and intensified over the past decade and today poses a threat to national food security and livestock production. The pastoralists are often vulnerable because they are concentrated in zones that are too dry to permit intensive farming. They are the most affected by the vagaries of nature, such as climate change, given their migratory lifestyle. Virtually the entire country is presently affected by growing conflicts between pastoralists and sedentary communities. The growth and spread of herders’-farmers’ conflicts is currently transforming into communal clashes that are developing logic of their own. What we have in contemporary Nigeria is the breakdown of state authority and the growth of rural banditry. The problem is not herders, but bands of criminal gangs.
For many reasons, the pastoralist system of production is simply dying and the main victims are Fulani pastoralists, who today have reduced access to their traditional pastures. The Chad basin for dry season pastures is affected by the Boko Haram insurgency and insecurity. The Zamfara/Katsina wet season pastures is closing due to rising insecurity (mostly cattle rustling and kidnapping). Other traditional grazing lands, such as Dandume/Birnin Gwari area, as well as the prized sparsely populated areas of Kebbi State, are also becoming insecure. The Falgore/Ningi grazing forest zone has been taken over by criminal gangs and the pastoralists have had to run away.
Perspectives on the social, religious and ethnic characteristics of these rural communities are framed into expansive essentialist discourses that actively breed and sustain suspicion and distrust. The result is negative stereotyping between “the one” and “the other” that further leads to ethnic and religious bigotry which fuels the hate process…
Pastoralists are also major victims of extortion by the police, lower courts and, increasingly, the army. These security agents frequently arrest and charge Fulani pastoralists to court, sometimes for no just cause and force them to sell their cattle to pay huge bribes. The effect is that they are making the Fulani lose their herds, and as they become destitute, they are more likely to seek arms and move into crime. There is also very weak leadership of the pastoralists. Many of their appointed leaders collude with the police to extort the innocent cattle herder over minor issues. There is a huge enterprise of extortion going on, and it’s cattle herders who pay the price.
In many areas of the country, the blockage of transhumance routes and loss of grazing land to agricultural expansion, combined with the increased southward movement of pastoralists, has led to rising conflicts with local communities. This is particularly the case in the Middle Belt – notably parts of Plateau, Kaduna, Niger, Nassarawa, Benue, Taraba, and Adamawa States. In some of these states and in the North-West, including Zamfara State, rampant banditry has further inflamed farmer-pastoralist conflicts. The conflicts often have localised dynamics, but primarily involve Fulani pastoralists and local farming communities. Both sides are affected, leading to many fatalities, the destruction of livelihoods and property, and internal displacement.
As violence between herdsmen and farmers has grown and developed into criminality and rural banditry, popular narratives creating meaning, context and (mis)understandings have been emerging. The manifesting narratives on rural banditry in the media and in popular discourse are becoming part of the drivers expanding conflicts in the country. The protagonists in this saga are often presented as being nomadic Fulani cattle herders, who are mostly Muslims, and sedentary farmer communities of several other ethnic extractions, who are often, but not always non-Muslims. These two distinct groups are usually depicted as perpetrators and victims, respectively. Perspectives on the social, religious and ethnic characteristics of these rural communities are framed into expansive essentialist discourses that actively breed and sustain suspicion and distrust. The result is negative stereotyping between “the one” and “the other” that further leads to ethnic and religious bigotry which fuels the hate process, culminating in further chains of attacks and counter or revenge attacks being exchanged between these different groups. In the end more lives are lost, properties are destroyed, communities are dislocated, while misery grows.
Next week, we will explore how State laws banning open grazing is further boxing in the pastoralists and depriving them of their constitutional rights of freedom of movement.