Policy Briefs

Curbing Vicious Herdsmen and Visceral Conflicts

Nigeria under President Muhamadu Buhari confronts another simmering and ugly crisis situation. Nigeria’s cattle industry was once a key sector of Nigeria’s export and foreign exchange earnings. Although greatly reduced in size, with the hides and skin component nearly wiped out, the cattle industry and its value chain remains huge. The industry is situated dominantly in Northern Nigeria, with nomadic Fulani herdsmen moving cattle across the nation by foot.  Inexplicably, this age-long, peaceful husbandry practice has transmuted into a major national security challenge resulting in unending violence and bloodletting. Indeed, Fulani herdsmen violence ranks within the top four risks facing Nigeria. Oddly, whilst crisis situations –even if mundane or primordial– resulting in violent conflicts and disruptive demographic shifts, deserve attention and ought to preoccupy any purposeful leadership, this one is not. As such it is confounding to observers, why Nigeria’s political leadership’s response has been “tepid, indecisive, and desultory” and why policymakers dither in tackling the rampant carnages and fatalities resulting from herdsmen-farmers clashes.  Many worry that these clashes and its security implications mimic the overlooked rise of Boko Haram.

Nomadic Fulani herdsmen and indigenous farming communities are the main parties to the present conflict. Clashes between the nomadic Fulani husbandry communities and unsuspecting farming communities in the thirty-six states are incessant and dominate the news and political landscape.  Violence, wanton destruction of properties and fatalities resulting from such clashes has reached epic conflict proportions. The grazing conflict, which already risks becoming identity-based, is further compounded by activities of cattle rustlers, whose activities predispose the “killings to ethnocentric interpretations.” Yet, it is imperative, in the national interest, that the grazing crises should not be identified strictly as a Fulani issue, since not all Fulani people are herdsmen.

Conflict is often a manifestation of a clash between parties pursuing incompatible goals. Historically, land — be it geopolitical landmass or farmland — is inextricably linked to conflict.  Incompatible goals and scarcity of resources are identifiable root causes of conflict.  Thus, material scarcity, be it of water, food, space, natural resources and in this case, pasture for grazing cattle, can easily cause conflicts.  Grazing land conflicts, like those over water in arid lands, are considered high-stakes classic distributional conflicts. So, nomadic Fulani pastoralists driven by chronic scarcity of pasture, now feel justified in resorting to grazing their herds anywhere, including on subsistence community farms. Regrettably, the burgeoning conflict has its roots embedded in the absence of grazing regulations and clearly delineated grazing lands across the nation. And because grazing conflict involves land, space, killing of cattle and damage to cash crops, which are sources of livelihood, the ensuing conflict is emotive and increasingly deadly.

Attentive Nigerians already recognize the unfolding traits of the present conflict.  They recognize that the grazing crisis is being exacerbated by a policy lacunae and absence of enforceable ordinances on grazing land ownership and violations.  They recognize also that the grazing crises are worsening and that government’s tardy and lethargic response is compounding the crises.  Since the grazing conflict is not being proactively addressed through sensitization, pertinent public policies or provision of adequate infrastructure, the crises persist. Moreover, farming communities and herdsmen are also not being adequately protected. Additionally, the grazing conflict is further compounded by tertiary causes, such as “unemployment, and lack of education, population pressure, ethnic hatred and availability of arms,” even as climate change and desertification may also be contributing factors. Consequently, because the grazing crises are perceived by the herdsmen and farmers as rights-to-land-based, grievances, reprisals and adversarial posturing on both sides has intensified, pushing the conflict towards intractability. Although some states have set up the so-called “cattle menace committees,” they remain largely ineffectual.  The question remains why the grazing crises are not being recognized and urgently managed as a serious inter-group or enthopolitical conflict by the Buhari Administration.

Crises resulting in conflict and mayhem are best addressed through policies that focus on the causes of the conflict, the dramatis personae, the conflict theatre and any cross-cultural differences at play. When a conflict is well mapped, acceptable resolutions are likely to emerge.  Unchecked, such conflict sources coupled with cultural ignorance, insensitivity, miscommunication, misinterpretation and even hatred and reprisals, tend to lead to extreme violence, as is now the case.  Hence, it is from this prism that any earnest evaluation of the conflict between Fulani herdsmen and indigenous farmers over grazing lands must be articulated. Meanwhile, Nigeria is at a dubious junction of a multi-fangled conflict, with no clear policy guidelines or remedial measures in sight, but with a surfeit of official pussyfooting. Indeed, some observers believe that political and ethnic considerations, as well as traditional sentiments now becloud policy decisions, thus hindering robust response to the crises bedeviling this age-long husbandry practice.  If so, such a disposition does not inspire problem-solving confidence.  As it has been rightly observed, The Buhari presidency does not have the option of doing noting or perfunctorily doing little.”

Some established facts subsist.  First, the grazing conflict is needs-based and cross-cultural, if only in name. Second, the grazing conflict has assumed high-level of intensity and destructiveness and risks becoming intractable.  This affirms the conflict as a classical distributive conflict; with grazing land as the contentious resource. Third, though Nigeria may lack monitoring capabilities and parameters for measuring the intensity of the conflict, the spiraling rise in fatalities, destruction of properties and the growing number of internally displace persons (IDPs), should suffice as early warning signs.  They should also serve as informal benchmarks for measuring the scope and intensity of the grazing conflict.

Relatedly, grazing conflict causalities in Nigeria continue to rise unabated.  Vicious AK-47 wielding Fulani herdsmen traversing Nigeria’s countryside and private farms are not exactly peacemakers. Evidence abound that the herdsmen, most reportedly non-Nigerians, now resort to kidnapping, killings and looting, rape and scotch-earth campaigns thus making the violent conflicts visceral. Two notable Nigerians kidnapped recently by the herdsmen include, Chief Olu Falae, a former Secretary to the Government of the Federal (SGF) and HRH Akaeze Ofulue III of Ubulu-Uku in Delta state. The latter was murdered.  From Abia, Adamawa, Benue, Ogun, to Taraba, Yobe and Zamfara, the horrid stories is the same.  Available data shows that while in a three year period -2010 to 2013 – Fulani herdsmen killed some eighty people in farming communities across Nigeria, in 2014, the number of fatalities rose to 1,229 people. Years 2015 and 2016 have witnessed spiraling rise in the number of incidents and fatalities; the latest being in the Agatu and Tombo communities in Benue State, where a total of 315 people were killed. These clashes now occur almost daily across Nigeria; and grazing conflict now rank second to Boko Haram as a cause for massive population displacements in Nigeria. Still herdsmen’s rampages continue because their wielding automatic weapons have gone unchallenged by the federal authorities. Since States depend on the federal law agencies for general security, the States seem impotent to respond on their own.

Stopping herdsmen violence in Nigeria requires understanding the genesis of the crises and applying solutions that are in tandem with internationally accepted conflict resolution best practices. The U.N. have stressed that “conflict becomes problematic when societal mechanism and institutions meant for managing and resolving conflict break down, giving way to violence.” Crises situations are further worsened, when such mechanisms are non-existence.  Atypically, Nigerian policymakers continue to misread the unfolding situation. While President Buhari’s recent indication that envisaged policy measures aimed at abating the grazing conflicts will include zoning and mapping out of grazing areas is propitious; much remain undone.  However, President Buhari’s stating that such interim measures will suffice until cattle owners are persuaded to adopt other means of rearing their cattle, only creates policy dissonance.

First, no one is persuaded to abide by laws; flouting laws should have its consequences.  Second, while the herdsmen are nomadic, they belong to umbrella organs like Miyetti Allah Fulani Association, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association and Arewa Consultative Forum. These stakeholder groups can interface with their farming counterparts and traditional rulers to find solutions.  Nigerians must admit that the grazing crises and the methodology for stemming it have since gone beyond persuasion. In armed conflict situations, one may speak of clashes and resultant casualties. With the Fulani herdsmen, what we continue to witness, is a methodical massacre of members of any protesting farming community, pillaging and torching of their homesteads and displacement of the indigenous population. Such forcible entry into private farms amounts to a zero-sum quest for grazing land, without any rent or compensation, which violates the Customary Right of Occupancy clause of the Nigeria’s Land Use Act of 1978.  There is also a troubling national security dimension.  As these herdsmen are mostly foreigners, is Nigeria being intruded by terrorists disguised as herdsmen?

A four-pronged solution must be adopted. First, is stopping nomadic Fulani herdsmen from wielding automatic weapons and ensuring the security of lives and property of susceptible communities. Second, federal and state authorities should henceforth deploy armed patrol teams along designated grazing routes within the federation.  Third, as an ancillary to the Land Use Act, the Federal Government should set up immediately, designated grazing areas in the six geopolitical zones, thus restricting herdsmen to those grazing reserves. This recommendation aligns with a recent proposal by Senator Shehu Sani (APC-Kaduna Central), to create designated grazing zones in Northern States. Finally, by law, movement of cattle from these reserved areas to selling points must be by trucks as is the case in other parts of the world. As a price for peace and security, Nigerian consumers can afford to shoulder the added transportation costs.


Obaze, MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult, is a strategic public policy adviser, consultant and immediate past Secretary to the Anambra State Government. ©Selonnes Consult Ltd. Nigeria

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.

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