Policy Briefs

  A Time to Reflect: Herdsmen/Farmers Conflict 

 Ejeviome Eloho Otobo and Oseloka H. Obaze

Independence anniversaries offer important opportunities to reflect on the course of national events. As Nigeria’s 58th independence anniversary being marked today, coincides with the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s export of its first oil cargo, we offer this article as our contribution to the national reflection on a major public policy issue: Herdsmen-Farmers Conflict.

We refer to the oil export mainly to underline an important fact; that cattle rearing, from which Nigeria ought to be deriving much domestic and foreign exchange revenue by adopting global best practices, has degenerated into a source of national tension, antagonism, visceral violence and bloodletting. This is a policy failure of an epic scale.  

Yet it would be wrong to attribute this failure to the current administration. Some 389 incidents of herders-farmers conflict were reported between 1997 and 2017, most occurring in the North Central geo-political zone. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, Nigeria had 20.6 million herds of cattle in 2016 placing 14th among the world cattle breeding nations. Paradoxically, Nigeria’s annual import of dairy products cost $1.3 billion; while she is barely benefitting from the global leather market valued at $75 billion annually.

Coming to grips with the problem of violence associated with cattle movement and grazing, compels us to examine the various rationalizations that have been adduced. By drawing on the various pronouncements of the government leaders, spokespersons of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) and the perspectives of various public commentators and policy analysts; an aggregate of seven explanations have emerged.

Climate Change: As desert encroachment has intensified in Northern Nigeria due to climate change, herdsmen have engaged in habitual seasonal migratory patterns, moving from the semi-arid northern part of the country, during the dry season, to the middle belt and southern part of country to graze their cattle. Climate-induced scarcity of water and viable grazing fields, inevitably translates to an existential concern. That Herders and Farmers perceive the battle for grazing pasture and farmlands a matter of livelihood and survival is real.

Boko Haram infiltration of herdsmen: The notion that the attacks attributed to herdsmen may be traceable to Boko Haram is widely presumed. Acceptably, in highly polarized environments, terrorists seek cover under any guise. Whilst it remains plausible that the successes of the Multinational Joint Task Force, (MJTF), might have compelled Boko Haram insurgents to seek cover for movement and intelligence gathering by embedding themselves within the ranks of herdsmen, the evidence of operational collusion has not been confirmed.

Sinister work of foreign marauders: More by default than by design, the intensification of herdsmen/farmers conflict coincides with the spillover from the Libyan and Sahel crises, with the attending proliferation of small arm and light weapons (SALW). Foreign fighters that drifted from Libya have brought with them assault weapons, which they barter for cash, or present as tools that guarantee them job opportunities as herdsmen. Yet, it cannot be discounted that some cattle owners, concerned about rustlers, have also equipped herdsmen with assault weapons.

Diversionary tactics of corrupt politics: Corrupt practices manifest in different forms. Often, the nexus between ownership of cattle herds and public policy concerning cattle rearing is ignored. Though hardly admitted publicly, real owners of cattle herds include policymakers and influencers. Naturally in their enlightened self-interest they loathe any adverse impact on their cattle investment, including restricting movement of herdsmen. In fact, the international best practices in cattle rearing and production do not include tedious movement of cattle or open-grazing.

Promulgation of anti-grazing Bill: Some stakeholders have argued that the promulgation of anti-grazing laws is not helpful to the resolution of the herdsmen-farmers conflict, insisting the promulgation of such laws are the cause rather than the consequences of the herdsmen-farmers conflict. What this explanation fails to explain is why herdsmen-farmers attacks have occurred in states that have not promulgated anti-grazing laws, for example, Delta, Edo, Enugu, Kaduna, Nasarawa and Ondo.

Surreptitious effort to Islamize Nigeria: This claim has been made by some analysts. However, the President has strongly disavowed that such a plan exists, insisting in his address to the meeting of Catholic Bishops in Sokoto on 9th September that such rumours are spread by persons with injurious schemes on the nation.

Naked attempt at land grab: Land remains a scare resource. A particularly disturbing feature of the herdsmen-farmers conflict is the forceful seizure or occupation of land by herdsmen in various parts of the country. This not only discourages private investment but also damages the protection of property rights which is a key feature of market economy and democracy. This has prompted the Nobel Laureate in Literature, Wole Soyinka, in his open letter of June, 2018 titled “On Demand: A language of non- capitulation, non-appeasement,” to urge the President to send a strong warning that his administration would not tolerate forceful land seizure anywhere in Nigeria

A careful review of these seven major explanations shows that there are some serious issues to tackle. Obvious existing gaps in policymaking and responses persist. Also evidence abound of important policy measures that the federal government can take to stem the tide of violence, restore property rights, ensure safety, and drive the dairy and leather industries and cattle economy in general to realize their potentials. But those potentials will not be realized unless and until policymakers are able to transcend the traditional binary parameters used to define national challenges and issues.


Otobo is a Non-Resident Senior Expert at the Global Governance Institute, Brussels.

Obaze is a public policy expert and MD/CEO Selonnes Consult, Awka.



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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