Policy Briefs

Policy Brief 82-21| Nigeria’s Divergent Tales of Fishermen and Herdsmen

Ejeviome Eloho Otobo & Oseloka H. Obaze*

In Nigeria, two important traditional food and agricultural occupations face existential threats. The fishermen in the coastal areas of the country and the herdsmen in the North are beleaguered by environmental challenges. The environmental challenge confronting the herdsmen arises from naturally occurring desertification; while thatconfronting the fishermen is mainly man-made, and the result of years of oil exploration-related environmental degradation of the Niger Delta. These environmental challenges are detrimental to the lives and livelihoods of both fishermen and herdsmenand have deleterious impact onthe national economic output.

Meanwhile, a recent book, titled“Insecurity in the Niger Delta: A report of Emerging Threats in Akwa -Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo and River States,” publishedby a group of Nigerian scholars,documents howsea pirates frequently attack, kill and seize the equipment of fishermen in the coastal regions. In other words, the fishermen, in addition to suffering losses in fishing output because of environmental degradation, are also experiencing threats frompirates. This is analogous to the threats posed to the herdsmen by rustlers. But there the similarities end.

Not only have the fishermen and the herdsmen responded differently to the environmental and security threats they face,but so have been public policy responses to their respective plights. Where the fishermenand farmers ascertained the culpability of international oil companies in environmental pollution, they have filed series of law suits in foreign jurisdictions to seek redress, as several recent cases in The Netherlands and the United Kingdom have shown. For now, nothing better illustrates the poor public policy response to the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta than the tardy implementation of the 2011 UNEP Report on Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland.  

By contrast, the nomadic herdsmen have responded to their environmental challenge by migrating to the Middle Belt and the South. This has led to increased clashes with sedentary farming communities over grazing and water rights. Moreover, some of the herdsmen-turned-bandits have been accused of involvement in kidnapping, robbery and raping, leading to heightened sense of insecurity in affected communities. The scope of insecurity from the herdsmen attacks is reflected in two recent international reports. The first is the Global Terrorism Index 2020, which attributes 26 percent of all terror-related deaths in Nigeria in 2019 to attacks by the herdsmen. The second is a research report titled, “Fulani Militias’ Terror2017-2020” by a Brussels independent legal researcher, which indicates that between 2017 and May 2020, herdsmen launched 654 attacks and killed more than 2,539 people. These are deeply disconcerting data, from a foreign policy and foreign investment perspective, inasmuch as they cast a harsh spotlight on Nigeria.

Public policy responses to the plight of the herdsmen, in particular at the federal level, have ranged from advocating restoration of colonial and post-colonial migratory routes to creating grazing areas, cattle colonies, and rural grazing areas within the National Livestock Transformation Plan. As the insecurities, arising from the herders’ attacks in various parts of the countries, have intensified, the political leaders have offered sharply contrasting views on issues such as the right of the herdsmen to settle in any part of the country; the practice of herdsmen settling in the forests; the bearing of arms by the herdsmen, in particular AK-47; the condescending assertions by Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria that Nigeria belongs to them; and their demand that cattle ranches must be established for them by all 36 states.

The political leaders’ divergent views on such a basic issue as how to tackle the herder’s problem are emblematic of lack of elite consensus on a range of public policy issues. It is also illustrative of prevalent huge trust deficit in Nigeria. In times of national crisis, citizens look to their political leaders for solutions buttressed by moral leadership. Instead, the political leaders have settled for false moral equivalences, as evidenced by the false moral equivalence initially drawn between the Niger Delta militants and Boko Haram, and currently between Niger Delta militants and bandits. Alas, the use of amnesty as a securitization paradigm for tackling banditry remains a double-edged sword. The impact of amnesty for bandits in the Northwest has been disappointing, more so as terror-impacted communities are reluctant to accept rehabilitated erstwhile insurgents. Paying ransom to bandits only induces further banditry. The return on investment makes pay-for-peace pricey, and unsustainable.

As various analysts haveemphasised, cattle rearing is a private concern just as fishing, farming and other agriculture-related processing enterprises. The challenges of the herdsmen—like those of the fishermen—are mostly economic in nature. The economic adaptation problems of the herdsmen have been mismanaged and allowed to morph into a security threat. Moving forward, public policy must return the herdsmen crisis to the economic context to which it belongs, and allow the states and private sector to compete for cattle resources without unviable demands being imposed. The constitutional provisions set out in sections 43 and 44 provide a basis for addressing the herders’ challenges: the right to settle anywhere and the right to acquire moveable or immoveable property uncompulsorily.

There’s a moral urgency to addressing the herders’ problems plaguing Nigeria. Hopefully, the elements of a long-term solution are in prospect. These include the recognition by the Northern Governors Forum that open grazing is not viable;the recently announced decision to map out 30 grazing reserves within the implementation of the NTLP; the growing demand to ban the use of AK-47 by herdsmen; the evolving consensus that criminals should not be ethnically profiled, but must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law; and the federal government’sannounced intent to seek amendment of ECOWAS Protocol on Transhumance in order to curb violence and banditry by foreign herdsmen.


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

Obaze is Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Selonnes Consult in 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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