Cattle and citizens in Nigeria

February 7, 2021 in News UpdateRopo Sekoni

As the twenty-first century progresses, the geographical factors that have helped determine our history will mostly continue to determine our future…. Of course, geography does not dictate the course of all events. Great ideas and great leaders are part of the push and pull of history. But they must all operate within the confines of geography— Tim Marshall in Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You need to Know about Global Politics.

This is the fourth time this piece is appearing on this page, each time with the same thesis but with different emphasis. The problem of Fulani herdsmen versus non-Fulani farmers seems to have reached a dangerous stage in the recent massacre of men, women, and even children a few days ago in Benue State. With the spate of killings that have made some people refer hyperbolically to Nigeria as a place of genocide, it seems that the search for solution is now imperative, given the speed with which the Minister of Agriculture announced a policy change— from ranching to establishment of cattle colonies. More recently, the current tension in the country over the right way to raise cattle in the country calls caution and imagination on the part of political leaders and their policymakers.

As many pundits have observed in the last ten years in relation to demographic shifts in the Sahel, desertification or ‘Sahelization’ may be a remote cause of the problem between herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria, but desertification is not peculiar to Nigeria. About 900 million people in the five continents live in zones that are threatened by desertification.  But most countries adopt new techniques to cope with such challenges of geography. Nigeria must find ways to acquire such knowledge to save itself from creating or living with ad-hoc solutions to problems that require a futuristic imagination, especially in relation to preventing efforts to ensure food security from becoming a source of strife or disharmony among its people(s).

Indiscriminate cattle grazing has not always been a problem in the country. Those who were born before independence would know that up to the 1980s when the Sahel had not moved down as radically as it has in the last twenty years, herders-farmers violence was unheard of whether within the north or between the north and the south. One immediate cause of herdsmen/farmers clash in the last few years seems to be the fear of Fulani herdsmen to accept the unworkability of the old system of roaming with cattle across states and the fear of adopting new modes of cattle raising. Others have proffered that foreign Fulani herders in West Africa, especially those averse to sedentary life and are characterized as people who are by tradition not constrained by borders in the practice of their occupation have aggravated the tension between farmers and herders in Nigeria.

The recent recommendation by the governor of Kano State and his suggestion that cattle grazing across the country should be discontinued and replaced by ranching that includes adequate financial support by the government—federal, state, and local. Pundits who had complained about market-hostile subsidy to cattle farmers (including this writer in one of his earlier responses to federal government’s Ruga settlements by the federal government) need to rethink. It is better for the federal government to provide financial support through grants and loans to make it easy for nomadic herders to migrate to modern cattle farming, such as we are already doing with other farms of agriculture.

The fact that herdsmen in the past had moved before the spread of the Sahel from one area of the north to another part does not mean that herdsmen should continue to be encouraged by the federal government to move all over the country in search of pasture and water for their cattle. The geographical conditions that made nomadic cattle farming necessary has been overcome by advances in science and technology. Most countries of the world produce cattle through the ranch model. Even Qatar currently has ranches that specialize in beef and dairy cattle through an experiment with species of cattle imported from Germany. If Qatar can make a success of this experiment, it is bound to be easier for Nigeria to make ranching a greater success with local species. Other political leaders need not re-invent the wheel. Ganduje’s model is modern enough to induce a revolution in cattle farming that can prevent crisis between farmers and herders, wherever they are located.

With or without climate change, the world is changing in geographical terms and is likely to continue to change. Science and technology are now deployed to assist humanity to cope with constraints of geography. The federal government needs to get more scientific input from global best practices in cattle farming. These are the types of issues that Nigeria should bring to the attention of its development partners, just as we recently did with modernizing the country’s railway.

But while the governments are doing necessary comparative studies on raising cattle in states vulnerable to desert encroachment, the federal government should pay immediate attention to investigations that can lead to prosecution and punishment of those who had given Nigeria the worst name possible in international relations: a country ready to throw away all the advantages of its diversity over insistence of cattle grazing as an occupation.

Political leaders and policymakers from all the states need to benefit from two Nigerian proverbs about the imperative of change. The Igbo proverb says in English “life is like a dance, you need to follow the dance, in order to enjoy it.” The Yoruba version says, “it is the contemporary dog that is used to chase the contemporary rabbit.” Both proverbs promote adaptability to new realities.  The challenge for the ministries of agriculture and the environment is how to fight desertification frontally and how to adopt new ways to produce cattle, goats, and other ruminants.

If herdsmen were children of upper or middle-class men and women in our country, they would have cried foul for being hired to nurse cattle for the rich at great risk to their being. If the country had created an educational system akin to what exists in Kaduna today—free and compulsory basic education for all—it would have been impossible for current owners of cattle to find herdsmen to follow cattle to the length and breadth of the country.  Such difficulty must come to cattle owners if part of the goals of national development and integration include ensuring equality and equity. Having herdsmen in the 21st century should be discouraged; potential herdsmen should be in school like the children of the owners of the cattle they are hired to herd and thus get psychologically prepared for a new and more rancour-free way of raising animals—Ranching.

Solving the problem of conflict between farmers and herders will allow the government to confront other problems such as banditry, ritual killing, and kidnapping that are not connected to the search by herders for pasture for their cattle. Such crimes also need frontal confrontation from law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, adopting state police and local government police, as suggested by the Taraba State governor can assist the governments to prevent cattle farmers from losing their occupation, just as it will prevent farmers from losing their land to interlopers—local or foreign. The nation’s leaders ought to take advantage of new knowledge that can help it to reduce its fault lines and encourage them to focus on   nation building that can lead away from avoidable win-win solutions for both farmers and herders. The challenge of sustainable development facing the country at present does not require the intermittent hobbling of the country that grows from inter-ethnic or inter-state fight over land.

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.