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Existential Threats of Nomadic Pastoralism to Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi The bitter, bloodstained rage that has defined relations between farmers and cat...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The bitter, bloodstained rage that has defined relations between farmers and cattle herders in central Nigeria in the past few months has once again brought to the fore the dire existential threat nomadic pastoralism poses to Nigeria. If it's not artfully contained, it could be the death of the country.

There is no question that nomadic pastoralism is an anachronism. It doesn’t belong in the 21st century, and is a burden both on its practitioners and on everyday peasant farmers who are its victims.
When you read about the menace of cattle herders in Nigeria, you would think Nigeria has the most cattle in the world. But figures from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that we’re not even in the top 18, as of late 2017. South Korea, with more than 3.3 million cattle (representing 0.31 percent of the world’s cattle), is number 18 on the table.

A different figure from 2015 provided by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations said we were number 14 with 23,141,388 cattle, representing just 1.58% of the world’s cattle. What is significant, though, is that there are no records of herder/farmer sanguinary conflicts in countries with larger populations of cattle than we do.  And that’s because open grazing doesn’t exist in those countries.

To give just one example of how this anachronistic practice is ruining and displacing lives, in my local government, most peasant farmers have abandoned farming (and I know this is true of most traditionally agricultural communities) because of the menace of cattle herders. Farmers toil day and night to tend to their crops only for herders to destroy them in a day.

 Last year, one of my younger brothers expended time, money, and energy to cultivate huge yam, peanut, and corn farms. He returned from school (he is an undergraduate) one day to find that almost all of his crops had been eaten by herds of cattle. Now he says he will never farm again. And he is not alone.

But he was even lucky. Many people who caught herds of cattle feasting on their crops and had the boldness to protest got killed by herders. A distant relative of mine was beheaded more than a year ago when he protested the invasion of his farm by herds of cattle. When a farmer was murdered by cattle herders in similar circumstances in March 2017 in Yakiru, a nearby community, farmers retaliated by killing four herders, and Miyetti Allah, as usual, threatened retaliation.

The press statement by the group’s state chairman by the name of Usman Adamu is worth quoting. “Fulanis from across the country and neighbouring countries gathered here last week and they requested for my permission to go and retaliate but I insisted that they should sheath their swords,” he said. “From there, they started pointing accusing fingers at me that government was paying money to me, that is why I don’t want them to retaliate despite incessant attacks on Fulanis. So, we want the Kwara State Government to bring the killers of Fulanis to book; if not, our people are ready to fight for their right. Then, we want this one to be the last because Fulanis of these days have changed. See what is happening in Nasarawa, Zamfara, Jos and other states. If you see what our Fulanis did in Imo, and if you are Muslims, honestly, you will cry. And if somebody said it was Fulanis that did that, you will not believe it.”

This is a self-confession of mass murder, and no one has done anything about it. As a consequence of the refusal of many people to go to farm, there is unaccustomed hunger even in rural areas that used to boast self-sufficiency in food production.

This topic is a particularly difficult one for people like me who don't fit easily into the prevailing simplistic frames that the media and the commentariat deploy to engage in this discussion. I come from Baruten, a rural, predominantly Muslim area of Kwara State that is culturally indistinguishable from Northwest Nigeria even though the people there don’t speak Hausa. Islam has been the predominant religion of the place since at least the 14th century.

That's why I get bent out of shape when I read intolerably ignorant comments suggesting that the transhumant herders' murderous spree in Nigeria, particularly in the Christian North, is animated by Islamic jihadist impulses. I don't read past the sentence where I encounter such undiluted ignorance. It's not only factually inaccurate, it also renders invisible the pains of Muslims who are at the receiving end of the ever-increasing murderous aggression of the rootless, perpetually migratory Bororo pastoralists and their enablers.

It's true, though, as I've argued in previous columns, that it isn't just southerners and northern Christians who deploy simple-minded ethnic and religious categories to make sense of the growing mass murders by transhumant cattle herders; some settled, urbanized Fulani Muslims do the same. The worst culprit, perhaps, is Miyetti Allah, as we’ve seen from the association’s press statements.

Their pronouncements give fuel to the suspicions, which have historical justifications, that the murders by cattle herders who happen to be Fulani are motivated by religio-political considerations. The truth, of course, is that most of the herders who clash with farming communities aren’t, in fact, Muslims. They aren’t Christians either. Their whole religion is their cattle. And they clash with settled Fulani people, too.

Farmer/herder clashes are almost as old as humanity itself. Even before the incursion of bloodthirsty Bororo pastoralists into Nigeria, farmers occasionally had clashes with settled herders over grazing, but the clashes weren’t usually as bloody and as frequent as they are now. So something new is certainly happening, and the sooner we find out what it is and nip it in the bud, the better for everyone.

Limiting cattle to grazing reserves so that they don’t wander off into people’s farms and spark needless bloodletting is certainly a way forward. That’s the practice in all progressive societies.
But we should also take care not to conflate “Fulani,” “cattle herding,” and “criminality.” The media have unwittingly conspired to construct an image of all Fulani cattle herders as inhuman outsiders. That’s wrong. Those of us who grew up with Fulani herding communities know that this image is false. The vast majority of cattle herders are peaceful and law-abiding and are, in fact, in some cases, also victims of the new marauders.

As I pointed in my tribute to my father a year ago, my father was raised by Fulani herders for the first 12 years of his life. My grandfather had herds of cattle that Fulani herders kept in trust for him. I also have adoptive Fulani cousins that my uncle and my aunt raised.

My grandfather had a love child with a Fulani woman; the love child, a woman who had three children with a Fulani man, was brought back to live with us—along with her three children. I know many people who have similar connections with the “bush” Fulani.

Whatever we do, it helps to remember that the vast majority of Fulani cattle herders are everyday Nigerians who have lived relatively peacefully in their communities for centuries.

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