Fulani herdsmen: Villains or victims?

As part of a team inspecting projects commissioned by a government agency, I was intrigued when someone asked to know the reasons for a number of crossings that had been built at specific locations across the project. The engineers explained that it was an ancient route used by Fulani herdsmen and their cattle on their seasonal migrations. That information had been taken into account in the design and construction of the project to avoid radically altering the traveling and grazing patterns of the herdsmen.

I wish more of our policy-makers and public officials had the ability of those engineers in problem solving and crises management, because we would have been spared the vicious cycle of killings, theft, arson, and outright warfare between Fulani herdsmen (and those masquerading as herdsmen) and farmers in several parts of Nigeria. The ability to recognize and accept the peculiarities of individuals and groups would have averted the constant loss of lives and property.

What started as minor disagreements and skirmishes over allegations that herdsmen sometimes let their cattle graze on cultivated farms on one hand, and theft of cattle on the other, has now grown out of proportion. True, tensions have risen over access to farmlands and pastures as human population growth and rising herd numbers led to competition for scarce resources. Of recent however, hostilities have grown to a level where causalities are counted in hundreds – on the scale of a small war.

Though cattle-farming generates wealth and economic interdependence between farmers and cattle herders, it also causes tension and conflicts, arising from competition for vital resources such as water and grazing lands. The multiplication of migration roads, expansion of cultivated areas and an increase in cattle herdshas further deepened this competition.

As if on cue, the Crisis Group, aconflict resolution think-tank, based in Brussels, Belgium, last week released a study titled, “The Security Challenges of Pastoralism in Central Africa”. While not directly related to Nigeria, the report examines key issues and suggests steps that would help manage the perennial clashes between herdsmen and farmers. It notes that the ‘southward seasonal migration of pastoralists with their cattle is a source of friction that has long been ignored . . . in the last few years, conflicts between pastoralists and local communities have intensified because of a combination of factors: worsening security; climate change, which drives herdsmen further south’.

Though the report only focuses on Chad, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo, the recommendations can be applied to Nigeria. Part of it includes the provision of adequate and effective response to problems caused by the settlement of pastoralists in different parts, and the call on government to work with all stakeholders to regulate the movement of herdsmen by undertaking to secure cattle migration roadswhile taking steps to improve peaceful coexistence between all groups.

The Crises Group study recommends the deployment of staff from relevant agencies in close partnership with representatives of nomadic livestock farmers, on migration roads, while marking and organising transhumance roads and cattle resting areas, along with the deployment of health services along migration roads next to big cattle markets during the entire migration season.

Others include the development of new pastoral and land codes by reforming the latter to address the problem of access to shared resources by pastoralists and farmers, the need to monitor livestock migration to improve knowledge on cattle movements (itinerary, size of herds, concentration areas, etc.), the creation of a conflict management committee to facilitate dialogue between all parties to resolve disputes related to violations of the charter.

Other recommendations include easing relationships and interactions between farmers and pastoralists through the construction of roads and market infrastructure for cattle, while herdsmen should observe local laws and payrelevant taxes. The report also recommended the creation of a mission composed of government, traditional leaders and local authorities to demarcate pasturelands located far from local farmers’ lands and close to water sources.

On the part of local authorities, NGOs and donors, the Crises Group suggests the implementation of a grassroots peace programme for herdsmen and local communities to create a consultation framework to bring all parties in each conflict-affected territory together – herdsmen, local traditional leaders, civil society and local administration representatives so as to improve mediation and mutual understanding.

Regrettably, in Nigeria, even as peace treaties were being signed in Benue and Nasarawa states last week, a group of soldiers reportedly attacked Fulani settlement and killed over 30 people. If the herdsmen insist on avenging these deaths, the cycle of killings would continue.
In the end, the resolution to the herdsmen/farmers conflict in Nigeria is not about apportioning blames, or determining who are the villains or victims. It is about making peace with one another, even if to shame a government whose stock-in-trade is to divide and rule for political gain.

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