Herders-Farmers` Crisis: Which Way Nigeria? By Emeka Nwosu, PhD

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In recent times, the lingering conflicts involving pastoralists and farmers in Nigeria have assumed a very dangerous dimension. The situation has become so perilous to the extent that the fragile unity of the country is being seriously threatened. The dominant issues in the news all over the country today, unfortunately, bother on unrelenting cases of brutal killings, rape and kidnappings by marauding herdsmen who illegally graze their animals on farmlands belonging to various indigenous communities and farmers. The situation has become a deadly scourge in which no part of Nigeria is spared.

The point must be made here is that herder-farmer clashes is not a new phenomenon in the country. The problem has been with us for much of our nationhood, even if muted. But in the last six years, under the watch of President Muhammadu Buhari, the crisis has become intractable with enormous potential of throwing the country into avoidable national tragedy if no immediate steps are taken to find a lasting solution to it.

There is the need for a proper contextualization of the phenomenon in order to have a better understanding of this potential time bomb that poses huge existential threat to the sovereignty of the nation. The issue of climate change has been identified as the key driver of this conflict in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa where the herder-farmer clashes have become endemic. Due to climate change, once arable lands in the northern fringes of our country and elsewhere in the Sahel have become scorched and attenuated by desertification, forcing the nomads to migrate southwards in search of greener pastures and water for their animals.

Lake Chad in the North Eastern part of our country which is shared by Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroun and Central African Republic, presents a vivid illustration of the threat which climate change has posed, and continue to pose, to the environment and economic livelihood of the people. As a result of the effects of climate change, Lake Chad has shrunk to one-third of its size. This has displaced millions of people within and around the Lake Chad basin who depended on the Lake and its aquatic resources for survival.

The movement of the pastoralists to the South in search of grazing pastures and water for their animals brings them into conflicts with farming communities on whose lands they illegally and sometimes violently trespass to feed their herds. The indigenous farmers and communities would naturally resist the offensive actions of the herders. And this usually elicits unbridled violence and bloodshed by the herdsmen who believe that they have unchallenged right to enter and graze in any available lands.

The ugly situation has taken a horrifying dimension with the weaponization of the herdsmen who carry on with an air of arrogance and invincibility. They openly display assault rifles like AK-47 and other sophisticated weapons with which they commit mayhem against farmers and indigenous communities that oppose the destruction of their farmlands and property by these errant herders.

The deadly weapons in the hands of these marauding herdsmen are believed to have been smuggled in from Libya and other ungoverned spaces in the Sahel into the country through our porous borders. Libya, it will be recalled, has been locked in a civil war since the killing of the country`s leader, Col. Moumar Gadaffi ten years ago. The war in Libya attracted mercenaries and terrorists from different parts of Africa, but particularly Islamic militants from the Sahel region.

These jihadists who are robed in deceptive languages as bandits and rustlers are believed to have taken advantage of the open border policy of the Buhari administration to move into Nigeria in their numbers and infiltrated the genuine herders. It is these battle-hardened mercenaries that are now masquerading as herdsmen. In addition to these mercenaries, there are also the roguish foreign elements from neighbouring countries who have taken advantage of the ECOWAS Protocol on transhumance to freely breach our borders. These vagrants who are armed to the teeth are fingered for most of the atrocities by herdsmen in the Middle Belt and Southern parts of the country including killings, rape, land grabbing, destruction of farmlands and kidnappings for ransom.

Only recently, the killer herdsmen were ordered by Governor Akeredolu of Ondo State to vacate the State`s forest reserves which they, the herdsmen, have turned into cattle settlements and haven for kidnappings and rape. The Governor`s directive was deliberately twisted by some sections of the elite and media in the North to give the impression that Governor Akeredolu was asking all the Fulani in Ondo State and elsewhere in the South to quit. There is also the issue of the campaign by citizen Sunday Igboho to rid Oyo, Ogun and other parts of the South West of the killer herdsmen who have become a pain in the ass of the people. The destruction of farmlands, killings, kidnappings and rape have been the same story in the Eastern part of the country where the South East Governors recently announced a ban on open grazing.

Amidst the din of cacophonous threats from the North and undisguised support for the herdsmen by the Government at the Centre, there appears to be a new and reassuring sense of reasoning as the Northern Governors made a U-turn a few days ago by agreeing with the rest of the country that open grazing was no longer fashionable and sustainable. They are now calling on the herdsmen to embrace ranching which is global best practice and discard the archaic culture of roaming around bushes and farmlands with their animals. This is a welcome development. The Governors should go a step further to provide ranching facilities for the herders in the North which boasts of two-thirds of the landmass of Nigeria.

I believe that the herder-farmer crisis would have been conclusively addressed if there was a sincerity of purpose on the part of the Buhari-led Federal Government. Rather, what we have seen is a Presidency that through its actions and body language has given confidence to herdsmen to become more audacious and daring in their conducts. The killer herdsmen have been rated by the World Terrorism Index as the 4th most deadly terrorist group in the world after ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. But the Buhari administration which was quick to brand IPOB, a self-determination entity a terrorist group, has continued to turn blind eyes to the atrocities of the herdsmen. Rather, they have been telling the victims of the killer herdsmen to try to find accommodation with them if they, the farming communities, must enjoy any relative peace in their ancestral homelands.

Instead of frontally confronting the herdsmen menace and calling them to order, the Buhari Government has been toying with some policy initiatives aimed at pampering the herdsmen and cleverly advancing the hidden political and cultural interests of the Fulani in Nigeria. Such initiatives include the RUGA settlements which seek to distribute Fulani herders across the country, and Cattle Colonies meant to carve out exclusive reserves for the marauding herdsmen, also across the nation. Other initiatives include the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) and the Inland Waterways Bill which is pending before the National Assembly. While the NLTP is seen as a rebranded name for RUGA, the Inland Waterways Bill is widely perceived as a subtle effort on the part of the Federal Government to hijack lands of communities along the waterways for the Fulani herdsmen. The Bill reportedly seeks to confer on the Federal Government exclusive ownership of lands within the radius of 6kms.  A lot of Nigerians are nervous, especially the indigenous communities in the South who live along the banks of the inland rivers that their lands may be alienated by the Federal Government for the actualization of the RUGA agenda. A recent position paper by the Middle Belt Forum stated that all these policies, no matter how they are couched, are mainly for land grabbing.

Given the tension which the flagrant actions of the herdsmen have generated across the land, there are widespread fears that the country may be sliding into avoidable war and anarchy. It is, therefore, incumbent on the Federal Government to apprehend the dangerous situation in which the country has found itself. The primary responsibility of any Government in the world is the security and welfare of the people. President Buhari must rise to the challenge and prove himself as a leader for all Nigerians and not for any particular ethnic group; after all he took an oath to defend and protect the people of Nigeria irrespective of their ethnicity and religion.

He should put a stop to all the divisive policies his government has been pursuing which have elicited outcries from the indigenous communities in the Middle Belt and Southern parts of the country. Political analysts are of the opinion that if the authorities do not habour any hidden agenda, there should be no justifiable reason for Government to be seeking to create exclusive settlements for herders across the country instead of encouraging them to embrace ranching and restricting their activities to the North where land is in great abundance.

The first step towards the resolution of the crisis is for President Buhari to come up with Executive Orders banning open grazing and enforcing the laws on illegal possession of firearms. Interestingly, some Northern Governors like Ganduje and El-Rufai of Kano and Kaduna States respectively have mapped out massive lands in their domains for cattle ranching. Other Northern Governors should follow suit. The Federal Government should encourage the Governors in this regard to facilitate the relocation of the herders to the ranches.

The foreign herdsmen amongst the nomads should be fished out and returned to their countries with a follow-up action on the amendment of the relevant ECOWAS Protocol on Transhumance to put a permanent stop to the cross-border grazing by these ruthless invaders. If President Buhari fails to do the needful, the brewing tension arising from the growing atrocities of the marauding herders may plunge the country into an avoidable calamity. This is the time to act.

Dr. Emeka Nwosu, a former Political Editor of the Daily Times, writes from Abuja

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