The gale of armed confrontations between transhumant pastoralists of mainly Fulani ethnic nationality and peasant farmers/host communities have increased in frequency, intensity and geographical spread with all its concomitant humanitarian and economic consequences in West Africa. As will be elaborated shortly, the national responses to the conflict in Africa are not only varied but also often pander to the dynamics of local politics in a given state. With particular reference to Nigeria―the epicentre of the conflict―the response mechanisms from relevant federal authorities have been generally uncoordinated and ineffective. Here’s why.
The land-use conflict between armed herders and peasant farmers in Nigeria is as old as recorded history. Obviously, the conflict did not start with President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. Under former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, an inter-ministerial technical committee on grazing reserves was inaugurated with a clear mandate to end the conflicts. At the same time, the government set up a Committee on Grazing Reserves, which recommended the construction of ranches and the recovery and improvement of all grazing routes encroached upon by farmers. However, the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election punctuated the implementation of these initiatives.
Since May 2015, when President Buhari’s government was inaugurated, attacks by armed herdsmen have become more frequent, coordinated and sophisticated, and perhaps comparable only to the conflicts in the Western Sudanese region of Darfur in which the Sudanese government-supported Janjaweed militia murder, rape, mutilate, plunder, and displace local populations. Apart from intermittent words of disapproval, the government has failed to formulate effective strategies to address the attendant dangers of transhumant pastoralism in the country. Soon after assuming office in 2015, President Buhari directed the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to formulate a comprehensive livestock development plan, including measures to curb the land-use clashes. In August 2015, the ministry recommended short, medium and long-term strategies, including the development of grazing reserves and stock routes. On 25 January 2016, the president announced his government’s intention to present a plan to the Nigerian Governors’ Forum to map grazing areas in all states as a temporary solution for cattle owners until they could be persuaded to embrace ranching. The fact that the president wanted the solution to the problem to be left to whenever the herdsmen will be persuaded to embrace ranching was interpreted by many as a confirmation that he has a soft spot for the nomadic pastoralists. This pro-Fulani herders’ slant of the plan partly accounted for its vehement rejection by most states in the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria when it was proposed as Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) settlements by the Buhari-led government.
Other proposals closely related to the RUGA initiative are cattle colonies, cattle grazing routes and grazing reserves. In particular, the now-suspended RUGA policy was designed to create communities where herders would live, grow and tend their cattle, produce milk and undertake other activities associated with the cattle business without having to move around in search of grazing land for their cows. The rejection of these proposed policies is informed by the fear of ethnic domination and territorial expansionism of the Fulani ethnic stock. A more comprehensive and less hostile policy framework, but yet to be implemented, by President Buhari-led government is the 10-year National Livestock Transformation Plan which seeks to curtail the movement of cattle, boost livestock production and quell the country’s deadly herder-farmer conflicts. The new plan represents Nigeria’s most comprehensive strategy yet aimed at encouraging pastoralists to switch to ranching and other sedentary livestock production systems. But there is no political will to implement the plan—or so it appears.
The more typical but equally ineffective state response to armed attacks by suspected Fulani herdsmen has been to deploy the police and sometimes the army after clashes had taken place. For instance, President Buhari ordered the then Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Idris, to relocate to Benue State (an order the IGP flagrantly disregarded) following the gruesome 2018 New Year day attacks and killings of 73 persons in Logo and Guma Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Benue State by armed herdsmen. The government has also deployed additional police and army units in order to curb the menace. The military option was considered, albeit reluctantly, through two operations: Exercise Ayem A’Kpatuma (Exercise Cat Race) and Operation Whirl Stroke. While the former lasted from 15 February to 31 March 2018, the latter is still ongoing in affected communities in the Middle Belt that had earlier resorted to self-protection and the formation of vigilante groups. Despite the existence of these military operations in the Middle Belt region and other related federal security measures in other parts of Nigeria, herders’ aggression on sedentary farmers and host communities has refused to abate. If anything, these attacks have intensified.
Unlike other sectarian uprisings and movements such as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra and the Yoruba Nation Movement, the Buhari administration’s responses to coordinated attacks by armed herdsmen have been lacklustre. Accordingly, President Buhari is often accused of deliberately failing to stop herder aggression because of his pastoral Fulani background and his position as the life patron of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders’ Association of Nigeria (MACBAN).
While other West African states do experience incidence of attacks not totally dissimilar to Nigeria’s situation, they have been largely more proactive by strengthening their relevant security and early-warning apparatuses to confront the clashes between these two groups of land users. In Ghana, for instance, Operations Cowleg I, II and III and Operation Livestock Solidarity were all designed to curb the marauding activities of armed Fulani herders in the Agogo area of the Ashanti region of the country. In particular, Operation Cowleg III was launched in May 2001 with the mandate to expel foreign Fulani herdsmen from Ghana. Under the operation, there was a heavy deployment of the military and police task forces to the hotspot areas. Although the operations have been widely criticised for arresting and brutalising the Fulani, killing their herds and expelling them from the Ashanti region, it has substantially brought armed attacks by Fulani herders on food crops, farmers and host communities under control.
In conclusion, the dynamics of local politics in West African countries continue to define the national approaches against armed attacks by herdsmen in the region. In this light, the seeming reluctance of the Nigerian government to deal with herders’ aggression in the country since 2015 is inextricably tied to the prevailing privileged political position that the Fulani occupy in Nigeria, a privilege which is reproduced in other spheres, including the levers of Nigeria’s national security architecture. Contrariwise, the repressive action against Fulani herders in Ghana also panders to the same logic of local Ghanaian politics where the Fulani do not only constitute the minority but also wield marginal political influence as a bloc. In the final analysis, the security threat confronting the two agro-land user groups in West Africa should be addressed squarely through a deliberate form of collective and interest-neutral public policy. More fundamentally, the realisation of Goal 2 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which seeks to end hunger by achieving food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture, will remain a wild goose chase in Africa until livestock management is conscientiously modernised. The time to act is now!