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On herders and farmers

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Residents fleeing Tse Igbudu Taraka and Bakin Kota communities in Benue State yesterday following the outbreak of Fulani herdsmen killing, which has left 50 people dead.

The violence between farmers and herdsmen has taken a new dimension in recent weeks. Indeed, the problems are not new, and many have been warning about the potential for an escalation in violence for months.

Since the issue remains on the front burner, it is useful to get a sense of what the underlying issues are.

Nigeria has a very interesting geography with respect to cattle. The northern parts are ideal for cattle herding during the rainy season when the grass is green, and the rivers are flowing.

However, for almost half the year, there are no rains and the region dries up, making it not so ideal for herding. The inverse occurs in the south.

In the rainy season the south is mostly very bad for cattle due to abundance a tsetse flies, an insect that thrives during the rainy season and causes trypanosomiasis, a disease that can be deadly for cattle and humans. The tsetse flies are less of a problem in the dry season.

This geographic pattern is the primary reason why herdsmen, not just in Nigeria but across most of the Sahel, tend to migrate with their cattle often. Contrary to popular opinion, they don’t just migrate because they feel like walking around.

Their migration is a strategy to deal with the geographic challenges. They migrate south during the dry season when the tsetse flies are less of a challenge in the south and food and water get scarce in the north. They then migrate north when the rains start and the tsetse flies become a problem in the south, but food and water become less scarce in the north.

This strategy for herders has worked historically, because there was enough room for herders to migrate without interfering with the activities of farmers. Farmers and herders have incompatible uses for land. Herders want to eat the crops while farmers want to grow the crops. However, even though the strategy may have worked in the past, it may not be feasible in the present. For starters the population of both people, and probably cattle, has grown tremendously over the last 100 years.

In 1921 there were approximately 16 million people living in Nigeria. As at 2018 the National Bureau of Statistics estimates there are over 190 million Nigerians living in Nigeria. The number of cattle has also exploded exponentially too, with the last livestock survey in 2016 putting the number of cattle at almost 20 million plus about 41 million sheep, not including goats and pigs and the others.

Climate change also implies that the amount of land farmers have to work with has decreased as well. According to studies, an estimated 315,000 of Nigeria’s total land size of 909,890 square kilometres has already been lost to desertification. What this all means is we have a lot more people, and farmers, a lot more cattle, and less land to work with. And the numbers keep growing too.

In essence, the situation was always going to become untenable.

In hindsight, the spark that lights the conflict is also obvious. While driving around Abuja over the weekend I stumbled on a herd of cattle being guided by two boys who could not have been older than 15. The economist in me thought to estimate the value of all that cattle and I estimated it at somewhere around three million naira.

Think about it. If you walked around the bush with three million naira worth of gold, or diamonds, or even cash, you probably will get robbed. So why not cattle? Robberies then kick off a vicious cycle of distrust and violence, and the rest is history.

In thinking about solutions to the conflicts between herders and farmers, it is important to understand the underlying challenges that result in violence. In this context, sending troops to enforce peace, or arming local militia to do same is unlikely to solve the problems.

At the core, the challenge is a land use problem and the key question is making clear who has the rights to use what land for what, enforcing those rights, and delivering justice when those rights are breached. The current land tenure law, specifically with regards to rural areas, which leaves land administration in the hands of traditional authority to administer in an ad-hoc manner is incapable of acting as the foundation for ending the crisis. It needs reform.

The question, of how to move food and water to cattle, as opposed to cattle moving to food, also needs to be answered. Finally, the state governments need to start to see cattle as valuable assets that need protection.

Ultimately, the herders need to accept that the old ways of doing things might no longer be feasible. We need to collectively think of a new way.

Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.


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