The long read: Nigeria’s War of the Land
The herders cry, the packed crowd divides, and a vast column of cattle charges through the swirling dust, their long sharp horns swaying like a forest.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of beasts push their way forward, trampling the ground strewn with plastic bags.
It is mid-morning but already the heat is blistering. The buyers have arrived, and the hard bargaining can begin.
The scene is Agege market in Lagos — the largest livestock trading hub in West Africa.
Here, each day, 50 truckloads of livestock are disgorged into its maw to supply the 20 million inhabitants of Africa’s biggest city.
Nigeria has nearly 200 million mouths to feed, a figure expected to grow to almost 400 million by 2050.
Going hand-in-hand with this population boom is a vast, expanding market for meat and milk.
And that demand, in turn, is having invisible, but wrenching, repercussions on Africa’s most populous country.
The long trek
Agege is, literally, a terminus for the animals. They have been raised and fattened by nomadic Fulani herders many hundreds of kilometres away, sold at rural markets and ultimately brought to the mega-city.
Some cattle, exhausted by the journey and weak from disease, collapse on arrival.
Lying on their sides, panting with protruding ribs, they seem like they are preparing to give up without a fight. These are not worth a great deal, their flanks too thin for much cash.
But most, fattened up with grain and fodder, show a shiny coat and have the thick thighs of good health.
All have come over vast distances: walking at first, then packed into large cattle trucks for the final leg to Lagos.
Today, their journey is almost over. Just a short walk away lie the city’s giant slaughterhouses.
In a grubby car park, refrigerated vans are already waiting to load the meat.
Aisha Maila is one of the few women in the organised chaos of the sprawling market.
The elderly lady is marrying off her daughter in a few days and wants the celebrations to be something special.
She is not rich, so she has come to buy the wedding dinner direct from the source.
“How much for that big white bull there?” she asks, but the thousand dollar price-tag is too high.
“Too expensive,” Maila says, scouting out a more modest cow that she can afford.
Maila’s shopping is small stuff. The big business is done between dealers and major butchers.
Gambo Usman has found a potential buyer for his batch of fat-humped, long-horned cows, which have come all the way from neighbouring Chad.
“Yauwa, yauwa,” Usman says in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria, his phone clamped to his ear. “OK, good.”
He explains the terms of the deal to his boss, a wealthy businessman in the northern Nigerian city of Kano.
Usman is only the go-between.
Twice a month, he crosses Nigeria by plane from north to south, travelling nearly a thousand kilometres (600 miles) between Kano and Lagos to sell the animals sent down south.
“The demand is getting bigger, and we sometimes have trouble meeting it,” said Usman, dressed in ripped jeans and muddy boots.
“There are shortages because of violence with farmers. Many herds have been decimated up there.”
“Up there” is Nigeria’s north. The majority of animals coming to the big cities of the south come from the borderlands of Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Cattle and conflict
There, in the dry lands of the Sahel, the ancient way of life of herding is practised by the Fulani, a predominantly Muslim people with long traditions of nomadism.
But the lifestyle is under pressure as never before.
Big herds and big money are at stake: around 120 million cattle, sheep and goats.
Every November, when the dry season begins, the farmers and their animals move south searching for fresh pastures, to where the Niger and Benue rivers water the fertile plains in central Nigeria.
Once, there used to be room for everyone in the “Middle Belt”, the zone where a Muslim-dominated north rubs alongside a largely Christian south.
Each complemented the other: milk was traded for corn, leftover hay from harvests fed the livestock, and dung from cows fertilised the soil.
Tensions could arise, especially when a herd ate or trampled a farmer’s field of crops — but traditional chiefs still had the power to keep the peace between rivals.
Times have changed.
In the north, the tough droughts seem to have been growing ever harder, while the brutal insurgency of Boko Haram has forced tens of thousands of people to flee the lands around Lake Chad.
Meanwhile, parasites that once plagued livestock have declined, opening up the land for cattle.
So the Fulani people are shifting south — often, if they can, for good.
With the dizzying speed of population growth in Nigeria in the late 20th century, land has become the subject of fierce competition.
Step by step, conflicts over crops, water and livestock have grown.
The village of Angwan Aku, in the centre of Nigeria’s north, is now at the heart of a war in which more people have died than in battles against Boko Haram.
The village, once home to settled farmers, a Christian community of the Adara people, was left in ruins in April.
Monica Gabriel, lying on an old mattress on the floor of a nearby clinic covered in a thin red sheet, is a survivor.
A week after the killings, the 48-year-old farmer is still in shock, staring silently into space, the bullets that smashed into both her legs remain stuck inside.
Her shaved head is crossed by a long scar.
On her left wrist, a homemade bandage covers where the assailants hacked her with machetes.
Two nurses wave off the flies which come to feast on the wounds.
Were it not for a small cough that moves her chest, an observer might think she was already dead.
It was just after dawn and Gabriel had been cooking millet porridge for breakfast when a crackle of automatic rifles rang out in Angwan Aku.
“Someone shouted a warning, but we didn’t hear,” said her husband Dauda, his voice trembling as he recalled the moment.
“My mother was killed on the doorstep. My wife tried to run away — but they caught her.”
He has not left his wife’s bedside since.
“We do not know why they attacked us,” he said. “We didn’t do anything to them.”
The gunmen went from house to house, shooting or hacking to death anyone they encountered — men and women, old and young.
In less than two hours, in this village of some 2,000 people, 27 were slaughtered and 16 seriously wounded.
Survivors claim that the attackers were “Fulani”: they say gunmen spoke the Fulani language and had lighter skin and high cheekbones, the stereotyped look of their group.
But beyond that, there is no consensus.
Where did they come from, and what was their motive? Was it a robbery? Were they another gang of bandits, in a country with so many already?
Or was it for revenge? Some blame a court decision on a land dispute, that ruled in favour of the villagers. Others claimed it was an argument over a woman.
As is so often the case, no one knows the truth, for there are as many stories as there are people in these tough lands.
The only certainty is that the terrible spiral of violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt has been given another twist.
In the past five years, the conflict has claimed at least 7,000 lives, and the economic cost is running at $13 billion (11.57 billion euros) annually, according to the NGO Mercy Corps.
Settled farmers, mainly Christian but hailing from several different ethnic groups, boast of ancestral ties to the land, buttressing their claim to own it.
But such claims have been indirectly encouraged by an official policy: the government is throwing its support behind agriculture to diversify Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy.
Month after month of violence has turned swathes of the rural Middle Belt into a wasteland.
You can drive down long dirt tracks for hours, snaking through scenes of devastation, from burned villages of the Adara ethnic group to hamlets abandoned by the Fulani.
In some places, smoke rises from the ruins of houses torched a few days earlier. Flames have reduced motorbikes to skeletons. Piles of corrugated sheets are all that remain of collapsed roofs.
Only the yowls of frightened dogs break the silence.
The dead are speedily buried without a coffin and with the briefest of funerals — laid together in mass graves hastily dug by villagers before scavengers come to rip at their remains.
At the village of Dogon Noma, where 71 people were killed and around 250 houses burned in March, each grave was dug to hold 10 bodies.
The lines looked like a freshly ploughed field.
The aftermath of these attacks is invariably a grim ritual, and one that inevitably drips more poison into this conflict.
Police typically arrive days after the attack. Their investigations lead nowhere. In the absence of justice, frustration metastasises into hatred.
So those who call for peace face a challenge.
On a Sunday morning, preacher Yohanna Buru arrives at the evangelist church in the one-horse town of Mararaban.
The crowds, those forced from their homes from the fighting, have come to communion for the sacrament and bags of food aid that go with it.
“Trust the Lord, only He can save you,” the pastor tells the congregation, wearing big black sunglasses and jeans.
“Do not seek revenge, but pray for your enemies and the salvation of their souls.”
There are murmurs of surprise among those at prayer: this is not the usual vengeful rhetoric of their chiefs and political leaders, whose speeches of anger divide people by ethnicity and religion.
Skeptics say that leaders find casting blame on scapegoats easier than talking about poverty, crippling hunger and unemployment — especially in an election year, like 2019.
Buru the preacher insists: “Fulani are not terrorists”.
In his home in Kaduna — where Islamic Sharia is the law — he invites Muslim preachers to celebrate Christmas and Easter alongside him, and repeats to anyone who wants to hear: “Dialogue is the only way out.”
His voice has became famous in this region, broadcast every Sunday on his own local radio show.
“I am a peacemaker,” Buru says. “But I know that not everyone likes it. I have received threats, intimidation… I am asked why I speak with the enemies of Christians.”
“It’s understandable,” he says after a while. “The land is their only wealth, all they have is to farm it. If we take that away, they have nothing left.”
Cycle of revenge
Oyama Kwanaki is one of those who has already lost everything.
Lying on a hospital bed with a bullet wound, he is a tough man with staring eyes. They flash with anger.
“What I saw that night, I will never forget,” Kwanaki said. “If my path crosses with that of a Fulani, he will pay. I am not able to forgive.”
Revenge is taken communally, not against the men directly responsible.
So now the countryside is full of young men, organised into militia gangs, armed with homemade rifles or bows and arrows, to defend their villages.
“They have AK-47s,” Kwanaki said. “You have to defend yourself.”
The Fulani have come here for countless generations. But because they moved with their animals, they were never seen as settling — and all are often considered “invaders.”
Some 30 to 40 million Fulani people are spread over 15 countries, from the West African coastal state of Senegal to the Central African Republic in the heart of the continent.
Lines on the map of national borders mean little to them; the preservation of the herds are what their lives depend on.
The fact that they have suffered from the violence just as much is largely ignored: such as in February, when 130 of them were massacred in southern Kaduna state in one night alone.
Blamed and then attacked for crimes committed by others, the Fulani families gathered their animals, packed up one after the other, and set off on their way.
Island of calm
At the end of a long track, across bridges half collapsed, a village of round homes of mud walls stands. Here, in the Kachia grazing reserve in Kaduna state, the Fulani live — for the most part — on their own.
The region has been hard hit by the conflict between farmers and herders, but Kachia, earmarked for nomads, is a refuge.
Some 18,000 people lived here four years ago, according to the latest estimates.
But since then people have arrived in droves, fleeing the violence elsewhere.
“There was nothing here when we got there, just the bush,” said Idriss Jamo, the only doctor for far around. “Nobody lands here by choice.”
Jamo is the exception; he came here a few years ago from Kaduna to open his basic clinic.
The clinic has shortages of equipment and drugs, but the patients now at least have one doctor.
“We could have stayed in town, with all the modern comforts,” said Bilkisu, Jamo’s oldest daughter, her hair neatly tucked under a brown headscarf.
“But my father got tired of seeing people die of malaria, and pregnant women lose their child before reaching the hospital,” said 24-year-old Bilkisu, studying microbiology at university in town.
Life is quiet here.
The two mosques call the faithful to prayer five times day, marking out time for the people.
There is also the market and the football pitch, which comes alive when the baking heat drops at dusk.
Phones are quiet: the network doesn’t reach here. There is no internet access, no state electricity.
If you want power for your mobile, you pay a small fee to charge your device at a store with a little generator.
Isa Ibrahim is a herder -– half of the time. Otherwise he drives a motorbike, a taxi driver on two-wheels for hire, offering the escape out of the village the young men aspire to.
Ibrahim, 30, with a beard and his forehead tattooed with stars in the tradition of the Fulani, leaves his wife and children to zoom off for the half-hour trip on the rough tracks to the trading centre on a crossroads.
People simply call it the “Crossing.”
There, among the tin-hut shops with phone network, he can finally call friends, listen to music and –- most importantly –- play pool, the main attraction.
Ibrahim was born in the area nearby, in a small village called Madakyia, at a time when life still revolved around the herd.
Life was for father as it was for son.
The number of cows you counted in the herd was the measure of the man; it was who you were, your wealth, and your social status.
As a boy, he moved with the herds according to the rains in search of grazing, travelling with the animals, before returning to the village.
They no longer lived quite as their ancestors had been; only a tenth of pastoralists now remain fully nomadic.
But he had time to experience a life of camp and bushfires. It was a happy existence.
Then, in 2011, everything shattered.
The post-election violence that followed the presidential election soon divided the Kaduna region along the religious and ethnic lines of its many different peoples.
Christians against Muslims, Fulani against Atyap, Fulani against Ninzom, Fulani against Kaninkom…
The villages burned one after the other.
Eighty members of Ibrahim’s clan were slaughtered in one night alone.
Of their hundred cows, two-thirds were slaughtered. The sheep were stolen.
So Ibrahim’s father and his wives, with 15 children, took refuge like so many others on the reserve.
“The change was difficult,” said Ibrahim. “We started to farm the land because we had lost a lot of animals, so we could not count on that to live on anymore.”
‘The cow is magic’
Ibrahim wakes at dawn to milk the animals he has left before heading to look for work on his motorbike taxi.
The cows’ milk is declining drop by drop and today there is not enough for the family, let alone to sell at market.
Squatting beside a cow, Ibrahim’s 12-year-old brother pushes away a young calf wanting milk from its mother.
In the end, both clinging to the udders, the calf and boy both suck at the rich milk.
The herds are precious. Only when a family member gets sick, or to celebrate a wedding or a birth, does the family sell a cow.
The herd is the family’s bank, a savings account to be drawn on only in dire need.
“The cow is magic, more magical than the fairies!” wrote Fulani writer Tierno Monenembo.
“She feeds, she protects, she guides… She opens the doors of destiny.”
But times are tough, and Ibrahim hankers for the old days.
“The flock is no longer a symbol of wealth, but of survival,” he said sadly.
“It has become impossible to go 10 kilometres in the bush without crossing a field, which is when we have problems with the farmers.
“The grazing routes no longer exist. Everything is cultivated.”
Nigeria, on the advice of the World Bank, set down plans as early as 1964 to protect 10 percent of the country for grazing lands for livestock herders.
But the promises of the Grazing Reserve Act were largely ignored.
Only a fraction of the reserves ever emerged.
Of the 415 reserves planned, about a hundred were gazetted, meaning that their creation was officialised, although only 20 are actually up and running.
But as the conflict spreads, the calls grow louder for the law to be implemented in the hope that the herders will settle for good — and that the violence ends.
The Kachia Grazing Reserve, where Ibrahim lives, is supposed to be a model example.
Kalashnikovs and codeine
For Ibrahim, it is now too dangerous to leave the reserve.
“With the theft of cattle, bandits and criminals are everywhere,” he said.
“We never go far with the animals. We are poor, but here at least we are safe, and our children are going to school.”
He himself did not have that chance.
He wanted to be a vet, looking after the animals of his people -– but violence and poverty meant he never got the chance.
In Kachia, there are 21 primary schools and one secondary school – for nearly 6,000 students.
All are “nomadic schools”, set up over two decades ago to provide access for herders to give their children education.
But the bitter fact remains: Out of the 10-15 million cattle herders in Nigeria, more than three million children do not go to school.
Even in Kachia, the “model” reserve of the Fulani, dreams of a glittering future crash and burn inside the decrepit walls of schools.
More than 120 children squeeze into a classroom, many without desks, benches or notebooks.
Yusuf Abubakar is 16 years old — but in second year at school. He struggles to speak English fluently.
Yet he still dreams of one day becoming governor, to “do what others have not done… to bring peace to the people, build schools and hospitals.”
In the oldest school, established in 1990, there are four teachers for 860 pupils.
Lessons fall back onto learning by rote; students recite — without fault and in song — the capitals of the 36 states of the country.
“More than 90 percent of Kachia’s youth are unemployed — they sit in the village,” said 29-year-old teacher Shitu Abdullahi. “Some smoke cannabis or drink codeine.”
The cough syrup of codeine, an opiate used to treat pain, numbs reality.
“They do not want to take care of livestock anymore, but they do not have a diploma, no qualifications,” said Abullahi. “How do you want them to cope?”
Curse of crime
The statistics are sketchy, but everyone will say it: the crime rate among Fulani youth has exploded in northern Nigeria.
In the troubled state of Zamfara, large-scale cattle thefts and kidnappings for ransom have become the norm.
“Many of those who lost everything in attacks have gone to get weapons to defend themselves, and also started to get involved in kidnappings and cattle rustling,” said Malam Mansur Isah Buhari, a university lecturer in Sokoto.
An AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle costs around $100.
Within the gang structure, the Fulani are minions, although there is a lot of money at stake for leaders.
The spiral of violence is endless. No one is spared.
“Criminals act indiscriminately, the Fulani attack Fulani, who seek in turn a way to survive,” Isah Buhari said.
The stolen animals are loaded alive on trucks, untraceable in the vast marketplace of the livestock economy.
There are eager buyers and the animals pass from dealer to dealer.
Money changes hands, until, eventually, the animals join that gruelling forced march to Lagos, and their rendezvous with the slaughterhouse.
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