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Of ungoverned space, cattle rustling and national security – Part 2



Quite disturbing are reports on attacks by bandits with automatic weapons on herders’ settlements and farms with the mission of killing people and stealing cows. Azeez and Aliyu allude to Ahmadu Suleiman, chairman of the Kaduna State chapter of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria in revealing that between October 2013 and March 2014 approximately 7,000 cattle were rusted from commercial livestock farms and traditional herders in Northern Nigeria. They further revealed that Aminu Bello Masari, the governor of Katsina State “announced the recovery of 30,000 cattle from rustlers within a few months of setting up a joint military operation against the menace”, adding that, in most cases, “rustlers kill and maim their herders and rape the women before dispossessing them of their cows.”

As deadly as the menace of cattle rustling is, it is interesting to note that it is often justified by some acceptable customary rules of engagements among the pastoralist groups involved. This lays credence to what Azeez and Aliyu described as explanatory model of what was dominant before the 1990s and which “associated cattle theft with pastoralists’ cultural traditions or with the effect of ecology on pastoralism” even though it was equally pointed out that cattle raiding at that time was “relatively localised, seasonal, and pursued with mostly traditional weapons, and there was a low level of violence associated with it.’’

Relying on Katsuyoshi and Turton, and Nganga, Aliyu further illuminated the cultural dimension of the explanation on cattle rustling as an explanation of the pastoralists’ cultural imagery of bravery and warring tradition, generational contests, or an unforgiving revenge-seeking venture. It is further argued that cattle-rustling is traceable to the notion of either scarcity of pasture land and water and the continued struggle over access to resources which often culminated in conflicts among rival groups.


After the 1990s there was a shift in the explanatory model as occasioned by the proliferation of modern sophisticated weapons as well as the emergence of ready market for the quick disposal of stock which invariably paved way for the influx of non-pastoralist actors into the cattle-rustling enterprise. Consequently, cattle theft was inspired by the logic of localised stock redistribution among participating pastoralist communities, and the practice assumed what Alamika, Okoli and Okpaleke described as translocational and transnational character. There later was cattle rustling as a “predatory enterprise” in the language of Flesher (2002) with what Azeez and Aliyu characterised as a “vent for surplus” which consequently metamorphosed into highly commercialised and profit-oriented ventures. Today, there is ample evidence to the effect that cattle rustling, as rightly noted by Kwaja (2014) has become a part of an organised criminal underworld franchise.”

Among the factors aiding the prevalence of cattle rustling in contemporary Nigeria is the dwindling living conditions of the herdsmen which stem from the outcome of the climate change and the attendant resource conflicts which precipitate criminal dispositions among the herdsmen. This factor is aided by the easy access to arms and ammunition which facilitate the proliferation of criminal operations among unscrupulous elements in the country. These two factors find support in the high tendency for armed agitations in the country which are being exploited as sources of funding for group struggles.

A two-in-one factor may be identified in the nature and location of grazing fields which make difficult the monitoring of cattle herd and rather makes easy the practice of cattle rustling. In this connection, it is often rationalised in some quarters that the herder may be constrained to defend himself and his livelihood through whatever means he deems fit and affordable. This is where the herder-farmer’s conflict most often becomes inevitable. The farmers’ incursions into the herders’ grazing zone is often regarded by the herder as a violation of rights that must be resisted.

Whenever the herdsmen go militant, there is a threat to human security. Among the consequences of such a threat are loss of livelihood, population displacement, loss of lives and property, and decline in rural productivity and agricultural output. According to Okoli Al-Chukwuma, “loss of livelihoods in turn exposes the affected population to material hardships exemplified in hunger, disease and malnutrition while population displacement involves abrupt dislodgement of rural population from their natural abode – the place of optimal productivity.’’

There has always been an unfavourable effect of herdsmen militancy on rural productivity and agricultural output.

Okoli has argued that once farmers are displaced from an area as a result of herders’ attacks, there will always be a significant drop in agricultural production and output in the affected area. This is now evident in the shortage of farm produce in the rural and urban markets of Central Nigeria as well as in the rising prices of farm produce in the area. A market survey in Makurdi and Lafia, which was relied upon by Okoli suggests a considerable rise in the prices of produce and confirms the trend since 2012.


There are numerous issues begging for the attention of the Federal Government in this regard. The changing demographics, ecological and climate conditions and their impact on agricultural and pastoral production systems is, one. The land, land-use rights and alienation of land in rural banditry and conflicts, is another. The need for the enhancement of the state capacity in the provision of security, is another. In all these, it is incontrovertible that the security operatives especially in the rural areas are under-equipped to address the challenge involved here. There may be need to strengthen the traditional conflict resolution mechanism with a view to providing a back-up to the declining capacity of the conventional security agencies. It may not be out of place to investigate the alleged involvement of some of the security agents in the conflicts.

Proliferation of small arms and light weapons is another area that must be addressed in connection with the rise in criminality and insecurity in rural areas. The catastrophic effect of this has been experienced in the form of the brutal acts of banditry by criminal gangs in Zamfara, Benue and Plateau states. In the 2015 report by the Centre for Democracy and Development, it was documented that these practices are gradually manifesting in the emergence of criminal economy where raids are organised for commercial purposes, especially against livestock. It is indeed clear that banditry and cattle rustling in particular can neither be profitable nor sustained for any length of time except if there is ready market for the rustled livestock.

Given the prevalence of rural banditry and conflicts in other parts of Africa especially East and the Central Africa, it may not be out of place to explore the possibility of collaborating with such countries in the areas of policy formulations and capacity building for the purpose of combating the menace. The strength of this line of thinking lies in the fact that seasonal movements of transhumance, the impact of environment and ecology, demographic changes, as well as domestic agricultural and livestock development policies are not without implications with international dimensions. The Federal Government is enjoined to kindly respond by dispatching security operatives to the ungoverned space in the country and providing a comprehensive appropriate interventions (as recommended above) for the purpose of combating the menace of cattle rustling.

Rufai is Ag. Dean, Faculty of Education, Sokoto State University.


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