Almost every week, we hear of clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers. Sandwiched between the more explosive reports of the Boko Haram violence and the political junketing towards 2015, we lose sight of the fact that people are dying regularly to this simmering crisis and generation-long enmities are being created. The clashes are not restricted to any one area of the country. It is just as normal to hear of such clashes in Benue as it is in Sokoto, Edo, Delta, Yobe and Anambra. It would seem that the single common factor in all these clashes is the presence of Fulani herdsmen and their flock. It has led many people to take the position that these herdsmen must be nothing but a murderous lot. But this is a lack of understanding of the underlying issues – what we are witnessing is a clash of two very different lifestyles without the provision of a proper framework for these interactions and mutually agreeable conflict resolution mechanisms.
We have a tendency as Nigerians not to confront the realities that life throws at us, preferring to condemn and battle the symptoms. The first reality we must face is this – the Sahel is fast becoming desert. Lake Chad has shrunk from over 26,000 square kilometer in 1960 to less than 1,350 square kilometers today. That is a calamity, to say the least. People who were on the shores of the lake only a decade ago now have to travel over 50km to get to the shores.
As the water resources in the Sahel region has shrunk, the available grazing lands have disappeared as well. This has led the herders to lead their flocks deeper and deeper into the south in search of pasture. This is the reality in West and Central Africa wherever the Sahel meets the greener southern regions.
What compounds the issue is that of porous national boundaries. By their way of life, the pastoralists move their cattle across national borders. The homogenous culture and language in the areas they are from across the borders mean it is near impossible to stop this movement. Even if it were possible, it would be counter-productive to do so. Many of the southern markets depend on the meat from the pastoralists and this is the only way they know to raise livestock. The largest cattle market in West Africa for example is at Potiskum in Yobe State. Cattle herders bring cattle from as far as the northern borders of Niger and Sudan to trade there.
The proliferation of small arms in the region due to the various ongoing crises adds a further dangerous dimension to the issues. What we have is therefore is armed people on both the pastoralist and the farmer sides clashing repeatedly over limited resources.
The purpose of government is to resolve these kinds of problems – organizing people to utilize scarce resources in a manner that reduces conflicts to the barest minimum, and where conflicts occur, providing a mechanism for resolving them without allowing the citizens resort to violence. Where this is absent, there is a fundamental failure of government.
As is usually the case with our problems in Nigeria, the solutions to these issues are pretty straightforward – it is the will and discipline to implement and institutionalize them that is lacking. In the colonial times, there were designated grazing routes stretching from present day Niger Republic all the way to Southern Nigeria. Today, these grazing routes have been blocked by buildings and farmland. There is presently a bill before the National Assembly to rectify this and define grazing routes as well as provide veterinary services and cattle resting areas across the country. These routes will be designed in such a way that it will be difficult for cattle to leave them and stray into farmland. The bill will also provide a framework to resolve disputes and empower personnel that will do this. One wonders why such an important bill is not getting express reading in the National Assembly to pass it into law. Of course passing it into law will not automatically solve the problem. Implementing what is passed is key, but there must be something to implement first. Rather than set up reactionary silo-type committees to look into specific instances of violent clashes, can we have this bill passed into law!
We also need to begin to take our environment more seriously. Claiming back the desert must become a priority for all the governments in the region. Rehabilitating Lake Chad is a regional challenge. All the members of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, Chad and Libya) must make it a priority to complete the Inter Basin Water Transfer Project from the Oubangui River to Lake Chad. That way, the basin and the wetlands it provides will become fertile again for the pastoralists to graze their flock, reducing the potential of conflict.
It is also important for government to ensure that violence carried out by and against the Fulani herders is punished. Any herder within the borders of Nigeria must abide by the laws here; they must not take laws into their hands by killing and maiming people. The government must punish instances of attacks that result in loss of lives and property. The violence is however not one way. One of the major complaints from the Fulani herders is that of very violent cattle rustlers. As fierce as the Fulani are, they speak about the cattle rustlers with fear in their voices. There is a report that villages in the Birnin Gwari area of Kaduna state are currently occupied by a murderous band of rustlers. A situation where a herder knows where his stolen cattle are being kept but is powerless to retrieve them is unacceptable. The government must deal with this issue and assure the Fulani herders of their safety and that of their herds.
Finally, education of the Fulani is of critical importance. When one says education, it doesn’t refer to western book knowledge. To the Fulani, this is useless. We must tailor the education we want to give to the pastoral Fulani to their current lifestyle and build from there. Cattle are the most important aspect of their lives. Therefore education to the Fulani will make the most meaning if it is about modernizing their cattle production and management methods. We can then introduce other elements of western education to them as we make progress.
Tunde Leye @tundeleye is a fiction writer. He believes that the stories written form a priceless resource that is the basis of society, all the other arts (film, music, theatre, visual arts) and hence he is committed to telling stories out of Africa that show it as it was, is, and is going to be.
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