Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica — since 1993
By a curious subterfuge, cattle and their handlers have finally managed to conquer centre stage in our national attention and discourse. Our security agencies and nearly all state governors are now engrossed in some form of interrogation of the herders’ menace. A few weeks ago, all the governors of the South West states held an urgent unscheduled meeting. The herders’ menace was the only item on the agenda. Earlier this week, all the 19 governors of the northern states similarly converged mostly virtually on the same note. Similarly, few days ago, the National Assembly announced that on resumption, it will join the raging cattle and herders debate. At the federal level, Ministers, nabobs of power and the usual Aso Rock chatter appliances are avoiding the long horns of the cattle and the sharp knives of their herders through all manner of creative verbal escapism.
That is where we are now, at the sorry juncture in our national descent into laughable oddity where the most important issue in national discourse is an epidemic of security discomfort caused by cattle and their herders.
The herder as trouble maker is the latest iteration of Nigeria’s growing army of seasonal attention seekers. Suddenly, we are now divided on the basis of where people stand in relation to herders and their cattle and all the violence and mayhem they have unleashed on us all. A nation beset by a cocktail of frightening existential problems is sadly frozen on cattle herders and their criminal trail.
Mind you, we are not discussing our epic inequality and mass poverty. We are not debating the total institutional decay in our system of governance. Our economists are struck dumb on our options of economic survival in the post-pandemic era. No clear strategy has been articulated by those paid to do so on how best to end an embarrassing spate of unprecedented insecurity. There are no serious panels and study groups examining options to remedy the desperate disrepair in our healthcare and education systems. Our university students have been locked out of campus for the better part of the last one year. Our medieval infrastructure is being tackled in fits and starts through a series of ‘patch patch’ contracts. Above all these, all we are now left with is this obsessive preoccupation with a peasant debate about cattle, their herders and the dangerous nuisance they have become.
As a result, all manner of unexpected actors have come centre stage to lead the national conversation on insecurity. Some cattle breeders association called Miyetti Allah that no one heard of prior to the Buhari presidency has emerged from prehistoric obscurity into national prominence. It now has a voice that is at once political and geo strategic. It has graduated from a special interest association of cattle traders into a faction of the geo -ethnic scramble for national pre-eminence. They now attract newspaper front page headlines. Miyetti Allah leaders now sit at table with state governors to deliberate not just on how best to escort their cattle to markets across the country but on the security of states and the nation.
As matters stand now, we might go into the 2023 election season with cattle and their herders as well as the nationwide insecurity they have generated as the major public issue for campaigns. And if care is not taken, the electoral outcomes of key contests in 2023 may in fact be influenced, if not determined, by the positions of key politicians on herdsmen, their wares and violent criminal ways. This is the tragic state of Nigeria’s march into modernity in 2021: literally a Federal Republic of cattle rearers with citizens as mere subjects and victims! It may also be part of the unintended legacy of this season of political and cultural regression.
May be it is a fortuitous accident born of prolonged tolerance. Suddenly, the harmless itinerant herdsmen that have long been part of our ancient cattle rearing and transportation culture have made a dangerous detour into unfamiliar and dangerous departments. They have entered a competition for pre-eminence as agents of violent criminality. Today, if the police were to rank the principal suspects in major crimes involving the misuse of firearms all over the country in recent months, the activities of herdsmen would occupy a position somewhere towards the top of the scale. From innocently escorting their cattle across distances to grazing fields and markets throughout the country, herdsmen have diversified into criminal enterprises ranging from transactional kidnapping, armed robbery, serial rape and wanton destruction of farmland. Supposed herdsmen are killing people on an industrial scale, burning people’s houses on their grazing route communities, razing whole communities and spreading hate and instability even in places that had hosted them for decades.
Regrettably, the matter has been gravely mismanaged. As a consequence, we may be gradually headed for a sad place. Quit notices along ethnic lines are being recklessly issued by both governors and sundry ethnic mob leaders. In some cases, forceful evictions of fellow Nigerians is being encouraged by otherwise responsible citizens. Ethnic mob leaders have been officially enabled and conferred with a new impetus and fresh importance. Threats of reprisals and the free exchange of abuse and incendiary rhetoric by all manner of sectional champions have worsened a bad situation. Political adventurism of the sort that thrives in Nigeria has found a fertile climate and abundant raw material. It is a free for all for different tribes of mischief merchants and reckless power opportunists.
Sadly, both the governments’ handling of the herdsmen matter and the general public discourse on it have been full of political heat and little common sense or enlightenment. Let us make no mistake about it. The major political origins of the herdsmen matter is rooted in the origins and nativity of the Buhari presidency. The president is himself a known cattle farmer with a small ranch in Daura. No one knows whether his investment in this enterprise includes ownership of a few itinerant herders and their flock among the many squads roaming the length and breadth of Nigeria. There is a widely canvassed notion by Miyetti Allah that the president may in fact be one of their key patrons.
In addition, the president’s Fulani nativity is not disguised.
While no one can point precisely at too many overtly pro -Fulani statements by Mr. Buhari, his overtly provincial nepotism and nativism indicate a narrow definition of who he considers ‘his people’. Never mind the political correctness of ‘I belong to all…” Therefore, a great deal of the debate on the herders menace is conditioned by a certain sensitivity to the president’s stake, body language and ecological location in the matter. Understandably, the positions of major political stakeholders on the herders crisis range from studied silence, deliberate obfuscation to studied indifference and disguised support clothed in political double speak.
Predictably, politics, emotions and primordial sentiments have been allowed to mix and flood the scene thereby clouding sensible policy discourse. Politicians are playing up the north-south divide. Sectional minded people are blaming the matter on a silly Fulani plot to overrun the rest of the country for whatever reason. Some regionalists are even using the herdsmen aberration to advance the raging arguments for a restructuring and balkanization of the country into insular enclaves literally fenced off from the excesses of troublesome neighbours. In the process, the rationality and policy clarity that ought to drive public debate on a matter of grave national importance is nowhere in evidence.
Stripped of political undertones and diversionary manoeuvers, however, I see the herdsmen menace as a function of three elements that can be separated and decisively dealt with by any serious minded government. These are, first, an urgent need to modernize our cattle industry in a manner that phases out migratory grazing. Next is the urgent need to treat crimes by herdsmen as simply crimes and therefore subject them to the same law enforcement and criminal justice regimes to which other criminals are subject. Third is to face the challenges of diversity management as a principle of governance in a diverse polity.
We need to face a reality. The present practice of migratory cattle grazing across long distances and vast expanses has expired. It belongs to an ancient stage in the development of human societies and cattle farming. Strictly speaking, we are confronted with a crisis of regulation in a sector of the agricultural industry. Cattle rearing and breeding are business undertakings mostly by private individuals. It requires appropriate regulation to protect the larger public from the abuses to which it, like any other form of business, can be subject. When a form of business becomes stuck in a mode of production that lags behind the current state of best practices in its industry, it is overdue for oversight intervention. Part of the regulatory responsibility of government is to compel practitioners in that industry to embrace more modern and less disruptive methods.
Worse still, if the reluctance to modernize poses a threat to public good and safety, it is time to phase out or outrightly proscribe the practice of that industry in its present form.
Even from point of view of profitability of a from of business, the present primitive grazing of disease riddled and underweight cattle across thousands of kilometers in the country cannot guarantee a healthy meat supply nor be a profitable business proposition for the cattle owners. The paltry return on investment for cattle owners and the general low wages of the herders may be a factor in making violent crime attractive for them in quest of more decent incomes.
For a country that parades itself as hungry for competitiveness in agriculture, the present subsistence peasant stage of our cattle industry ought to bring nothing but shame. On the global scale of cattle production, Nigeria ranks abysmally low.
For the avoidance of doubt, there is no relationship between productive cattle farming and the ancient nomadism we seem stuck to. Most modern societies have since left that behind. Even Nigeria has largely turned its back on antiquated cultures but only clings to some aspects when it is politically convenient. Those in Abuja and the state capitals arguing in favour of retaining open grazing are themselves clutching sophisticated smart phones, driving state of the art cars and living in Hollywood grade homes with touch screen everything. But they conveniently want to consign millions of our countrymen to a pre-Medieval mode of agricultural production that imprisons them in congenital wandering and unrelieved poverty.
The nations with the largest cattle inventories and which produce most of the world’s meat stock have no migratory grazing. According to FAO figures on World Cattle Inventory, the top six countries are Brazil (212 million), India (190 million), China (114 million), United States (90 million), Ethiopia (54 million) and Argentina (51 million). Nigeria has only 20 million heads of mostly disease riddled, emaciated cattle and ranks 14th in the global inventory, accounting for a miserable 1.36% of the global number. But we lead the world in the number of violent crimes attributed to cale herdsmen. As a matter of fact, the other leading cattle producers have no nomads or herdsmen at all. Has anyone heard of Indian, Chinese or American nomads killing people and burning houses?
Our challenge is therefore one of modernization of cattle production as a sub set of our overall agricultural production strategy. Happily, Mr. Buhari has relentlessly harped on agriculture as focal to his agenda. Let us then insist that within the next 24 months, it will become criminal to be found roaming Nigeria with cattle. In return, the Central Bank should dedicate funds to encourage settled cattle farming through the establishment of ranches and large-scale cattle farms. The northern states should in fact compete as to who achieves 100% settled cattle farming fastest in return for a federal grant. I guess the settled cattle farms should boast of modern amenities and would create massive employment opportunities both for re-trained herdsmen and other unemployed young Nigerians.
On the matter of criminality and law and order, the matter is simpler. Herdsmen who veer into criminal undertakings pose only a challenge of crime control and law enforcement. Crime remains crime as defined by our criminal code and should be investigated, prosecuted and punished accordingly irrespective of the colour, size, ethnic origin or faith of the criminal. Herdsmen, traders, farmers, fishermen or any other category of Nigerians who commit crimes should be treated equally in line with the democratic principle of equality before the law.
To content ourselves with referring to the new mindless criminals as Fulani ‘herdsmen’ is to use occupational and ethnic profiling to glorify the activities of common criminals.
On the law and order aspect, we may be overburdening the federal government unfairly. It is strictly not a federal government burden when criminal herdsmen commit crimes in various states. State governors as state chief security officers and their various attorneys general have a responsibility to ensure law and order in their domains. The various state police commissioners have a clear mandate when it comes to dealing with criminal activities within their states. It would be a sad day when attorneys general in states apprehend and prosecute criminal herdsmen and some overbearing federal agency orders a reprieve.
The political challenge of the herdsmen crisis belongs in a different realm. It is the zone of diversity management in which nearly all tiers of our government have fared poorly. A situation in which itinerant cattle herding has become historically synonymous with the Fulani, demands that we take a closer look at the peculiar sociological and cultural challenges of the Fulani as an essentially migrant nationality in the nation. Previous efforts to use political fiat to find settlement for the Fulani all over the country have not helped the cause of the group. Political contrivances like the failed RUGA settlement scheme, the Water Resources Bill and other gimmicks have merely tended to isolate and profile the Fulani as a territorially ambitious and conquest minded group. These gambits have merely united the rest of Nigerian nationalities against the Fulani in a needless cloud of political suspicion.
There are clear policy options if we want to confront the peculiar problems of the Fulani in the context of the migratory herding culture. Nigeria is not the only country that has had to confront a similar problem. Israel inherited a similar situation with Bedouin desert Arabs when Israel was established. These groups had settlements and migrated from one location to the other with their livestock. They were an insular culture onto themselves and sought to keep the territories where they settled or through which they migrated their livestock. But their pattern of livelihood did not guarantee them full citizenship rights in education, property ownership, modernization and even optimum agricultural productivity. They also tended to disturb the peace in clashes with the new settlers and even the authorities.
Israel dealt with the matter as a challenge of modernization of agricultural production and the spread of the benefits of citizenship to all irrespective of pre-existing ethnic or cultural peculiarities. The government applied a combination of settlement modernization and integration, affirmative action in education, agricultural credit and modernization of animal farming techniques. There were programmes of deliberate empowerment of the Bedouin communities to a point where they have become hardly distinguishable in terms of standards of life and enlightenment from the rest of Israeli society. They still have their cultural identity but as full Israeli citizens.
Some of the solutions that Nigerian authorities have conceived over the years are either lazy or downright foolish. To delineate grazing zones or national pasture land by legislative fiat is a lazy stunt replete with future conflicts. To seek to re-decorate the existing ancient culture of migratory grazing as a government public relations gambit is fraudulent. On the contrary, we need
to rise above a tradition that insists that these Nigerians can only realize their potentials as citizens in perpetual homelessness. And the Federal government has over the years consecrated this homelessness into a credo by introducing crude concepts like Nomadic Education and other token palliatives which have ended up stigmatizing and profiling the Fulani.
Like in most of our national problems, the herdsmen challenge urgently demands two elements: enlightened governance and the political will to make modernity serve the common good. To seek a political solution is to take the wrong turn.
The ultimate benefits of a reasoned long term solution to the herders menace belong to all Nigerians. More healthy meat for the nation. More wealth and prosperity for the Fulani and other herders. Above all, enhanced security for the nation we all love.