We will write this for all to read. Anyone, soldier or not that kills the Fulani takes a loan repayable one day no matter how long it takes . -Nasir Ahmad El Rufai, current Governor of Kaduna State, north west Nigeria writing on his personal Twitter account in 2012.

It is 2015. I am visiting a model grazing reserve which promotes sedentariness of pastoralists and teaches (or at least hopes to teach) modern methods of livestock breeding and dairy production in Nigeria’s federal capital, Abuja. As a majority of transhumant pastoralists in Nigeria are of Fulani extraction, the trepidation of friends and strangers who have heard of my visit is evident, almost tactile. Someone writes to me: “Be careful.” Another says, “Take care, you know how those people are.” A third person online whom I do not know lashes out on Twitter: They are terrorists.

In the days leading up to my grazing reserve visit I have spoken to several Fulani, most of them pastoralists. There is nothing to suggest that I should take the concern seriously — I have observed firsthand nothing out of the ordinary with the Fulani. Only the same concerns for life and safety, the same joie de vivre during festivities, the same mourning that follows loss. There is however nothing I can say to balance this story in the minds of some, many of whom repeat stereotypes and even quotes like that above by a politician of Fulani extraction. For these people context means nothing in the face of what they might term tangible evidence: news reports of Fulani pastoralists attacking villages or farming communities, and statements fuelling the stereotype of the Fulani propensity for revenge. More recently, the widespread conflict in Nigeria (across most regions but mostly concentrated in the North West and North Central) involving nomadic pastoralists — often identified in news reports as “Fulani herdsmen” — and settled communities have been, by many accounts responsible for more deaths than the deadly Islamist Boko Haram with some dubbing this conflict the “next Boko Haram”. The conflict is almost always, to varying degrees, connected to grazing rights and transhumance.

Pastoralism in Nigeria

Movement of cattle through the area now known as Nigeria is older that the nation itself. Indeed some have traced the appearance of the Fulani and their cattle in Hausaland (in what is now northern Nigeria) as far back as the 12th century. Long before the British invaded and created Nigeria, emirates which formed the Sokoto Caliphate(which replaced the Hausa kingdoms) had a well established relationship with pastoralists through an organized tax system known as jangali, a tax on livestock. This formal relationship ensured that pastoralists had land to graze on in both dry and wet seasons and led to a delineation of grazing routes all across the caliphate. Colonial laws introduced in 1904 and 1906 preserved this aspect of taxation on livestock. With the preservation of the tax stayed the preservation of grazing routes. While the end of colonialism did not signal the end of grazing routes, political developments in Nigeria which saw the creation of more states and a Land Use Act in 1978, put land under the control of states with no corresponding legal preservation of grazing and stock routes. This has made it easy for local and even legal encroachment onto erstwhile grazing routes by farmers and communities, and leading to conflict with transhumant pastoralists.

It has been estimated that as much as 50% of all pastoralists are semi nomadic, sending out cattle to areas with more arable land away from the Sahel during dry season and return to their bases during the wet season.

Land Use Policy

Nigeria’s Land Use Act puts land under the control of the individual states without protecting grazing routes that cut across them. As states slowly become urbanised, land once secure for grazing gets sold off for farming or other development. In the rural areas where land is still disbursed by traditional authorities — district heads and chiefs — there is hardly any regard for land that was on the grazing path of pastoralists.

As the country has been unable to create a national land use policy that recognises the real pressure on fertile, green land as a result of decreasing rainfall, desertification, and the increasing sedentariness of nomads escaping disease, banditry and the general discomfort of transhumance, conflict has become rife between pastoralists (semi-nomadic and/or agro) and the settled communities which they live in or pass through, or graze in — everywhere from the arable land in the south of Kaduna in north-west/central Nigeria far down to Enugu in the south east.

Banditry and the ethnic dimension

I am on the phone to Mohammed Tukur, a lawyer and pastoralist (of Fulani extraction), learning more about the recent violent clashes in Kaduna State and trying to understand the different routes of transhumance from the Sahel into Nigeria. He is explaining how complicated and organized rural banditry has become. From kidnapping to cattle rustling, bandits have connected to the larger organized criminals groups who provide partnership in the disposition of stolen cattle or the collection of ransoms. Mohammed tells me about his relative who was kidnapped not too long ago. “The Fulani boys” who took him insisted on a ransom, even though he tried to get authorities involved at the highest level he could.

A source privy to a high profile kidnapping of expatriates in north central Nigeria also informs me that the persons who first kidnapped these expatriates were in fact of Fulani extraction before they handed them over to professional (non-Fulani) kidnappers who negotiated the ransom. Every mention in the media of an armed robbery by persons suspected to be Fulani adds to the stereotype of the armed marauding Fulani herdsman even though banditry and crime often involves people from many ethnic groups at different points in the chain of crime. Fulani pastoralists often isolated in rural areas, are themselves major victims of banditry and cattle rustling regardless of the ethnic group of the bandits perpetrating the crime. Lawan, a herder I chatted to in Abuja told me that the Fulani herder is used to herding with basic weapons, machetes or dane guns, because of “the nature of his existence”. “But,” he adds, “if you see someone with a pistol, an AK-47, or other bigger guns that is not herding. Such a person has other motives.” Often, the reprisal and conflicts that arise therefrom receive more coverage than say the theft of cows from a lone herdsman in a forest or his murder in a village. The initial conflict between a farmer and a herder is less likely to be reported than the retaliation that may follow. All too often, the headline “Fulani herdsmen attack village” is enough to feed the stereotype of a bloodthirsty, expansionist ethnic group.

Grazing reserves

Many experts have proposed the establishment of grazing reserves as as least a partial solution to the violent conflicts between Fulani pastoralists and settled communities. More recently, “cattle colonies” have been suggested as a temporary, if not permanent solution to the increasing killings in places like Benue, Kaduna and Plateau states, a suggestion many in those states have railed against. Nigeria has been mulling a grazing reserve law for years but this law has suffered setbacks each time it has appeared before federal law makers. In 2016, senators voted for the withdrawal of a bill that sought to create grazing areas across the country with the argument being made that is unconstitutional because legislation over land belonged to the states and not the federal government . While it might seem a common sense approach to the matter, the issue of setting land aside in north central and even southern states for grazing by mostly Muslim, northern Fulani herders is a highly politicized matter that many are not even willing to discuss. One version of the bill creates a Grazing Reserves Commission empowered to acquire “any land in respect of which it appears to the Commission that grazing on such land should be practiced.” On one extreme end of the rejection spectrum, a few have gone as far as making the charge that the designation of land across the country for grazing by predominantly Muslim pastoralists is a ploy to slowly Islamize Nigeria.

The decrepit facilitates at the model grazing reserve I visited in Abuja, from a vet clinic that had no vet, to a nomadic school with hardly any seats and a pasteurization machine that had broken down hardly acts as a attractive option for transhumant pastoralists.

Failure of state

All across Nigeria, militias and vigilantes regularly spring up to tackle immediate and long term security concerns in the absence of a police force that is capable of securing lives and property especially outside the major cities. From violent crime to ethnic conflict, security forces have proved largely incapable of protecting lives and property or investigating and meting out justice to perpetrators. In one major incident in north central Nigeria where up to 300 persons reportedly died in an apparent reprisal attack, a Fulani leader was quoted blaming the cycle of violence on the killing of a Fulani clan head who was negotiating justice at a district head’s office (for an earlier incident involving the killing of a herdsman and the theft of up to 200 cows).

Where the security forces do intervene in an attempt to quell or prevent the spread of violent clashes, they often have only one strategy: brute force, leaving in their trail destruction, harassment and death.

Cycle of revenge

In another case in the north western state of Kaduna, the Governor alleged that the recent spike in attacks by men said to be “Fulani herdsmen” were reprisals for killings of pastoralists during the violence that followed the 2011 national elections. While the brutal attacks on villages across especially north central Nigeria persist, bodies of Fulani pastoralists also emerge and acrimony grows, forcing the conflict to evolve from one for resources to an ethnic or ethno-religious one.

The increasing absence of a timeous dispute resolution apparatus in communities, whose arable land is a magnet for herders, and the lack of rural development and security is a recipe that will keep feeding and growing the cycle of violence — violence Nigeria cannot afford.

Until a time that Nigeria is able to create a land use policy that works for states, farmers and pastoralists as well as take its internal security (especially in the rural areas) seriously, blame, attacks and reprisals will continue and will morph into more complicated political problems across the country. And where there is no way of getting justice from the State, people often feel pressed to exact justice for themselves. In many respects this is the sad story of Nigeria: self help — from economic and social self help to self help for “justice” — driven by decades of dysfunction and irresponsible leadership.

Nigeria’s population keeps growing. It’s land does not. The pressures on now fertile land will continue to grow. Communities aren’t going anywhere and neither are pastoralists who are increasingly choosing sedentary agro-pastoralism over nomadism. I used to think there was something culturally sacred about nomadism until I met herders in the fields and on grazing reserves who all demolished that idea in my head. Aliyu Ghana for example, travelled all the way from Ghana to live on a grazing reserve in Abuja, Nigeria because he had heard there was a school there. All he wants, he says to me: pasture, a nomadic school for his children, a vet clinic and water. And I suspect that his children will want much more.

*first published in German in the German edition of Le Monde Diplomatique

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