By Kola King
There’s noticeable beef in the land over cattle. This culinary delight which is the preferred choice of master chefs and aficionados has become the source of anger and anxiety in many parts of the nation. At the moment, Fulani herders who graze cattle are in the crosshairs of the generality of the population because of the quest to provide fodder for their animals. In short, the nation is in the throes of a cattle crisis.
In fact, all through the past year the cattle crisis dominated the airwaves as well as several acres of space in newspapers. Social media also captured the grief and anger caused by conflicts arising from clashes between farmers and herders.
In general, Nigerians get most of their beef from cattle herders who are mostly Fulani from the north. The herders graze their cattle freely across the country, traversing the landscape from north to south, especially during the dry season. It is this free movement of herders and their cattle that has set the nation on edge. Because of this, communities have been torn apart, villages have been burnt to the ground and hundreds of people killed in several clashes between herders and farming communities.
It is important to note that during the colonial era, grazing reserves as well as cattle routes were demarcated and gazzeted by the government. Back then herders moved back and forth with their cattle without any hindrance and without friction with farming communities.
Today, the situation has changed with rapid urbanization and population explosion, leading to encroachment on grazing reserves and cattle routes. In addition, climate change has affected large bodies of water such as the Lake Chad, which provided sustenance for both farmers and herders. Even River Niger and River Benue have shrunk in size and scope. As a result of this development, there’s been mass migration of herders and their cattle for more hospitable regions in the south.
Now things have come to a head with the frequent and bloody clashes over grazing lands between farmers and herders from the rolling fields of the Plateau to the Benue Valley right through the forests of the southwest to the rain forest region of the southeast and mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta. It has been a litany of woe and deaths due to several clashes between herders and farming communities. Even in the far north clashes between herders and farmers also persists.
Moreover, in the middle belt states of Benue, Plateau and Nassarawa, several clashes between herdsmen and farming communities have led to the displacement of people from their ancestral homes with thousands now in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps across the region.
To arrest this ugly development, which had become a source of grave security concern, some governors in the Southwest and Southeast went ahead to ban open grazing in their states and followed this up with anti-open grazing laws to back up their actions. In addition, herders in the forest reserves were expelled from such lands. Due to this development, some herders were forced to relocate and migrate back to the north.
Apart from this, speculations were rife that growing cases of kidnappings in many parts of the south were being perpetrated by some criminal elements among herders in the forests and wilds of the south. In this regard, some states also decided to take a census of herders in their domain to identify herders and separate them from the criminal elements creating havoc and terror in those states.
However, the action of the southern governors have pitted them against the federal government with President Muhammadu Buhari insisting on maintaining grazing reserves and cattle routes for the herders. Even the Attorney General of the federation Malam Abubakar Malami also waded into the matter insisting that governors cannot ban open grazing, saying it’s unconstitutional and against the fundamental rights of the herders to move freely and unmolested across the country. He likened the herders to spare parts traders found across the country plying their trade.
Prior to this, the federal government in 2019 had mooted the idea of Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) settlements across the country but this was opposed by most states in the south. There’s the suspicion that this was a ploy to seize ancestral lands from the natives and thereafter handover such lands to the Fulani herdsmen.
Two years after the suspension of the controversial Rural Grazing Area scheme in July 2019, the Federal Government has replaced it with the Livestock Intervention Programme (LIP) to address the lingering farmer-herder crisis across the country.
The Federal Government LIP scheme will establish eight large herders’ settlements in each of the six pilot states, namely Adamawa, Kwara, Niger, Bauchi, Kaduna and Gombe. The government will build eight large LIP settlements for herders in each of the states.
The acting Director, Animal Husbandry Department, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Winnie Lai-Solarin, had told the Punch in an interview that, “What we have now is the Livestock Intervention Project. And this intervention will take place in the settlements. It might also interest you to know that right now, the intervention has been reduced to six states.”
According to the director, the six pilot states for the LIP are in the North because the region has large settlements and land to grow pasture.
“The states are Adamawa, Kwara, Niger, Bauchi, Kaduna and Gombe,” she noted.
Lai-Solarin said, “When we started, the states were 12 in number. They included Taraba, Adamawa, Plateau, Niger, Nasarawa, Katsina, Zamfara, Kaduna, Sokoto, Kebbi, and Kogi. They were 12 originally.
“And all the states are in the North. The speculation and media reports made people start saying the government wanted to take people’s lands in the South-West, South-East and others.”
She added, “There was never a time that we included states in the South. Rather, speculation and miscommunication gave rise to the concerns by the people that the government was coming to take their land.
“The wrong information went out. Once they heard RUGA, they kicked against it. However, the concept of RUGA was to meet pastoralists where they are in their settlements and provide infrastructure for them there.
“But when that information went out, and because you have settlements in the South and other regions too, it was easy for people to turn it around and say, ‘They (herders) are coming to our states to take our land.’
“But this was when the RUGA policy, which has been jettisoned, was introduced by the Buhari administration and aimed at resolving the conflicts between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and farmers. There was no such plan ab initio. Never was such a plan made by the Federal Government.”
Lai-Solarin added that the ministry had been carrying out diverse other interventions to mitigate the clashes between herders and farmers nationwide.
The RUGA scheme, however, met with stiff opposition by southern states whose people saw the move as a land-grabbing move by the Federal Government for Fulani herders.
Many southern states called for ranching, saying since cattle rearing was a private business, herders ought to buy land and graze their cattle on it, adding that the measure would stop the frequent clashes between herders and farmers.
The government said the reason RUGA was suspended in July 2019 was because it was inconsistent with the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP), an initiative to establish ranches across the states.
The NLTP was approved by the National Council of Agriculture in conjunction with the National Economic Council.
States that keyed into the NLTP are to receive 49 per cent funding from the Federal Government, while the remaining 51 per cent funding will be sourced by the state, private sector and development partners.
In February 2021, the Federal Government said it had mapped out 30 grazing reserves across the country for the NLTP implementation.
Meanwhile, President Buhari, in a move believed to challenge the ban on open grazing by southern governors, said in an interview with Arise Television that the grazing routes across the country would be revived.
President Buhari said he had directed the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami to produce a gazette which delineated grazing routes in all parts of the country as obtained in the First Republic.
The President stated, “What I did was to ask him (Malami) to go and dig out the gazette of the First Republic when people were obeying laws.
“There were cattle routes and grazing areas. Cattle routes were for when they (herdsmen) were moving up-country, north to south or east to west. They had to go through there.”
However, several southern states and institutions like the Nigerian Bar Association and the Pan-Niger Delta Forum faulted the President for the revival of old grazing routes.
Southern states, including Ondo, Delta, Cross River, Enugu, Akwa Ibom, and Oyo, said there was no existence of a gazette that marked out grazing routes for cattle across the country.
Further, the threat by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) that the Nigerian national anthem and consumption of cow meat should be banned in the southeast territory from April this year has added a new dimension to the ongoing crisis on cattle.
Even though most Nigerians enjoy their beef, yet the crisis engendered as a result of clashes between herders and farmers has left a sour taste in the mouth. In many communities and villages, cattle has become synonymous with insecurity, death and destruction.
*Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist, and currently the Managing Editor of Nigeria Now, a news magazine based in Abuja, Nigeria.