…far from the madding crowd.

Herdsmen, Small Arms and the Politicization of Pastoralism in Nigeria


In the last few months, alleged Herdsmen attack on innocent civilians across Nigeria has been on the increase. These incessant attacks have preoccupied commentators from across the political and religious spectrum in Nigeria. Many of these pundits have ascribed the preponderance of these attacks to a particular ethnic group noted for their pastoral life. In many respects, some of these pundits have ossified around the discourse of an attempt by the Fulanis to reproduce the Usman Dan Fodio Jihad of 1804 with the intent of spreading Islam across the country. The Fulanis are an ethnic group with a majority Muslim whose life are heavily dependent on animal pastures. The fact that President Muhammadu Buhari is a Fulani Muslim also adds to this speculation about the Fulanis planning to take over Nigeria. To buttress the point about a planned “Islamization” of Nigeria by these Fulani pastoralists, many of these pundits, especially those on social media often circulate pictures of herder’s wielding AK47 while tending to their pasture. Many of the widely circulated pictures of alleged AK47-wielding herders have been discredited as either photo-shopped pictures or simply images found elsewhere on the Internet with no connection to Nigeria.

However, what is missing in the conversation is the question as to why and how a pastoralist community suddenly becomes a roving insurgent group across the country. Several factors can be adduced for these incessant attacks on innocent farmers across the country. Many of these factors are interrelated and intertwined. These factors include the emergence of Boko Haram members as roving insurgents, effect of climate change on herders, spread of small arms across the Sahara Desert and the growing ethnic and religious mistrust in Nigeria. Before moving forward, it must be noted that many Nigerian communities had always lived in harmony with pastoralists. Many of us who grew up in rural Nigeria would remember the constant presence of Fulani herders in our community who were always welcomed with open arms. In many rural communities in those days – specifically in the 70s and 80s—many kids would welcome Fulani herders to town centers with the chant of “Baba Yaya”, signifying that the herders were the fathers of the cattle. Calling the herders Baba Yaya was not in anyway meant to discountenance the importance of fatherhood for the herders but was in recognition of the love the herders had for their herds and their kids who would also follow them around while herding cattle. Why and how have the children of the Baba Yaya era who are today’s pundits suddenly become advocates for the complete annihilation of Baba Yaya? What has changed? Unpacking these factors will help in no small measure in deepening the conversation about these attacks particularly on farmers.

Recent reports indicate that the number of casualties associated with herdsmen violence is tailing Boko Haram in Nigeria. But there is a correlation between the dislodgement of Boko Haram from their most active sites in the Northeast and the rise in violence associated with the so-called herdsmen in many parts of Nigeria. While not disputing that there are attacks perpetrated by herdsmen, to put all attacks in one box will be tantamount to reductionism. It will be absolutely correct to assert that many of the attacks associated with herdsmen may actually be attacks carried out by remnants of Boko Haram dislodged from their most potent spaces. Thus, many of these dislodged Boko Haram militants have basically turned themselves into roving insurgents across the country. Additionally, the instability occasioned by Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East has also meant that many pastoralists would have had to relocate their cattle to where they could find pasture for their herds. The presence of an unusually large number of herders has also resulted in a form of economic, religious and political anxiety among the population in the South. The presence of these herders looking for pasture has largely resulted in the destruction of farmlands, especially in areas not used to seeing large number of herds in the country. The resultant effect has been destruction of lives and properties resulting in more distrust among the people. Further compounding the crisis is the associated problem of small arms floating within the West African corridor, particularly the Maghreb route. The preponderance of small arms in the region has also meant increase in rebellions especially in states such as Nigeria with weak security architecture. A weak security architecture combined with social injustice creates rebellions that are in most cases lacking in ideological clarity. The lack of clarity makes these rebels susceptible to sponsorship from different interests whose intent could be destabilization of the state as a result of the sponsors’ displacement from state’s patronage network.

The question then becomes, how are these insurgents with no clarity of purpose able to recruit members into their dysfunctional group? The answer to this question is not far-fetched. First, the effect of climate change on the rise of social inequality in many parts of the country has meant the susceptibility of socially vulnerable groups to easy recruitment. The Lake Chad basin that had for many years provided employment for many young adults in the region is today drying up. Many whose livelihood depended on their ability to fish, graze or farm have had to contend with two obstacles – drying rivers as a result of climate change and insurgency by Boko Haram in the name of religion. In the absence of gainful employment, those who could not flee the insurgents are either forced into it or incentivized to join the militants.

In this hysteria, elites in the south are leading many Southern states into abandoning the project of animal husbandry as an agricultural policy in a large scale. Many governors elected by not only indigenes of their states but all residents of the state including Fulanis now wake up and dream of invasion by cattle with sutured head like demons. The cattle have become the metaphor for an alleged Islamization of Southern Nigeria by those considered to be ‘alien’ even if these same aliens are entitled to rights as Nigerians. Many in our human rights community have abandoned the struggle for the rights of all citizens. Yesterday’s human rights activists have become champions of ethno-nationalism in alliance with those they all despised as collaborators with military autocrats in the past. But in idiotic shortsightedness and driven by the Southern elites bigotry to see Islamization where there is none, they are blinded to see the potentials that abound in terms of employment opportunities and fiduciary gains for the people if animal husbandry is commercialized in their states. The elite make it look as if the North has a God-given right to monopolize the animal husbandry industry. This is myopia at its worst affliction. The road to go is not to place reliance on the vituperative tantrums of religious merchants, media profiteers and ethnic irredentists who are hell bent of causing division and ethnic hatred in furtherance of their own agenda to continue to be seen as leaders. We owe it a duty to ourselves to free the Nigerian state from this melancholy.

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