Is'haq Modibbo Kawu

May 12, 2016

Media narratives and the Fulbe nomad (2)


File photo: Herdsman

By Is’haq Modibbo Kawu
OVER the past decade…cattle rustling has been transformed into a vicious criminal activity…far beyond the low-intensity conflict that had previously defined the relationship between farmers and grazers.

New criminal gangs, armed with sophisticated weapons, have reportedly carted away cattle in commando-like operations that have resulted in the killings of herders…Available evidence also suggests that cattle rustling has not only metamorphosed into an immensely sophisticated and efficient organised crime, it is now also motivated by both ‘subsistence’ and ‘commercial’ imperatives. Accordingly, cattle rustling can be located properly within the domains of the crimes of the ‘dominant’ classes and the crimes of the ‘dominated’ classes – “THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF RURAL BANDITRY IN CONTEMPORARY NIGERIA” BY PROFESSOR SAMUEL EGWU in RURAL BANDITRY AND CONFLICTS IN NORTHERN NIGERIA edited by PROFESSOR MOHAMMED J. KUNA & DR. JIBRIN IBRAHIM

I concluded last week’s essay by arguing that: “FulBe nomads are citizens too and deserve to be understood and appreciated in the context of building our country”. I was not surprised at the hostility, venom and opprobrium that issued forth from many readers of my piece, mainly from the Southern part of Nigeria, almost all, non-Muslim, and especially on online platforms. The angst reflected the depth of prejudices and the festering attitudes of hate that seem to trail social issues in Nigeria today. And none has elicited as much passion as the bitter conflicts between nomads and sedentary farming communities.

As I have  always argued, those who weave media narratives and helping  to shape opinion come mainly from farming backgrounds and have naturally brought those prejudices into their narratives.

That deep-seated issues of history and identity are part of these contradictions which make them especially volatile. But I still believe that what is required is greater knowledge of the factors shaping these crises, to be able to devise means to diffuse tensions that threaten social harmony, and inter-communal relations in our country.

Contributors to food security

I stated that nomads deserve to be understood and appreciated in the context of their contributions to Nigeria. A study by Isah Mohammed Abbass, showed that the FulBe own over 90% of the nation’s livestock, accounting for one third of Nigeria’s agricultural GDP and 3.2% of our entire GDP. As the major breeders of cattle, the FulBe are responsible for the supply of most of the meat that Nigerians consume, making the FulBe very vital to the local food chain as well as important contributors to national food security. This does not underplay the very important role of sedentary agricultural production at all. They are two sides of our food security coin and are therefore indispensable in the economic life of Nigeria. That is why the increasingly violent conflicts between these two groups are not in our national interest. The narratives in the media have not sufficiently appreciated the  duality that I am talking about  and the profiling of FulBe nomads has deepened tendencies of prejudice; aided proliferation of hate speech and encouraged  tendency towards deepening of crises phenomena as well as revenge seeking that can only lead to spiraling violence.

However, nomadic groups have been encountering serious problems associated with changing patterns of weather and a severe ecological crisis; the increasing alienation of grazing reserves; agricultural policies that favour sedentary farming communities but have left the nomadic groups and their herds in despair; the serious problem of rural banditry and cattle rustling; the killings of nomads and their cattle arising from political and communal disputes in many parts of North Central Nigeria in recent years.

And there is also an issue that has become central to the narrative in the media, related to the increasingly sophisticated arms that nomads are allegedly carrying around and have become part of the legend of nomad-sedentary farmer conflicts. From about the 1950s, with the improvement in veterinary services, cattle herds began to multiply in many parts of West Africa, including Nigeria. Late colonial authorities as well as immediate post-independence governments made informed efforts to assist the  grazing of cattle, with well laid out cattle routes as well as grazing reserves. There were over 400 of those grazing reserves in Northern Nigeria alone. DAILY TRUST ON SUNDAY carried a report from Miyetti Allah, the FulBe advocacy group which reported that 115 of those grazing reserves have been alienated for other uses. The increase in population has favoured alienation of land for farming and agricultural policies generally aid farmers. That has deepened the despair of the FulBe nomads and their search for the space of survival for their herds.

Threat to nomadic herders

A very serious threat to the lives of nomadic herders has been the increased levels of rural banditry and the rustling of cattle. In Samuel Egwu’s paper that I quoted at the head of this piece, he cited figures for 2013 alone, that indicated that in North Central Nigeria, 28, 000 cattle  were rustled in Plateau; 25, 000 in Nasarawa; 8,680 in Benue; 1, 650 in Kwara and 1, 500 in the FCT.

Human casualties showed 2, 500 herders were killed in Benue; 264 in Plateau; 150 in Kwara; 70 in Nasarawa; and seven  in the FCT. The paper also cited reports from clashes in Taraba state, which led to the killing of about 500 FulBe nomads, with even DAILY INDEPENDENT newspaper of March 14, 2014, reporting that 23, 000 were forced to move into Cameroun.

Many of the conflicts have also been directly related to political struggles for power as was witnessed in the Plateau, where the elite struggles for power in the urban areas were then transported into the rural areas and became severe conflicts of identity that pitched indigenous Plateau communities against FulBe nomads. FulBe nomads became drawn into conflicts that saw them as literally guilty by association of identities of ethnicity and faith.

What is very important in these issues of cattle rustling  and rural banditry in general, is the introduction of sophisticated weaponry into criminality. One of the more persistent accusations against FulBe nomads in recent times is that they have also been using weapons like the AK 47 assault rifles in conflicts with sedentary farming communities.

The allegation about assault rifles has then been played up as an evidence of a grand conspiracy by the FulBe people; a leading columnist, even blamed top members of the Northern elite as purchasing these weapons for a “Fulani Militia”.  But the truth is much simpler than the conspiracy theories. If FulBe nomads are armed today as against the traditional weapons they used to carry, it is only because the criminal gangs that attack them and rustle their cattle, as well as take the lives of nomads now use very sophisticated weapons too!

Nigeria and small arms: The other point is that many other groups around Nigeria have been stockpiling weapons for a long time! The criminal groups bursting pipelines and other national  assets in the Niger Delta carry very sophisticated weapons and other incendiary devices. There are many videos of these groups flaunting their arsenals of sophisticated weapons. Many ethnic supremacist groups like the OPC are suspected to have also stockpiled weapons. And in response to the clashes with nomads, SATURDAY PUNCH of May 7, 2016, gleefully announced on its front page that: “FARMERS AMASS ARMS TO COMBAT KILLINGS”.

The truth today is that non-state actors have amassed a huge cache of weapons in Nigeria, and a 2009 Small Arms Survey noted that there were between one million and three million illegal small arms and light weapons in Nigeria. That inflow of weapon increased with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddhafi, in a disastrous NATO-backed operation, which the former administration openly supported, contrary to the decision of the African Union. This is the background against which the issue about alleged FulBe nomads’ weaponising of conflicts with farming communities must be properly situated.

Nomads also live in society and so are affected by its dynamics and because their very precarious existence has been under severe strains, they have been devising means to continue to survive. Unfortunately, there have been ever more frequent clashes with other groups in that quest for survival.

Effects of desertification: The effects of desertification and the shrinking of the Lake Chad, which was home for an estimated 30 million heads of cattle, have been disastrous for nomadic groups. And in an interview with DAILY TRUST ON SUNDAY of May 8th, 2016, Dr. Junaidu Ahmed Maina, a former President of the Veterinary Council of Nigeria, pointed out how newer agricultural policies can sometimes have consequences that were probably not properly thought through. Take the issue of Fadama projects. He said that: “There is a lot of wetland in the country, including our Fadama projects, which are now being used for crop production. In the past, Fadama projects were used strictly for animal production. I am not suggesting that it should be left exclusively for livestock production. We should take cognizance of the fact that wetlands are best for the rearing of animals”.

The effect that this new pattern of land use has had on the lives and livelihood of FulBe nomads and their animals is one of the consequences that we are harvesting in the many conflicts between the farmer and the herdsman today. And the relentless expansion of the Sahara Desert; and deforestation in the Sahel have led to the movement of FulBe nomads Southwards in Nigeria with the attendant consequences.

I have not stated these facts about the lives of FulBe nomads to justify the clashes that they have with sedentary farming communities. Where nomads have been responsible for criminal acts, they must not be spared from the law, just like other citizens from other backgrounds would not be.

Inter-communal relationships

It is however important to appreciate the roots of what is happening in our country with consequences that poison inter-communal relationships and have morphed into a national security challenge. There is no doubt that the conflict between nomads and farming communities is a major national security challenge today. But it is unacceptable to profile FulBe nomads and then ratchet up patterns of hate speech which seem designed to set up a whole ethnic community for treatments that recall the genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia.

We must learn to rise above our prejudices to have a more nuanced and knowledge driven understanding of the complexities of life in our country. A host of factors have conditioned the existence of the FulBe nomad, in a world of fast paced changes and increasing population of people, which have led to the alienation of more land for crop production. The nomad faces a squeeze and a threat to a very precarious livelihood.

The challenge that our country faces is how to find a balance for the survival and prosperity of the two groups; not the profiling of the FulBe nomad; not hate speech!