Since the New Year, more than 80 people have been killed in clashes between nomadic herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria’s central Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa states. Herders, mostly from the Fulani ethnic group, and farmers often clash over the use of fertile land.
For a very long time, the Nigerian government did not offer a concrete plan to solve the problem, doing little more than giving cliche political sermons, condemning the killings and issuing palliatives.
But after the latest killing spree in early January, the government announced that they have finally found a solution that would end these clashes once and for all: “cattle colonies”.
“We have to deal with an urgent problem, cattle rearing and the conflicts between farmers and herdsmen, and actually bring it to a halt … Let us do our own duty by eliminating the conflict by creating cattle colonies,” the government’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh said.
The Nigerian public’s initial reaction to the announcement was one of disinterest and confusion, as no one seemed to understand what a “cattle colony” was. Eventually, many communities realised that implementing this policy could lead to a disaster and outright rejected it. While to the government it might make sense to allocate land for pastures to cattle herders, to many Nigerians it doesn’t.
In their rejection of the policy, some Nigerians resorted to sarcasm. “What is cattle colony? We have been colonised by the colonial masters, and now we will be colonised by cows?” quipped Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice of Taraba state Yusufu Akirikwen.
So what is the “cattle colony” policy and why are many Nigerians rejecting it?
Why is there a conflict between farmers and herders?
Competition for land is fierce in Nigeria, and originally this had nothing to do with farmers or herders. In Nigeria’s south, land ownership is a sign of wealth, prosperity and power. A man’s possession of land can also be a measure of his authority. This perception is strong in rural communities, and so, fights and aggression over land acquisition have become common.
Now, cattle herders have introduced a new dimension to the issue. Over the past few decades, three parallel processes have put a huge strain on Nigeria’s fertile land.
First, the population of Nigeria has doubled in the past decade and a half and will double again by the year 2050; this has increased the demand for agricultural products.
Second, the expansion of urban centres to accommodate internal migration and population growth has taken up huge swaths of arable land from farmers.
Third, gradual desertification in the north, due to climate change and other factors, has rendered massive tracts of land unusable for agriculture or cattle herding; currently, 11 out of 19 states in the north are severely threatened by soil erosion.
All this has not only shrunk the amount of land available for farming and pastures but has also pushed cattle herders further south.
In the past, farmers and herders were able to manage disputes, primarily through the community justice system that employs dialogue and small peace talks in village squares.
But that inter-community conflict resolution process no longer works because grievances have increased in number and dimension. Individual resentment transformed over time into large-scale violence. The issue eventually assumed an ethnic dimension and has been presented as a problem between the north and the south.
It is important here to point out that land disputes happen all over the country and are not necessarily always related to cattle-herding. For instance, in July 2017, clashes between two communities over land in River state – Nigeria’s oil-producing delta – left close to 150 people dead and thousands displaced.
What is the ‘cattle colony’ policy?
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the “cattle colony” policy is going to solve the ongoing problems between herdsmen and farmers by designating vast tracts of lands in each state as herding grounds.
Herdsmen will use these designated herding grounds, or “cattle colonies” to feed their livestock, and as a result will not feel the need to disturb the fertile agricultural lands that belong to farming communities.
Of course, the situation is not as simple as the government presents it to be. First of all, the government’s proposal does not explain how it will prevent herdsmen from encroaching on farmlands as they move between “cattle colonies”. Also, according to the proposal, every state retains the discretion to decline the federal government’s call for land donation. In other words, local governments can simply refuse to host a “cattle colony” within their borders.
The government responded to these criticisms by saying that 16 of Nigeria’s 36 states had already agreed to host cattle colonies. Yet, in Nigeria, local authorities only have limited control over farmland and indigenous populations, and in the end, local groups can simply refuse to comply with decisions taken by state governments.
Why will the ‘cattle colony’ policy not work?
Beyond these obvious reasons that are driving the rebellion against the policy, there is also another grievous problem with this policy.
In most communities in Nigeria, the land is fundamentally managed by families and communities, although the government has enacted laws to try to weaken the grip of tradition on land-related issues.
For many, land is sacred and no single person, in most customs, can sell, transfer or use lands without violating societal norms in the process. This spiritual dimension to land in Nigeria sometimes even warrants that certain rituals be involved in land transfer or acquisition. So, ceding land to any person other than a community kinsman, especially in rural communities, requires a careful, long, and relatively sacred process.
The Land Use Act of 1978 that regulates land acquisition, ownership and transfer in Nigeria has not truly replaced these customs because – like most government policies – it failed to reach rural communities in any meaningful way. Sadly, federal law in Nigeria is mostly seen as a collection of “elitist” texts that have little influence on the status-quo on the ground.
Local community leaders from some states that seemingly subscribed to this policy have already warned the state governments to “stay clear of their land”. In Kogi state, a community leader, Chief Alhassan Ejike, said the governor “cannot allocate a land that doesn’t belong to [him] to foreigners.”
In a separate petition, Igala Project – an association of one of Nigeria’s largest tribes – warned, “our people, who are largely farmers, are not prepared to host herdsmen or cattle colony masters in our land.”
What should the government do?
The government can explore alternatives other than the “cattle colony” policy, including cattle ranching. Northern states could build ranches for herders, facilitate acquisition of cattle fodder and implement land reclamation projects for desert areas.
This would alleviate migration to the south and limit clashes. Besides, it makes more economic sense with potential job creation and other incentives for middlemen and farmers. It would also calm ethnic tensions and disputes between the south and north.
In the end, whether the government opts for cattle ranching or another solution, it should give up the “cattle colonies” idea. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari pleading “I ask you in the name of God to accommodate your country men” will not convince the Nigerian people.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.