In February of last year, the fields of Sunday Ikenna were green and lush. Then one night a herd of cattle led to the farm by itinerant shepherds crushed, ate and plucked the crops.
“I lost everything. The situation was sad, watching another human being destroy your farm,” says Ikenna, a father of 10 who farms in Ukpabi-Nimbo in Enugu state, southern Nigeria. “I grew a smaller portion. this year because I am still afraid of another invasion. “
Ikenna’s experience is not an isolated event. In recent years there has been an increasing number of skirmishes between farmers and cattle herders in search of pasture and water.
For many years the clashes were problematic, but the two groups generally managed to reach a mutual agreement. But in the past two decades, the climate crisis has helped to upset that old order, and what used to be a friendly settlement has turned into a crisis marked by looting, raids, theft of cattle and premeditated killings.
In 2016, Ukpabi-Nimbo, the Ikenna community, was attacked, allegedly by cattle herders, resulting in the deaths of 46 people, according to a local media report. “Nimbus will never be the same again after that morning,” Ikenna says of the attack.
At the root of the crisis, experts say, is Nigeria’s bountiful cattle population, which has more than doubled since a estimated 9.2 million in 1981 to about 20 million, which makes it one of the largest in the world.
Nigeria’s human population has also grown, to about 200 million, the highest in Africa by far. This has led to cities expanding more and more, in some cases on previously designated livestock routes and reserves. Routes dating back to the 1950s, according to colonial agreements, have been invaded or dominated by new human settlements, pushing herders into disputed territories.
In rural communities, small farmers claim large tracts of grazing land. “It means that the grazing space, for example, which originally should accommodate only 10 head of cattle, is now grazing 50 or more,” says Ifeanyi Ubah, a rancher based in eastern Nigeria.
Nigeria is also a crossroads for livestock from other countries: transhumant migrants from Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad regularly pass in search of better climate, pastures and more abundant water. Although there are fewer than 100 official border crossings into the country, Abba Moro, a former government official who headed the Interior Ministry, was quoted as saying there there were more than 1,499 illegal entry routes in the country as of 2013.
Terrorist groups have become involved in the situation. Boko Haram has been accused of using the money obtained from the sale of stolen cattle to finance its deadly operations. On one occasion, Boko Haram militants killed 19 herders while trying to steal their livestock. A growing number of attacks have led to the reported loss two million head of cattle and the deaths of 600 herders, many of whom have been forced to leave the fertile Lake Chad basin in search of new land.
But the climate crisis is the biggest factor driving tensions. Most of northern Nigeria has suffered severe desertification and drought. Average annual rainfall in this region has fell under 600mm, compared to 3500mm in the South Coast area.
This change threatens the livelihoods of around 40 million people, especially livestock and small farmers farmers. Large numbers of cattle herders are forced to move from traditional grazing areas to central and southern Nigeria when dry spells begin, a situation that increases competition and heralds more fighting.
“As I grew up, I saw trees, forests, rivers and streams in most of northern Nigeria. The grass was growing and it was more than enough for the cattle, ”says Bala Ardo, one of the leaders of the cattle herders in southeastern Nigeria. “But it is no more. The situation has forced the average shepherd to look for pasture and water in places he would never have visited in the past, while struggling to find drinking water for himself and his family and later for his animals.
Meanwhile, the government has only taken partial measures. In 2018, the federal government proposed colonies for cattle and financed herding camps in various states of the country. But local leaders resisted and fears grew in the south, particularly that ethnic groups such as the Fulani Muslims would use the plan to grab ground. Some researchers estimate that members of the Fulani ethnic group own 90% of Nigeria’s livestock.
As the climate crisis continues, the government has launched the National Livestock Transformation Plan, which aims to modernize the livestock sector through a series of staggered interventions from 2018 to 2027. Breeding and processing ranches will be created, and several projects have already been established. But this plan also encounters difficulties. According to Khalid Salisu, a journalist from one of the pilot project regions, “It does not adequately meet the needs of livestock herders. The ranch herders are struggling to find enough water and grass to keep their herds alive during the dry season. “
In the absence of effective solutions from the central government, states and communities are proposing various remedies. In the southern Nigerian state of Benue, for example, 2017 legislation banned free-range cattle grazing. The law required herders to rent or buy land to house their ranches.
The heart of the problem is the need to persuade herders to stop treating land and water as a free resource. It will be difficult to persuade them to switch to capital-intensive ranching, Ubah said.
Abubakar Sambo, the northern community leader in Enugu state, says pastors should be consulted before launching new initiatives. “The policies received by cattle herders largely on radio and television cannot work. The herders, for whom the policies are intended, should be directly involved. ”He believes that younger herders should be educated and sent to study model husbandry systems in other countries.
“What pastors have achieved [cattle population growth] despite all the challenges it is remarkable. It shows the enormous potential of the livestock sector, ”says Ardo. “Imagine what the outcome could be if the government implemented the right structure and policies.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism