Six communities in the Logo and Guma Local Government Areas of Benue state were attacked on January 1 by herdsmen armed with automatic rifles. Not less than 73 people were killed. Subsequently, there have been similar attacks in Kaduna, Taraba, Adamawa and Ondo states within the first two weeks of the year. The response of the federal government has been lukewarm. The need to tackle this rising menace of deadly conflict cannot be overemphasized.
Increasing desertification as a result of climate change has contributed significantly to pastoralists incursion on farmlands of communities in the middle-belt and further south, as they seek pasture for the cattle they herd. Attempts at curbing these incursions and the consequent clashes include the anti-open grazing law passed by the Benue state house of assembly in November last year.
This law stipulates that cattle grazing should be carried out only in ranches established for such purpose. It was immediately condemned by Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), the leading association of cattle owners. In the wake of the recent killings, a number of the bosses’ class’ associations representing sections from the northern parts of the country have spoken likewise.
These include the Arewa Consultative Forum which described the law as not “implementable” and the Gan Allah Fulani Development Association of Nigeria (GAFDAN) which said it is “draconian, repressive and peace breaching” and meanly “targeted at the means of livelihood of over 18 million Fulani herdsmen”.
This perspective which plays up the ethnic card as the bosses usually do to divide working-class people has further helped to stir ethnic and regional identities for self-serving ends. This is meant to divert attention from the core social issues at stake. Youths in Benue have equally risen against “Fulani oppression” to protest the killings.
Civil society organisations including ethno-nationalist bodies like the O’odua Peoples Congress (OPC) in the south-west, Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) in the Niger Delta and both the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereignty State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) have furthered the ethnicization of narratives about what is actually happening and how to address the matter.
The situation is not helped by the fact that President Muhamadu Buhari, who has herds of cattle but which are held in ranches has been identified as a patron of MACBAN. In October 2000, he and General Buba Marwa (a former military governor of Lagos & Borno states) led a delegation of the Arewa Consultative Forum to protest alleged killings of 68 Fulani herdsmen by natives in Saki, Oyo state to Lam Adesina who was then the Oyo state governor.
He and Marwa were berated at the time by Adesina for presenting themselves as sectional leaders, despite haven served “the country”. This was after security personnel debunked their claims, pointing out that some five herdsmen had probably been killed in clashes which had equally claimed the lives of about a dozen other persons.
With this background, not a few people are of the view that the unenthusiastic efforts of the state to bring the perpetrators of the now rampant attacks to book are informed by the president’s sense of ethnic allegiance. This sentiment is exacerbated by a statement credited to Mr Garba Shehu, chief spokesperson of the presidency last September, where he described the armed pastoralists as “criminal gangs”, who, unlike bodies such as IPOB are not “terrorists”.
1,895 persons were killed in conflicts related to the herdsmen, including 470 over cattle rustling in 2016. This was against 1,240 deaths from Boko Haram attacks. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke out at the time against the “complete impunity enjoyed so far by perpetrators of previous attacks” in April 2016, when some 40 people were killed by herdsmen in Enugu.
It is essential to unmask those behind the herdsmen for us to understand why such impunity persists. Most of the cattle herded by the pastoralists are actually owned by rich bosses. The automatic weapons that nomadic pastoralists wield do not come cheap.
They are obviously being armed by the bosses who stand behind them, and who include persons in the political corridors of power and their acolytes. The argument by some of the poor herdsmen that their attacks have been reactions to cattle rustling does not explain away why and how they carry such deadly weapons as AK47s and other pump-action guns.
The present ghastly situation has to be situated within the context of the failed capitalist system which is ruining the lives of poor working-class people and the environment within and beyond Nigeria, and the need to challenge and upturn this dog-eat-dog system.
Semi-nomadic animal husbandry by Fulani pastoralists has been ongoing for centuries across West Africa. It, however, was not until just over a decade ago that clashes with communities started becoming a norm. Similar, even if not as deadly or consistent confrontations have occurred in Ghana and Ivory Coast, as global warming leads to sharper conflicts over resources such as land and water. This points to yet another reason for working-class people to collectively combat and overthrow the ceaseless “accumulation for accumulation’s sake” system of capitalism.
Increasing poverty also contributes to possible raids on cattle, as the pastoralists have alleged. The bosses who own the bulk of cattle have seized on such raids to evoke the allegiance of poor herdsmen roaming lands in most primitive conditions with their own dearly held stock of cattle in a common front to defend private property, anointed with the unction of ethnic affinity.
Meanwhile, the bosses are far away in the safety of their palatial mansions or government houses and their own children attend the best schools in Europe and North America, and cruise the streets with cars and power bikes worth dozens of millions of naira.
The need to stop open grazing, cannot be overstated. And the primary responsibility for establishing ranches must be borne by the owners of cattle – the bosses behind the herdsmen. While there is a grain of truth in Miyetti Allah’s view that “our people were not educated on modern method of rearing cattle”, before the Benue anti-grazing law was passed, the attempts to use contrived violence as a means to justify its long held call for the establishment of a grazing reserve commission is nothing but an attempt to create yet another conduit pipe for crass “primitive accumulation” in perpetuity through the instrumentality of the state, which the bosses’ class in Nigeria is noted for.
The state has a role to play in modernizing agriculture in general and animal husbandry in general. It is scandalous that semi-nomadic pastoralism remains the dominant means of breeding cattle in 21st century Nigeria. Agricultural institutes should be empowered to provide the needed grass to grow to ensure all-year-round availability of these in ranches and the nurturing of resilient cattle breeds, and mass education of pastoralists carried out on to equip them with techniques for non-nomadic cattle breeding as was done in Kenya earlier in the decade.
While we call for urgent steps in this direction, it is highly imperative to stand for the unity, and self-organisation of working-class people as an immediate line of action towards curtailing the spread of clashes and consequent sorrow, tears and blood which are being borne only by the poor masses. No “big man” or woman has been killed in these attacks. It is poor people that bear the brunt.
We must not allow the anguish of the moment to be used by the bosses on either side to further divide us. We equally cannot have faith in their institutions to defend our lives and communities. Self-defence militias have to be constituted by poor working-class people and the youth in affected communities. These must not see the poor herdsmen as the enemies. The enemy is clear; big cattle owners who saddle the herders with the task of breeding cattle, if need be, with the shedding of blood.
Instead of taking poor Fulani herdsmen as enemies, fraternal relations should be forged with them, as had been for ages before now. Through these, the crucial need for mutual understanding and unity between all poor working women, men and the youth must be explained, and class solidarity of the poor masses irrespective of ethnicity, religion or regional affinity established.
* Baba Aye is the policy officer for the Health and Social Services Sector at Public Services International, based in Ferney-Voltaire, France