Most people think of Boko Haram when they think of the top security problem facing Nigeria. That may be true until you learn more about one of the outcomes of the Boko Haram onslaught in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram’s reign of terror affected millions of people, largely in the northeast, but it has also forced out the region’s nomadic and semi-nomadic herdsmen to seek grazing spaces outside of the restive north because it has become impossible for them to graze safely. So naturally, moving south with thousands of cattle makes sense, except that the rest of Nigeria was not prepared for that.
The herdsmen southern journey has had a devastating impact on central Nigeria. Herders and cattle encroachments of farmland ignited so-called grazing wars. Although such wars existed for centuries, they have accelerated lately and are becoming more visible as tracking them is easier than ever thanks to the proliferation of technology and Nigeria’s free media. Farmers have been responding to encroachments through violent reprisals, as one would understand. However, herdsmen do consider themselves Nigerians, with all the rights the country’s constitution provides them, and feel they can move about without restrictions. Plus they are often heavily armed, giving them a certain sense of invulnerability. With state authorities banning grazing, herdsmen force their way into farmlands, often with deadly consequences as confrontations ensue.
Violence has been escalating from Adamawa to Benue and Taraba, and now expanding into the southwestern states. State governments’ response has been to make it harder for herdsmen to graze, including the banning of such activity as did Benue state. Governors and state lawmakers believed that all it takes is a set of laws banning and punishing herders if they disrespected the new laws. However, what happens when the herders see their cattle starve to death and have no place to go? This is not a new situation and history teaches us a lesson or two on how people react when they are cornered. Tariq bin Ziyad, the Muslim General who led the conquest of Spain (711–718 A.D), once told his troop that had no place escape: “The enemy is in front of you and the sea behind…. Either you will be victorious or martyred. There is no third choice. All means of escape have been destroyed.” This, pretty much, summarizes the situation facing the herdsmen.
The federal government of Muhamadu Buhari is pushing for a solution by asking states to earmark some territory for the purpose of grazing. The response from the states has been overwhelmingly against the idea. The issue is now even more complex because President Buhari is a Fulani, the same ethnic affiliation than the very herdsmen who are accused of perpetrating attacks on farms. The southern regions are largely Christian, quickly transforming the grazing wars into a religion war, with no clear political solution in the short term.
So what is the latest in this escalating grazing war? The grazing wars in Nigeria have intensified in January 2018 and February is set to become the deadliest and most violent month to date, according to MEA Risk LLC. Despite Vice President Yemi Osinbajo announcing that 15 states have agreed to allocate 5,000 hectares of land for cattle ranching, attacks attributed to herdsmen have expanded and have now reached the south and southeast regions. The escalation in the grazing conflict is expected to push Nigeria into a more chaotic security situation if urgent measures are not taken.
Herdsmen attacks were recorded in several states over the past week. In Taraba, suspected herdsmen launched an attack just a few hours after Governor Darius Ishaku warned of pending attacks. In Adamawa, scores were killed in new clashes between herdsmen and residents in Song. Herdsmen have also raided several villages in Ketu area of Ogun state. In the restive Benue, herdsmen attacked Guma villages and targeted Benue Governor’s farmhouse, killing eight. Still in Benue’s Guma area, herdsmen have engaged soldiers of the Nigerian Army and in Logo, herders attacked villages near Anyiin killing three people. More worrisome is the fact that herdsmen attacks are now occurring in the southwest of the country, risking a greater civil conflict. In Oyo, herdsmen killed a senior officer of Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
Responding to growing instability across the country, the Nigerian Army is to begin a major deployment of troops to the troubled states of Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Kogi and Niger to restore peace and order. The operation will run from 15 February to 31 March, but adding more boots on the ground does not solve the basic root causes of the conflict.
While Nigeria should feel a sense of urgency in working to solve its herdsmen-farmers conflict before it creates a great er humanitarian crisis, another flash-point to watch, in addition to the permanence of the Boko Haram risk, is the potential for new confrontations between authorities and the Shiite movement. The killing by the police of a Sokoto state Shiite leader during a protest in Abuja aimed at demanding the release from detention of the national leader, is expected to heighten tension among the Shiite militants.
Nigeria is also increasingly concerned with its porous borders, specifically with Boko Haram incursions into Niger Republic in the north and into Cameroon in the east. The recent incursions of Cameroonian gendarmes into Cross River, Nigeria to capture opposition figures who sought refuge there represent another source of tension in the southeast, and could further escalate going forward.
Nigeria certainly boasts one of the most promising economies in the continent, but the inability of its leadership to solve its security challenges will force business interests to rethink their investments in the country.