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Published On: Mon, Jul 15th, 2019

From cattle colonies to Ruga, the crisis of pastoralism and negative stereotyping

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A Fulani herdsman water his cattle on a dusty plain between Malkohi and Yola town on May 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO/EMMANUEL AREWA (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL AREWA/AFP/Getty Images)

By Jibrin Ibrahim

Last week, the federal government suspended its “Ruga” policy for the sedentarisation of pastoralists following a massive and successful but uninformed campaign against it. It was uninformed because there was no discussion of the policy content that people were against. The thrust of the acampaign was that ruga was a Fulani word and settling pastoralists means that land would be taken from locals and given to them. It was the same thing had happened two years previously when a similar policy package was launched with another emotionally evocative word – cattle “colony”. Again, it was impossible to discuss the policy content because the word “colony” fed directly into another effective campaign popularised through a conspiracy theory that there was an on-going Jihad to colonise the land belonging to Christians in the Middle Belt and that the establishment of cattle colonies was the practical policy tool for implementing the said Jihad. Essentially, it has become extremely difficult to have a rational discussion on the crisis of pastoralism in Nigeria and pathways to a solution.

I have seen the policy documents from the Ministry of Agriculture and the documents themselves make no mention of colonies or ruga. What happened was that both times, just when the policies were being launched, the names – colony and ruga – were added, making the discussions of the policy content impossible. The fact that this happened twice in two years means they were not mistakes. Some people in the Ministry must have decided that emotionally evocative names would kill the policies before they take off and they have been very successful in acting in those directions. Names matter when emotions are already very high. Policy makers, of course, know that difficult policies need to be sold to stakeholders through enlightenment campaigns and that people’s concerns must be addressed. It’s interesting that the last policy package, which is the most difficult in recent years, was simply leaked out through one mischievous word and killed on arrival. The result has been that those who called for ranching during the open grazing phase of the debate are the ones who are today condemning ranching, which is the content of the policy package.

The policy package itself is called the National Livestock Transformation Plan 2018-2017 whose objective was “to transform pastoralism into ranching” in 12 Northern states that have volunteered to provide land for the project. During the discussions with state governments, the federal government reduced the numbers of states from 12 to 7, due to budgetary reasons, but the 12 states subsequently agreed to go ahead with their own resources to accelerate the take-off of the Plan.

Earlier this year, I attended a policy briefing on the project where Ministry of Agriculture officials announced that they had renamed the project “Ruga Model Settlements” to get the buy in of the pastoralists who are used to the term. They explained that each state would have eight settlements that would have the provision of one hectare of grazing land per cow carved out of grazing reserves, veterinary services to improve the breed and productivity of the herd, bore holes, schools and cattle markets. It was a modest programme that would lead to the sedentarisation of a few hundred thousand cows over ten years, while we have 20 million cows currently engaged in open grazing in the country. I reminded the officials of the disaster caused by the term “cattle colony” and strongly advised that they revert to the proper name – National Livestock Transformation Plan but my advice was obviously ignored.

In objecting to the scheme, people have expressed the concern that their land would be seized for the project. There is no basis for this because land is constitutionally controlled by state governments and the federal government cannot simply take peoples land. The other concern I have heard a lot of is that animal husbandry is a private business, and as such government resources should not be invested in it. Many of those making this argument are currently enjoying federal government resources for farming under the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme supported by the Central Bank. Clearly, the problem cannot be that government has no role to play, the issue is the target group.

The underlying problem is that pastoralists/farmers’ conflicts in Nigeria have grown, spread and intensified over the past decade and today poses a threat to national survival. Thousands of people have been killed, communities have been destroyed and so many farmers and pastoralists have lost their lives and property in an orgy of killings and destruction that is not only destroying livelihoods but also affecting national cohesion. Meanwhile, the farmer/herder conflicts have transformed into rural banditry and criminal gangs have taken over and are killing, kidnapping and extorting farmers, pastoralists and road users. If we need a resolution, we must acknowledge that for years the scale of loss of both herds and human life has been escalating and the victims are on all sides – subsistence farmers, commercial farmers and pastoralists. Growing criminality cannot be an excuse to refuse a solution to the problem that was originally one of the crises of pastoralism.

Nigeria has a large pastoral population of millions tending about 20 million cows. Pastoralism is a historically developed strategy to cope with the uncertainties associated with climate change and is an efficient way to produce livestock at relatively low prices through the use of non-commercial feeding stock. Historically, pastoralists have been able to meet the meat demand in West Africa with a relatively high level of efficiency without government subsidy for generations. So, keeping government out would require fixing the problems that caused the crisis of pastoralism.

Nigeria has a landmass of 98.3 million hectares, 82 million hectares of arable land, of which about 34 million hectares are currently under cultivation. The problem we have is one of governance. Nigeria’s population has grown from 33 million in 1950 to about 192.3 million today. This phenomenal increase of the population has put enormous pressure on land and water resources used by farmers and pastoralists. In the far North, the impact of desertification, as well as the crisis of energy, which has resulted in deforestation, coupled with climatic uncertainty and lower rainfall, have made it more difficult to sustain increasing populations, pushing many farmers and pastoralists with livestock southwards. This has happened gradually over a period of decades – with an apparent increase over the past decade – and has added to pressure on land and water in central and southern Nigeria.

One of the outcomes of this process has been the blockage of transhumance routes and loss of grazing land to agricultural expansion and the increased southward movement of pastoralists has led to increased conflict with local communities. This is particularly the case in the Middle Belt – notably in Plateau, Kaduna, Niger, Nasarawa, Benue, Taraba, and Adamawa States. The conflicts often have localised dynamics, but primarily involve Fulani pastoralists and local farming communities.

Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development.

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