By Nnimmo Bassey
The gruesome murder of our brothers, sisters and children in Benue State by herdsmen has taken the level of insecurity in Nigeria to new heights. While some of us were quick to avoid the devastating photos of the carnage as posted in social media platforms, photos of rows of caskets in which the victims were buried etched indelible prints on our souls as a people. The uniformity of the caskets says to us: this could be you.
As each victim was lowered into the grave, their departure marked a strong rebuke to a system that allows these atrocities to be perpetuated. How low can we sink as a people? The need to urgently check the spread of this terror cannot overemphasized. The relocation order given to the Inspector General of police days after the massacre does not convey a sense of the level of seriousness with which the Federal Government should approach the situation. It is not conceivable that the Nigerian police would adequately handle terror of this magnitude.
We hope that the mass burial in Benue State serves as a wakeup call for the Federal Government and its security agencies. And we do hope that mass burials do not turn into regular or repeated events, as happened in the case of previously inconceivable suicide bombings.
Some of the responses to the abominable killings in Benue have been contentious. Consider, for instance, the presidential spokesperson’s statement that over 756 persons were killed by herdsmen in two years during the tenure of former President Jonathan. Efforts at informing us that the present massacre was not as horrendous as what may have happened in the past simply increase the pains rather than raise any sense of hope that things would change for the better. The murder of a single person diminishes us all and the death of 756 Nigerian in two or more years do nothing to calm nerves when it is recalled that 2,500 citizens were said to have been killed by herders in Plateau, Nasarawa, Kaduna and Benue States in just 2016 alone.
Moreover, the notion that migration is due to a population explosion in Nigeria is debatable. The lack of credible population figures and reliance on projections based on dubious figures make such assertions grossly unrealistic. Reliance on such notions inflicts avoidable harm on our planning efforts. Our larger-than-life population figure gives us ready excuse for not taking right decisions.
With regard to action responses to violent herdsmen, let us consider one of the proposed actions that would be taken as a long-term solution to the conflict — the idea of creating grazing cattle colonies across the nation as announced by the Minister of Agriculture. It sounds rather bizarre and raises a number of concerns. Top on the list of concerns is the undertone of the word colony. For most Nigerians, the idea of a colony would be one defined as “a country or area under full or partial political control of another, often distant country.” Could it be that the minister was using the term in the sense sometimes used to describe animals of the same breed staying together in a closed structure? Whatever the case, the imagery requires further interrogation.
Keeping in mind that colonialism was entrenched by the power of the barrel of the gun, could anyone believe that it is at a period of heated conflict and distrusts that colonizing any territory, for any purpose, can be the way to resolve the conflicts?
Unfortunately, the persistent conflicts between pastoralists and farmers are often reduced to incidents induced by struggle for religious or ethnic dominance. While there may be a basis for reaching such conclusions, it is clear that pursuing those lines would not lead to a resolution of the crisis. Pastoralism is not a preserve of particular ethnic nationalities or religion. We can indeed develop pastoral activities across the nation with the mind-set that the business is not patented to only one ethnic nationality. With this understanding, a dedicated grazing area in a particular state would not translate to the ceding of such territories to be colonized by anyone. It should also be clear that grazing is not restricted to those breeding and rearing cattle. Goats, sheep and other livestock can equally benefit from such developments.
It was from the understanding that the conflicts can best be resolved by tackling the root instigators of the crises, that Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and the Confederation of Traditional Herder Organizations in Africa (CORET) began a series of engagements with pastoralists and farmers starting from Abuja in September and October 2017. In those engagements, we examined the confluence between pastoralists, farmers, land use, conflicts and climate change. These were examined also from a gender perspective to provide a rounded understanding of the dynamics that throw up different kinds of conflicts in our society.
One of the conclusions from the engagements was that farmers and pastoralists can operate in a mutually beneficial manner. If the right physical environment is guaranteed, the culture of nomadic herders trekking over huge distances could be moderated in such a way that the movements would be strategic and not necessarily translate to herders trekking all over the nation. It cannot be denied that Nigeria needs multiyear environmental management plans with clear targets and strategic action paths.
The fact that southern Niger Republic is greener than parts of northern Nigeria should suggest to us that our approach to environmental management is defective. Here we refer specifically to our management of our vegetative cover and water resources. We tend to see our environment as capable of rapid self-regeneration irrespective of how rabid our rate of consumption of Nature’s gifts to us may be. The result is the reality of desertification in northern Nigeria that we characterize as the downward march or spread of the Sahara Desert. Permit us to pose a simplistic question: if the desert were marching down so mercilessly, how come Niger Republic has not gone completely under the sand?
While the security agents fish out and bring the perpetrators of the Benue massacre to book, it would be useful for the Minister of Agriculture, other relevant ministries, as well as security agencies, to consider some of the resolutions that came out of the October 2017 Sustainability Academy:
1.There should be greater engagement of agricultural extension workers by all levels of governments to effectively engage in communicating climate change to farmers and pastoralists.
- Pastoralists and farmers have lived in harmony in Nigeria and can do so now. The ongoing conflicts are needless and distort development efforts.
- There should be re-orientation for pastoralists and farmers for harmonious co-existence as both are interdependent and their actions can be mutually beneficial.
- The fact that climate change impacts differently on different gender and social groups should be considered in preparing climate action plans.
- The Great Green Wall Programme aimed at combating desertification amplified by climate change through improved use of land and water resources should incorporate pastoralists in their fodder production scheme for sustainable development.
- Government should implement a livestock development policy that aligns with regional and international practices.
- The Federal Government should initiate actions to produce a detailed land use and environmental plan for the country.
- There is need for public-private partnership and scientific re- orientation for the development of pastoralism in Nigeria.
- Herders should adopt the practice of managed intensive systematic rotational grazing as well as ranching.
- Fully integrate gender justice in the brokering of peace and the implementation of all forms of conflict management initiatives.
- The Federal Government should create a Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries as is obtained in several other African countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Tanzania
- Climate change dose not respect geopolitical boundaries and should be tackled with this understanding.
- Take inventory of the all existing grazing reserves, traditional grazing areas, transhumance corridors, major stock routes, review and take appropriate development actions.