The deaths and destructions in Benue State (Nigeria) have become a national shame in Nigeria. In some nations, the minister of Interior would have resigned by now. But not in Nigeria. It is very unfortunate that farmers and herdsmen are clashing, and no one has come up with a serious plan to deal with the issues.
The fact is this: the root cause of the clashes would not go away easily. With climate change turning more areas of Northern Nigeria into desert, herdsmen have to move south to look for pasture for their animals. But in a modern society, they could have been directed to do this while respecting the rights of others’ properties. In other words, they would not invade farms with their animals.
But with Nigeria lagging any leadership across all nexus, issues which could have been managed about ten years ago are now problems. At Independence in 1960, the population of Nigeria was in the neighborhood of 46 million. Under 60 years, we have quadrupled it to close to 200 million. As we expanded population, we also lost massive lands to construction, urbanization and general development. So, technically, more people are in the country even as development has taken more lands. Plus, climate change has affected some remaining available lands in the North, turning arable lands into deserts.
These issues create a double-whammy for herdsmen: you stay in the deep north and see the cows die, or you go south and fight for survival. The first option (stay in the deep north) has one clear result: extinction of the animals. The second option does not have any clear outcome. Largely, they believe they could fight to stay in business, and that is what they are doing. It is very unfortunate. My prayers to the Nigerian communities affected by this.
There is a big problem in the land and do not expect this to go away. No one provided direction and leadership to the herdsmen, preparing them about ten years on the changes they are experiencing in their trades right now. Nigeria has no record and memory: we wake up knowing that night would come. So, it is a game of coin tossing. You never know the outcome. That has been the way for decades.
I understand that state governments are putting laws on anti-grazing. They have to appear as though they are making efforts. But this is not really a legal thing. Yes, property rights and personal liberty are protected by Nigerian Constitution. You are not supposed to invade and destroy your neighbor’s properties. So, the law is there. Unfortunately, Nigeria is not known for respecting property rights, from the software developers to the farmers. I am not sure the police get that memo. Yet, it is very commendable that government is deploying more policemen to these affected areas. But note that those policemen would not fix the root cause either. Once they depart, the killing would resume. Yes, policemen cannot cover more than 1% of the potential conflict areas.
The state governments could pass all the laws they want on grazing rights, the problem is that without the root causes addressed, herdsmen would keep taking the risks. They would keep violating any law you may have. Remember that the option at home is known: death of the cows because of lack of pasture. So, your grazing laws would not fix any problem. Even having policemen would not solve many problems because policemen do not live in farms. You cannot legislate out this problem. Nigeria has many components in its books to actually protect farmers if the problem is law.
Fixing this Problem
I believe that the only way to fix this problem would be to address the root cause. These are some of the suggestions I would offer publicly here [others are bolder but may be misinterpreted without context]:
Afforestation of Northern Nigeria: The government has to invest resources to fight the desertification that is happening in northern Nigeria. That way, herdsmen can stay in their ancestral lands and graze. As they look hopelessly watching grasslands become deserts, they would make choices. And without directions, they are coming southwards to battle for their trades. The failure here is government which has not planned for this day despite the signs.
Modernization: Farmers do not need to be nomadic in this age. Yet, for decades, Nigeria has failed to develop any policy to redesign the business. Of course, there is no industry government has done anything of value. With lack of formalization in the nomadic business, you do not expect them to transmute into modernized farms. Can government turn nomadic farming into settled farming in a modern way? There are many ways this can be handled with great results. Technically, make these farmers ranchers.
Lease Partnership: The federal government at the interim can map out a huge sum of money for a temporary fix. It can use that money to lease lands in some southern states from state governments mainly in areas farmers are not using. The goal here is to lease the land, compensate (and keep paying) the original owners of the lands and then work with the herdsmen to graze there. To do that, government would devise a structure in this enclave where all sold cows would be taxed and a part of the profits going to pay for the lease. Yes, the herdsmen would pay for the lease through the government. Government can use this model to manage the crises over the next fifteen years while it finds a permanent solution to handle the deforestation issue in the north. Once that is done, it can relocate the herdsmen back to their ancestral lands. This lease arrangement should be structured to be renewal every five years.
I do not see this as a very big problem to deal with. There are many state governments who would willingly lease land on temporary basis to federal government, to enable this temporary transition, provided the herdsmen are going to indirectly pay for the leased lands. We need the herdsmen to flourish and we want the farmers to thrive. But Nigerian leaders cannot just think. Besides, if government has this structure and some herdsmen refuse to participate, it can make it criminal to buy cows from nomadic herdsmen thereby forcing them to take necessary actions. Once the non-complying herdsmen notice that they cannot sell, they would move into the leased regions.