I have decided to write for The Sun newspaper every Thursday because I do not accept anymore the surface treatment that is being given to the present herders-farmers’ crisis.
Violent clashes over grazing lands between local farmers and pastoral herdsmen have resulted in the daily loss of human lives, the destruction of peoples’ livelihood and serious threats to the security of the nation. The nation is at the crossroads because we are not prepared to accept our past mistakes and the neglect we have subjected our land to, a neglect that is causing the land to fight back.
For many years, we watched Lake Chad receding and we did nothing to check it.
We built over six river basin authorities for the supply of potable drinking water and irrigation. The irrigation was also to promote two seasonal cropping in the year, which would bring about food security in most of the dry land regions that have lost their capacity. This, however, did not happen and the communities that were made to settle around the Chad and river basin authorities were left stranded.
In the 1980s and 1990s, after the great drought, almost all the states in Nigeria, including the FCT, embarked on ceremonial tree planting campaigns. If the trees had survived, most of Nigeria would by now be a big forest; instead, Nigeria lost over 35 per cent of its forest cover between the 1960s and 2000.
As was mentioned in my first article, Nigeria has, in the past, tried various strategies at tackling desertification and the effect it has on rural development but these failed to achieve much because of various political, economic and social characteristics of the Nigerian population. Instead, we watched as the advancing Sahara brought desertification and rendered arable lands infertile while making all the greenery and grazing fields to disappear.
My various journeys across the Sahara vividly portrayed the deteriorating conditions of the people of the desert and the continuing consequences of desertification. I have seen how towns and communities dwindle in size and in some cases, disappear altogether. I have seen people migrate away from their communities heading south in search of better living conditions, leaving their homes to the advancing desert sand.
In over 40 years of my exploration of the Sahara, I have seen it grow in size. What we need to remember is that it has not always been like this. History tells us that the Sahara once had a very different environment. Researchers report that the Sahara shows signs of ancient rivers and traces of plants and animals deep beneath its sands, evidence of the plain’s greener past. However, crop farmers grew species of plants that left the Saharan soil exposed. They also brought livestock that ate the vegetation without replenishment, further uncovering the soil.
Much like what is happening in the northern region of the country currently, the implication of grazing the greenery without replenishment makes the land vulnerable to the encroachment of the Sahara and the dust, giving rise to migration.
Historically, the Fulani herdsmen are nomadic and habitually migratory, moving annually from North to South in search of grazing fields and markets for their herds. However, the movement, which used to be seasonal has been altered due to expansive desertification, drought and gully erosion in northern Nigeria. The herdsmen now seek greener pasture southward causing havoc as they devour crops and forcefully appropriate lands.
Migration and proper documentation
It should be recognised that these herdsmen are not all our countrymen. I am aware that the movements of shepherds begin as far as from Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. It is very important to document migration so as to ascertain the particular country they are coming from and the number of animal heads that they are bringing into Nigeria. Without relinquishing the Big Brother role we play in ECOWAS and the rest of the continent, we need to realise that we cannot keep welcoming foreigners without proper documentation. This is dangerous and might be damaging to the security of Nigeria.
Secondly, if we must continue to allow the influx of nomadic shepherds from outside Nigeria, then we must establish movement corridors for them to follow without stampeding on peoples’ farmland or have the animals muzzled when passing through farmlands, like it is done in other parts of the world.
There is need to emphasize on the fact that the herdsmen are engaged in a private business of animal husbandry just as the farmers. We must not allow one business to destroy the other.
The recent announcement by the inspector-general of police about steps being taken to begin the immediate disarming of the herdsmen is a welcome development and much in line with the short-term measures to be considered. I recall in the 1980s, when I wanted to purchase a gun. I had to apply for a license to own and handle one. The then inspector-general of police, Jimeta Gambo, met with me and insisted on first consulting with my wife before granting approval for me to be issued a license. He also strongly advised that I go for a course to learn how to handle the weapon. Only then did I get the license to purchase a gun. Afterwards, I was required to register the weapon with the authorities. This is far from the case anymore, another pointer at the failure of our system.
We need to realise that there are those working to destabilise Nigeria for varied reasons, many of whom will profit hugely from a fractured nation. These people have an army of their own and have been fighting the Nigerian Army for years. These ‘armies’ are now recruiting mercenaries who used to be part of defeated militias such as in Libya, ISIS and Boko Haram. These mercenaries can be seen masquerading among the shepherds.
Medium to long-term measures
Disarming the herdsmen and regulating their movement across the nation will only cover the wound in the short term. It will not heal it. The only way to effectively tackle the intensified migration of herdsmen is to return greenery to those states devastated by desertification, gully erosion, and drought.
The first milestone to aim for should be the establishment of grazing fields in the impacted states. To do this, we must also create water bodies by these locations both to nurture the grazing fields and for consumption by the animals. The investment costs can be borne by the government fully at this stage. However, the owners of the animals who graze there shall be made to pay for feeding and watering their animals.
While these water bodies and green fields are being established, trees to serve as windbreakers will be planted on the windward sides to push back sand dunes accumulation. If well managed, in four years, the grazing fields will mature.
The long-term plan involves the establishment of ranches by the animal owners in the same way the government has established the grazing fields. It is the responsibility of the farmers to pen their animals. Domestic animals are not supposed to be free-rangers. Meat production is private business that should be governed by applicable laws and statutes of the states and the Federal Government.
As I said before in my last article, war is not an option, can never be an option; war should be discountenanced by all well-meaning nationalists and peace-loving Nigerians.
But to ensure that peace reigns, we must start now to make amends. We must commit ourselves to beginning and sustaining the process of once again returning the Lake Chad to its original position. This is not rocket science but will require us to turn away from business as usual. There will be need to also refurbish the river basin authorities to their original capacity and open up the number of irrigation canals that were created to supply water to the farmlands.
We need to understand that a southward migration for grazing will only further make the encroachment of the Sahara easier, especially if we do not replenish what we have taken from the land.