By Chiagozie Udeh
Climate change is not ranked among the five top causes of conflict in Nigeria, namely, Tribalism, Resource Control, Religion, Land and Trade. But that reality has been altered. The past thirty-six months has been fiercely violent for several Nigerian States that experienced rampaging Fulani herdsmen killing many subsistent farmers, who defend their farms from grazing herds.
Various causative factors have been proffered for the visceral violence, but not the nexus between herdsmen migration southwards and the effects of climate change. Herdsmen, for whom cattle is a source of livelihood and wealth, have killed approximately 1000 Nigerians. Myetti Allah (the umbrella body of the herdsmen), in characterising the violence as self-defense, seems to justify the killings. Analysts can’t help but ask: is the government really tackling the problem?
Having lived in Southeastern Nigeria for the past two decades, I have never witnessed a more turbulent time than the past three years. This is not to suggest that life has always been smooth, but we have hitherto enjoyed relative peace. Now, our farms are under attack, our children and women are the most vulnerable to attacks by Fulani herdsmen, who would rather kill humans than risk losing their cattle to hunger.
The Fulani herdsmen are nomadic and habitually migratory. They move from North to South annually, with their cattle in search of grazing fields. The movement is seasonal. Now with climate change, the movement pattern has been markedly altered. Due to expansive desertification, drought and unchecked deforestation in Northern Nigeria, the herdsmen naturally seek greener pasture southward. As the resultant migration has intensified, so too has violent clashes over grazing lands between local farmers in the South and pastoral herdsmen, whom the former accuse of wanton destruction of their crops and forceful appropriation of their lands. The emerging conflict is compounded further by the shrinking of Lake Chad from 45,000km2 to 3000km2 in less than three decades. The consequence according to the United Nations, is the displacement of about 10.5 million people. It’s a combination of these factors that has pushed herders from North-eastern Nigeria, the region closest to Lake Chad, to the southern parts of the country.
Paradoxically, the spiraling rise in killings by the Fulani herdsmen coincides with the assumption of office by President Muhammadu Buhari- also a Fulani- who may be standing for reelection in 2019. In the two and a half years that the Buhari administration has been in power, over 50 percent of the casualties recorded have been in the South-east and North-central geographical regions. Farming communities in Benue, Kogi, Taraba and Nassarawa in North-central and Enugu, Abia and Anambra in the South-east have incurred the highest casualties.
It’s confounding that government’s response has ignored climate change, as the source of conflict exacerbating the herdsmen grazing crisis. Historically, indeed, since the existence of Nigeria, the Fulani herdsmen have grazed their herds customarily in the North and intermittently in other areas; but incremental drought with resultant desert encroachment forced them to regularly look southwards for greener grazing areas. As Mary Ikande observed in an article published on naij.com, “with regard to precipitation at the coastline, the eastern part records 430cm, the western region records 180cm, the center of Nigeria records 130cm, the upper north is the driest zone and records only about 50cm”. These statistics, which merely confirm pre-existing academic research on rainfall patterns in Nigeria, point to the underlying problem. According to an International Center for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) publication released in November 2017, “over 80% of Nigeria’s population depends on rain-fed agriculture leading to a high risk of food production system being adversely affected by the variability in timing and amount of rainfall.”
With the rising attacks, some Nigerian States have enacted anti-grazing laws that makes grazing in open fields or farms a punishable offense. Whereas such measures have doused the tension in some affected States, in places like Benue State, it has failed. The 2018 New Year day herdsmen attack resulted in the gruesome murder of 73 people in rural Benue communities. The attacks occurred despite the extant anti-grazing law Benue State government had enacted which prohibited indiscriminate and open field grazing. The herdsmen had vowed not to obey the law. The Federal Government’s response has been lethargic and its reactions, if any, has always been the deployment of security operatives to affected areas. There has been no serious effort by the government to tackle the effects of climate change as ancillary to the crisis.
In developed and some developing countries, cattle herds are ranched with provisions made for growing their choice species of grasses. Nigeria can ill-afford not to do the same. Ranching has been widely recognized as a solution, but entrepreneurs are reluctant to take advantage. The onus is on the government to take the first step and introduce policies that will make ranching attractive such as an effective ban on open grazing, easy access to land, improved species of grasses and compulsory inter-state transportation of cows by trucks. This will also create thousands of green jobs for unemployed youths.
Intensifying the pace of the Great Green Wall project (a reforestation plan for sub-saharan Africa to fight desertification by planting trees at desert prone areas) in the 11 northern pilot States where it is meant to take place is now imperative. Implementation of that project will help return green vegetation to the North.
Nigeria also needs to quicken her adaptation measures on climate change (plans to tackle the effects of climate change) from vision to actions. It is distressing that Nigeria is not yet a member of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF)- a 43-nation group of most vulnerable countries that negotiate as a bloc at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It speaks to the lethargy that characterize such issues of great importance. Joining the CVF will give Nigeria the opportunity for knowledge-sharing with countries facing similar challenges. Benefits from what the group is able to negotiate, will be bonus.
Nigeria can’t escape or ignore the impact of the climate change cause-and-effect relations on the herdsmen crisis without risking a worsening situation. The best way to tackle climate change problems is to approach them with the aim to explore the opportunities they present to empower people. In a country with terrifying unemployment numbers, this moment should be seized to stop a naturally-induced crisis from becoming politically explosive.
Udeh is a climate change policy research associate at Selonnes Consult Ltd.