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Herdsmen conflict and problems of Neo-feudalism


The bloodletting in the Benue is a classic case of ‘The Heart of Darkness’. Of course, there are ceremonies of death across the world. If ISIS or such Islamic terror organizations are not bombing the shit out of some global metropolis like London, Paris or New York; then hurricane and other natural disasters are killing hundreds. We seem to have entered the age of reckless deaths. So, one can say: ‘what the heck about Benue?

Surely, there is a difference between these tragedies and the Benue tragedy. Whereas these tragedies are heartless and horrifying the Benue and Taraba killings are uniquely imbecilic and nihilistic. I can understand the religious nutty heads that think that by killing westerners they are fighting for God. As wrong as this idea is, it is not idiotic; it flows from a certain logic, albeit based on a flawed premise. But the butchering of women and children ostensibly for stealing of cattle is as idiotic and antediluvian as can be. So, what we are witnessing in the Benue and Taraba is a recrudescence of fabled primitivity.

Nigerians, prone to romanticizing their problems, have become preachy. Our leaders have started extolling the virtues of tolerating one another, the nobility of our culture and the rationality of our religions. Many professionals have gone to work to develop modules for teaching our diverse people the principles and strategies of co-existence. The assumption of these preachments and moralizing is that the problem of Fulani herdsmen and farmers conflicts is the failure of our humanity rather than the failure of social and economic institutions. Instead of considering the political economy of the conflict we are focusing on its moral economy. If there is anything we have learnt from the bloody history of mankind it is that our humanism is too fragile to withstand disorientation in social and economic institutions. Genocide and ethnic cleansing have been recurrent because the flurry of humanism scatters under the wind of brutish and nasty social and economic order. So, we would come to grief if in midst of terrible killings by people who ought to be neighbors if we are still sermonizing about how we ought to be our brother’s keepers.

This conflict has polarized argument about causes and solutions. Those who defend the Fulani herdsmen tend to emphasize the climatic and environmental push factors responsible for southward journeys of the herders and their cattle which inevitably conflict with the farmers quest for more arable land. That is a technical explanation of the problem. Herders are looking for grasses and water for their cattle. In this quest they trample on livelihood support systems of the famers. This narrative therefore prescribes any intervention that focuses on designating a colony or a reserve for the cattle.

Those who take the side of the Benue farmers frame the conflict as a consequence of Fulani quest for dominance. The central problem is land, who controls the land and therefore controls the chiefdom associated with landownership. This interpretation is strengthened by the history of Fulani conquest of most of northern Nigeria pre-colonialism and its cultural imperialism ever since. For this group, the solution is to ban the Fulani from entering and occupying the land. Hence, the solution is ‘cattle ranches’. This is what the anti-grazing laws are pursuing.

Unfortunately, each of these solutions are zero-sums. If we establish cattle colonies, the Benue advocate loses. If we mandate private ranches the Fulani advocates loses. But more than being zero sum propositions, the binary interpretation of the bloody conflict misses out on the most important feature of the conflict. Just as the Benue and Taraba killings are being reported we hear reports of Fulani herdsmen and farmers fighting in Senegal, Ghana and some West African countries. It is not a Nigerian issue. It has become a livelihood crisis for the entire Sahel region. This crisis relates to the failure to adapt to changes in the ecology of existence in this region. The reality is that our much-cherished lifestyle can no longer fit with the new economic and social realities.

The main argument against ranching as a solution is that it is inimical to the lifestyle of the Fulani and unsuited for their specie of cattle. The Fulani is pastoralist. Pastoralism is a form of feudalism with its resort to violence and conquest. A pastoral lifestyle is unsuitable in a period defined by property rights unhinged from the landlord and vassal relationship. The legal and constitutional order of modern democratic state in Nigeria is incompatible with a pastoral economics. The geography of existence has changed. There is no adequate swath of grasslands to be reserved for the migratory life of the herdsmen. In the past, there was little confrontation between herders and farmers because land was abundant and colonial authorities could designate free land as grazing reserves and grazing routes. Contacts between herders and farmers were too brief and uncompetitive. This sustained the fabled hospitality between them.

The imperatives of a modern economy require that pastoralism should be laid to rest. The Fulani herdsmen can no longer survive at the mercy of the farmer in a time when the subsistent farmer is struggling for enough arable land. There is no more land to designate as grazing reserves or cattle colonies. The legal framework of land ownership does not allow for forceful seizure of land for cattle rearing or any other private commercial enterprise, even in the guise of public purpose. In the language of business strategy, cattle rearing in the pastoral form has been disrupted by new economic realities. The wise thing to do is to adapt the business to the flow and logic of the disruptive influence. The cattle owners should retool their business proposition. This is a strategic challenge.

But this challenge is being shrugged off because of ‘sentimental’ reasons. ‘Sentimental’ does not mean merely emotional. It means unrelated to objective facts, but suggested by feeling for the past and the merely symbolic. The Fulani cattle owners are hugging their pastoral lifestyle in fidelity to a tradition that flies in the face of modernity. These patterns of pastoralism flies in the face of modernity. If we must keep the old order it will at the cost of so much idiotic and nihilistic violence, a violence that will impoverish both the Fulani herdsmen and the equally sentimental crop farmer.

This ‘madness’ is not addressed by arbitrating on who owns the land. We are not going to solve it by deploying the best strategies of co-existence because this not an episodic failure of our humanity to be redressed by providing a civic religion or metaphysics that will bind us together. The ‘madness’ is a problem of social and economic underdevelopment. We need to walk away from pastoralism. Pastoralism is a relic of feudal era. Both government and local leadership must champion a movement toward modernity in livelihood sustenance. The hallmark of this transition is a clear-eyed adaptation to realities of modern life. One obvious reality is that the modern state in its democratic citizenship can no longer tolerate pastoralism. It is time to reform cattle business in the Sahel region. We- the herders, the patrons, the government and the farmers- must bear the cost of reforming cattle business. We must build these ranches and improve the species of cattle that will survive in ranches. It will cost money and heartbreaks to walk away from pastoralism. But it is worth the lives that will be saved.

Dr. Amadi is a law and governance professional. He holds a Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) and Masters of Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard University.

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