While the attention of the Nigerian government is focused towards ending the violent Boko Haram insurgency in the country’s North East region, it has turned a blind eye to the equally devastating conflict, brewing in the North Central region, a report released on Tuesday has said.
The report, titled “Terror in the Food Basket” published by SMB Intelligence, a data mining and research firm that provides analysis of Nigeria’s socio-political and economic situations, described the attitude of the Federal Government toward the Fulani herdsmen and host communities in the region as “head-firmly-in-the-sand”.
SMB Intelligence stated that the report was compiled through ground reporting in three states in the region – Benue, Nasarawa and Plateau States – interviewing survivors, visiting internally Displaced people’s camps, review of media reports, visiting markets and curating available causality figures.
First, the report debunked the over-simplification of the conflict as caused by the activities of cattle rustlers and said what is happening in the region is “wholesale slaughter of communities” that required urgent attention.
According to the report, over 2,000 people have been killed in conflicts between the herdsmen and host communities in the region in 2015 alone. In comparison, according to the report, the Boko Haram insurgency kills 2,500 people annually.
The report stated that although the conflict in the region, aptly referred to as the “food basket” of the country due to its largely agrarian communities, is under-reported by local and international media, its implications are far-reaching and as deadly as the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East.
“No war has been declared. Unlike the more high profile and internationally recognized Boko Haram insurgency, the conflict in the Middle Belt is under-reported in both the domestic and international media, and the government’s response to it has been a sort of denial that this conflict exists, with senior government officials preferring to focus on either Boko Haram, or the issue of cattle rustling in the North-West.
“While the number of Nigerians that have been killed in this violence rivals the numbers affected by Boko Haram in 2015, the killings are just as indiscriminate – women, children, young men, the elderly – everyone is a target. In March 2014, Gabriel Suswam, then governor of Nigeria’s Benue State, came under attack,” the report stated.
“This is about the vibrant, ethnic melting point in the North Central geopolitical zone of Nigeria, an area known as the food basket of the nation, now reduced to the semblance of a war zone. In many hamlets and villages houses are burnt or torn down, and where the houses still stand they have been overtaken by weeds as the inhabitants have long fled. Schools and markets have been destroyed or shut down. Farms, have been deserted and whole communities have been emptied. It is a story shocking in both its effect on the region and in the near total government silence.”
The report observed that despite promises made by the All Progressives Congress to tackle the conflict in the north central and President Buhari’s condemnation of the killing of 95 people by suspected Fulani herdsmen in March, 2015, while campaigning to be elected into office, he has completed ignored the region since he became president.
A conflict of resources
Although SMB Intelligence admitted that the conflict in the North Central is “multi-dimensional”, it stated that its finding shows that it is basically a conflict about resources.
“The seasonal southward migration of Fulani herdsmen brings them into contention with indigenous people of the Middle Belt region for farmland, and according to respondents, this is the primary source of conflict. Locals report the destruction of their crops by the cattle of the Fulani herdsmen, whereas the herders report that their cattle are being stolen, what is commonly termed as cattle rustling.”
The report observed that the number of cattle herders have shot up recently and that they appeared to be accompanied by a sinister group of “herdsmen” armed with sophisticated weapons, which are usually not associated with real herdsmen, out to spread havoc on the communities in the region.
“There are a lot more herdsmen today than there were in previous years, and it appears there are some accompanying them who are not practising the normal business of herding. There are allegations that some of the owners of the cattle are retired army generals and politicians – it is a big business.
“The Fulani herdsmen during their nomadic movement with their cattle, which constitute their own most important assets, encroach and graze on the lands and crops of the native ethnic groups in the Middle Belt. Inevitably, the natives complain and the herdsmen recourse to organized violence.
“When this happens, the herdsmen, who reportedly have a powerful union across West Africa report back to their powerful owners that the cattle are being rustled or killed and then the Union organises for protection to come – 6 SBM Intelligence October 2015 usually mercenaries accompany some of the herdsmen and attack villages where cattle have been rustled or killed. For example, 12 such ‘herdsmen’ were caught in Guma in 2013. Only one of them was Nigerian. The others were foreigners.”
The report claimed that the killings have taken “a systematic and methodical pattern that increasingly looks like a deliberate plan to wipe out native ethnic groups, either by killing or displacing them, in order to take control of lands and fields in the region.”
Fields are even sowed with chemical that makes subsequent cultivation difficult if not impossible, the report said.
It observed that the failure of the government to take concrete steps into resolving the issue and punishing perpetrators had added fuel to the fire consuming the region.
“Because the government has failed to respond adequately by protecting the lives and property of the citizens in the region, the herdsmen have grown bolder, and their perceived attempt to wipe out the native ethnic groups has quietly morphed into low intensity warfare. Even where the traditional rulers have attempted to call the herdsmen to peace meetings, the herdsmen routinely take advantage of these occasions to perform reconnaissance for future attacks.”
The impact of conflict
Consequently, the report stated that the conflict had caused the lost of the means of livelihood in the largely agrarian region as crop are destroyed by animals and inability of farmers to cultivate their land. Some for nearly 10 years.
Since the region produces most of the food eaten in the country’s commercial nerve, Lagos, a city of 20 million people, and other southern cities and towns, its immediate impact is the hike of food stuff.
In Lagos, for instance, the report stated that the prices of tomatoes, which are mainly brought from the north central had increased by more than 225 per cent in the last two years.
“The variation in the prices during that time frame can only be described as shocking. A small basket of tomatoes (roughly 3kg), which used to sell for between N5,000 and N6,000 in 2013, now sells for N18,0000. The big basket (roughly 15kg), which was sold for N12,000 now costs between N26,000 and N27,000 depending on one’s bargaining power,” the report stated.
Resolving the conflict
The report advocated the creation of an enforceable grazing area in the North Central as a short term solution to the problem of the conflict between the herdsmen and host communities.
In the long run, it called on the government to liaise with traditional rulers in the core north to create communal ranches and provide water for the ranches via irrigation projects.
“The establishment and enforcement of grazing routes for the migrating herdsmen may be the best chance for restoring law and order to those states in the short term. These routes will have to be agreed upon by all stakeholders and local authorities will have to enforce them and apply necessary sanctions to violators.
“[A lasting solution] requires vision and investment in infrastructure that must be sustained over a period taking a holistic view of the problem. If properly implemented, it can unlock new industry in the North and contribute significantly to tackling unemployment in the region.
“The first step is liaise with traditional rulers in the North to designate land for communal ranches. The government will then have to make the investment to water these ranches via irrigation projects which will ensure that dry season grazing can be done in the region. These ranches can be administered through the cattle-rearer organisations such as Miyetti Allah.
“It will have the multiple effect of making rustling a lot more difficult as herdsmen and their cattle are concentrated in easily protected locations as well as giving opportunity to do better agricultural extension work which will help the herdsmen improve meat and milk yields through improved breeding practices. It will help with integrating the herdsmen into society and also identifying and dealing with those who masquerade as herdsmen to perpetrate violence,” it stated.