However, in recent years, violence between herders and farmers has alarmingly grown, spreading from the north to the central and southern states.
Violence between the two groups has claimed more lives than the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency in the north-east, disrupting rural communities and threatening Nigeria’s stability and food security.
The combination of environmental degradation and violence (attributable to climate change, high population growth, Boko Haram insurgency and armed criminal activity such as cattle rustling) has pushed herders from the north of the country southward in search of pasture and water, resulting in almost daily clashes with farming communities. The intensity of the violence varies from region to region, but so far, Nigeria’s north-west and north-central zones have been hit hardest.
Nigerian authorities responded by deploying security forces to the affected areas but later realised that a military response was insufficient to deal with the main cause of herder-farmer conflict: competition over land and water.
In 2019, following a surge in violent incidents the previous year, they adopted an ambitious, 10-year National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) that aims to alter these deadly patterns.
In a nutshell, the plan encourages pastoralists to switch to ranching and other sedentary livestock production systems. By the end of 2028, authorities expect to have at least 119 ranches operating across several states, with the hope that more mechanised forms of livestock production will bolster the sector’s productivity.
Abuja projects that the planned establishment of ranches, alongside the resuscitation of long-neglected public grazing reserves, will create over two million jobs, mostly in the meat, dairy processing and marketing chains.
The federal government has committed to funding 80% of proposals submitted by participating states, while state governments and private investors are to provide the remaining 20%. Donors are also prepared to help.
The new plan was not Nigeria’s first attempt at developing a strategy to reduce competition for resources among herders and farmers, but it is the country’s most comprehensive livestock reform bid to date. Many state governments, especially in the north, welcome the move with enthusiasm, and some have already demarcated grazing reserves or applied for funding from the federal government to set up ranches.
Misperceptions and misgivings
However, implementation has been slow. Two years after the launch of the NLTP, the first ranch is yet to be put up. A major obstacle is widespread distrust of the plan among herders and farmers.
Doubtful of the viability of ranches and grazing reserves, many herders are lukewarm about supporting the plan. Leaders of some herders’ groups complain that 10 years is too short for pastoralists to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, which will have far-reaching cultural and social changes from nomadic communities. They also have legitimate doubts about sufficiency of the pasture that is to be made available in grazing reserves.
Additionally, farmers worry that they may be forced to hand over their land to livestock producers. Others are concerned that the reforms will unduly favour the nomadic Fulani community – fears partly attributable to the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari is a Fulani.
Lack of funding (compounded by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic) as well as a dearth of technical experts and competent ranching staff has further thwarted progress.
Meeting the challenge
Nigerian authorities should work with donors and private sector partners to urgently address these and other challenges. Despite the government’s acknowledgement of the need for long-term solutions to promote peaceful coexistence between herders and farmers, only preliminary steps have been taken to implement the NLTP.
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Abuja and supportive state governments should display stronger political backing for the new plan, improve public communication and win the support of herders and farmers by assuaging their concerns and dispelling misperceptions about NLTP’s purpose.
Furthermore, federal and state governments should engage with donors and investors to ease funding shortfalls. They should also increase efforts to build up expertise and train people on how to manage ranches and grazing reserves.
A major concern is the proliferation of deadly criminal gangs and other armed groups that are cutting off access to grazing reserves and scaring away potential investors. Reducing criminal violence, especially in the north-west and north-central zones, should be an urgent priority for the government.
Authorities will also need to address two striking gaps. First, it does not mention how Nigeria intends to deal with foreign transhumant migrants or cattle herders from neighbouring countries who move their herds across borders as seasons change. Second, it does not adequately consider the potential impact of climate change on the livestock sector and ranching.
Less than two years from now, Nigeria will hold general elections: Buhari and many state governors are ineligible to compete, having served the maximum number of terms.
If the plan is to survive the change of government, the Buhari administration must deliver concrete, visible results that can win over both herders and farmers, such as new ranches or functional grazing reserves.
They should accommodate this effort, and partners should support them by offering resources to help them succeed. The plan is far from perfect, but it offers the best chance to modernise Nigeria’s inefficient livestock sector and quell the herder-farmer conflict that undermines the stability of Africa’s most populous country.
Comfort Ero is International Crisis Group’s Interim Vice President and Africa Program Director, and Nnamdi Obasi is Crisis Group’s Senior Adviser on Nigeria
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