In 38 years, the land available for grazing in the Middle Belt region fell from 61 percent to 38 percent.
That trend was similar across Nigeria according to a graphic report published this week by Reuters. The most dire consequence has been a fatal souring in the erstwhile good relationship between herdsmen and farmers that has existed in the days of much more land for grazing than farming. More people have now died from herdsmen-farmers clashes than due to Boko Haram. 2018 has been the worst year on record for a downward spiral we could say has been on its way for years.
It has been popular to identify the motivation of the Fulani herders with those of the terrorists. From what this report shows, that may not be an opinion supported by evidence. Of the total land area in Nigeria that changed from grazing land to farmland in the last four decades, half was within the Middle Belt.
Food Basket? Not Always
Today, Benue state is called the food basket of the nation. But back in the day when it was still part of Northern Nigeria, the title did not exist. Farming was not a major occupation and the report quotes Samuel Ortom on the effect population growth has had for increasing presence of farmlands.
It presents a persuasive logical argument. The report challenges not-a-few people emotionally invested in the idea of “islamization” as the motivation of the herdsmen. Such persons may, however, question the choice of words used in the report.
For example, it is said that the Middle Belt “lost” land available to herders. When it is framed that way, eye brows may raise to a possible interest in furthering open grazing as a policy. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing; the nomadic way of life has been around long enough to be respectfully considered on the policy round-table.
A Policy Dilemma
Supposing the report to represent an accurate historical picture, the dilemma facing policymakers becomes clearer. The land use data records seem to show nature asking herders to change their ways of life, to the advantage of agrarian people’s prosperity. This premise has to make more sense than a conclusion that the conflicts have been ethnically and religiously motivated, with due acknowledgement of the existing dichotomies.
The issue at hand, it appears, is about balancing a nudge for a people to change their culture considering modern realities (of shrinking physical spaces, and of what resources can be more useful for) with their perception that change is being forced on them to the benefit of others who don’t have to change. Achieving this balance is not straightforward but, with the knowledge of this historical shift as guide, there is a path to sustainable peaceful co-existence and economic development for both parties.
Remedying Failed Leadership
That conflicts have escalated within this region at this time in history is a fault in leadership whose duty it is to be mindful of and prepared to act on the nearing of a break-point. Now that more light has shone on it, there can be no reason to not initiate the right discussions and set plans rolling to effect peace – in places like “The Home of Peace and Prosperity” – and prosperity everywhere.
The Reuters report, featuring maps and graphics, also highlights effects of insurgency and desertification on the crisis. Read it in full here.
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