Nigeria’s government for years has been seeking a lasting solution to the conflict between farmers and herders over grazing lands, a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. The country’s middle belt region is most affected by the dispute, but recently the government introduced a settlement plan for herders aimed at ending the clashes. But the settlements, known as RUGA in Hausa, are meeting some resistance.
For Haruna Isah, it’s a daily struggle to keep his father’s herd well-fed. He gets up early to find a few good grazing spots around the city center of Nigeria’s capital. When he ventures out, he often has to share spots with other herders and says he can get in trouble when his cows stray into farmland.
“Sometimes, we have a problem with the farmers when the cows enter their farm and destroy the crops. The farmers seize our tools and sometimes our herds until we pay some ransom to get them back,” Isah said.
The conflict between cattle herders and farmers in Nigeria dates back decades. Population growth, urbanization and desertification triggered by increasing climate change have escalated the conflict.
More than 3,600 people have been killed in clashes over grazing land between 2015 and 2018, and thousands more have been displaced.
The government says establishing cattle settlements, or RUGAs, for the herders will address the issue.
Garba Abari is director general of Nigeria’s national orientation agency.
“What it is intended to do is purely to find a way of mitigating the movement of pastoralists,” Abari said.
But the government plan has met with stiff resistance, especially from eastern and southern Nigeria where residents like Ben Ejiofor say they will not give up their lands for these settlements.
“It’s not a scheme that can help the country. Already we have RUGAs that are existing, but those RUGAs are being abandoned. What happened to the initial RUGAs that we have? These are questions Nigerians should keep asking,” Ejiofor said.
The pilot phase of the government’s cattle settlement plan provides for six settlements per state. These settlements will be equipped with schools and hospitals for herders and their families.
Nana Bashir of the Farmers Association of Nigeria says the group hopes to see this plan put an end to the crisis or reduce it significantly to enable farmers to return to their farms.
“We need peace, we the farmers. If there’s no peace, we cannot farm, and if we don’t farm, we cannot produce food for Nigerians to eat,” Bashir said.
For now, Nigerian authorities have suspended the plan temporarily to continue discussions with stakeholders.
While that happens, herders like Haruna will have to make do feeding their cattle, even if they create a public nuisance.