Recent conflicts between pastoralists and farmers are prompting some African countries such as Nigeria to seek to curtail the Fulani’s ancient itinerant culture
As a boy growing up in rural Taraba state in north-east Nigeria, Mohammed Bello recalls roaming the bushes with his father in search of fodder for the family’s herd of cattle. Each day, Bello and his brothers started the morning by checking the animals for ticks, before trekking distances to feed them.
For centuries, people of the Fulani have befriended and sometimes even settled into the communities through which they herd their livestock. In communities they visited, locals allowed their animals to feed on leftover millet husks in harvested farmlands; meanwhile, the herders kept off farms that had crops. The system benefited both groups as the farmers used the animals’ dung as manure.
“To an average person, the cow is meat; but to a Fulani man, the cow is his culture, the cow is his history and the cow is his identity,” Bello, a former secretary-general of the Confederation of Traditional Herder Organisations in Africa, told Africa in Fact.
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani, had 270 cattle on his farm when he came to power in 2015.
Across Africa, that culture is increasingly being rejected. The camaraderie between migrant herders and indigenous communities has largely faded. Instead, conflict over resources such as land and water has fuelled deadly clashes between both groups. In the first half of 2018, at least 1,300 people were killed in Nigeria in violence linked to armed herders, the International Crisis Group said in July. Similar killings have occurred in other West African countries like Ghana, Mali and Ivory Coast.
With violence growing and environments changing, some African countries such as Nigeria are seeking to curtail nomadic cattle husbandry and in doing so reshape one of the continent’s oldest cultures. Nigeria’s federal government has proposed ranching to allow pastoralists to feed their livestock without having to migrate. In some states – such as north-central Benue, worst hit by the violence – laws banning open grazing and herd migration have been enacted. In Ghana, open grazing is banned countrywide, and the government has shown willingness to enforce the ban.
Some critical voices have denounced such bans as an attack on an ancient culture that brought a range of ethnic groups into regular contact. “These laws are oppressive and negative and are fundamentally against our culture as Fulani pastoralists,” Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper quoted the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, an influential group promoting the welfare of Fulani pastoralists in Nigeria, as saying in June.
The Fulani’s nomadic pastoralist lifestyle goes back more than a thousand years, says Sadiq Radda, a professor of sociology at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria. The culture has always been centred on raising livestock – mostly cattle, sheep and goats. Originally located in the Sahel, the Fulani migrated southwards over several centuries leading up to 1900 in search of pastures for their herds and settlements for their families. As they wandered, they and their culture spread to various parts of west and central Africa.
According to the Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institution at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, about 75% of the estimated 25 million Fulani continue to follow the traditional semi-nomadic, cattle-rearing lifestyle. With populations growing and available land declining, their lifestyle is bringing them into conflict with settled farmers. In Nigeria in particular, the seasonal migratory pastoralism flourished for decades and brought groups of variant cultures together. The Fulani learnt crop farming from their hosts, while local communities adopted aspects of pastoralism, with the exchanges enhancing communal peace.
“The Fulani nomadic culture has been tremendously affected by cultures (it has) met. (It) ha(s) also affected other cultures,” Tukur Muhammad-Baba, an expert in the culture and professor of sociology at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University in Sokoto, Nigeria, told Africa in Fact. According to Muhammad-Baba, who has extensively studied the Fulani nomadic culture, that relationship created a “cultural infusion” in Nigeria’s north and middle belt.
In rural Taraba, where Bello grew up, his father and other herders would first send out scouts to neighbouring and distant communities to search for grasses for the cows – and, importantly, to check that they would be welcome. Where they had positive feedback, relationships with local communities were explored, and with that often came friendship. For the Fulani, the driving force was the welfare of their livestock. “The Fulani man does not want the land, he only wants the grass for his cattle,” says Bello, who now works at Nigeria’s Federal Character office in Abuja.
Fulani cattle herded through the streets of Abuja, Nigeria. Photo: Ini Ekott
When he was still a boy, a Fulani male was regarded as wealthy only if he owned at least 100 cows, Bello said; when his father died, he left at least 500 cattle. Despite the greater availability of education since then, a Fulani man’s wealth is still measured by the number of cows he owns. (When President Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani, came to power in 2015, his office said his farm had 270 cattle. Under public pressure, he released some details concerning his assets when he took office, but has refused to provide further information since.) “People think it is a backward culture, but to the average Fulani the size of his herd determines his status in the community,” Bello said. “If you don’t (own) a cow, nobody knows you.”
In recent years, climate change, urbanisation, and population growth have created a toxic blend that has turned herders and farmers against each other. Confrontations over damaged crops or stolen cows are typically followed by violence and reprisal attacks. In its July report, the International Crisis Group said violence linked to armed herders in Nigeria was six times deadlier than attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
The government says it is serious about ending the incessant conflicts and reforming the nomadic culture. It’s a problem that has defied multiple administrations since the end of military rule in 1999. Buhari’s government, which initially argued in favour of nomadic grazing, is now planning towards a future that will see pastoralists confine their activities to ranches, and has identified swathes of land of various sizes across 94 locations in the 10 states as part of a pilot project to encourage the change. “This is the only way out of the conflict,” Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh told the Daily Post newspaper in February this year. “We either ranch, or banish cattle from Nigeria.”
The plan has not gone without challenge. Some states have donated land for the project while others have deplored it, arguing that it would use public land and financial resources for private businesses. Some have said that the policy does not take into account the fact that cattle breeds common in Nigeria are unsuitable for ranching due to their low growth and high consumption rates, which make the animals too expensive to raise. Still, others have questioned the practicality of the ranching approach for a centuries-old culture. “The Fulani way of life is not something you can transform overnight,” says Radda, himself a Fulani. He added that for many years, different administrations had allowed the Fulani lifestyle to continue without addressing the problem.
Clearly, the demand for sudden change will compound “a major mistake” with another one. But Radda also accepts that the Fulani themselves will need to consider changes to their culture for the sake of peace. “If a culture does not address your requirements, then there is no need to retain it,” Radda says. “Culture is meant to serve man, rather than man serving culture.”
Previous attempts at ranching were unsuccessful. Experts say they failed largely because of the huge capital investment required in the infrastructure and services necessary for a more sedentary lifestyle. Those unsuccessful attempts were made in the 1970s by the states of Kaduna and the now defunct Gongola, and the fact that the move was not executed by the central government partly explains the funding difficulty the programme faced. This time, the federal government is driving policy and has detailed an ambitious plan to develop ranches at the cost of 179 billion naira ($497 million) over 10 years. The federal and participating state governments are to spend 70 billion naira in the first three years.
Muhammad-Baba agrees that government support is an important first step in getting the policy right. But he urges that it will be important to inform herders about the impending change to their ancient way of life and to provide them with the kind of education they will need for a different, more settled lifestyle.
Like every culture, the Fulani’s nomadic lifestyle is facing changes to its environment, both human and natural. The government says Nigeria loses about 400,000 hectares of land every year to encroaching desert in the north. Yet, while the country’s land mass has become smaller, its human population has grown from 52 million in 1963 to nearly 200 million, Information Minister Lai Mohammed said in May at a town hall meeting, where he defended the government’s response to the herders-farmers crisis.
Mohammed also said that Lake Chad, which waters parts of north-east Nigeria alongside neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, has now shrunk from 25,000 to 2,500 square kilometres. “At its peak, it was supporting 35 million people from many countries in Africa,” he was quoted by the Leadership newspaper as saying. “Today, most of those people have moved south in search of greener pastures, further exacerbating the contestation for increasingly scarce natural resources – and the resultant friction.”
As Muhammad-Baba sees it, the Fulani will have to adapt to their changing circumstances. “Nature is beginning to withdraw some of the conditions that supported them,” he says. “You cannot preserve a culture; culture is a living organism.”
Omoyele Sowore Photo: ‘Fisayo Soyombo
With every new election cycle, Nigeria is inching closer to producing its own Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau. That hope is fuelled by the confidence with which the younger generation are aspiring to the highest Nigerian office.
A quick run through of the names and ages of candidates currently campaigning to take President Muhammadu Buhari’s job in 2019 is illustrative: Omoyele Sowore (47), Fela Durotoye (46), Thomas-Wilson Ikubese (47), Enyinnaya Nnaemeka Nwosu (40), Ahmed Buhari (40), Charles Udeogaranya (46), Mathias Tsado (41), Eniola Ojajuni (39), Olu James Omosule (48) and Tope Fasua (47).
Although there are some individuals in their fifties or sixties in the mix, the lineup of youth in the presidential race is heartwarming. Nigeria is a country where age — rather than such values as competence, moral presence or strength of character — often forms the main basis of respect. But youth are no longer the leaders of tomorrow; in Nigeria, young people want to be the leaders of today. And it appears they’re well on course.
Taiwo George, the 34-year-old editor of TheCable, Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, puts this down to a “rising youth consciousness to quit the blame game”. Now, young people want to influence political events from the centre. “Nigerian youth are becoming conscious of their role in politics,” He told Africa in Fact. “Unlike before, when they screamed from the sidelines, now they’re actively involved … They’re entering the political arena to contest, and they’re involved in advocacy as well.”
The call for change is gaining momentum. Next year, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest the presidential election. Similarly, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest some of the 36 state governorship seats on offer; 30-year-olds can now be senators, while 25-year-olds can win seats in the Federal House of Representatives and the state houses of assembly.
The age limits for these positions, in the order in which they have been listed, used to be 40, 35, 30, 25, 25. But in 2016, a coalition of youth groups united together to launch the “Not Too Young To Run” campaign — based on the principle that anyone who, at 18, isn’t too young to vote shouldn’t be too young to be voted for. An ambitious, if not audacious, target indeed. Yet considerable progress has been made. With 25-year-olds now eligible to seek legislative office, it is only a matter of time before the 18-year-old target is met as well.
After initial opposition from the upper and lower chambers, the “Not Too Young To Run” Bill was passed in July 2017. Two thirds of the 36 state assemblies followed suit in February this year to satisfy the legal requirements for turning the Bill into law. All that’s left is for Buhari to put pen to paper, and the deal is sealed.
In fact, Nigerian youth have always been involved in politics and elections, says ‘Sola Fagorusi, the programmes and media manager of Onelife Initiative, a non-profit organisation aimed at bringing sustainable social change to young people, but now their methods of involvement and the demography involved are changing.
Until recently, it was uneducated youth, largely living in villages or the outskirts of cities, who featured as party agents or aides to politicians, Fagorusi says. “Today, we are seeing youth engage in peer-to-peer mobilisation for voter registration and collection of the permanent voter card.”
An important part of this has been the capacity offered by the Internet, particularly as regards communication. Fagorusi, 35, attributes the success of recent youth campaigns to “the online amphitheatre, where unending conversations (both deep and shallow) about electoral issues are happening”.
The development has even influenced young people’s participation in primary elections, which were previously little more than “intra-party affairs”, he says. “Young people are also now starting political parties. There is the ANRP, for example – a political party by young people embracing both the elite and deprived. Young people in Nigeria today are doing more than just acting as the electoral umpire’s ad-hoc staff; they are claiming a stake simply by seeking positions within the party structure.”
But some young people are urging caution. The expectations created by the Not Too Young To Run excitement must be tempered with patience, says Rotimi Olawale, executive director of Youthhubafrica, a youth-led, non-profit organisation based in Nigeria that advocates education for girls and engaging in policy debates that impacts young people in Africa. Only when presidential assent is secure, he says, can youth truly start dreaming big politically.
“The most defining agenda for young people in Nigeria today is to crash the party,” Olawale says. “The success of this constitution amendment will see a lot of young people take up the challenge to run for office.” Meanwhile, he says the national, youth-led campaign to encourage young people to register to vote” has been “impressive”, and he is also excited by the rise in the number of “unconventional” political parties, which are providing a platform for youth political expression.
Sowore, one of the youngest 2019 presidential aspirants, recently launched an appeal to raise $2 million “via a clean, transparent and open manner to advance our movement and fund our election into the presidency without the interference of godfathers and godmothers”, as he puts it on his page on the site.
Although he started out as a rank outsider in the race to Aso Rock (Nigeria’s presidential villa), Sowore’s ambition to take on the country’s old guard sits well with the youth. Young people are either promoting his gofundme campaign or contributing to it, and by the time of writing in late May this year, some 575 people had contributed over $49,000. The old guard, meanwhile, sometimes lets its guard slip, and this does not go unnoticed. When Communications Minister Adebayo Shittu recently branded the 47-year-old “inconsequential” on live radio, young people leapt to his defence, saying the minister’s comment was “a slight” on the youth population.
A Sowore victory would have huge implications for the federal ruling class. His campaign machinery is manned entirely by young people, and his election would surely usher in a reign of Nigeria’s youngest-ever ruling elite. But even if he does lose, just the fact of his well-supported campaign will give momentum to efforts by young people to take the central political stage.
Nigerian youth no longer want to be the stooges of politicians or to be cannon fodder for them — useful during election time, but expendable once in power. They do not object to being the governed, but their condition for that is that they too can aspire to, and achieve a role in government. In short, Nigerian youth are discontented with their role as political spectators. Now, they aim to be direct players in the political space.
The year was 2002 and the location a bank’s training facility in a quiet area of Nairobi. They all came from different countries but had one thing in common: every young woman and man in the room had been able to discuss their ideas concerning youth participation in governance during the previous few weeks. The medium that had enabled this was the Internet.
That meeting of the African Youth Parliament, in October and November of that year, addressed many issues relating to the concerns and interest of Africa’s young people. One aspect of it, however, was hardly noticed at the time. With hindsight, though, it is possible to see the novel role that technology had played in making the meeting happen.
Moreover, it helped the delegates to keep in touch, and has continued to do so as they make an impact in their various countries. Internet access – at least the “plug-and-pray” variety that you had to be patient with back then – was spreading across Africa at the turn of the 21st century. Meanwhile, young Africans wanted to contribute to the democratic politics that was defining their future. The Internet was a useful tool that served that growing need.
Meetings at which young Africans expressed anger at the lack of opportunities to participate in politics were not new, but the chance to connect with people who were not in the same physical space was. It was exciting because the more the conversation progressed, the more it was clear that we shared similar experiences and expectations, and also that we faced the same lack of opportunities.
What had started, often on campuses, as an introduction to a new way of communication was soon woven into the fabric of our burgeoning social networks. Social mobility, which had previously been so glacial, began to unfreeze in Africa between 2007 and 2009, when social networks began to connect people who faced similar issues across the continent. For example, many Nigerians were dissatisfied with formal politics after the flawed 2007 elections, which came to be nicknamed iwuruwuru – a neologism that played on the name of the chairman of the Nigerian Independent National Electoral Commission at the time, Maurice Iwu, and the Yoruba word for “cunning”.
By 2009 that anger was finding expression on social media platforms, including BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Facebook and others. Young people in particular adopted these tools with enthusiasm. Protests in 2010, triggered by the prolonged absence of a president seeking healthcare overseas and rumours of a power hijack by a “cabal”, saw yet more activism and exchange of information through social media. The 2011 elections saw citizens using tools like ReVoDa, an election-monitoring mobile app, to take action.
Though labeled clicktivists at the time, it was clear that such tools allowed the safety of near anonymity while at the same time providing outlets for angry expression and enabling people to organise action. This is how the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests happened, building on the opportunism of opposition parties and a tired labour movement that needed but lacked the capacity for mass action. Social media have proved useful in connecting angry citizens and amplifying issues through these phases of Nigeria’s democratic experience. In 2013, Nigerian citizens began to stand up for each other in a different way, through various “#SaveCitizen” efforts that saw young people raising funds online for people in health emergency situations, helping to save lives.
When insurrectionist movement Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from Chibok in 2014, #BringBackOurGirls tweets soon began showing up, because people were familiar with the social medium. Government had failed to act and it looked like it would also try to cover up the abduction, but social media gave citizens a way around their apparent helplessness in the face of terrorism and government inaction, and also enabled concrete action.
This trend explains why, in 2015, social media played a major role in the elections that led to the first incumbent president’s loss in Nigeria’s democratic history. Throughout 2016 and 2017, social media continued to play an important role in citizen activism, with public officials being called out and concrete reforms demanded. The new social media involved elements of citizen solidarity and citizen activism – and they enabled calls for measurable action. Similar campaigns have sprung up elsewhere in Africa. In Kenya, for example, the #WhatIsARoad campaign calls attention to roads that need repairs. From Algeria (#Feb12) to Zimbabwe (#ThisFlag), social media campaigns have taken protest to the streets and forced governments to pay (at least some) attention to social ills.
This year, much is happening in the democratic spaces created or enabled by social media. Once confined to the sidelines, young people are participating and demanding more engagement, especially with the aid of technology platforms and tools.
In Nigeria, a group drafted a legislative Bill, nicknamed the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill, to demand reduced qualification ages for citizens wishing to run for political office, including the office of the president. Another youth-led group drafted a Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that has now been passed by both chambers of parliament and now only needs presidential assent. A mobile application that followed a typical path from development to implementation has been used to monitor elections in Nigeria since 2011.
On September 28, 2010, I wrote to 14 young people who I knew had a flair for technology, arguing that we needed “a tech meet up to brainstorm towards 2011”, as I put it to them. I urged them to consider working to help create social media formats that would have popular appeal, and consider wider uses for “tech”. About three weeks later, the group of young people gathered in a function room at the University of Lagos’ Centre for Information Technology and Systems to brainstorm. From that meeting, the idea of a #NigeriaDecides project was born. Working with another youth-led group, Enough is Enough Nigeria – which had emerged from a similar youth, governance and technology intersection – we set up in a conference room at Beni Apartments in Victoria Island, Lagos to develop a new app.
The final product, ReVoDa – a play on “Registered Voter Database” – offered a crowd-sourced opportunity to monitor and report on elections without having to go through the bureaucracy of registration with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, and it was used by citizens all around the country to monitor the 2011 elections. Technology is opening doors for a new generation of democratic actors because it gives them access to tools that allow people to mobilise effectively. From that beginning in 2011 we have broadened our horizons and we are looking beyond mobilising around occasional elections. A new generation of young people is lighting candles against the darkness of apathy.
New initiatives in social enterprise, business and civic education, among other areas, are coming to the fore, enabled by technology. These initiatives are helping to force governments to get involved in conversations about standards of governance and their implementation. Even the daily actions of government can now be subjected to scrutiny and immediate feedback through technology platforms. Social media are redefining citizen-government interaction.
In April, for instance, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, answering questions at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London, claimed that many young Nigerians wanted “everything for free” because Nigeria is seen as an oil-rich nation.
The same day he got immediate, critical feedback from young Nigerians through a new hashtag, #LazyNigerianYouths, and the presidency had to release a statement “clarifying” the president’s statements. Internet technology is providing opportunities for citizen engagement with and critique of governments that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago. I have no doubt that it will further shape Africa’s democratic experience over the next few years, and beyond.
The role of presidents is currently one of the hottest topics in Africa, hence the theme of this edition of Africa in Fact: “The Presidential Issue”. Nelson Mandela once said, “In my country we go to prison first, and then become president.” Recently, however, there have been calls for this sequence to go the other way. Presidents who abuse their office ought to be removed from power and jailed, many say. But what makes a good president? How do we define a successful presidency?
Vegetable market in Lagos, Nigeria. Image Creative Commons
Nigeria is a country of many ethnicities artificially brought together faces many challenges, not least its own development