Unlike Europe, for instance, whose experience of the nomadic thrust in history is well accounted for, the dynamism of that process remains, understandably, undocumented in much of Africa, most so in Nigeria. The newness of the experience in Nigeria has thus assumed the character of Nigerian politics itself, leaving the detailed documentation to folk Sociology or calculated political statements. It is in that regard that this research breaks a new ground. Of course, it is possible that some researchers or stakeholders somewhere have done a more rigorous work on the herder-farmers conflict in the Benue Valley. But, until such works become popular property, this would remain about the most thorough so far, particularly in its situating of the facts as to transcend the ‘datafication’ disease in research reporting. And how all of these were enhanced by the masterful presentational skills of Dr Joe Ochogwu of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution, (IPCR), Abuja who read the research findings and recommendations.
The Thursday, March 25th, 2021 ‘Dissemination Meeting on Research Findings’ as conducted by researchers working under Zinariya Consults in Abuja turned out a case of where everything added up. For, aside from the content and the fascinating presentation of it, the audience turned out to be an uncommon one in the very qualitative and critical tone of its engagement with the preliminary research report. It was interesting that a mixture of reporters and civil society activists could raise questions as profound as they did. The totality is that the clean copy of the research is sure to be a collector’s item in terms of the dynamism as well as the solutions implied by the narrative of the dynamism of an experience that many in Nigeria have called a war – the current phase of the herders-farmers violence, particularly in the Benue Valley.
What exactly was the report saying? First and foremost, it has all the data covering the number of deaths from certain period to another, (2001 – 2018, for example); the number of attacks; the crisis of massive disruption of livelihood; homelessness associated with forced migration; the number of IDPs camps that bludgeoned, and so on. The facts should be soul destroying for any and everyone interested in peace as a requirement for development. But the facts came within thematic: the key trends and patterns; the gender dimension delineating how men and women fitted into the dynamics; the demographic context in terms of massive population movement that preceded the explosive clashes; the psychosocial impacts from the traumas of violence and especially the cultural responses to this but a vital area that is still missing from our academic study of conflict; the conflict management mechanisms that were adopted to respond to the spiral of violence and which were mainly militaristic although land use regimes have been toyed with too and lastly, the role of Non-State Actors.
Each of these themes had something revealing. There is the portion of the report under Community Resilience that would interest students of identity in Peace and Conflict Studies. It is that in the midst of neat framing of the violence as between herders who are predominantly Muslims and farmers who are predominantly Christians, the Fulani community in many of the conflict sites were the sources of advance information about impending attacks. It would be important to know the magnitude of this practice and the extent to which it interrogates the framing of the conflict.
Similarly, there is the question of how the conflict got its frame. The second paragraph of the report describes the conflict as contestation over land and water but goes on to state how it has assumed ethnic and religious dimension. Both herders and farmers are all peasants. Why has the conflict not been called an intra-peasant war or an agrarian conflict? Why has it assumed ethnic and religious name?
The audience took the questioning up very well when it was its turn to. The first contributor stressed how urbanisation has, in her opinion, overwritten the open grazing practice. She is also surprised that traditionalists and Christian owners of cattle are never mentioned as if it is only Muslims who own cattle. For her too, small arms and light weapons have not been sufficiently emphasised. And she agrees with those who argue that the herders-farmers violence is economic, not identity in nature, pointing out how we all need milk, meat and other dairy products.
The next speaker wondered why he didn’t hear anything about ranching in the research report.
Someone wanted it known that most of the attacks were reprisals. And that the media went into ethnic profiling, misinformation and disinformation in reporting the spate of violence. She would also want what she calls the herders’ side of the story told in the research.
A different speaker thought it would be important to know where in the North and why the massive influx into the Benue Valley that the research report talked about.
The next speaker is baffled that Miyetti Allah argues that herders are fighting for survival while the Minister for Defence is saying that Nigerians should be brave and defend themselves.
Her counterpart suggests that the way out is for Nigerians to hand down the Riot Act to the Government of the day. As far as this speaker is concerned, the Federal Government has failed to show the political will.
Someone else favours a bottom up approach that considers actions against proliferation of small arms and light weapons; takes another look at climate change; bring up the shrinking of the civic space and insertion of the people into the militaristic responses to the violence.
An editor took umbrage against the claim of complicity laid against the media. The media, as far as he is concerned, must call a spade a spade rather than farming instrument. He dismisses small and light weapons as an instigator, putting the blame squarely on “the people in authority”
The next speaker took exactly the opposite position as far as the role of small and light weapons is concerned. She argues that previous research shows that 70% of this category of weapons in West Africa circulates in Nigeria and that it cannot, therefore, be dismissed as a factor. But her clincher is the question of: how do we check the people we give power to?
Someone else echoes the point about lack of political will on the part of the Government, saying that it would otherwise not be possible for some people to be going about with machete in broad daylight without being confronted by law enforcement agents.
Climate change echoed again too in the position of the contributor who does not think it is enough to set up anti-grazing laws without reference to demographic planning.
The next speaker wondered why there isn’t herders-farmers violence in the US, for example which, according to him, is the highest producer of cattle. He also doesn’t want to hear about climate change. He is rather of the conviction that there are just too many cleavages in Nigeria and which affects every other things. As a result of that, everything becomes political.
Before the audience took its turn, Dr. Ndubuisi Nwokolo, the CEO of Nexlier SPD had the floor and argued the Nigerian State was actually forewarned of the current explosion some twenty years back but did not act. He frames the crisis as essentially an economic rather than political, asking why it is not possible for local governments to build stalls-like ranches for which herders would pay in the same manner that shop keepers pay for shops in LGC controlled markets. As far as he is concerned, Nigeria can solve the problem provided it refrains from quick fixes of religion and culture in favour of an economic template. The earlier the country does so, the better for it because no one would be safe from the consequences, he warns.
It was a harvest of divergent positions, most forcefully expressed and sure to enrich the research. But, beyond the harvest, the report raised key issues in relation to the dynamism. One of it is the point of rupture in the conflict. Nomads are nomads because they are not used to sedentary practices. But the researchers noted that, at a point, herders transformed into permanent settlers in contrast to the seasonal flow that gave farmers relief from the crop destroying movement of cattle during farming seasons. In fact, respondents told the researchers how herders were no longer coming with their wives but only cattle and guns, followed by bolder intrusion into farms and more brazen pollution of water points. The outcome was a foregone conclusion: resistance and ‘reprisals’, 49 of which were recorded between 2012 and 2017 in the study area of Benue, Plateau and Taraba states. It throws up the puzzle of how this came about and why?
The second puzzle would be why violence were rarely pre-empted? The number, frequency and destructiveness of each violent encounter suggest that the Nigerian State was not rising to its responsibility in the context of its monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. According to the report, the clashes have placed a heavy burden on the security apparatus. If this is true, is it the case that it would have been worse but for the effectiveness of the security agencies? Critics would argue that there is already a case of intelligence failure if they did not foresee that a crisis worse than their capability was in the making. In any case, conflicts do not just happen. If it is not of a magnitude beyond their capability, why didn’t they stop it after the first few instances or might we be dealing with the reality that it is one thing for security agents to gather information but another thing for political leaders to interpret or use the information?
Lastly, the civil society or, more precisely, NGOs have been singled out as the leading force for emancipation in the post Cold War. They have been posed as the coalition that will decenter the traditional state in terms of guarantee of what it means to be a human being. The question is how well does the role of Non-State Actors sit with this emancipatory tasking in the herders – farmers conflict in the Benue Valley? The research acknowledges that “without the involvement of these Non-State Actors, the crisis would have escalated as the communities are prone to reprisal attacks”, (P.11). On the basis of what comparative analysis does this claim stand? What is the magnitude and overarching direction of the involvement, even if only for academic purposes?
It is still morning yet on creation day for this research. The masterminds behind Zinariya Consults conducting the research would surely not mind more interventions and in puts. As they say, it is never over until it is over. No where else would this be most applicable than when a project seeks to achieve justice through accountability. and not when it involves two other established partners – Open Society for West Africa, (OSIWA) and Global Rights!