Trail’s end: the days of roaming free are numbered for Nigeria’s herders

By Emmanuel Akinwotu

The still of the vast Damau grazing reserve is broken by the gentle noises of Abubakar Umar’s cattle as he herds them a few kilometres from the clusters of brick huts that house his steadily growing community of pastoralists from across northern Nigeria. For many of them, settling here in Kaduna has meant turning their backs on a nomadic way of life that has spanned generations. That lifestyle is increasingly fraught, with tensions over land and water leading to often violent conflict with farmers.

Abubakar Umar
Abubakar Umar: ‘The plains where we used to go and graze our animals, the majority are no longer there’ Photograph: Habila Sani/The Guardian

The government-created reserve is an area where they can peacefully feed their livestock. Umar, 60, says: “For over 50 years, since I was a very small boy, we would move for three or four months then wait, then move again for three or four months. That has been the life. And my father too, and his father, for generations and generations.

“Now we’re in one place. To graze, to sell milk, to take care of the cows. Everything we need is here,” he says, with a mix of gratitude and defeat. “The plains where we used to go and graze our animals, the majority of those plains are no longer there. Now if you go out, there are plenty of conflicts. You’re no longer sure of tomorrow.”

Muhammed Oro, 44, sits by a metal milk container recalling incident after incident in which loved ones have died in conflicts with farmers or hostile communities.

Oro’s brother, Muhammadu Barade, 24, was killed in Zaria, in Kaduna state. “It was not a conflict between them and the village directly but it was transferred aggression. Because they were seen as pastoralists and the community had had issues with other pastoralists. When they saw them they just killed him.”

Nigeria’s population has more than doubled in 30 years rapidly expanding private farmland and heaping pressures on land resources. Unclaimed land is scarce. Historically accepted – but not legally binding – grazing routes have given way to new roads, urban development and farms. Rising encroachments on farmland have gradually led to more deadly conflicts.

In 2002, Nigeria’s government mapped the grazing routes across the country. “About 40% of those routes are now gone,” says Dr Ishaq Bello, a consultant for the reserve.

The Damau grazing reserve in Kaduna, northern Nigeria.
New roots: the Damau reserve in Kaduna, northern Nigeria. Photograph: Habila Sani/The Guardian

Regulations on the movement of herders in Benin and Niger, which border Nigeria to the west and north, have helped manage conflicts. But Nigeria’s federal authorities have been less proactive.

Between 2010 and 2020, violence linked to conflicts between farmers and herders across west and central Africa has led to more than 15,000 deaths, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Half of those have occurred since 2018, most of them in Nigeria, which has created the country’s deadliest security crisis.

What were tit-for-tat conflicts between farmers of varying ethnicities and herders – many of them ethnic Fulanis who span several west African countries – have quickly spiralled into a form of armed insurgency largely waged by gangs of heavily armed Fulanis..

In north-west Nigeria, young Fulani-dominated militant groups – often called “bandits” – have been able to import heavy weapons, readily available in the Sahel since the collapse of Libya in 2011.

The aftermath of a Fulani attack in a village in Kaduna
The aftermath of a Fulani attack in a farmers’ village in Kaduna. Photograph: Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images

Security forces and vigilante units set up to defend against attacks – and who have been accused of widespread abuses – have proved no match for the militants who, from the shelter of forest enclaves, have carried out mass killings and kidnappings and extort regular levies from villagers. Many see these bandits as a bigger threat in Nigeria than the jihadists in the north-east.

Amid the rising violence, many are dismayed with the response of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is a Fulani. Kidnappings by armed groups have proliferated in the past year, with about 1,500 schoolchildren targeted since January, according to the UN.

The perception that the government is not tackling the militants with sufficient vigour has deepened ethno-religious divisions in Nigeria, making the conflict between farmers and herders more divisive, and potential solutions further out of reach.

The long-dormant Damau grazing reserve, funded by USAid, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a milk production company, was revived by Nigerian authorities in 2019, offering a sustainable future for pastoralism.

The reserve is part of the government’s 10-year national livestock transformation plan, launched in 2019 to end the movement of cattle around the country, boost livestock production and end conflicts.

So far 141 grazing reserves across 21 states have been created, with all but two in northern Nigeria.

The Damau Grazing Reserve in Kaduna, northern Nigeria
The Damau grazing reserve in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, is part of the government’s 10-year national livestock transformation plan, launched in 2019. Photograph: Habila Sani/The Guardian

Herders form co-operatives to exploit commercial opportunities. A veterinary service and solar-powered milk storage units are situated at the edge of the 11,000-hectare (27,000-acre) reserve. Before, each herder would have sold unprocessed milk to customers in local markets, but now they band together, bringing their milk to a collection point to be taken away for processing, before being sold to larger companies.

“Before they were in small groups roaming around or they were solitary families. This plan brings them together in co-operatives so that together their economic potential is greater. It makes selling their milk more productive and profitable than doing it alone,” Bello says. “It brings all the productive aspects of pastoralism together.”

Milk from cows on the Damau reserve is brought to a collecting point for processing
Milk from cows on the Damau reserve is brought to a collecting point for processing. Photograph: Habila Sani/The Guardian

Research is conducted to determine which cattle produce the best quality milk. “We import milk in Nigeria because we don’t do enough to boost milk productivity, but now we’re making efforts to change this,” Bello says. The milk price is fixed at 190 naira a litre. According to Umar, during the dry season he makes about 57,000 naira (£100) a month from milk produced by his large herd. “In the rainy season I can make up to 280,000 naira (£490) a month.”

The plan has faced fierce opposition along regional and ethnic lines. According to a report earlier this year by the International Crisis Group: “Deficient political leadership, popular misperceptions about its purpose, budgetary constraints aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, a lack of personnel with the expertise to carry it out and widespread insecurity are all hindering progress.”

It adds: “If the plan fails – as previous initiatives to modernise livestock management did – herder-farmer violence could escalate.”

Northern state governments have opposed open grazing, yet have largely backed plans to donate land for reserves, while southern and central Nigeria states have rejected the measures and even passed anti-open grazing laws.

Many in Nigeria, particularly in the south believe modernising the livestock system should not involve state finances or giving over land, but should be treated as a purely private enterprise; some governors have vowed not to hand over any land.

This lack of consensus risks making the plans unsustainable, Bello says. “If you don’t have all or most of the states adopting this, then it puts pressure on the reserves that exist.”

Women from the Damau reserve at the milk collection point
Women from the Damau reserve at the milk collection point. Photograph: Habila Sani/The Guardian

Some experts say that despite centuries of nomadic life, pastoralists can easily adapt to settling permanently, as they are wedded to finding sustainable pasture, not living on the margins of Nigerian life. Yet for many the transition is a challenge.

“For the women, we need skills and training, because before we were in the market selling our milk, now we are only here,” says one woman at the reserve, who didn’t want to give her name.

While the economic potential of the Damau reserve – one of the more advanced – has helped improve the lives of many pastoralists, some have regrets.

“We miss the social cohesion that used to exist between us and the newfound societies or communities that we moved into before,” Umar says.

“If you came to a community then, because there was peaceful coexistence, there was that cohesion, that welcoming. People will welcome you as a new person. You stayed for a short period of time, you moved again to a new environment. That cycle that we used to have with other communities, that thing is broken.”