Herdsmen, rustlers and the future of Agriculture in Nigeria; Time for a rethink

At a summit in Lagos, a venture capitalist was asked why his company does not invest in livestock farmers in Nigeria, especially cattle breeders, a move he said would ensure there are enough head of cattle for the production of milk, cutting importation of the important dairy product. The venture capitalist smiled. “We have done that before, but all the cows were stolen,” he said. The violence of cattle rustlers has given birth to violent herdsmen who now attack farmers and have killed more than 8,000 farmers and their families since 2000. Conflict between farmers and herdsmen in Nigeria continues unchecked, with cattle destroying farmlands as herdsmen kill farmers. For a country whose future is said to be dependent on agriculture, trouble looms.

Oil is the past, agriculture is the future

Nigeria’s current economic troubles is because of oil. The black gold has fallen to record lows in recent times, leading to reduced government revenues. Oil accounts for more than 80 percent of government revenues and more than 90 percent of foreign exchange. Prices may be recovering now, but they are volatile and no economy should rely on the commodity. This brings back discussions about agriculture, which was once Nigeria’s major foreign exchange earner. The government led by President Muhammadu Buhari has promised to diversify the economy and has identified agriculture as one of the major focus of the diversification plan, but if nothing is done about the continued conflict between farmers and herdsmen in the country, the plan is dead on arrival.

Nigeria has to stop the conflicts

More than 500 people were reported to have been killed when Fulani herdsmen invaded Agatu communities in northern Nigerian state of Benue. A former senate president who hails from the state called the attack a genocide against his people.

“I am shocked beyond words at the extent of destruction I have seen here in Agatu today.  This is unbelievable. It is unimaginable,” he said as he visited the affected communities.

“Nothing whatsoever justifies this brazen act of destruction meted out on the people of Agatu. My heart bleeds.”

He said what was left at some of the communities were the debris of the wreckage.

Nobody has been prosecuted.

The Fulani community in Benue State gave a reason for the attack: Agatu natives killed 10,000 head of cattle belonging to the herdsmen.

But the herdsmen have not always been this violent. For years, they have been subjected to attacks by cattle rustlers who kill them and steal their livestock.

In 2013, armed gunmen stormed the commercial farm in Kaduna State owned by then Vice President Namadi Sambo and took away more than 1,000 head of cattle worth more than N100 million.

Alhaji Haruna Boro Hussaini, chairman of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, Plateau State chapter told local newspaper Weekly Trust, last May, that between 2013 and 2015, 28,000 cattle were rustled and 264 herdsmen were killed by rustlers. He worried that security forces cannot stop the carnage. “I just have to tell you the truth; our security forces are not helping us at all. Even if we report to them where our cattle have been taken to or where the rustlers are, the response we get from them is that they cannot go there,” he lamented. The herdsmen have, therefore, resulted to violence themselves, brandishing AK-47s to secure themselves and their cattle, crushing anyone or group of people they see as threat. Nigeria is losing a lot of farmers in the process. The effect of this on food production cannot be overemphasized. But that’s not all:

The under-exploited industry left in ruins

In 1990, 82 million hectares out of Nigeria’s total land area of about 91 million hectares were found to be arable. Apart from arable land, the country is also blessed with good weather, supportive of the growth of many food crops. Despite this, Nigeria still spends billions of naira on food imports. With the population of farmers being decimated by Fulani herdsmen, Nigeria may be far from self-sufficiency in food production. Once the security of farmers is ensured, agricultural programmes that increase capability and productivity of farmers would be needed to increase food production and ensure quality produce for export.

The herdsmen likewise, needs to be helped to increase capacity. Apart from securing them from cattle rustlers, there is more to cattle than meat production. Milk is a very important source of dietary energy. But Nigeria, with an annual milk demand of about 1.5 billion litres, produces less than 5 percent of its milk locally. The country reportedly imports $1 million worth of milk for local consumption daily. This will continue until herdsmen can feed their cattle adequately and are educated on how their cattle can be more productive.

According to DeLaval, a world leader in the dairy farming industry, clean and fresh water is important to keep cows healthy and for the quality of milk from a herd. The extension programme of Pennsylvania State University adds that if cows stand excessively, this can cause fatigue stress and may affect milk production. Thus, the nomadic life of the Fulani herdsmen is not good for milk production. Nigeria is, therefore, unable to produce enough milk to satisfy the demand in the country.

Nigeria is today the largest importer of dairy products in West Africa. This will remain so until the government acts.

Nigeria’s solution

The government has a plan. It wants to grow grass in the south to feed cattle in the north, a system the Minister of Agriculture Audu Ogbeh says works well in Saudi Arabia, which grows its grass in the United States. It also plans to plant grass on more than 50,000 hectares of land across the northern belt in the next six months. Once the government achieves this, it will ban cattle from roaming around in the country.

Hopefully, this brings an end to the incessant attacks on farmers in some parts of the country and improve the efficiency of the herdsmen to increase meat and milk production.

The potential for the milk business in Africa is huge. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the average African consumes about 36kg of milk every year, compared to 103kg global average and WHO’s recommended annual consumption of 200kg of milk per person. The aggregate demand for dairy products in Africa is increasing, with the overall growth rate in the consumption of milk and milk products being estimated to be about 2.1 percent per annum. With increase in per capita milk consumption and population growth across the continent, demand for milk will continue to rise and Nigeria would have taken a huge step in its turnaround plan for agriculture by ensuring the country is self-sufficient in dairy production and even have excess for export.

Agriculture is Nigeria’s future, no doubt, but the government needs to protect rural farmers; they are the engine of growth of any agricultural economy. The first step is settling the Fulani herdsmen crisis once and for all.