In our series of letters from African journalists, the editor-in-chief of Nigeria’s Daily Trust newspaper, Mannir Dan Ali, considers whether ranches could solve the deadly conflicts between herders and farmers.
No issue is generating more heat in Nigeria at the moment than the violent clashes between farmers and herders – that are usually over access to land and grazing rights.
Just last week 200 people were killed in central Plateau state after three days of violence, adding to hundreds of lives lost this year alone.
Security services are already stretched by the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east, and are struggling to provide protection and to deter revenge attacks.
My personal experience of this decades-long conflict was about 50 years ago when herders armed with machetes attacked my village in Katsina, north-western Nigeria, leaving many injured.
But these attacks are more deadly and sophisticated than ever before, as the herders are now armed with guns.
This situation is sowing discord and threatening community relations in different parts of the country and putting pressure on the government to act.
The authorities are now proposing to set up ranches.
The plan is to confine the itinerant herders into controlled grazing areas to dissuade them from encroaching onto private farms to look for water and pasture as the seasons change.
Grazing in parliament
A huge population boom in Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country – has meant that people have begun to occupy land with established grazing routes.
A good example is Abuja, which in the last four decades has grown from a small village to become the country’s capital city.
But it lies on one of the oldest grazing routes, and herders still pass through – cars and cattle are often compete for the right of way on the city’s sleek highways.
Herders were recently pictured with their animals passing through the grounds of the parliament.
Nearly a year since the idea of ranches, or cattle colonies, was first mooted, the vice-president has met state governors and agreed to the plan of setting up 94 of them in 10 of Nigeria’s 36 states.
These would be extensive areas of land dedicated to grazing livestock like cows and sheep.
It would also mean schools and other facilities would have to be built for the new communities.
Planners estimate that it would take 10 years to put the ranches in place, at a cost of 197bn naira ($500m; £380m).
Mannir Dan Ali:
“The Fulanis are a proud people and their animals are their prized possessions”
The plan however faces several challenges, including deep suspicions among ethnic communities, which is mostly perpetuated by Nigerian elites.
Some politicians have framed the conflict as a religious one, accusing President Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani Muslim, of looking the other way as his kinsmen go on the rampage.
This emotive narrative is partly fuelled by the fact that the herders are mainly Fulani Muslims and the farmers in the more lush grazing fields of central and southern Nigeria are largely Christian.
The politicians say the government should not spend state resources to set up ranches as they would be supporting a private enterprise.
Some states have also kicked against it as they do not want to provide the land.
The Afenifere, a Yoruba interest group, is opposed to the idea, saying ranches would not be welcomed anywhere in Yorubaland in south-western Nigeria because they suspect the herders would want to annex their land.
But for all the criticism and hyperbole, no alternatives have been provided.
Nigeria’s media is also guilty of portraying the herders as “bloodthirsty” and propagating other stereotypes that has often framed them as the aggressors and never as victims, even when that has been the case.
Local media reporting also tends to leave out the complexity of the conflict.
The Fulanis are a proud people and their animals are their prized possessions – they and their families walk for hundreds of kilometres from the extreme north to central Nigeria and beyond at least twice a year to find the best grazing land for their cattle.
The ranching policy has probably not considered that it could lead to more expensive meat for Nigerians as the cost of feeding the animals will escalate.
Presently open grazing has little cost in terms of the grass that the animals forage on.
Low cattle-human ratio
The Fulanis are also suspicious of the ranches as there has not been an effort to educate them about it and how it would benefit them in the long term.
Their lifestyle currently provides other Nigerians with beef, milk and other dairy products.
Ranching is not exactly new in Nigeria. Some were set up during the colonial period and continued up to the 1980s, when most of the government and even the big privately-owned ranches closed.
It is not clear if the government has studied the reasons why they failed – but mismanagement may be a likely answer.
A cursory search shows that Nigeria has a relatively low human-to-cattle ratio, unlike countries like Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil where ranches proliferate and there are more cattle than human beings.
Nigeria has around 20 million head of cattle compared to its estimated nearly 200 million citizens.
Perhaps more sober research and commitment is needed to convince those opposed to the ranching proposal.
The country needs to be shown the economic benefits of such a model – pertinent for a government seeking to diversify from its dependency on oil revenues.
The herders themselves – often uneducated and suspicious of authority – need to be convinced too, as do the farmers worried about losing their land.
Critically, law and order needs to be strengthened, along with the criminal justice system, so that there is a swift response to incidents of cattle rustling and attacks on communities.
This is the only way to prevent the cycle of revenge attacks which has made this conflict so deadly.