The long read: Nigeria’s War of the Land

KADUNA, Nigeria (AFP) -“Move! Move!”

The herders cry, the packed crowd divides, and a vast column of cattle charges through the swirling dust, their long sharp horns swaying like a forest.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of beasts push their way forward, trampling the ground strewn with plastic bags.

It is mid-morning but already the heat is blistering. The buyers have arrived, and the hard bargaining can begin.

The scene is Agege market in Lagos – the largest livestock trading hub in West Africa.

Here, each day, 50 truckloads of livestock are disgorged into its maw to supply the 20 million inhabitants of Africa’s biggest city.

Nigeria has nearly 200 million mouths to feed, a figure expected to grow to almost 400 million by 2050.

Going hand-in-hand with this population boom is a vast, expanding market for meat and milk.

A Fulani man selling cows, wait for buyers at Illiea Cattle Market, Sokoto State, Nigeria. – AFP

And that demand, in turn, is having invisible, but wrenching, repercussions on Africa’s most populous country.

Agege is, literally, terminus for the animals. They have been raised and fattened by nomadic Fulani herders many hundreds of kilometres away, sold at rural markets and ultimately brought to the mega-city.

Some cattle, exhausted by the journey and weak from disease, collapse on arrival.

Lying on their sides, panting with protruding ribs, they seem like they are preparing to give up without a fight. These are not worth a great deal, their flanks too thin for much cash.

But most, fattened up with grain and fodder, show a shiny coat and have the thick thighs of good health.

All have come over vast distances: walking at first, then packed into large cattle trucks for the final leg to Lagos.

Today, their journey is almost over. Just a short walk away lie the city’s giant slaughterhouses.

In a grubby car park, refrigerated vans are already waiting to load the meat.

Aisha Maila is one of the few women in the organised chaos of the sprawling market.

The elderly woman is marrying off her daughter in a few days and wants the celebrations to be something special.

She is not rich, so she has come to buy the wedding dinner direct from the source.

“How much for that big white bull there?” she asked, but the thousand dollar price-tag is too high.

“Too expensive,” Maila said, scouting out a more modest cow that she can afford.

Maila’s shopping is small stuff. The big business is done between dealers and major butchers.

Gambo Usman has found a potential buyer for his batch of fat-humped, long-horned cows, which have come all the way from neighbouring Chad.

“Yauwa, yauwa,” Usman said in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria, his phone clamped to his ear. “OK, good.”

He explained the terms of the deal to his boss, a wealthy businessman in the northern Nigerian city of Kano.

Usman is only the go-between.

Twice a month, he crosses Nigeria by plane from north to south, travelling nearly a 1,000 kilometres between Kano and Lagos to sell the animals sent down south.

“The demand is getting bigger, and we sometimes have trouble meeting it,” said Usman, dressed in ripped jeans and muddy boots.

“There are shortages because of violence with farmers. Many herds have been decimated up there.”

“Up there” is Nigeria’s north. The majority of animals coming to the big cities of the south come from the borderlands of Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

There, in the dry lands of the Sahel, the ancient way of life of herding is practised by the Fulani, people with long traditions of nomadism.

But the lifestyle is under pressure as never before.

Big herds and big money are at stake: around 120 million cattle, sheep and goats.

Every November, when the dry season begins, the farmers and their animals move south searching for fresh pastures, to where the Niger and Benue rivers water the fertile plains in central Nigeria.

Once, there used to be room for everyone in the ‘Middle Belt’, the zone where a Muslim-dominated north rubs alongside a largely Christian south.

Each complemented the other: milk was traded for corn, leftover hay from harvests fed the livestock, and dung from cows fertilised the soil.

Tensions could arise, especially when a herd ate or trampled a farmer’s field of crops – but traditional chiefs still had the power to keep the peace between rivals.

Times have changed.

In the north, the tough droughts seem to have been growing ever harder, while the brutal insurgency of Boko Haram has forced tens of thousands of people to flee the lands around Lake Chad. Meanwhile, parasites that once plagued livestock have declined, opening up the land for cattle.

So the Fulani people are shifting south – often, if they can, for good. With the dizzying speed of population growth in Nigeria in the late 20th Century, land has become the subject of fierce competition.

Step by step, conflicts over crops, water and livestock have grown. The village of Angwan Aku, in the centre of Nigeria’s north, is now at the heart of a war in which more people have died than in battles against Boko Haram.

The village, once home to settled farmers, was left in ruins in April. Monica Gabriel, lying on an old mattress on the floor of a nearby clinic covered in a thin red sheet, is a survivor.

A week after the killings, the 48-year-old farmer is still in shock, staring silently into space, the bullets that smashed into both her legs remain stuck inside. Her shaved head is crossed by a long scar. On her left wrist, a homemade bandage covers where the assailants hacked her with machetes.

Two nurses wave off the flies which come to feast on the wounds. Were it not for a small cough that moves her chest, an observer might think she was already dead.

It was just after dawn and Gabriel had been cooking millet porridge for breakfast when a crackle of automatic rifles rang out in Angwan Aku. “Someone shouted a warning, but we didn’t hear,” said her husband Dauda, his voice trembling as he recalled the moment. “My mother was killed on the doorstep. My wife tried to run away – but they caught her.” He has not left his wife’s bedside since.

“We do not know why they attacked us,” he said. “We didn’t do anything to them.” The gunmen went from house to house, shooting or hacking to death anyone they encountered – men and women, old and young.

In less than two hours, in this village of some 2,000 people, 27 were slaughtered and 16 seriously wounded.

Survivors claim that the attackers were ‘Fulani’: they say gunmen spoke the Fulani language and had lighter skin and high cheekbones, the stereotyped look of their group.

But beyond that, there is no consensus.

Where did they come from, and what was their motive? Was it robbery? Were they another gang of bandits, in a country with so many already?

Or was it for revenge? Some blame a court decision on a land dispute, that ruled in favour of the villagers. Others claimed it was an argument over a woman.

As is so often the case, no one knows the truth, for there are as many stories as there are people in these tough lands.

In the past five years, the conflict has claimed at least 7,000 lives, and the economic cost is running at USD13 billion annually, according to the NGO Mercy Corps.

Settled farmers, hailing from several different ethnic groups, boast of ancestral ties to the land, buttressing their claim to own it. But such claims have been indirectly encouraged by an official policy: the government is throwing its support behind agriculture to diversify Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy.

In some places, smoke rises from the ruins of houses torched a few days earlier.Flames have reduced motorbikes to skeletons. Piles of corrugated sheets are all that remain of collapsed roofs.

Only the yowls of frightened dogs break the silence.

The dead are speedily buried without a coffin and with the briefest of funerals – laid together in mass graves hastily dug by villagers before scavengers come to rip at their remains.

At the village of Dogon Noma, where 71 people were killed and around 250 houses burned in March, each grave was dug to hold 10 bodies.

The lines looked like a freshly ploughed field.

The aftermath of these attacks is invariably a grim ritual, and one that inevitably drips more poison into this conflict.

Police typically arrive days after the attack. Their investigations lead nowhere.

In the absence of justice, frustration metastasises into hatred.

So those who call for peace face a challenge.