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Fulani herdsmen crisis: Time for a beef boycott

9 February 2021

Nobel Literature Laureate Wole Soyinka, while speaking to the BBC this week, called out President Muhammadu Buhari for a failure to deal with the terror being visited on Nigeria in the name of grazing cattle all over the country.  Buhari is a patron of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), a pressure group for cattle owners, and Soyinka suggested that the president’s conflict of interest was a factor in his failure to act decisively on the issue.

Wole Soyinka speaking to the BBC

The literature professor said the president should address the country saying: “I know I am the patron of the cattle rearers association etc., and I am a cattle rancher myself and it is a business. And I do not run my business by killing people. I do not run my business by raping, by displacing, by torturing. I do not run my business by occupying land that does not belong to me and I am warning a business people in the food commodity, all cattle reared, whatever comes to you for illegal occupation for trespassing on other people’s property is your business and I am ordering the army, I am ordering all the security forces to back citizens’ efforts in flushing you out.”

But Soyinka and the entire country know that Buhari won’t even think about saying anything of that sort.  The reason the president won’t act was alluded to by Soyinka – cattle breeding is a business and a very lucrative one for that matter.   The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in its World Cattle Inventory ranking of 209 countries, placed Nigeria at 14th in the world with 20m cows.  One cow is worth about 200,000 naira. This means cattle breeding in Nigeria is a 4tn naira (approx. $10bn) business.

Buhari is compromised by his interest in the cattle business

Unlike Brazil on the top of the world cattle inventory and other countries on the top 10 like the US and Argentina, where ranches are the main places for breeding cattle, Nigeria’s 20m cows use the entire country as grazing land.  Those cows are owned by very rich and powerful Nigerians, who pay the herdsmen a very small wage for looking after their assets.  Most of the beef on Nigerian dinner tables comes from those cows.  The cow owners deliberately choose the primitive method of moving cattle by foot across the country in search of pasture instead of housing the cows in ranches.  The costs of feed and water for 20m cows would run in billions of dollars annually.

The profitable business of breeding cattle is run, in the words of Soyinka, “by killing people”.  This is because cows are moved all over the country in search of grass and water.  This often results in trespass on people’s farms and the destruction of crops.  Farmers tend to retaliate to the destruction of their livelihood and violence ensues. The cows are also vulnerable to cattle rustlers. To protect their investment, rich cattle breeders engaged an armed militia that carries out reprisal attacks when the business of grazing is disrupted by either irate farmers or rustlers. Those reprisals also serve as a deterrent for any community thinking about preventing grazing in any shape or form.

The powerful cattle owners include senior politicians, the military and police top brass and other wealthy Nigerians.  The police and the military do very little to stop the violence involved with herding and former army chief and ex defence minister Theophilus Danjuma accused the military of colluding with the herdsmen.  They collude because very senior officers are also involved in the cattle business. Recently in Bende, Abia State, the police commissioner arrested traditional rulers after farmers in the community retaliated because herdsmen took over their farms.

The amount of money involved and the power of those that own the cattle mean that the violence is unlikely to be quelled soon.  It is time to try something different.

Nigerians need to ask themselves whether the beef on their dinner table is worth the bloodshed involved in the business.  In advanced countries many have been known to quit eating meat after revelations of animal cruelty.  But Nigerians don’t seem bothered about the people killed to satisfy their demand for beef.

There are two examples of how a peaceful approach to end the violence can be adopted and adapted to the Nigerian terrain.  Firstly, “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds” were diamonds sold to finance insurgencies and warlords in countries like Sierra Leone.  The UN, with a handful of resolutions, played a major role in the effort to reduce the trading in those diamonds.  The beef in Nigerian markets are “blood beef”, but the Nigerian government can’t be expected to act because senior officials, including the president, are involved in the business.

Nigerians would have to take direct action to end the killing.  This brings us to the power of peaceful grassroots mobilisation as was shown during the Montgomery Bus Boycott against the policy of racial segregation in public transport in Montgomery, Alabama.  The campaign lasted from December 1955 to December 1956. The boycott was a lot more than black people just refusing to ride the buses. It involved serious grassroots organisation. People with cars volunteered to provide car pools to ferry people to work. Others walked miles to work and they provided each other with company, singing along the way to make the walking less stressful. The boycott hit the bus companies where it hurt the most – in the pocket. They were forced to change.

African Americans car pool, during bus boycott, deserted bus in background. City: Montgomery State: AL Country: US cr: Don Cravens/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images NOT OWNED

The time is ripe in Nigeria for a mass boycott of beef. Most of it comes from Fulani herdsmen’s cows. If you don’t buy the beef, you will make an impact on a business run by killing people.  When people stop buying, the rich owners may reconsider their business strategy. There should be a mass sensitisation campaign about the links between the cattle business and deaths due to the search for grazing land and refusal to invest in ranching by the rich owners of the cattle. There should be a mobilisation programme to provide alternative sources of beef and meat. Frozen beef should be on the table as an option.

It should go beyond just calling for a boycott and hoping for the best.  An end to demand for Fulani herdsmen beef would create a business opportunity for other business people to set up ranches and breed cattle in a modern and more sustainable way.

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