Discovering the desert and herdsmen
I have driven, lived and studied the desert for over 40 years. My expedition across the Sahara started in the sixties with a drive from London to Lagos and then back again after a couple of years. This time, I had a theme. I had seen too much devastation on my first trip and subsequent studies to continue to keep quiet. The theme for the second expedition was Global warming is Climate Change and Climate Change is Desertification, Drought, and Famine.
Since then, I have returned to the desert twice, a total of four times and written several books about it. It is noteworthy to realize that the second book I published entitled ‘Me, Myself and I’ in 2002 was dedicated to the stateless and homeless people of the desert who have lost their land and boundaries to the Sahara, and other deserts of the world. This goes to show that the signs have always been there and only a few of us paid attention to it. This was the start of my environmental non-profit organization, Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE Africa).
My third book, ‘Bridging the Sahara’ came after various studies on the science of desertification in Israel in 2002 and sojourn to other deserts of the world such as China, Arizona, and Nevada. It proffered solutions to the encroaching desert and land degradation that was preemptive and sustainable. During my stint in the desert, I encountered thousands of herdsmen, numerous cattle and in fact, I got used to their culture, the way of life and way of traveling. It became more obvious in my subsequent desert sojourns just how much the disappearing greenery affected the herdsmen.
The disappearing greenery: cause and effect
In the early 70s and 80s, the catastrophic Sahelian droughts engulfed the entire Sahel region of Africa with a punishing period of low to absent rainfall, poor harvest and extended famine that lasted for years. The countries that suffered most are Nigeria, Niger, Sudan and Ethiopia. Farmlands were lost to dust from the Sahara and people watched their farmlands and investments in animal husbandry disappear in a matter of months. These droughts devastated the greenery and the grass covers hat provided grazing fields for the livestock in Northern Nigeria. For centuries, the nomadic Fulani had adopted historical shifting culture in their farming practices. The shepherds will move their animals from grazing fields to grazing fields while depleted fields are left to be nurtured to life by the rains. Now and again, they would gather a few hundred animals, drive them through urban centers for sales at certain markets along their routes, grazing them along the way, travelling by foot sometimes all the way to Lagos. Some of them come as far away as Chad, Niger, Senegal, and Mauritania. After the sales, they would return to their farms in the north and their countries. Unfortunately, these droughts of the seventies and eighties laid their farms and grazing fields into wastelands, while the advancing Sahara that deposited dust over the fields turned them into arid lands.
It was clear that if left unchecked the disappearance of these grazing fields and greenery would create a desperation that would only result in chaos. This we can see today.
Mitigating actions by Government
Over the years, the Federal Government has embarked on programmes and initiatives to stem the advancing Sahara. We at FADE have collaborated with the FG on some of these programmes. In fact, our position paper on drought and desertification was part of what led to the creation of the Ministry of Environment, the then shelter belt commission which never saw the light of day and now the Great Green Wall project. The programmes established by these initiatives and bodies have mostly tended to address tree planting as measures to slow down or combat desertification in the Sahelian regions. Despite these efforts as well as those of about eleven different agencies and departments within the FG charged with restoration of greenery in the northern states, no concerted effort had been devoted to the restoration or creation of grazing fields. The attitudinal approach of the state governments who have jurisdiction over these lands and the farmers have tended towards neglect. The result is that despite the huge sums of monies voted, there exist virtually no grazing fields in the north, even around river basin authorities to cater for the rising population of animals currently being farmed to feed Nigeria’s growing population.
Today, there are talks and efforts within the National Assembly to establish grazing fields across the country. This is an over-reach as you do not need the force of the law to regenerate lost farmlands. What is needed is the empowerment of all these bodies to carry out their mandate to the letter.
Shepherds turn Marauders
Herein lies the crux of the matter. There seem to be many armies without a division and with most of these new armies, we don’t know where they are coming from or fighting for. It is important to note that the herdsmen I saw in the past were not armed. All they had was their knives, though poisonous to wade off dangerous animals. The questions we should be asking are ‘Where are they getting these arms from? Who is training and funding them?’
It is an irony of facts that within the abhorrent rhetoric lies some basic truths. The so-called clash between farmers and herdsmen is not merely a clash; it is an attack on businesses and human lives. It is good to remember that the farmers are engaged in their own private business, farming within their own real estate. The herdsmen are also engaged in their own private business of animal husbandry, but in another man’s real estate, having been forced to abandon their own lands by desertification.
It is important to note that these occupiers have shown no respect to their host communities, have shown no regards to the customs of the people or to their sacred lands, nor to their farmlands. These same shepherds do not walk their animals through their own farmlands in their lands. But here in the Middle Belt and the South, they do not have any compulsion in letting these animals trample and feed on vegetable farms and other crops with reckless abandon. This is deliberate and unacceptable and so is their occupation. Such attitudes lead to conflicts. To refuse to recognize these facts is disingenuous, unjust, and being in denial
The wanton destruction of lives and property has been the bane of the Nigerian culture since the amalgamation. And the consistent choice of the authorities to look the other way only serves to embolden the next militia. This is not leadership, when you do not hold people accountable for their actions and atrocities.
This phenomenon in conjunction with mediocrity accounts for the failures of all reforestation and desert combating programmes initiated in the country since the 1960s will only spell doom for the nation.
On a final note, I will say that it appears that the president seems to be abandoning his bottom-up approach to addressing Nigeria ills which was the hallmark of his military leadership. Considering his division of power constraint, he has not been in touch with the people as was expected.
Indeed, there have been talks of war, impending or imagined. But I will caution; let us not talk about war, because if it happens, there will be nothing left of Nigeria. If war occurs, there will be no flow of oil; the farmers cannot produce leading to food scarcity and starvation. The country may disintegrate into anarchy, which is worse than war because you may not know who your enemy is or where to find him, as over a third of our population have no address. Few people will most certainly make money from such a war, and a few others will leave the country. But the majority, will stay back and suffer.