DAMINIYA, Nigeria — Hundreds of horned cattle wandered back to camp after a long day of grazing, their moos sounding more like wails. Manu Baka walked into the middle of the herd and lit a small campfire. Cows began to gather around the flames, and silence fell across the bush.
“It calms then down,” explained Mr. Baka, savoring the peace.
It’s an evening routine that he and other herders have repeated their whole lives, just like generations before them, moving their livestock across Nigeria in search of fresh grazing land.
In his years as a herder, Mr. Baka has overcome poisonous snakes, outbreaks of disease, cattle rustlers and counterfeit veterinary drugs. But now he and other herdsmen are facing a serious threat to their way of life: Nigeria’s rapidly expanding population means more people want to farm on land that has been used by herders for centuries.
Across parts of Nigeria, conflicts that mirror the 20th Century range wars in the American West have broken out between farmers and herdsmen vying for land, leading to bloody battles.
In the first six months of this year, these clashes killed an estimated 1,300 people –- six times the number who died in the war with the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the same period, the International Crisis Group says.
About 300,000 people have been forced from their homes because of violence between farmers and herders, conflicts that are often exacerbated by religion, ethnicity and even the erratic weather patterns that accompany climate change and create competition between humans and cattle for water.
Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Kenya and other areas across the continent where populations are rising struggle with the problem as well. Here in Nigeria, where the population has quadrupled in the past 60 years to nearly 200 million, the fighting has been so fierce that the government deployed the military to contain some of the battles.
Numerous regional bodies, including the Economic Community of West African States, have pledged to protect the rights of herdsmen, but little action has been taken. Nigeria’s federal government has proposed setting aside land for herders, yet the country is also grappling with widespread unemployment. So it is pushing more people into farming, which adds to the tensions.
Some states have banned open grazing entirely. Local laws that aim to address the conflicts are largely unenforced, especially in rural areas where government is virtually nonexistent.
Like the majority of herdsmen, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, is ethnically Fulani Muslim. And though he has done little to contain the violence or help herdsmen, he is often perceived as siding with Fulanis, who are one of the major ethnic groups of the north. Like other security problems, the issue has already become a contentious one in Mr. Buhari’s bid for re-election in February.
In much of Nigeria, especially the mostly Christian south, Fulani herdsmen are considered terrorists and compared to Boko Haram, notorious for rapes and beheadings. News reports often focus on killings by herdsmen without mentioning deadly attacks by farmers. One newspaper once referred to the conflicts as “the hydra-headed problem of Fulani herdsmen carnage.”
Gombe State, where Mr. Baka has migrated with his herd, is known for its wide-open spaces and peaceful relations between farmers and herdsmen. Many of the farmers here are also Fulani, like the herders, and ethnic tension is minimal.
But even in this state, open land is being squeezed. The population of villages near Daminiya, the closest settlement to Mr. Baka’s camp, has grown threefold, to 7,000 inhabitants in the past 15 years.
Gombe State has such a reputation for peaceful relations that it has begun attracting migrating herdsmen from other, more volatile regions, further cramping space.
“It’s really painful,” said Mr. Baka after a breakfast of baobab leaf stew and fresh milk. “I like this place.”
Mr. Baka and his relatives, along with their cattle, sheep and handful of pack donkeys, set up camp deep in the dew-covered bush here earlier this month. The women used sticks to build tarp-covered domes for shelter, before marching fresh yogurt to town to sell. Hired hands took the cattle to graze after boys and girls pulled suckling calves and sheep from their mothers.
Mr. Baka hopped up and took a plastic kettle to pour water over a plump cow’s back, washing it with his hand, tenderly rubbing the giant-horned animal. He looked inside its mouth, telling stories about its mother and grandmother. Each cow has its own family name, and can fetch as much as $ 600 at market. But Mr. Baka doesn’t like to think about their value; he would never consider them just meat.
“Even in the pitch dark, I can recognize their call,” he said. “They’re like my own children.”
Mr. Baka led his clan to the same spot in Gombe State just last year, letting the cattle graze freely for three months. But this time, the day after Mr. Baka showed up, the owner of the land said he wanted to cultivate the area for farming. Mr. Baka was being evicted.
About two years ago, local leaders created a mediation process to deal with these kinds of disputes after worries that the official legal system was corrupt and biased against herdsmen. Now, the first stop for a complaint is the village chief.
During the peak migratory seasons, about 30 cases a month come before Suleiman, the village chief of Daminiya, who uses one name. Most involve farmers angry that herders are camping on their land. Some are cases of “cattle mischief” — straying livestock that eat crops.
When angry parties arrive, Suleiman immediately postpones his hearings, a deliberate strategy to let tempers cool for a day or two. Sometimes, he fines herders for crop damage. Sometimes he seeks agreement on an eviction date for herdsmen.
“It’s like preaching,” he said. “You have to preach peace.”
Anyone unhappy with the decision can appeal to the palace of Haruna Abdulkadir El-Rasheed, the emir of Dukku, a traditional ruler in the area who often is sympathetic to herders.
“You can’t expect someone with 300 to 500 cows to have total control,” explained Mr. El-Rasheed, a former deputy director of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
The emir has posted lookouts on grazing land to make sure farmers don’t encroach. He tells farmers that herds make for good fertilizer. He has challenged politically-connected elites who started growing crops on a reserve that had been set aside for herders for half a century. He urges farmers not to plant crops across skinny routes used for moving livestock. He is even considering buying land with his own money to set it aside for grazing.
“Unless something is done, their way of life is going to disappear,” he said.
Saleh Abdu, one of Mr. Baka’s relatives, recalled how herding was easier in his youth. Back then, his cattle could fill their bellies in just an hour or two feeding on thick grasses. Now it takes all day to fill up on the patchy, dry grass. Sometimes his cows go thirsty for two days before finding drinking water.
Mr. Abdu’s biggest fear used to be an attack by a hyena or even a lion. Now, with rampant deforestation in this part of the country, those animals are long gone. Instead, he worries the violence from other parts of Nigeria will spread to his camp.
“If I could afford it, I’d move to town and sit around and give up this kind of life,” Mr. Abdu said.
Nearby villages beckon. They are full of former herders who have settled down and taken up farming or joined the booming logging business, cutting down trees for charcoal.
In other parts of the country, violence has been blamed on young hired hands migrating alone, some only teenagers who carry firearms and fall under the influence of a global opioid scourge that has even reached rural Nigeria.
Mohammed Abdu, 25, a hired hand living in Mr. Durai’s camp who is not related to Saleh Abdu, said one of the hired hands in another camp was so addicted to tramadol, a popular opioid, that he and others tied him up and told his parents to come get him.
During a recent migration, he took a longtime cattle route only to find corn growing across it. His cows began feeding before he could round them up. He approached the farmer to apologize, but the farmer took a stick and began beating him, forcing him to abandon the herd.
“I thought he was going to kill me,” he said.
To keep the peace, Mr. Baka migrates only at night, so his cows will be less tempted to snack on crops. When he arrives on a patch of land to set up camp, he walks to neighboring farms and introduces himself. He always offers to compensate them for any losses.
But lately Mr. Baka’s camp has had a run of bad luck.
Six of Mr. Baka’s wife’s sheep disappeared while grazing on a recent afternoon. A search party of hired hands roared back into camp on motorbikes to say they had found their carcasses, eaten by a wild animal. More than $ 500 worth of livestock had been lost.
There was one bright spot: the village chief had persuaded the farmer to let Mr. Baka’s cattle stay for the season. The farmer returned to the camp to cut trees, a signal that he was serious about cultivating, but at least Mr. Baka could stay for now.
“Even with all this pressure, I have never even thought of settling and leaving behind what I’m doing now,” Mr. Baka said. “This is the best thing I like in life, to be with my cows and move from place to place.”
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