A Looming Hunger  

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Frequent conflicts between farmers and cattle herders in the Benue valley have become a clear and present danger to food security. Fostered by the drying Lake Chad region and the Boko Haram insurgency, the horizon is becoming ominous, writes Chineme Okafor

“Agriculture is the mainstay of this economy. Few people indulge in livestock farming such as pigs, sheep, goats and the ‘Muturu’ cattle. Most families depend on the revenue earned from crop production for their livelihoods, but the crisis there is posing a lot of risk to agriculture,” Fanen, a migrant farmer from Agasha Village in Guma Local Area of Benue told THISDAY.

Sandwiched within the company of a couple others who migrated from Guma – a lush farming community on the North-eastern part of Benue, to Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, on the back of frequent farmers clash with cattle herders on the Benue, Fanen, suggested that communal farming and indeed food production from Benue was perhaps troubled by the clash.

He said: “The rains were good this year, and that would have made farming easier, but few people tilled the grounds. Those who went out, always did that with a lot of fear for their lives.”

Situated just within what is regarded as Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, and along a good stretch of river systems, Benue State, is often described as the ‘food basket of the nation’, a sobriquet it perhaps earned from its good use of the natural agriculture endowment it got from nature.

The state holds one of the longest stretches of river systems in Nigeria, and is known to have great potential for a viable fishing industry, dry season farming through irrigation as well as for inland water highway. Benue has both in diversity and quantities, good food cultivation and production almost all year round.

And, in union with its ideal climatic and soil conditions, its network of Rivers Benue and Katsina-Ala, as well as their tributaries, provide accessible water all year round for about 75 per cent of its 4.2 million people – as recorded in the 2006 national population census, who are predominantly farmers to cultivate food crops such as yam, cassava, maize, rice, soybean, groundnut, and tree crops that include citrus and mango.

In fact, the state is reputed as the largest producer of yam, cassava, mango and citrus in Nigeria, with yams identified in a 2011 General Household Survey Panel (GHS-Panel) conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the World Bank, as an integral component of food consumption and agriculture sales in Nigeria.

But these agrarian potential and diversities are reportedly getting worked by the vagaries of climate change and migration – two critical conditions with a striking nexus that has remained quite inexplicable to community folks, and itinerant cattle herders whose passage through the state has lately come with conflicts.

Cropland conflicts inflamed by climate change and migration

Because of the severe impacts of climate change on the Lake Chad, farming, fishing, and pastoral residents who live on the edges of the lake are frequently forced to move southwards in search of greener vegetation, and overtime, Nigeria and three other countries – Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, who share the Lake Chad have seen systemic droughts, unemployment, and conflicts over natural resources such as fertile croplands escalate within their territories.

From 1960, reports indicate that Lake Chad’s surface area has drastically reduced by 90 per cent from 25,000 square kilometers to about 1500km2 due to increasing temperatures from global warming.

Similarly, its dwindling waters have stirred insecurity and chaos in Nigeria – a country the Lake Chad Commission said now houses about 60 per cent of the lake basin population.

The commission’s report also indicated that these communities of people comprising cattle herders have continued to move southwards from Kano and Maiduguri, which are their initial entry points, into Kogi; Benue; Ekiti; and Enugu, looking for more fertile soil to farm, and pasture on, but they have not been received well by locals.

Further away from the Boko Haram terrorists, the pastoral communities in particular have continued to attract conflicts over pastureland along local communities they pass through, and clashes of interests between them and local farmers have subsequently increased with a few thousands of people already dead from recorded confrontations in Agatu, Akaa, and Tse-Orlalu, all in Benue communities.

Also, because Benue State lies along a major international livestock routes which run through Nigeria’s North-east, North-central, all the way to the South-east, it often records very high population of cattle herders during the cyclical north-south yearly migration. Before now however, the herders reportedly passed through the state back and forth to their destinations without known conflicts, but this has changed with time as they resort to harness the waters of the River Benue and its tributaries, as well as the pleasant vegetation along the ‘fadamas’ – the Hausa name for irrigable land, from November to March, to raise their herds.

Additionally, the pasturage, salt licks, water sources, maybe livestock market, and the nature of the Benue terrain which allows for unhindered movements, gives out protective mechanisms for livestock against certain vagaries of nature like tsetse flies, harsh weather conditions, and livestock bandits, have equally made the Benue basin a preferred spot for the pastoralists, but not without these crises of interests which now look to have become a threat to food security in parts of Nigeria.

A ‘food basket’ that could become empty

While the outcomes of the land crises between herdsmen and farmers in Benue are real and require very little thoughts to understand their likely ends, it is however seldom considered a big deal within government circles, thus creating some sort of uncertainties for the 75 per cent of the state’s farming population involved in arable farming and food production.

Though the state government in June signed a law to embargo and replace open cattle grazing in the state with ranching from October, this has hardly given farming communities in the state the kind of breaks they need to cultivate their lands and produce food. Communities in Guma, Gwer-West, Agatu, Logo, Kwande and the northern part of Makurdi, are reportedly the most hit, and have remained quite reluctant to get back to their farms for fear of attacks.

Likewise, women who are from Guma Local Government Area, and who reportedly produce more than three quarter of the overall yellow melon (egusi) Nigeria produces annually, in addition to maize, millet, groundnuts, and guinea corn, are now known to only go to their farmlands only when they are assured of sufficient cover from their communities against the marauding cattle herders.

Heightened by climate change and Boko Haram, clashes between farmers and herdsmen in Benue have not just led to the loss of lives and property, but also adversely affected farming activities, which in turn contributes to drastic reduction in food production or yields from the farms.

This development could also bring with it a masked but possible spell of food shortage or crisis in parts of Nigeria considering that most farmers like Fanen from affected parts of Benue have abandoned their farmlands for fear of being attacked by the herdsmen and migrated to places with no opportunity to cultivate land to produce food.