The war for grazing lands in Africa


Nomadic cattle farming in Africa is often imagined as picturesque and idyllic. In reality, present-day nomadic cattle herders in the East and West of the continent carry Pump Action, AK 47’s, and other machine guns. They trample farms, raze villages and displace communities in a desperate search for fading green pastures. Vigilante farming groups, also armed, are increasingly retaliating in kind. The war that all authorities ignore has in some areas become “deadlier than Boko Haram.” A transnational investigation by the African Investigative Publishing Collective.

By Theophilus Abbah, Zack Ohemeng Tawiah, Benon Herbert Oluka, Muno Gedi and Anas Aremeyaw Anas

Uganda, 1989

One of Benon Herbert Oluka’s earliest memories is being carried on the back of his caregiver running through the woods in the dark, with food from a pot in a parcel strapped next to him occasionally spilling on his head. The attacks by cattle herders on his village in East Uganda then often had people jumping out of their evening baths, rubbing soap from their eyes, and running away with the little clothing, food and children they could grab. In subsequent years the Ugandan government partially disarmed the nomads, but never succeeded in providing them with alternative ways to make a living. Which means that the problem never went away.

And they are back. With a vengeance.


Ghana, 2017

Ghost town

The road to Empaemu in Kwahu East district in Ghana is dilapidated and narrowed; only motorbikes can pass. Homes made of mud and bricks have been washed away. A school houses only rodents now. Fields of yam, plantain, maize and cassava, have been grazed bare. Traditional ruler Nana Kwaku Ansong (58), who has found refuge with his subjects in nearby Afuni village and is dressed in black mourning cloth, chokes back tears. “They have AK 47’s and Pump Action guns. We are too weak to confront these.”

In the last two decades clashes between farmers and cattle herding nomads have evolved from sticks-and-spears affairs to machinegun-armed invasions, with victim estimates between five and ten thousand in Nigeria alone. (1). In 2016 the Nigeria based intelligence consulting firm SBM (2) rated the herdsmen militias as “deadlier even than Boko Haram” and according to the ACLED data base on armed conflict in Africa herdsmen accounted for eleven percent of all civilian casualties on the continent in that year (3). In Somalia, 24 out or 30 randomly interviewed persons in Somalia’s rural Hiran region said they knew of someone who died as a result of farmer-herder conflicts (4).

“Sometimes they pass here with guns”

In Agogo in the Ashanti region, -once Ghana’s bread basket-, Kwame Wiafe, a father of seven and proud owner of a Toyota Matrix, is packing up his belongings. He used to harvest seven truckloads of plantain a day on his 40- hectare farm near Ananekrom, but 30 hectares lost to rampaging cattle within two days last year made him default on his loan from the Asante Akyem Rural Bank and he can’t go on farming.  Nana Adwoa had tried to protect her plantain with barbed wire but coming home one day she had found it destroyed, with the wire rolled up behind the fence, and she had decided to become an iced-water trader.  Issah Dauda is a carpenter now, but even he will have to leave. “People are no more putting up new homes and neither is there demand for new furniture. (The farmers) are all running away. Sometimes they [Fulani] pass here with guns.”  Remaining farmers report that the herdsmen instruct them to stop spraying their farms with weedicides.

Recent figures are not available, but cocoayam went down ten percent in Agogo between 2014 and 2015 alone; maize, yam, cassava and plantain by 7,6,5, and 4 %. Figures over 2016 are expected to be worse.

Benue State, Nigeria

70-year-old Chief Godwin Onah, paramount ruler of Agatu in Benue State, talks of the destruction of both his palace and his community. “I live with friends.” Nostalgically recalling the days when “my father and the herdsmen exchanged mangoes in the farms,” Chief Onah describes how the lush land in Agatu was good for cattle grazing, while the dung from the cattle helped fertilize the grounds.

Occasional skirmishes happened then too. But they increased in the new millennium. And since, in January 2014,  the area was invaded, the palace destroyed and all the buildings – churches, schools, hospitals, markets, houses – burnt down by AK-47 rifle wielding herdsmen, dozens of people in his community have been killed. Different accounts mention the number of destroyed Agatu communities as ranging between 22 and 60. “We labour without knowing when next our harvests will be destroyed,” says Chief Onah.

Abuure village, Hiran, Somalia

Zakariye Jinow (35) wakes up every day “ready to fight.” “I have a knife and a sword. The herders can’t just direct their cows to eat my crops. My place is beautiful,” he adds, gazing warmly at his five small children who play and run around in this village of huts. “I work hard to grow my maize, millet, wheat and peas. When the cattle destroy all the green saplings -they are in the wrong, not I. My land doesn’t move. They are the invaders.”

The cattle need food

But herders, in dry Somalia and elsewhere, are suffering, too. Muse Mumin (29) who lives in Buuloburde district in Hiran with his wife and three children, saw eight cows die in recent years. “There was no rain for a long time so they went to graze in the agricultural areas. What else could we do (but allow it?)”  Mumin’s hand is partly immobilized, with a stiff crooked thumb, as a result of a fight with a farmer in 2013. “My cattle was grazing on someone’s field and four farmers came and attacked me. They wanted to cut my head – luckily my hand was protecting it.” Three of his friends lost their lives in such clashes. “I also saw two farmers killed. It turned that farming community into vigilantes. They have been attacking herders ever since.”

The fights for pasture in Somalia are still often waged with sticks and spears like in the olden days in Uganda. But as droughts get worse, the fight is getting more intense, here, too. Clashes between Habargidir farmers and Biyamal cattle herders have drawn in the Somali army and Al Shabaab with their modern weapons (5). Muse Mumin: “This conflict is just part of the civil war in our country.”

The nomadic herders became part of civil war in Uganda, too. Rubbing shoulders with rebels in Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda’s north, and accessing the small arms channels in the region, the different cattle herding tribes of the Karamoja engaged in fights for pasture with one another as well as with the Ugandan army. Captain Isaac Oware, now a spokesman for the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and then a soldier in that fight, remembers a bruising battle in the early 2000’s in which the Karamojong engaged the military for an entire day. “We used Mamba and Buffalo armed vehicles, [and] heavy guns because they were many and organised, with command elements and formations.”

They won then and Karamoja was largely disarmed. But as Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army drew the UPDF more into the North, the soldiers left the ‘Wild East’ again. Today, armed men of all kinds use Karamoja cattle routes across the borders of Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan.

In Nigeria’s north, similar conflation took place between the – mainly Muslim – Fulani herdsmen and the militant Islamists of Boko Haram. As the latter requisitioned crops and young recruits from the villages,

the herdsmen razed the farm lands. Some farmers said they could no longer distinguish between herdsmen and Boko Haram (6).

The herdsmen of Zabzugu

No one knows from which country the herdsmen in their camp at Zabzugu at the Ghana-Togo border came initially, or which fights they have seen or participated in. But they feel persecuted too, they say. “I have migrated through different communities for 15 years,” says one called Ali Oufen. “I suffered so many attacks. I was almost killed in Nigeria when local farmers burnt down our settlement.” Another, called Bindari, says farmers in Togo chased them for days after the cows ate half an acre of cassava. “Of course sometimes our cattle eat crops,” the chief, who doesn’t give his name, adds defensively. “Those are delicacies to them. But we always do our best to guide them away from the farms.”

Benue state coordinator of the Myetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), Garus Gololo, says that “foreign Fulani” are the problem. “They come from Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Chad through forest routes with their weapons. They destroy communities, then disappear.” Government authorities often argue that they can’t fight such “foreign invasions.” But Chief Daniel Abomtse of Gwer, whose own farm was destroyed “alongside many villages,” has lost patience with that excuse. “The Makurdi air base is nearby here. The army could use surveillance planes. Is Nigeria saying it allows foreigners to come and destroy Nigerian farms? Who is fooling who?”


The cattle baron owned a football club

Foreign herdsmen, as it turns out, sometimes work for local cattle owners. At the herders’ camp between Bebome and Kowireso in Ashanti, which shares a stream and two hand-dug wells with the farming community, 43-year old Ibrahim Ahmad, -who is originally from Mali, claims to have lived 20-years in Ghanaian bushes, but later speaks about coming from Burkina Faso-, says he herds his thousand cows for a Ghanaian called Dauda Kassim who holds a lease to land in the area together with another cattle baron, Alhaji Grunsa. Grunsa used to own the now defunct regional capital Kumasi-based ‘King Faisal’ soccer team. He is also often said to own all the 165 000 cattle in Agogo, but denies this (7).

Herder Ibrahim Ahmad is aware that the communities obtained a court order against this lease five years ago (it was forest land that belonged to the state, not to the greedy traditional leader who rented it out) and that it is therefore illegal. He is also aware that the cattle sometimes feed on farmers crops, but maintains that his group has “no option other than to wait for instructions” from the employers.

He denies owning a gun, though, and claims that two Fulani, Mohammadu Denjie and a Maaoney have been killed by farmers. When we later compare dates and police reports, it turns out that the murders of Maaoney and Denjie, on the border between Kwahu East and Agogo, precipitated the attack on the village of Mmepemasem in February this year.

Another herdsman at the Bebome camp, Issaka, says he doesn’t understand why the government “doesn’t address the food security situation.” He is not just talking about hungry cattle. The Fulani have always been meat and milk providers for the populations in West Africa, which is why Issaka finds it difficult to understand why promises of grazing lands have failed to materialise. Farmer Zaakariye Jinow in Hiran, Somalia, says he knows that the cattle also need food. “I don’t know how to solve this problem. Even our elders don’t know.” If there is no solution, he will “simply die.” “I am waiting for that.”

Governments and donors

The land has been taken up by drought, climate change, urbanisation, increased crop farming, land grabbing by the elites and resource exploitation (oil in Nigeria, limestone and marble in Uganda’s Karamoja.)  Resulting scarcity of pasture was foreseen: Nigeria had a plan for the establishment of over four hundred grazing reserves as early as the nineteen sixties. But with oil discovered in 1966, and dollars flooding in for the ruling elite, the plan was abandoned since the government seemed to have lost all interest in what was happening to the rural populations anymore. And whilst the organisation of West African states, ECOWAS, nominally protected nomadic cattle herding through its 1998 Transhumance Protocol that allowed such communities to cross borders in search of pasture, it did absolutely nothing to help them find it. An OECD report from 2008 talks of “strong complaints regarding the lack of financial support for (member) countries for the development of transhumance (cattle migration) corridors and rangelands, and the development of livestock infrastructure. Until now, these complaints have received no response.” Further down, the report notes illegal grazing and violence to local people as a result of the inaction (9).

Donors like the World Bank and Western countries, meanwhile, almost exclusively supported agribusiness, irrigation and land tenure projects in Nigeria and West Africa until well in the 2000’s without a thought for nomadic cattle herders’ needs for grazing lands. A 1954 report by the World Bank’s predecessor,  the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, had perhaps already set the tone for the subsequent neglect of these communities, decreeing that “unrestricted grazing (…) as used by pastoralists” was “counterproductive and (amounted to) inefficient resource depletion” (10). In the next decennia this view persisted. A review of a large agricultural project in several Nigerian states, called Fadama (first phase) by the World Bank itself admits that the project even “exacerbated conflict” by “favouring one group of resource users over the other”  in the late nineties. (The favoured group of resource users were the crop farmers, the cattle herders were the other.)

Benue State, Nigeria, February 2017

Young Agatu men have taken it upon themselves to guard the river. It makes Fulani Chief Ardo Boderi, deputy chairman of the recently instituted Benue Agatu-Fulani Reconciliation and Peace Committee in Makurdi rather angry. “These young men have also killed Fulani and stolen cows,” he states, adding that “the (Nigerian) Constitution states free movement for all citizens (so) they cannot continue to stop us from finding pastures.” Gwer’s Paramount Chief Daniel Abomtse doesn’t agree. “The Constitution talks of the rights of people, not of cattle,” he says. “Movement of people doesn’t destroy crops.”

Boderi has a point, though. The pastoralists do have border crossing rights allocated to them in a 2012 protocol established by the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS. It is another example of laws lagging far behind reality.

Verbal admonishments

Divisional police commander of Nkawkaw in Ghana’s Kwahu East region, Chief Superintendent James Sarfo Peprah, says his 30-strong unit is stretched to the limit. He is buying fuel on credit and dealing with broken down vehicles, too. “We just helped the Mmepemasem people to return to their village. When we arrived back there and people saw their houses ransacked and their fields destroyed, they started wailing. It was so bad.”

A recent high-level police delegation to Kwahu East has not impressed the former director of Ghana’s Bureau of National Investigation and National Security Coordinator, Kofi Bentum Quantson, who shrugs off authorities’ propensity to ‘verbally admonish.’  “They say they can’t do much because ECOWAS guarantees free movement. But in reality, many leaders have taken cows from the Fulani. How can we expect (corrupted people) to solve the problem?”

The authorities had turned deaf ears to the affected villagers’ calls for help in Agogo, -though they had marched in protest as far back as 2011,  with even the Queen Mother of Agogo participating in full war dress-, too. Even the court order obtained in 2012 to evict the herdsmen from illegally leased land had not helped, nor had the negotiated ‘evacuation plan’ that had been painfully drawn up with the regional council and a representative of the local cattle owners.

When, on 11 January 2016, the body of Agogo’s beloved chief priest, 35-year-old Okomfo Akwasi Badu, was found, with multiple gunshot wounds and mutilated, – a young widow and six month old baby girl left behind – angry farmers openly started saying that they would kill any Fulani on sight.

Between January and April, there have been four new murders in the district, with two on the side of the farmers and two herdsmen. The office of the Ghanaian Minister of Interior, Ambrose Dery, after the Minister personally promised an interview to our reporter in March this year, has failed to return several phone calls since then.

Vested interests

With cattle barons pitted against agrarian business in West Africa, in the East there are ‘vested interests,’ too, says Executive Director of the Africa Leadership Institute David Pulkol, who is also a former deputy minister for Karamoja. “(Foreign Affairs Minister Sam) Kutesa has shares in (Karamoja) limestone and cement and (President Museveni’s) family in marble.” Though President Museveni has often said that he wants to use the marble and other industries in Karamoja to provide employment and alleviate poverty in Karamoja, Pulkol has doubts about such promises. “For herdsmen (to start playing a different role) they should be given shares in resource agreements. But that is not happening.” He feels that the neglect of marginalised people in the region by those who benefit from it is ‘deliberate.’ “If we don’t redress these injustices, people who have hidden guns are likely to get them back.”

Naput village, Moroto, February 2017

Herdsman Moruita Lukotomoi (70), sitting on his three-legged stool near the watering point at his Karamoja camp, looks wistfully at the horizon. “In the nineties I killed three cattle thieves,” he muses, adding that now that the army has disarmed his group they are “powerless” to defend themselves. “If we only had guns,” he says.

A video about the African Union’s border programme ‘From barriers to bridges (11),’ shows happy traders, an urbanised landscape and shiny roads against a modern soundtrack. The clip, made in 2014 when the death toll of the herdsmen was already running into thousands, doesn’t spend a word on those who, in search of greener pastures, cross all borders with machine guns.



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