Inside Tse Yandev, one of the unofficial Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Benue State, which is ‘home’ to over 5,000 people, Rebecca Atonka sits on a wooden chair with her hand resting on her chin, her eyes weary.
In January, 2018, Atonka fled her home with her children after herdsmen attacked her communtaity, Torkula in Guma Local Government Area of the state.
A day before the attack, she had been working with her husband and children in the farm when a group of herdsmen carrying guns walked past them. They did not say anything.
Unknown to her, the herdsmen were making plans to attack Torkula. Like others in Torkula, with a predominantly farming population, Atonka’s family returned home from the farm tired and exhausted.
“We were asleep when we started hearing gunshots everywhere in the middle of the night. They came to our house and started shooting everywhere. Some of us escaped. But some were killed,” she explains.
In the aftermath of the attack, Atonka lost her husband. Their house, along with everything inside, was burnt. She also lost her farm and all the crops she planted. She only ran away with her children.
The family of farmers never had any issues feeding before, but now it is hard for them to feed themselves inside the camp. Each time any of them falls sick due to mosquito bites and exposure to rain, she is helpless and just resigns herself to fate. The only time she gets to buy food is when she does chores for families living close to the camp.
“What was most hurtful for me was the killing of my husband,” she says. “I never imagined I would live without him because we were happy that night before we went to sleep.”
Before Atonka fled to the camp, she and her children ate whatever they wanted. She worked tirelessly with her husband on their farm, which was the only business they had. But now, everything has changed.
Atomka is just one of many who have lost family members and everything they owned and are taking refuge in several IDP camps, including Tse Yandev, which houses 847 households, located in the North Bank area of Makurdi, the Benue State capital.
Wave of attacks in Benue
Since 2013, attacks by herdsmen over land and grazing areas have escalated in Benue State. The state has an economy that is driven by agriculture and it produces large quantities of yam, rice, bean, cassava, sweet-potato, maize, soybean, sorghum, millet, sesame, and cocoyam.
In January 2018, Benue held a mass burial for over 80 people killed in different attacks in the state between December and January.
Data from the National Security Tracker shows that between 2013 and June 2021, nearly 1,500 persons were killed in the state from 148 attacks by suspected herdsmen, leading to the massive destruction of property, including farmlands in 15 out of the 23 local government areas of the state.
The year 2018 had both the highest number of attacks, 54 and the highest number of deaths, 450. Between January and June 4, 2021, at least 122 persons were killed from 17 attacks in the state.
Executive Secretary of Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) Emmanuel Shior, a doctor, says over 600,000 persons have been displaced within this period. In 2018, there were 400,000 IDPs in the state.
Like Atonka’s, thousands of families are living outside the seven official camps hosting about 112,500 IDPs. They are finding refuge in abandoned buildings and makeshift tents. Many have also found refuge with relatives or other people in communities unaffected by the conflict who share their food and other resources. In exchange, the families work with and for them.
For those living outside the official camps, there is no access to food, healthcare, clean drinking water and toilet facilities. Inside Tse Yandev camp, the IDPs construct the tents themselves, using palm fronds and mosquito nets.
Benue State anti-grazing law
Following a series of violent and often deadly clashes, the Benue State government, in 2017, enacted the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law.
The state executive council sponsored a bill to the state House of Assembly to enact the law, which Governor Samuel Ortom assented to on May 22, but he directed that the implementation be suspended for six months to give owners of livestock time to adjust to the new law.
With the implementation of the anti-grazing law intended to curb trespass on farms by migratory herders and reduce the increasing wave of farmer-herder violence, thousands of herders were forced to relocate to neighbouring Nasarawa and other states.
The law requires people who rear livestock to buy land and establish ranches; prohibits open movement of animals within the state and spell out punishments, including five years’ jail time or N1 million fine for anyone whose cattle graze outside a ranch.
In their reaction, Fulani socio-cultural group Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) has vowed to resist the law, insisting that it is against their culture, movement and economic interests.
While the state government says its aim is to prevent clashes between farmers and herders, halt destruction of farms and the environment while creating an enduring environment for large-scale crop production, the herdsmen say it unfairly targets their nomadic way of life.
A lecturer at the Department of Geography of the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) Cletus Nwankwo says the abolition of open grazing in Benue State contributes to the escalating crisis because the herders pay land rents to chiefs in the villages and when open grazing is prohibited, the rents the herders have paid are a loss.
“Access to land is key,” he says. “The herder does not have access to land and in a condition of land insecurity, they can use subtle and overt forms of resistance to gain access to land.”
A former Secretary of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) in Benue State Shettima Mohammed also faults the Benue State’s Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment law enacted in 2017.
He insists that rather than provide alternatives for the pastoralists and use dialogue to solve issues between farmers and pastoralists, the state is using force to chase them away.
“Every state has the right to make its own laws to curb trespassing on people’s farms,” he says. “But the law has to also consider the pastoralists and provide alternatives for them to do their business. It is not their intention to take over people’s lands.”
Mohammed, who has worked with MACBAN in Benue since 2006, says the law was implemented without providing alternatives for the pastoralists and due consultation with their leaders in the state and other critical stakeholders who would have made suggestions before the implementation.
“The pastoralists come from the north during the dry season for grazing in the state and when they demand for lands for grazing, either on lease, they don’t get it because the law prohibits them from grazing.”
He recalls that formally, disputes between farmers and pastoralists were amicably resolved because district heads in various communities were always involved and they always invited the two parties to air their grievances and thereafter compensations would be paid.
“But now, everything has changed. There is no recourse to dialogue but the use of force. Anytime there is a misunderstanding, youths in various communities try to forcefully send the pastoralists away and sometimes, rustle their cattle. In return, they attack communities.”
Homeless and helpless
Each time Gideon Tyobee remembers how his community, Agagbe, in Gwer Local Government Area was attacked by herdsmen in May, he cannot hold back tears.
“It was in the middle of the night while we were still asleep that they came and started shooting directly into our doors and windows,” Tyobee says.
At the end of the attack, several persons were killed while many were injured. Tyobee escaped with his wife and two children to Tse Yandev camp where life, according to him, has been tough.
Before the attack, he had farms where he planted different crops. He had three hectares of cassava, four hectares of rice, one hectare of guinea corn and two hectares of millet. He used proceeds from the farms to cater for his family. But now, everything has been destroyed.
“I don’t know what to do because I invested a lot into my farming business,” he says, as he points in the direction where one of his children lays down sick with no medical care.
The only time Tyobee gets food for his family is when he goes out and helps men who construct furniture for a living.
“I learnt carpentry and so, I go out and beg those into the business to allow me to work with them and whatever they give me at the end of the day, I use it to buy food,” he says.
Benue State and contribution to food production
Agriculture has remained the predominant occupation for the people of Benue State since its creation in 1976. Over 80 per cent of the state’s population engage in food crop production as small-scale farmers on rich arable land spanning over 300 kilometres.
Known as the Food Basket of the Nation, Benue grows more soybeans, citrus fruits, mangoes, roots, and tubers than any other state. The state alone accounts for over 70 per cent of Nigeria’s soybean production. It is second only to Kebbi State in rice production with a capacity of 1.5 million metric tons of rice per year.
Benue State’s production of yam stood at 2,866 1000 metric tons in 2006, up from 2,854 1000 metric tons the previous year, making it possibly the largest producers of yam in Nigeria.
The state remains at the top by production of cassava. As of 2005, its production was 3,548 1000 metric tons, accounting for 11.08 per cent of Nigeria’s production of cassava. The state alone accounts for the production of over 10 varieties of orange.
Benue is one of the major contributors to food production and security in Nigeria. Sadly, sustained crises in the state continue to impact its agricultural sector, making it difficult for Nigeria to reach the Millennium Development Goal 2, which seeks sustainable solutions to end hunger in all its forms by 2030, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
Food production ratio in the state has since decreased by 45 per cent. Inevitably, this would affect food supply of produce to other parts of the country.
The biggest challenge for the over 600,000 farming population who have abandoned their lands in Benue State is the uncertainty about their future. Some of them return to their farmlands periodically to take care of crops, but they do this at a high personal risk as the same people who forced them to flee might attack again.
As farms are abandoned and large quantities of foodstuffs set ablaze by the herdsmen or used as cattle feed, food security is threatened.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects that the world population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050. Africa is projected to be home to about 2 billion people by then.
To feed this number of people means that farm productivity must accelerate at a faster rate to avoid continued mass hunger and, with its massive fertile and arable land, Benue State stands a better chance of contributing immensely to this.
Attacked on her farmland
Veronica Igbalumun was on her farm in Torkura when herdsmen attacked in January 2018 and killed her brother. She and her husband and children had to run away from the farm.
“They destroyed everything we had in the farm and told us that they will continue to attack us since our governor asked them to leave the state,” a teary-eyed Igbalumun says.
Before the attack, she had two hectares of yam, one hectare of Egusi, three hectares of guinea corn, two hectares of rice and two hectares of soybeans. Farming was her only source of livelihood. Now, she cannot go back to farming again. She doesn’t even know what has become of her home.
The herdsmen, who killed her brother, had kidnapped him in the attack. After some days, they called and asked her family to come and carry his corpse. But sheysthey cannot go for fear of being attacked again.
Now, her children go in search of scraps they exchange for money. That is the only way they eat. Some days, they sleep without food. She wishes the government will step in and end the conflict so she can return to what is left of her home.
Smallholder farmer’ roles
Igbalumun and others like her, who have lost their farms, are among 500 million smallholder farms worldwide upon whom more than two billion people depend for their livelihoods.
These smallholder farmers produce about 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, thus contributing significantly to poverty reduction and food security.
But Nigeria’s agricultural sector is largely underdeveloped already, with cultivation done on a subsistence scale and very low mechanisation, inadequacy of infrastructure- especially power and good road networks- little or no access for credit and inputs, amidst the use of crude implements.
All of these have hindered the productivity of the sector. At the heart of these challenges is the escalating conflict between farmers and herders in the country, particularly, in Benue State.
Festus Azende and his brothers had only finished harvesting their farm produce when herdsmen attacked their home in the Guma council area in January 2018.
On the day they attacked, Azende and his brothers were eating after they returned from the farm. They suddenly heard deafening gunshots by suspected herdsmen. They escaped to Abagena, one of the IDP camps housing an estimated 8,000 displaced persons.
“They destroyed everything we harvested from our farm, rice, yam and our house” he narrated. We left the house with nothing except the clothes we wore that day.”
Azende and his brothers owned five hectares of rice and two hectares of yam. Farming was their only source of income. Now, they cannot go back to their farm.
“They have taken over our land and have threatened to deal with us if we ever try to come back,” he says, adding that surviving inside the camp would not have been easy except for Doctors Without Borders, who have been providing them with food items and healthcare.
It is partly a climate change problem
Among the aggravating factors behind escalating farmer-herder conflicts in Benue and other states in Nigeria’s Middle Belt is climatic change or drought which changes herders’ grazing pattern.
Climate change impacts such as advancing desertification, overgrazing and lower rainfall in the northern region have pushed herders further to the south and the middle belt where there are richer pastures and water resources, but where they may lack land security- access to land or tenure.
These regions have also seen a dramatic increase in population and demand for farmland. Urbanisation and development have also taken over cattle grazing routes which had existed for generations.
According to Nwankwo, the condition of land insecurity that is caused by deteriorating environmental conditions and capitalist accumulation of land in the North have engendered a new type of pastoralism -the guerrilla pastoralism.
“This involves the use of a sophisticated weapon to protect the herds from rustlers and to gain access to land where open grazing has been banned,”he says.
In their search for pastures and water and as lands are blocked, herders send their cattle to graze on farmers’ crops, damaging cultivated fields. In the process, they clash with farmers who are keen to protect their means of livelihoods and their crops from being damaged by thousands of cattle.
Nwankwo, however, says that although climate change may have caused the herders migration to Benue just like other Southern parts of Nigeria, it has not caused the conflict by asking them to fight.
He explains that socio-economic and political conditions play more roles than climate change, even though it causes migration, which is a form of adaptation by the herders.
“Thus, climate change is just one of the factors that contribute to conflict but the role of climate change is indirect because places that experience severe climate change-related hazards witness the crisis less than places where the impact of climate change is less.”
Even the camps are not safe
Abagena Camp Commandant Solomon Azulo says there are a total of 8,210 persons taking refuge inside the camp. He adds that many of them have left the camp to unknown destinations after some of them were killed and others suffered injuries.
In April, suspected criminal herdsmen stormed the camp and shot sporadically, killing seven IDPs who were asleep. Consequently, youths in the area, together with the IDPs, blocked the Makurdi–Lafia highway in protest with the bodies of the deceased.
They only left after Ortom addressed them and described the attack as inhuman, barbaric, and unacceptable, calling on President Muhammadu Buhari to live up to his responsibility of protecting the people.
He says it is unfair for the herdsmen to sack people from their ancestral homes and destroy their livelihoods because they are not allowed to enter people’s farms and destroy their crops. He adds that there is the need for dialogue to end the lingering crisis.
“Our people are being killed on a daily basis and it is unfair that the government is not doing anything to salvage the situation. Families no longer have farms to return to. They have lost their homes.”
Shior says the attacks on innocent farmers have continued unabated because of the blatant refusal by herdsmen to obey the law enacted by the state government in 2017, insisting that the law is not targeted against any group but to the benefit of both the herders and the farmers in the state.
He says the Federal Government has not done enough in paying attention to the needs of the IDPs in Benue State like it does in the North East.
Any end in sight?
Overwhelmed by the seemingly incessant attacks in his state, Ortom in May charged residents to get a license for dane guns and defend themselves against those he referred to as “guns- wielding Fulani herdsmen.”
Ortom, who spoke when he attended an inter-denominational church service held at the government house in Makurdi, said the licence to own dane guns could be obtained at various local government secretariats in the state.
The governor announced that he would no longer announce the deaths of those killed by the herdsmen and asked the people to rise up and defend themselves with weapons not prohibited by law, bows and arrows, spears and knives.
That was not the first time the governor was making that announcement which suggested that there was likely no end in sight to the attacks. He had severally asked president Muhammadu Buhari to declare a state of emergency over the deteriorating security situation in the state and the entire country.
But nothing seems to have changed and on a daily basis, the people of the state fear for their lives.
However, when asked what the police are doing to curb the increasing attacks on farmers in the state, Public Relations Officer (PPRO) Catherine Anene says that police officers are being deployed from areas that are less vulnerable to areas that are vulnerable for patrols and quick response to distress calls.
She notes that although the state has a large land mass with a population scattered across the state, which makes policing the communities difficult, they have collaborated with local governments to form vigilante groups to serve as the first line of defense before the arrival of police teams.
“We are also collaborating with other security agents even as a series of meetings involving farms and herders are ongoing to identify their challenges and manage them better,”she says.
Mohammed says the way out of the crisis is for the state government to review the grazing law and reflect the concerns of the pastoralists.
Every day, Igbalumun prays to return home and start life over again with her family.