Why Did The British Introduce Itinerant Cattle Grazing in Nigeria?
It was early in the harmattan or dry season in my village, Anaba, and farmers were planning for a bumper harvest of maize, cassava, vegetables, legumes and yams. The rainy season that year was marked by heavy but brief downpours interspersed with bright sunlight. The plants were happy as could be discerned from their very dark green foliage and brilliant and flamboyant flowers that attract bees and other insects in droves. My siblings and I arrived in the village three days earlier to spend part of end of the school year vacation with my grandparents who were very successful farmers. In Igbo land, wealth is measured by the size of your barn where you preserved yams and other tubers. My grandfather’s barn was impressive and it measures at least 60 meters in length and 20 meters in width. The scaffolding for the yams were Ogilisi trees interspersed with vertical bamboo stems buried in between the Ogilisi trees. The trees shielded the yam from direct sunlight. Bamboo stems were strung horizontally with the help of Ogbu twines between the vertical structures creating irregular squares and rectangles. The yams were attached to the horizontal bamboo stems with Ogbu twine. The vertical frames were about 2 meters tall and there were 5 rows running down the length of the barn with corridors between the rows for accessibility. The whole arrangement was enclosed by a fence made of bamboo stems and branches of other trees all secured with Ogbu twines making it impossible for domestic animals especially goats that love yams to access the barn. At one end of the barn is a door whose locking mechanism is two hoops made of woven Ogbu twines. One hoop is on the frame and the other hoop on the door. A branch inserted in the hoops secured the door.
We were eating dinner in the open around the embers of the fire used to cook the Onugbu soup and Mgbaduga to keep us warm. The days are warm in the harmattan and the nights cool, and chilly sometimes. Suddenly the quiet of the night was broken by whistling, loud cracking sounds, mooing, and what appeared to be several animals running amuck simultaneously – a stampede of animals. My grandfather lived close to the expressway and one of his most productive farms was close to the expressway. Excited we wanted to find out what the commotion was all about. I asked, “Grandfather, are we safe, what is going on?” He replied, “My children, it is the Fulani herdsmen again, whistling and whipping their cattle to control their movement. We lose thousands of dollars in destroyed crops every year to their trampling and munching cows. We never had this problem until the white man came. I guess that is how they transport cattle in Britain. They usually travel from Northern Nigeria with their herds that fatten themselves along their routes by grazing on grass and farmers’ crops. They are meant to travel along the expressways and graze along the road shoulders but nowadays they take shortcuts through farmlands where food is plentiful. Sometimes an articulated vehicle may frighten the herd of cattle with its horn or blind them at night with its headlamps and the herd veers into farms.”
Isike, my younger sibling wanted to know why the farmers do not kill the cows that damage their crops. Grandad continues, ” The Fulani herdsmen carry daggers, bows and arrows, and firearms. If you accidentally kill one cow such as an automobile running over an errant cow, the Fulanis will kill the driver of the automobile. Is a cow worth more than a human being? If a cow is killed by a villager, the Fulanis will regroup, arrive in the village at the middle of the night, killing, burning, and raping the villagers.” I was becoming visibly upset and I cut in. At fifteen years of age, I was very knowledgeable in current and international affairs and I asked, “What is the government doing about this?” He said, “Maybe you can change things when you grow up and if you ever go to Britain, please find out if they graze cattle along their major highways? There is even a major road named Malu or Cow road in our capital, Lagos!”
I enjoyed my geography lessons in high school and wanted to travel the world as I grew older. London will be my first port of call. I could not wait to see Scottish cattle rearers driving cattle from the Scottish Highlands through the length of Britain down to the abattoirs on Fleet Street. I thought that Fleet Street was the equivalent of Malu Road in Lagos. Alas, to my surprise, I did not encounter any cattle or Scottish cattle rearers during my two week vacation in London in 1975. My grandfather had died in 1967 during the Nigeria-Biafra war and he did not live to hear my findings. I still wonder to this day why the British allowed cattle grazing by the itinerant Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria knowing fully well that such practice which was unknown in pre-colonial Nigeria will continue to be a cause of conflict between farmers and pastoralists long after they have left Africa or did they even leave?