Before Musa Aliyu became the chairman of Miyetti Allah in Kajuru, northwest Nigeria, he was simply a husband, herder, and farmer who grew up exploring the small settlement of Boda and neighbouring towns minding his herd.
“A relative of mine was the head before he passed away, and I was elected in his place. I am responsible for settling issues between farmers and herders, ensuring people abide by the herding rules to avoid creating conflict between them and neighbouring farmers and also making sure our voices are heard by the government, especially when the cattle rustling started,” he says.
The rules include adhering to the grazing areas set by the community, avoiding other people’s farmlands, and paying the expected damages when an issue occurs.
Aliyu takes these rules very seriously, he says. He tries to ensure others live by them, but interactions between herders and farmers have nevertheless become trigger points for bloody conflict. Farmers are enraged that cows spoil their crops. Herders, out of fear or contempt, sometimes react aggressively to farmers’ challenges.
Miyetti Allah, which translates from Fulfulde as ‘I Thank God,’ was set up in the early 1970s in Kaduna, Northwest Nigeria, to handle the affairs and protect the interests of Fulani pastoralists in Nigeria. The group gained a wider acceptance by the Fulani community in 1987, with branches in different parts of the country.
But since its inception, pressures on herders have increased. Traditional migration routes have been blocked, consumed by urban sprawl, built on, fenced off, or turned into farms. More Fulani herders, too, are having to compete with others for dwindling areas of free pasture among the increasingly enclosed land. Some herders are less scrupulous than others.
Herding leaves valuable cows, and the young boys who tend them, very vulnerable.
Despite the efforts of the Fulani leaders to get their voices heard, Aliyu told HumAngle that nothing has been done about the cattle rustling.
“Many people lost their source of livelihood. Cattle rustling started in Kajuru local government in 2014, and attacks on different settlements started soon after, but they got worse around 2017.” Cattle rustling has contributed to the growing instability in the Northwest and North-central regions of Nigeria.
There isn’t enough information or data available on cattle rustling, or attacks carried out against Fulani herders or pastoralists. Often, they are described as the perpetrators of the violence. In Kajuru, for example, which has been infamous for attacks from unidentified terrorists, Fulani pastoralists have often been accused of being the perpetrators.
There are people among the Fulani who harbour deep resentment toward the communities they blame for stealing their cows and killing young herders. Many believe these resentments fester and suppurate until -at some point in the future- revenge is taken. Because many of them don’t seek to live under the rules of the modern state, they take matters into their own hands.
The process of organising these attacks on villages, and who is responsible for organising them, is opaque. But research has shown there are people in the Fulani community, possibly in leadership roles, who have lists of men they can call upon and caches of arms to give them.
However, the experiences of people like Aliyu show that Fulani are also victims themselves, many times over.
The village of Boda had started to grow and thrive before it was attacked on March 20, 2020. “We were able to raise funds and built a primary school so that our kids would be educated, and the Kajuru local government sent us some teachers,” he says.
That morning, Aliyu was at home with his family when the armed men came in; they killed without holding back and burnt down as many properties as they could.
“It first started from the southern part of the ward, in a settlement called Unguwan Ku,” Aliyu said. Before this attack, the village had started hearing news about recent communal clashes between herders and other communities in Kasuwan Magani and other settlements.
In 2022, the National President of Miyetti Allah, Baba Usman Ngelzarma, lamented the general loss of lives, properties, and cattle rustling suffered by the Fulani community.
“We never had an issue with violent attacks before 2020, and now 87 people have been displaced,” Aliyu lamented.
Aliyu, his wife, Hama Musa and four kids were forced to flee that very day, their house was burnt, and some of their friends and family were killed. The family and other survivors found themselves in a temporary camp for internally displaced persons in the government primary school in Kajuru.
“Living in the camp was hard and uncomfortable; there was no adequate feeding or good living conditions. And also staying with other strangers in such conditions brought up a lot of problems.” Aliyu knew he had to take his family out of that camp.
The family returned back home and tried to rebuild their lives a month later. However, after the attack, the cattle rustling got worse and kidnappings started in the area. That was when Aliyu and many others decided it was time to leave for good.
A 2020 report shows that about 26 villages in Kajuru have been deserted as a result of the recurring violence in Southern Kaduna, leaving many people displaced.
“When the cattle rustling got worse after our return, they killed my older brother and took his cattle. I was sitting inside the house when I heard the gunshot.” Aliyu went outside to investigate and saw his brother in a pool of his own blood. He was too late to save him or apprehend the armed men.
While the community was on its knees another form of criminal took advantage, Aliyu says.
“Kidnappings also started in this region around that time, and there is no clear link between the attack and the kidnappings. It was as if the kidnappers saw a business opportunity and took it.”
Aliyu was forced to help raise the ransom for one of his nephews, three neighbours, and the head of the village who got kidnapped. Fortunately, they were released after the ransom was paid, but some never make it out alive. “They usually ask an average ransom of a million naira. Before all our cattle got rustled, we were able to raise some funds by selling them and some of our farm produce.”
Aliyu lost two brothers and was forced to take their families under his wing. “We are currently staying together in a house given to us by a generous man.” The 38-year-old man rents a farm in Kajuru in order to fend for his family.
None of his children are old enough to help him yet, his first daughter is thirteen years old, and the last one is three months old. With extra mouths to feed and no animals to bring in an extra income, Aliyu and his family are forced to survive on the little they have.
“Some people still went back to the village.”
But like many others, Aliyu doesn’t think it is worth going back with the risk of violence.
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