while India has sacred cows, Nigeria has sacred cow owners. That’s why, despite the atrocities being perpetrated by cows and their herders across the country, the ownership of the estimated 19.5 million cows in Nigeria remains shrouded in secrecy. Surely, the herdsmen we see carrying AK-47 rifles and following the cows through the highways, villages, and farmlands are not the owners of the cows they tend. Rather, they are hired by the cattle owners to ensure that the cattle are fed and defended against rustling and other dangers.
We also know that the herdsmen are organised into an association known as the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria. Speaking at the General Assembly of the Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace on January 18, 2018, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, revealed that MACBAN was established over 32 years ago to cater for the welfare of its members and advance the growth of the Fulani business. By the Fulani business here is meant cattle rearing. MACBAN has a branch in each of the six zones of the country, which often promptly intervenes on matters concerning the herdsmen within its zone.
True, the leadership of MACBAN owns some of the cattle; but the vast majority of the cattle are owned by people outside the association. This leads to several questions: Who are the cattle owners in Nigeria? What is their relationship to MACBAN? How many heads of cattle does each of them own? How much tax do they pay on each head of cattle? Let us examine these questions more closely.
Beyond the leadership of MACBAN, the first suspects are the patrons of the association. The list consists of the echelons of Fulani oligarchs. Here’s the list as recounted recently by one of them, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II: “The first grand patron was Sultan Abubakar III; and he was replaced by successive sultans-Dasuki, Maccido and Saad Abubakar now. Other patrons were the Lamido of Adamawa, and emirs of Zazzau and Katsina. So, my predecessor was a patron and on my ascension to the throne, I became a patron” (The PUNCH, January 14, 2018).
My investigation reveals that the vast majority of the Fulani elite each owns hundreds or thousands of heads of cattle. It will be recalled, for example, that President Muhammadu Buhari revealed in his assets declaration in 2015 that he owned “farms, an orchard, and a ranch … 270 heads of cattle, 25 sheep, five horses, a variety of birds and a number of economic trees” (Vanguard, September 3, 2015). In view of the ongoing controversy over cattle colonies, it is interesting to note that Buhari owns a ranch in which, it must be assumed, his animals are kept.
Informal enquiries within the last three months further reveal that the ownership of cattle goes well beyond the Fulani. Many Northern politicians of various ethnicities, especially governors, senators, and members of the House of Representatives as well as their predecessors in office, also own cattle. So do businessmen and thousands of livestock farmers. It is also true of military and ex-military officers from the North.
Interestingly, the ownership of cattle in Nigeria is not limited to Northerners. There is no state in the federation in which cattle owners do not reside with their cattle. And not all of such owners are Northerners. In every state, there are indigenes who own cattle. For example, the rumour is very rife that Senator David Mark, an Idoma from Benue State, owns several hundreds of heads of cattle.
What seems to be common to all cattle owners in the country is the hiring of Fulani herdsmen to tend their cattle, often through the local MACBAN branch. This is in recognition of pastoralism as their traditional occupation. The implication is that there are Fulani herdsmen resident in virtually every state in the federation. This is why, for example, many Benue residents claimed that they knew some of the herdsmen who plundered their villages and killed residents.
So far, the people’s anger has been directed at these herdsmen, who are being blamed for the serial conflicts with local farmers, whose farmlands and entire villages are being plundered by the cattle. It is high time the owners of the cattle were brought into the equation. There are several reasons to do so, and urgently too.
First, if my neighbour’s gateman drives the neighbour’s goat into my compound and the goat eats up the bunch of plantain in my backyard, I will not stop at blaming the gateman. Rather, I will report both the gateman and the goat to my neighbour and demand that the goat be gated within his compound. If the incident goes on repeatedly, I may double my demand — cage the goat and also pay reparation. If that fails, I will sue him. This rule should apply to cow owners. The problem is that we do not know them.
Yet, second, it is believed that the explanation for the sudden upsurge in the marauding exploits of the herdsmen and their killing binge goes beyond them and feeding cows. There is probably a hidden agenda, which, it is believed, may implicate the cattle owners themselves. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo hinted at this in his comment at the graveside of the 73 Benue victims last week: “Whatever is behind this … we must get to the root of it; and until we get to the root of this we will be burying victims … we must know why this is happening”.
Third, it is necessary to know the source of the AK-47 rifles carried by the herdsmen in full public glare. Where do the arms come from and who is arming them? The other day, I saw four herdsmen march about 200 heads of cattle past an army checkpoint and a police checkpoint within 200 metres of each other. I wondered why they were not arrested and disarmed in keeping with the President’s order to do so.
Why do security officers appear complicit in the herdsmen’s crime? Why is the Federal Government always ready to appease the herdsmen instead of blaming them for their crime, while delaying, if not denying, the necessary attention to the victims? Why is the focus more on building cattle colonies than in rebuilding plundered villages and compensating the victims? These questions are being raised because many believe that there are powerful interests behind the herdsmen’s atrocities.
Fourth, it is necessary to know the cattle owners so that the Federal Inland Revenue Service could collect the appropriate tax from them. Millions of people must be raking in profit from the sale of cows, beef, milk, cowherd, and so on. The Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, and the FIRS should be keenly interested in them.
Finally, it is high time reliable statistics were generated that would provide necessary data for planners and researchers interested in livestock farming in Nigeria. Such data should be able to tell us who owns what breed of cattle and where? If such data are not available now, where does the figure of 19.5 million heads of cattle come from? On what basis is the government planning its intervention in the ongoing conflicts between herdsmen and farmers? Appropriate data are needed and necessary taxes should be collected, if livestock farming were to make a dent on Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product.