As a cattle herder in Benue, a rural state in central Nigeria, Sale Tambaya's life revolved around his herd of roughly 100 cows and a few dozen sheep. Normally, he would take them out from a pen near his thatched hut every morning to graze freely in the surrounding grassland. But on Nov. 1, taking grazing animals in the open was designated a criminal activity in Benue. Overnight, his family's livelihood had become a threat to their safety.
So at 6 a.m., he made his decision: The only way to keep both family and herd safe was to flee.
Tambaya, his wife, Hafsat, and their six children walked all day with the herd. In the evening they finally reached the Benue River, a powerful tributary of the Niger that separated their home state from neighboring Nasarawa, where they hoped to find refuge and a place to graze the livestock. While Tambaya, Hafsat and four of the children boarded a ferry, two of the boys drove the cows and sheep into the water, clinging to the cows' tails because they didn't know how to swim. Both sons, as well as most of the sheep and 20 cows, drowned before reaching the opposite bank.
Benue is now the second Nigerian state to implement a ban on the open grazing of cattle, after nearby Taraba implemented a ban this summer. It's a controversial new approach to resolving a long saga of conflict between Nigeria's pastoralists and their farmer neighbors that has come with unintended violence and displacement, as shown in this video from the scene.
The ban's backers contend that free-roaming cattle are a major threat, as they routinely trample crops, setting off fights with farmers. But pastoralists argue that the grazing ban discriminates against the West African ethnic minority, Fulani, most of whom keep cattle as their traditional livelihood.
The state deputized unarmed citizen groups to enforce the ban and keep a roving lookout for herders. (The police and military are controlled by the federal government, and President Muhammadu Buhari, who owns cattle himself, hasn't committed to enforcing the law.) Herders think the citizen groups are more likely to create new conflicts than resolve them, and worry they will acquire weapons and will become, in effect, anti-Fulani gangs — after years of conflict, ethnic animosity runs high here. When the ban went into effect, many herders like Tambaya fled the state.
"Everyone was afraid, because [ranching] was impossible to do," Tambaya said.
Over the past decade, farmer-pastoralist conflict has torn Nigeria's Middle Belt region apart. Disputes over land quickly escalate because of ethnic and religious resentment (the farmers are mostly Christians of the majority Tiv ethnic group while the Fulani are mostly Muslim). Violence can take the shape of isolated murders, improvised roadblocks where members of one group search passing vehicles for members of the other group to rough up or extort, and full-blown attacks on villages, involving dozens of assailants. Thousands have died, and tens of thousands are displaced. Last year, the annual death toll — 2,500, including both farmers and herders — exceeded the number killed by Boko Haram insurgents in the country's war-torn northeast, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group.
The most recent episode, which unfolded in Adawama State over the past two weeks, followed a familiar pattern: After an attack in which 30 herders were reportedly killed by farmers armed with torches and machetes, herders followed suit last Monday with an attack that led to "many deaths," according to local news reports.
"In the last five years we've had a huge increase in the number of incidents, the number of casualties and the bitterness that goes with it," says Nnamdi Obasi, senior Nigeria adviser for the International Crisis Group. During that period, there have been an average of 2,000 deaths linked to farmer-herder conflict each year, according to the ICG report.
"In many areas it's like a no man's land," he says. "If you talk to the herdsmen as well as to the farmers, each party feels that it is unprotected, it is vulnerable."
Violence perpetrated both by and against cattle herders is common across Sahelian Africa. But the situation in Nigeria has been particularly explosive. Experts here point to a complex of factors including rapid population growth, climate change, urbanization, biased local media, and high rates of cattle rustling and other rural crime. The dysfunctional judicial system emboldens people to take the law into their own hands, while an influx of small arms from the Lake Chad basin and central Africa makes conflicts more deadly.
But the trigger is usually cattle. When cows trample through a farm or farmers plant crops on a traditional grazing path, whether the transgression is accidental or intentional, shouts turn to blows, which turn to gunshots, which turn to organized raids, reprisal attacks and arson that leaves villages on both sides decimated. By then, the specific original grievance is forgotten and replaced by general animus toward the other group. The countryside is littered with the charred ruins of homes, schools, police stations, mosques and churches.
Benue, which has seen some of the worst confrontations, is testing the theory that tighter regulation of cattle can be an effective peace-building measure. Cows there must now be confined to fenced-off ranches, with their food and water delivered rather than foraged from the landscape. Violators face fines of more than $3,000, up to five years in prison and the confiscation of their herd.
The state government says the law will help curb clashes by imposing order onto land use practices that were formerly a dangerous free-for-all that cost the state $264 million in damages and disruption of the local economy, according to the governor, and that it is working to make land available cheaply to herders. But the government has so far not opened any of several promised public ranches. And since opening a private ranch is prohibitively expensive for most herders, and time-consuming, with plenty of red tape even for those who can afford it, Fulani leaders say the ban is little more than an effort to aggressively drive them from the state.
"Their profession has been denied. Their legal rights have been denied," says Garus Gololo, the Benue chapter director of Miyette Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, a Fulani cultural and trade group. "I take it as a personal hatred."
Within the first few weeks of the ban, 17 herders were arrested for illegal grazing. Five are currently on trial in Makurdi, the regional capital, while the others wait their turn in jail, according to Lawrence Onoja, a spokesman for the Benue state government. Onoja said that no cows have been confiscated, because the state doesn't yet have a facility in which to keep them. But Gololo said vigilante groups have harassed herders and chased at least 250 cows into the bush, a serious loss given that a single cow can sell for up to $1,000. On Nov. 13, one herder drowned himself in the river after losing his herd, Gololo says. Onoja denied that the suicide took place, calling it a "big lie."
Either way, Benue's herders face a wrenching choice: Stay — and face financial ruin, imprisonment and the risk of violence if they violate the new ban-- or flee — and face an uncertain future in neighboring states where their herds are also unwelcome.
Tambaya was joined by a group of several dozen other families who also fled. Now, a group of several hundred people are living along the river's edge in a village called Tunga, in houses offered as temporary shelter by a local imam. Tunga's chief, Shuaibu Galadima, said that in the first few days after the ban more than 1,000 Fulani herders and their cattle from Benue passed through the village. The influx is increasing tensions, he said: "As soon as they start entering farms, there could be rioting."
Onoja said that anyone who attacks a herder will be prosecuted and that the law is not meant to discriminate against anyone.
"Constitutionally, everybody has a right to live wherever they want to live," he said. "But that old way of having grazing routes is not possible anymore."
Traditionally, nomadic Fulani cattle herders were concentrated in Nigeria's northern states, roaming vast expanses of arid savanna. Over the past several decades, desertification and the Boko Haram insurgency pushed many south, into more densely populated agricultural regions. Today, 70 percent of Nigeria's Fulani are living alongside farmers.
But as the country's population of 180 million grows, areas long set aside for cattle grazing are being overtaken by farms, roads, settlements, schools and hospitals.
"There must be transformations in the way crops and livestock are produced in Nigeria," said Saleh Momale, executive director of The Pastoral Resolve, a research and advocacy organization. "But we are now making restrictive policies that tend to punish or eliminate the livelihoods of a critical sector of the Nigerian economy, the livestock producers."
The transition from open grazing to ranching can't happen overnight and at gunpoint, he said, especially as the December-January dry season is underway and more seasonal cattle-herding nomads from the northern reaches of the country are likely to arrive."I think [the Benue state government] is just creating a scenario for chaos," he said.
A better solution to the crisis, Momale said, would be to shift gradually away from nomadic pastoralism over time. He proposes incentives for herders to settle in designated areas where agriculture is sparse — and the efficient prosecution of anyone on either side of the conflict who commits violence. Until then, he said, the conflict is likely to continue.
In the meantime, Tambaya and his neighbors are trying to build a new life, away from home.
"I'm too afraid to return to Benue," he says. "They could kill my animals, kill me, kill my family."
This story was supported by a grant from the International Reporting Project.