YZ Ya’u is the Executive Director, Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) which is implementing project aimed at using technology to fight the cattle rustling phenomenon in the northern Nigeria. In this interview with ADAM ALQALI, he speaks on how CITAD hopes to use technology to help tackle the challenge and the lackadaisical attitude of governments.
The Centre for Information Technology and Development is implementing a project against the cattle rustling phenomenon in Nigeria. Let’s know more about it?
The cattle rustling project is an off-shoot of the peace project CITAD is carrying out in northern Nigeria with the support of Mac Arthur Foundation. And its objective is to mobilize all stakeholders when there is conflict to seek its resolution, particularly, to get stakeholders understand that peace building is a collective responsibility so they don’t wait for third parties to come and help them resolve it.
So, in the process, we realized cattle rustling is a major conflict in northern Nigeria, particularly in the North West and North Central zones of Nigeria. We realized that except for few newspaper publications which are not in-depth, there has not been much attention to it in the media. Within government circles, there are no efforts at developing strategies to deal with the problem. We realized that it was a big problem which if not carefully addressed, will end up being much bigger than Boko Haram, in terms of its area of operation.
We therefore thought we should make contribution by firstly raising awareness about the issue and secondly documenting the incidences since as far as we know there is no systematic attempt at documenting the incidences, yet. We only hear 100 cattle have been taken away but there haven’t been a real documentation. Thirdly, we want to build a platform for alerting the security agencies and other stakeholders such that whenever cattle are rustled they will be able to receive alert on which they can act to track them.
Finally, we hope to put in place a network of volunteers across the different areas where cattle rustling are taking place so that whenever there is a report, even if the security agencies didn’t act immediately, the volunteers will be able to provide support in terms of rescuing and recovering the cattle. But since it is about building a platform on which people can send messages either text messages or e-mails, that means we also need to train people particularly the herders on how to report if cattle are stolen.
You described the cattle rustling phenomenon as potentially more grievous than the Boko Haram insurgency.
How grievous is the cattle rustling challenge, potentially?
You need to understand the dynamics of cattle rustling, you can identify three categories. First, is the conflict between farmers and cattle herders which doesn’t have to do anything with cattle rustling but because over the years the government has been negligent about monitoring the grazing lands and ponds. People have taken over grazing lands, established farms on them thereby blocking the herders from accessing them. For instance, in Zamfara State, the grazing lands in many of the local government areas have been encroached by 60%.
So, when the herders are blocked from the grazing lands they allow their cattle to graze on the farm lands, the farmers in turn attack the cows by killing and slaughtering them which is generating conflicts all over the place and where such conflicts meet other parameters like in Plateau and Southern Kaduna where the herders are seen as Muslims and the farmers Christians, then you have a potentially very explosive situation which can feed into other dynamics and create other problems in the country.
The second dimension is the intra-Fulani conflict which is also related to the first. A lot of Fulanis have lost a significant number of cattle and for the herders, the cattle are their life; it is their means of livelihood. So, for many of them, this is a traumatic experience for which they need to restock in order to survive. Some Fulanis can’t afford living without the cattle so they engage in cattle rustling to be able to restock, by stealing from fellow Fulanis. This is a less explosive dimension but it still results in conflicts, killings and so on.
There is also the third dimension is the criminal economy around cattle rustling which is even more dangerous. This is about people who are into cattle rustling for economic purposes. The first is about revenge, the second about restocking but this one is about stealing cows and selling them off in the market. Now, this is a huge criminal economy around cattle rustling.
About 40% of beef being sold in the country comes from cattle imported from Cameroon, Niger and Chad. And given the situation of insurgency which has obstructed trade in those zones, meaning cattle import through those axes is no longer taking place. Ordinarily, you will expect a shortage of beef in Nigeria but since there is no such shortage that means it is because of the ongoing illegal cattle rustling. The danger of the criminal rustling is that they have established basis for instance in Kamakuru and Falgore forests where the security agents are afraid to go.
Now, this is how Sambisa started as an enclave of the insurgents and the security agents felt they couldn’t go into the forest and so the insurgents gradually became stronger and controlled it. Right now, you have such hot spots in various forests and if you don’t act, they will become several Sambisas established in different parts of the country, which means if it has taken us five years to dislodge the criminal elements in Sambisa and you will now have to multiply that Sambisa by so many times, only God can save us.
Like you explained, there are so many dimensions to the ongoing cattle rustling activity in northern Nigeria. How complex is the phenomenon?
Cattle rustling are not about 10 or 15 cattle, rather it is about hundreds of cattle yet people steal hundreds of cattle, move them around for days and they don’t get apprehended which means there is a problem with our security system. Secondly, if they can take them to our markets here in Nigeria and sell them off it means there is not only a problem with our intelligence gathering system but also a form of collaboration with the dealers because the major cattle dealers in the markets ought to know if the cows are stolen.
For me, it illustrates that there is a wave of collaborations at various levels of cattle rustling and there is an obvious inability of the police and other security outfits to deal with the problem because firstly they are insufficiently equipped to be able to handle the challenge. Second, there is a form of collaboration between criminal elements and security agents and thirdly there is out right corruption. One thing that illustrates that is, for instance, when Governor El-Rufai joined the patrol team and one the first day they were able to recover hundreds of cattle and so the police knew how to do the job but couldn’t do it for months which means there are a lot of things that are not being interrogated.
If Nigeria must end cattle rustling, what must stakeholders including the government, security agencies and non-governmental organisations including groups like Miyetti Allah do, collectively?
Well, I think you first of all need to start with the government, the Nigerian government including the state governments do not sufficiently understand the problem of cattle rustling and so what they do is reduce it to a simple crime and leave it for the police to handle. And the police’s style of crime management is to wait until the crime is committed and someone reports before they act. Therefore, by the time cattle have been rustled there is nothing they can do.
Government has to understand that cattle rustling are about conflict over access to resources including water, grazing land and so on. And so you have to address the issue around these resources whether it is about creating grazing lands or creating effective surveillance system of monitoring the issue. The government has not shown the political will to confront the issue because a lot of the people who have encroached on grazing lands are people in high places.
Therefore, until the government confronts this matter head on then we will keep having these conflicts. When government is able to situate the problem within this conflict’s dynamics then you can talk about the role of other stakeholders. For instance, what civil society organizations should be doing, obviously, is get involved in sensitizing people about conflict resolution and security consciousness, the same thing with the community leaders.
Even the herders should be more security conscious, leverage on technology in terms of tracking their cattle. But I also think the government has to find a way of bringing the various stakeholders to the table to discuss the conflict and find resolutions to it. One of the reasons government’s effort is not effective is that, in most cases, it is dealing with groups which are claiming to be representing the Fulanis but who are actually not true representatives of the herders in their engagements with them.
The Fulanis themselves are suspicious of these groups; in fact they see them as collaborators with the criminals. We have had instances where such groups were implicated in cattle rustling by the herders themselves. So you need to bring on board genuine representatives of herders rather than platforms that are historically and nationally known to be representing herders.
Finally, how effective do you think technology could be in tackling the cattle rustling challenge in Nigeria?
I think technology is just a tool and so its effectiveness depends on the users, what we are trying to do is not something new; globally there are various monitoring platforms for different issues whether it is cattle rustling, election or even hate- speech. It is just a question of getting the information at the right time and sending it to the right person, now whether those persons or institutions are able to act on it will determine the effectiveness of technology but potentially, technology will deliver solutions in terms of availability of information, in terms of its timeliness and accuracy.
The platform we are building is a geospatial meaning once reports come in it gives you the coordinate of the place where the incident happened as well as the terrain. So, as a security agent you will have an idea of the type of vehicles to use, you will also have understanding of the various road networks and foot paths, therefore if cattle are stole at a certain pint you can predict the direction of its movement. So, it gives a very convenient way of managing the problem but how effective it will be is dependent on the people that are supposed to act and that is why we have designed a parallel network, so if we provide information to security agencies, we will also provide the same information to local volunteers who can then activate local contingencies within their communities to try to recover and rescue the cattle that are stolen.