In 2014, "Fulani militants" killed 1,229 people and earned the dubious honour of being named the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world at the time.
Two years later, hundreds were massacred by ethnic Fulani militants allegedly in revenge for the killing of a prominent Fulani leader and the theft of his cows in 2013.
These killings have been attributed to be an escalation of conflicts between roaming herdsmen and local farming communities who have battled over the access and control of lands.
As the bodies piled up over the years, the federal government has grappled with the ramifications of the killings and how to put a definitive end to them, but the bodies have been dropping without a sound solution in sight.
On January 2, 2018, Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom, raised alarm over the killing of dozens of residents in attacks he alleged were carried out by herdsmen in Guma and Logo local government areas of the state. Days later on January 11, 73 men, women and children were buried at a mass burial ceremony.
Since the wave of killings exploded in January, hundreds more, including soldiers and police officers, have died in alleged herdsmen attacks most notably in Benue, Taraba, Plateau, Nasarawa, and Adamawa.
With the cattle herding business being closely associated with the Muslim Fulani people, the killings have been tinged with ethno-religious sentiments and Fulani communities have also been targeted and attacked in states including Benue, Taraba and Adamawa.
Governor Ortom heaped the blame of the attacks in his state on the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, a Fulani socio-cultural group, whom he blamed for openly threatening to rebel against the state's anti-open grazing law.
In November 2017, the Benue State government implemented the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law that outlawed open grazing in the state, a law which the group said was discriminatory and unfair to herdsmen.
Despite Ortom's public claims that he had warned the federal government about the attacks before they took place, the government didn't exactly crackdown on the group.
In fact, the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali, has twice publicly blamed the anti-open grazing law for the conflicts and called for its suspension as implemented in Benue, Ekiti and Taraba.
The wave of relentless killings led to public pressure growing massively on the current government to find a lasting solution to the conflict, other than just sending security operatives, especially since the conflicts have raged for years.
This led to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, declaring that the problem had to go away.
"We have to deal with an urgent problem, cattle rearing and the conflicts between farmers and herdsmen, and actually bring it to a halt.
"Nigerians are getting extremely uncomfortable with these killings and we may make political statements and issue palliatives and ask the police and army to go after killers. Let us do our own duty by eliminating the conflict by creating cattle colonies," he said in January.
With the federal government unwilling to back the anti-open grazing law, which urged cattle owners to get their own ranches to cater for their herds and stop stomping over farmlands, it came up with its own plan.
Cattle colonies and its very public death
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development started floating the idea of creating cattle colonies for herdsmen in January 2018. According to Ogbeh, cattle colonies are a combination of several ranches.
He said, "Colonies and ranches are the same things in many ways except that a colony is bigger than a ranch.
"In a colony, 20 to 30 ranchers can share the same colony; a ranch is usually owned by an individual or company with few numbers of cows, in a cattle colony you could find 100, 200, 300 cows owned by different individuals.
"Ranching is more of individual venture for those who want to invest, but cattle colony is bigger in scope and size."
To drive home his point, he noted that the maintenance of ranches is so costly that rural subsistent low-earning herders would find it hard to survive without colonies.
He further disclosed that the colonies would provide water, grass and security to cattle herders who would, in return, pay for rent and other services provided by the federal government who would fund the project.
"The federal government will fund the project. The programme is not going to be cheap. Mr President has personally informed me that if we seek help from him he will give it to us over and above the budget we have," he said.
To sell the idea, Ogbeh said colonies, where many owners can co-exist, would provide a more permanent solution to unending clashes between roaming herdsmen and local communities.
For the scheme to be implemented, state governments would be required to volunteer 5,000 hectares of land. In its push to implement the initiative, the ministry announced in January that 16 states had already volunteered land for the colonies.
The public backlash against the cattle colony initiative was overwhelming as many Nigerians interpreted it as an attempt by the federal government to impose itself and divert resources towards a private venture that should be handled by private individuals.
Many argued that cattle owners should be able to acquire land for ranching as practised in other, more developed, countries.
The backlash was so disastrous that Plateau State governor, Simon Lalong, who earlier expressed support for the initiative and had his state rumoured to be among the pilot states, said he would never consider signing up for it.
With the terrible reception of the colony initiative, it started to fade from public discourse until the federal government unveiled a new plan to definitively end the herders-farmers crisis.
Cattle Colony 2.0, also known as National Livestock Transformation Plan
At a briefing in Abuja on June 19, 2018, the National Economic Council (NEC) presented the National Livestock Transformation Plan (2018-2027) as its new initiative to put an end to the agelong herders-farmers crisis and massively improve the livestock industry. The initiative stipulates that ranching is the way forward for cattle rearing in the country.
The plan asserts, "Nomadic livestock production in Nigeria is facing major crises and is at a crossroads due to declining availability of pasture, overgrazing, and most importantly, the recurrent and expanding fatal conflicts between pastoralists and crop farmers.
"The impact on food and nutrition security as well as public safety and national security are huge and far-reaching."
Under the new plan, cattle herders are expected to be registered and recognised with cooperatives for the purpose of the ranching scheme. These cooperatives will then be able to get rental agreements for land from state governments and also benefit from ranch resources on several terms including loans, grants, and subsidies.
The funding of the plan from the federal government and state governments is expected to last for the first three years in the pilot phase for a total of N70 billion while private sector interests and investment between the third and tenth year is expected to be in excess of N100 billion.
The proposed ranch size models, according to the plan, is a cluster of 30, 60, 150 and 300 cows ranched in a location within the donated reserves.
10 pilot states have already been selected for the initiative and are expected to donate land to the venture which makes it sound like a cattle colony in everything but name.
Adamawa, Benue, Ebonyi, Edo, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Oyo, Plateau, Taraba, and Zamfara are the pilot states for the plan with 94 ranches to be established and operational in clusters of 4 ranches in 24 locations.
According to the plan, coordination will take place at the federal, state and community levels in the pilot states. The private sector is a notable partner and is expected to provide market-led support services and downstream value addition.
We'll not implement FG's plan - Benue government
While it would seem that the federal government has made all the necessary arrangements to push forward with NLTP, it doesn't appear to have put its house in proper order as some of its pilot states are not completely on board with the initiative.
One of those states is Benue, a place where Governor Ortom claimed an estimated 492 people had been killed by herdsmen as of May 22, 2018.
When contacted to explain the state's role in the federal government's plan, the governor's Chief Press Secretary, Terve Akase, told Pulse Nigeria that the Benue government is not "not looking in that direction at all".
According to him, the plan was greenlighted against the wishes of Governor Ortom, who is part of the National Economic Council, especially since the plan contradicts the state's anti-open grazing law.
He said the state has no interest in devoting land to such a plan as it is a private venture that the government should not be getting involved in.
He said, "We don't want to be too bothered or concerned about that plan because it contradicts the open grazing prohibition law of Benue State. Unless the law is repealed or amended, we can't be talking about having ranches in clusters as that plan is proposing.
"The government of Benue State does not have 5,000 hectares or 10,000 hectares of land to give - there's no such land anywhere in Benue State. It's more or less the same as a colony.
"We have a law and it says if you want to establish a ranch, if you have a piece of land, fine; you just notify government then go ahead and do your ranch; but if you don't have a ranch, you approach someone who has ranch and if the person concedes to you, he'll take your application to the Ministry of Agriculture and the ministry will now move it to the governor who will approve and the land will be leased to you for one year, and renewable after one year.
"That is what the law says here. The law does not talk about cluster ranches. It doesn't say the government will provide ranches for people. By the way, livestock rearing is a private business. If somebody has a herd of cows, or sheep, or goats, or pigs and he wants to rear them, that's his private business; he has to follow due process.
"Government can only provide, if necessary, subsidy like it is providing 38% subsidy on fertiliser in Benue State for farmers; but to say that government should establish and run ranches for private people is like saying government should be running other private businesses for people.
"It is unacceptable and is in sharp contrast with the law of Benue State, so we're not looking in that direction at all.
"It was done without the consent of the Benue State government. Benue did not tell anyone that it was going to give land for cluster ranching."
He further noted that since the government does not take such deep-running interest in other private businesses, there's no reason why it should do the same for rearing.
He said, "Government has no reason to establish ranching for people. Government can only come in to assist if necessary but government should not be told to establish and run, establish and manage ranches for people; it's private business.
"When you give someone fertiliser to go and apply on his farm, do you go and run the farm for him? You don't. You only give him an incentive in form of fertiliser - he takes the fertiliser to his farm and applies it. It is no longer your business what he does with that fertiliser on his farm.
"That's the same thing and government does not establish farms for people."
In spite of the state government's objection to the plan, Akase said the Benue government hopes that NLTP will bear fruits that'll finally put an end to the killings.
He said the only way to have peace is for herdsmen to embrace ranching as it would eliminate scenarios where they would have to clash with farmers or local communities.
He said, "Nigerian cattle owners should embrace ranching. Ranching is the way to go and the best practice globally. If we embrace ranches, we embrace a new way of rearing cattle. It will help. Those who are in Benue should be interested in what the law is saying; those who are in those other states that are going to provide land for cluster ranching should be interested because I think that is the beginning of it. Perhaps from there, many more ideas on how to make ranches better will come in.
"So, even though we're not going to be part of that arrangement, I think other states that don't have this law, that we have, can pick that up as starting point. If that policy succeeds as the federal government is saying, it will be nice.
"That's why I said I'm wishing the implementers of the programme luck for them to be able to convince cattle owners to embrace the policy and fully participate because that's the only way you'll have peace.
"By the time the farmer has his own farm and the cattle owner keeps his livestock in his ranch, there'll be no crisis anymore. There'll be no issue of encroachment on farmlands and destruction of property by Fulani herdsmen."
Ebonyi also reluctant to implement FG's plan
Despite being named as one of the 10 pilot states by the federal government, the Ebonyi State government has also publicly announced that it would not provide an inch of land for the plan.
Days after the presentation of the plan, a government statement read, "We were not gazetted. There is no land for any ranching in Ebonyi State and we are not aware that we are among those mentioned as ranching states.
"The ranching programme being done by the federal government does not include Ebonyi State and it has been redirected to those states in the North where the farmlands have been gazetted and have ranching ground which they will now revitalise."
Miyetti Allah groups approve of FG's plan
While speaking during an interview on Channels Television on July 2, 2018, the Secretary-General of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, Saleh Alhassan, hailed the NLTP, saying it can bring about sustainable peace if implemented faithfully.
The secretary of the Fulani socio-cultural group said, "It must be understood clearly that there are challenges between farmers and herders that bothers on land resource conflicts. Those conflicts should be addressed through a sustainable land use policy which we now have encapsulated in the new national agricultural development plan.
"That plan, if it is implemented faithfully without deceit, will address all these challenges that has to do with farmers-herders conflict."
Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Nigeria's premier pastoralist association, has also hailed the plan as having the potential to engender sustainable peace.
Its national secretary, Usman Baba-Ngelzarma, recently said, "I will hail the federal government's national livestock transformation plan, it's okay. You have to look at the security aspect of it, education aspect of it, so many other things; it has to be holistic."
FG's plan will most likely not bring lasting peace, analyst says
The lead analyst at SBM Intelligence, Ikemesit Effiong, believes that the economic triggers of the conflict have taken on an ethno-religiousdimension that makes it incredibly hard to solve the crisis with the government's transformation plan.
He said, "Ultimately, the plan cannot solve the pastoral conflict because while its nature is economic, the discussion around the issues arising from it has been tinged with ethno-religious and security colourations.
"Some form of justice via the properly constituted institutions of the state has to be performed on all perpetrators of violence and that is probably the hardest part of addressing the whole situation."
Despite his general view of the plan, he also believes that the federal goverment's involvement makes sense as it will hopefully resolve the economic triggers of the conflict.
He said, "The National Livestock Transformation Plan has some good things in it - market-driven ranches with different cluster models in each of the selected states for improved livestock productivity through breed improvement, pasture production, as well as efficient land and water productivity address a key driver of the current conflict - making herders understand the importance of settled property rights the way most of the farming communities they regularly come in conflict with, already do.
"The plan, perhaps most importantly is the first time the government is admitting this salient point in print - nomadic herding is simply unsustainable.
"It makes sense for the government to be involved in addressing the economic triggers of the conflict. Firstly, it is constitutionally bound to protect the lives and properties of Nigerians. Secondly, it is the key guarantor of enabling profitable economic activity - no sensible investor will consider creating economic value, and by extension, opportunities for itself and others in an unstable environment. Thirdly, the federal government had before now adopted a mixture of denial, indifference and when pushed, the hard security option.
"The problems are fundamentally economic and a plan seeking to address that is a step in the right direction. States can get involved in being part of the solution on an economic front. Sokoto, for example, is funding a billion naira effort to build beef-producing ranches within its territory in collaboration with Argentinian experts. All these efforts are welcome."
While exploring the historical roots and ramifications of the conflicts that have left thousands dead over many years, Effiong believes it is in the interest of the private sector to greatly invest in the government's plan if it is properly implemented.
He said, "Private sector participation, even though the entire effort should be government-guided, is advantageous. Cattle herding is fundamentally a privately owned and run enterprise, thus encouraging growing calls among some that cattle owners must build and support their own ranches, respect the laws of the land and pay taxes.
"In an economy in need of diversification, encouraging private investors to tap into the opportunities offered by the cattle industry has to be a no-brainer. Whether they actually do will depend on how well the government addresses the spiralling security situation."
Chances of success
With the NLTP, the federal government is not hiding its other objective to also boost economic growth by improving food and nutrition security. However, the plan is still vague on how it will be implemented to bring about lasting peace.
The government expects that within one year of implementing the NLTP, 50% of displaced crop farmers are enabled to farm in safe and secure location, and 50% of destroyed common and individual facilities and homes are rebuilt. The federal government also expects that at least 500 pastoralists will be linked to the commercial value chains through the ranches.
Most crucially, nothing in the plan presented by the government highlights how cattle owners will be compelled to sign up for the programme. If owners are not compelled by law to switch to ranching of their herds, then it means they're still very likely to legally roam about with their cattle and trespass into farmlands and still trigger conflicts like before.
What would seem to be a comprehensive plan would be if the federal government was to come up with its own anti-open grazing law which makes ranching the only option for cattle herders.
Without that, the NLTP is merely a suggestion that runs the risk of joining the nation's pile of white elephant projects. This one will just come at the cost of more human lives.