NAIROBI - One of the most defining moments of Kenya’s constitution-making process at the Bomas auditorium in 2010 was a moving presentation by pastoralists. They asked delegates to respect their culture and recognise pastoralism as a way of life.

They wanted guaranteed rights to facilitate the transmission of pastoralism across generations and the protection of indigenous pastoralism knowledge. “What would it take for farmers to understand,” they emotionally asked to pin-drop silence, “that a cow was to its owner what land was to a farmer? Cows are our land!”

Violence between farmers and pastoralists is threatening to overtake the Second Congo War’s record — involving nine African countries and a myriad of armed groups — one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II. The Rwandan genocide, with its resulting overspill, sparked the First Congo War. Rural insecurity has increased as farmers and pastoralist clash.

Tensions exist between farmers and herders in countries such as Central African Republic, Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Guinea and Tana River in Kenya. The breakdown of law and order in, for instance, Libya and Somalia ensures a proliferation of small arms among both farmers and pastoralists.

However, the focus is on pastoralists because their arms are visible. Pastoralists are often accused of fuelling conflict and eroding state authority. Conservationists in Kenya and Tanzania are also hostile towards pastoralists.

Banditry, cattle rustling, competition for land and water, transhumance routes closed or not maintained, cultivation on grazing land, unenforced pastoralism laws, deterioration of ethnic relations, unemployment, poverty, manipulation of differences by politicians, minimal presence of the state, demographic growth and climate change are often mentioned as the overt cause of the violence.

In West Africa, fingers are frequently pointed at the non-enforcement of regional agreements such as the Ecowas Transhumance Decision (1998) and Regulation (2003) and the Nouakchott Declaration on Pastoralism (signed by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal).

Statements like “herders encroaching on government and private land” – when pastoralists have moved their livestock regularly based on seasonal availability of pasture for centuries, long before the appearance of the title deed – expose the underbelly of the issue. Governments’ crop-biased policies see food security as agricultural, rather than livestock yields.

There have been discussions around confining pastoralists to designated grazing reserves and permanent settlements in Nigeria. Some have actualised it; I was working in Benue State when a law was enacted to prevent open grazing effectively keeping out the pastoralists despite Section 41 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution; “Every citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof, and no citizen of Nigeria shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry thereby or exit there from.” The law was followed by violent clashes between farmers and pastoralists.

When former president Obasanjo recently wrote an open letter to President Buhari saying, “Herdsmen/farmers crises started with government treating the issue with a … glove instead of a hammer,” many wrote to remind him that his 1976 local government reforms removed the power of traditional district and village heads to solve farmer/pastoralist conflicts.

Local Government Councils and police without the traditional time-tested skills were assigned this role. This ended the traditional burti system protecting traditional cattle stock routes from farmers while also ensuring cows could move without encroaching on farms.

Houses and farms now block the stock routes. It also ended relationships. Farmers would previously invite pastoralists after harvest to graze in the farm. The cows would eat and the farmer would get fertiliser.

The World Bank-funded Fadama agriculture saw more land converted to agricultural use even as the agrarian sector was weakened by oil revenue dominance. Then, farmers and pastoralists resorted to law enforcement self-help.

As lifestyles change, across Africa, it is pastoralists and not farmers who have had to adapt. Contributions to the economy are taken for granted, with the emphasis placed on the transformation of pastoralism into settled forms of animal husbandry. It is time to hear the pastoralists.