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Mbororo Peoples’ Journey for Survival: Transhumance and Territoriality in Central Africa

By Reynaldo A. Morales

Indigenous Mbororo Peoples, nomad pastoralists practicing transhumance from time immemorial, remain in a legal limbo, continually displaced under jurisdictional movement in the regions of West and Central Africa. With thousands of deaths related to farmer-herder skirmishes recorded in the past two decades, the realities of climate change and the resulting massive loss of biodiversity exacerbate major security and economic challenges on the ground. 

Conflicts between nomads and farmers, cattle rustling, and a lack of security in non-demarcated protected areas and national parks are the living reality of thousands of Indigenous Mbororo herders along the borders of Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, South Sudan, and Chad. As the majority of national parks and rural lands are not yet titled, herders enter protected areas inadvertently and endure daily violence and confrontations with new agro-pastoral communities. 

As new violent prospects haunt a region that cries for peace, an urgent process of land tenure reforms, including private land titling and demarcating of public lands to protect the territorial rights of Indigenous Mbororo Peoples across Central Africa, is critical. The rights of Mbororo Peoples need to be fully recognized to preserve the peace in the region and establish a secure path for sustainable development of all countries involved. 

“We are Mbororos, one of the nomad peoples in this country. Our forefathers came from Nigeria and settled in the early 1980s in Cameroon. We are grazer nomad peoples from the original  Fulani Tribes,”  says Nubu Biniwoye, regional president of the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association of Cameroon (MBOSCUDA) in Yaounde, whom I met while  attending the Second International Conference of Ministers on Transboundary Transhumance Nexus titled,  “Transhumance, Protected Areas and Natural Resources, Development, Peace, and Security.” 

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Some of the Mbororo Peoples’ representatives expressed concern that they are not included in the dialogue and decision-making processes, despite being directly affected by the conflicts. “Stakeholders have not been included in decision-making,” says Mohammed Abdulahi, MBOSCOUDA Secretary General. “All decisions are made behind [their backs], in their absence. I think this type of forum will help us to advance grazing and try to bring modern methods of innovation in this field so as to get modern methods of production of beef and all the other products that are obtained from cattle.” 

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Mohammed Abdulahi. Secretary General of MBOSCUDA.

The conference addressed the implementation of the Ndjamena Declaration, affirming the restoration of peace and security throughout economic and social activities and acknowledging the centrality of transboundary transhumance between the Sahel and northern equatorial Africa in regards to anti-poaching, natural resource degradation, gold mining, eco-security, peace, eco-development, and local traditions and cultures. It had a decidedly governmental tone, as ministers from Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, Central African Republic, the DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, and Chad participated alongside experts from technical and financial partners, sub-regional organizations, and leaders of the three geographical blocks of Central Africa.

For MBOSCUDA´s national president, Adamou Amadou, a lawyer and anthropologist, “The lawmakers in charge of the country need to rethink that it is not only sedentary people living in Cameroon or in an area. When they are making laws, they need to consider also that there is another lifestyle, which is a nomadic lifestyle, and it is a plus for us…keeping this alive, it is a plus for us even in Cameroon. It is marginalizing, not considering the nomadic lifestyle; I think it reduces Cameroon’s cultural patrimony,” he says.

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Adamou Amadou. President, Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association, Cameroon (MBOSCUDA).

Transhumance, or pastoralism, is recognized as a concept that exists without borders. “That's the whole idea, that pastoralists in search of pastoral land and water don't really necessarily need the borders or recognize the borders as such as they are,'' says Timea Svarkova, country manager of Concordis International, an organization dedicated to conflict analysis and  facilitating dialogue in Central Africa.  In Svarkova’s experience in the Central African Republic, security is a massive problem. “Ever since the latest coup d'etat that happened in 2013 and '14, the presence of armed groups across the country and the lack of State presence, lack of security actors, officials, State security actors…herders or transhumans have been attacked constantly. They've been subject to cattle rustling, they've been subject to illegal taxation, and to that point, pretty much everybody has been benefiting from this trade,” Svarkova says.

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Timea Svarkova, Country Manager of Concordis International for Central Africa.

Salihu Abba, Chair of the Coalition of Fulani Pastoralists from northeast Nigeria, likewise sees the issues of security and the economy as major challenges. Abba is also the coordinator of the Civil Society Action Coalition on Education for All in northeastern Nigeria. “Along the line there is cattle rustling. There is conflict between the nomads and the farmers. And sometimes in these protected areas, there are problems of insecurity. Sometimes the park owners or the park guards claim that the nomads used to enter into the parks illegally. And the nomads used to complain that they don't know the area. The areas of the park are not demarcated, so, before they realize, they're into the park,” Abba explains. 

Salihu Abba, Chair of the Coalition of Fulani Pastoralists from Northeast Nigeria, and Coordinator of the Civil Society Action Coalition on Education for All.

The direct economic impact from climate change and ecosystem degradation is also affecting the cattle of Mbororo nomad pastoralists. “If you take a cow from Niger, for example, if it weighs 150 kilograms, before you reach Nigeria or before you reach Cameroon, the cow will come down. Sometimes you come with, let's say, 100 cows, you go back with 80 or 70. Sometimes you encounter diseases, zoonosis, in the parks,” says Abba, adding that government vaccination programs are not consistently applied. “You can see a cow coming from Niger into Nigeria that is not vaccinated, and sometimes from Nigeria into Cameroon, again, not vaccinated.” Beyond the risk to human public health, this issue creates a larger environmental problem when the cattle transmit diseases into protected areas and crops. 

There are other unique epistemic implications to the pastoralist way of life that nomadic peoples have sustained for generations. “The Mbororo are interacting with what they call “espace,” which does not have [a direct translation] in English,” Amadou says. “Sedentary people are dealing with place. It's not the same thing. [Policymakers] have to consider it. We need a wide space not only for us, but for the animals. Animals can contribute to climate change or resilience, because if they are stuck in a place then they destroy more of the place. Transhumance or nomadism is really a good way of fighting climate change, and this has to be preserved. This is what I'm dying to make the Minister of Land Tenures understand. I think we have a way to go to achieve that.”

Some of the security experts at the conference expressed that in countries with high levels of poverty and vulnerability, herders who invest their wealth into cattle and walk through villages that are also very impoverished become an attractive target for theft, violence, or worse. “One cow can cost 450,000 CFA (around $750 USD), which is a very high value. So, of course it attracts criminality. It has also become, to a certain degree, a form of subsistence for armed groups, because when they set up checkpoints or when they tax, they also actually tax herders,” Svarkova says. 

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Dr. Fanta Dadapetel, PhD. First female doctorate degree of the Mbororo Peoples. Current MBOSCUDA North Region Vice President.

Concerns about security have resulted in policies of increasing State presence around protected areas and borders where Indigenous territories and local communities' private land intersect. “Up until today, we have seen deployment of army and police; it has been a work [in progress]. Of course, it's still far from being perfect,” Svarkova says, with the caveat that State presence means that some of the security actors that have been deployed to the area become perpetrators of crimes against the herders and engage in cattle rustling. “It's very complex and problematic when it comes to security in Central Africa, and regionally as well. Some criminal groups can take advantage of herders because they move across state boundaries. So, they can also take advantage of other levels of crime such as smuggling,” Svarkova says.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and crises of violence in northern Cameroon, many rural villagers witnessed the first transborder transhumance act of violence when herders from neighboring Nigeria invaded a border village in the Fongon subdivision in the northwest region of the country and attacked local farmers bringing their cattle in search of pasture. “Since the basin where we come from is rich, the community there is using that basin for the cultivation of other crops. But other cattle herders see it as an opportunity for them to herd their animals, so it becomes a difficult scenario,” says Chofo Heman, a young volunteer at the conference from the northwestern region of Cameroon, which has been struck by armed conflict for several years. Heman says that for his community, the practice of transhumance has created a recurrent and deadly source of conflict. 

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Chofo Heman. Young leader from the northwestern region of Cameroon.

The challenge that transhumance poses to national policy is in conflict with the defense of Mbororo and other Peoples’ traditional ways of life against emerging and evolving land distributions. Intensive land tenure practices associated with extractive industries,  along with increasing land degradation and water crisis caused by climate change, have led to the loss of critical biodiversity. Moreover, conflicts over pasture land between private landowners and Indigenous nomadic cultures exist around the world, and the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples are rarely respected or enforced by local governments. 

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Nubu Biniwoye. MBOSCUDA Deputy Chair Agropastoral Commission. Yaounde, Cameroon.

A review of the politics of Indigeneity around legal protections may present a path forward for Mbororo Peoples’ protection by Central African states, as part of ratified obligations in international law. “We have daily conflicts, violence all over the nation,” says Nubu Biniwoye, a MBOSCUDA deputy in the regional agro-pastoral commission. “When the cattle destroy the farmer's crops, it costs. Sometimes we see there is hatred without reasons. Those communities are violated daily, all over the nation.” 

MBOSCUDA is trying a different approach with farmers and grazer communities, especially in the central part of the country where conflicts are rising every day, and seeing improvement in the relations between the two groups. “We are trying to work together with the leaders of the community, leaders of grazer communities, the government, the mayors, all over. We are having meetings to sensitize them. And the two parties are trying to understand [each other]. Maybe we can do it all over the nation, have a dialogue and stability between the two communities,” Biniwoye says.

The security concerns over transboundary groups also present challenges to peace in the region and have renewed calls for State intervention. “On the Congolese side, people fear that these Muslim Fulani herders may be bringing radical Islamist discourses as we've seen elsewhere in the Sahel. This is the kind of thing that we're paying close attention to,” says Joe Figueira Martin, an international independent researcher and consultant in the Congo region. “There's this kind of logic of exclusion from protected areas. Herding and biodiversity conservation are seen as incompatible. That's fairly new. And this is part of why we're all here. This so-called biodiversity transhumance security nexus [allows us] to see how we can come together and propose new ideas in terms of promoting better positive interactions between protected areas and herders.” 

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Joe Figueira Martin. Independent international researcher and consultant for Central Africa.

At the border of Nigeria in Garoua, the movement of migrants, farmers, traders, and religious communities involve different nationalities, cultures, and socioeconomic identities interacting in close proximity. Many are displaced persons escaping violence without legal documentation. “Right now, as we speak, there are people whose homes were completely destroyed,” says Heman, describing a consequence of unregulated transboundary movements. “When we look at the [future], we can only cry. We can only weep for our future,” he laments.

One solution proposed by the UN Department of Political and Peace Building Affairs is to use geospatial mapping to create visual tools that can help policymakers demarcate and regulate the routes and territory that Mbororo Peoples have transited for centuries. “This has always been for centuries a transhumance corridor,” says Amadou, whose background includes international law and policy.  “We will train Mbororo youth along the transhumance corridor. Then we will show this data to the Ministry of Land Tenure. They will see for themselves and determine whether to protect it or to preserve it from now on.” 

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Mbororo children around a settlement in Garoua, 30 minutes from the border with Nigeria. Up to a certain age, the male children will join their parents in a dangerous journey. New proposals for Mbororo Nomad place-based education that combines standard and traditional learning are in active discussion. Photos by Reynaldo Morales and Fanta Dadapetel.

The influence of Mbororo Peoples is a positive advancement in Cameroon’s governmental approach to sustainable development. Amadou took me to visit the current Minister of Livestock, Dr. Taiga, and current General Secretary of the Livestock Ministry, El Hadj Jaji Manu Gidado, who was the head of MBOSCUDA for almost three decades. Indigenous diplomacy is a delicate process, and Amadou is a key part of an international multilateral engagement effort.  “It'll be up to [the ministers], but we will not rest... No, we'll continue fighting.” 

Mbororo Peoples have achieved a new momentum in the consideration of solutions that respect their way of life and culture. However, their participation in land tenure reforms and policies that recognize their distinctiveness will require more multilateral support.  “Nobody will take the decision from us. They'll always take decisions against us. So, what to do? We need to organize ourselves; we need to help our children to go to school. We will find a way to continue teaching them about our culture,” Amadou says. Our dialogues within Mbororo settlements in Garoua included nomad education, Traditional Knowledge protection, nomad gender perspectives, nomad agriculture, community seed banks, and new land tenure perspectives that preserve key aspects of Mbororo culture.  

For Heman, the challenges for his generation are related to a safe and lasting peace as a condition for sustainable development. “As a youth leader, and to the young people that we work with on a daily basis, what I envision as a future is a safe community where young people can live their potential. We have a lot of talent, we have a lot of resources, but crisis situations prevent us from using those resources to attain or achieve the future that we want: a safer community for a better future.” 

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Alh Mallam Salé. MBOSCUDA North Region President. He sustains a close relationship with Mbororo herders in different settlements along the northern border with Nigeria. At the center, is the basic travel pack that all Mbororo nomads carry on their journey.

Policy consultants and security experts argue that the most realistic solutions involve the return to participatory, multi-sectoral approaches and local ownership that depend on the stability of the basic social condition of peace. “For us, this has been the approach from the beginning. It's pointless to put in place some kind of mechanism or committee that the so-called interveners think will work, [but that] does not consider inclusivity, does not take into account local existing dynamics. It's important that when we do this work, we are first of all transparent and we consider everybody. And then it's everybody who has a way and a say in the decision-making,” says Svarkova. “We've seen a much higher impact by people who don't just feel considered, but they really become actors of change and actors of peace. These are the strategies that we are continuing to apply, [along with] sub-regional work.” 

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Life in the Mbororo settlements, where young mothers and children wait for their parents to return from an increasingly dangerous and uncertain traveling. Photo by Fanta Dadapetel.

Martin thinks that recruiting young Fulani herders from the community to work closely with protected areas and go and meet with herders is the best outreach strategy because “oftentimes, herders do not know that they're coming into protected areas.” Under this idea, Mbororo youth will participate in efforts to sensitize herders about the borders of protected areas and work with conservation committees in the buffer zones of protected areas. “We've seen some positive stuff come out of that. It basically gives a framework for herders, local communities, and protected areas to come together and talk about these issues, because oftentimes these different parties are not talking to each other,” Martin explains.

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Life in the Mbororo settlements, where young mothers and children wait for their parents to return from an increasingly dangerous and uncertain traveling. Photo by Fanta Dadapetel.

Such new approaches to multilateral engagement solutions have brought about a new level of understanding of the rights and roles of Indigenous Peoples’ governance as part of critical regional strategies for sustainable development. “Indigenous Peoples need to unite and produce evidence to everybody that their lifestyle needs to be kept, needs to be preserved, to be promoted, and needs to be really considered. This is my first and last word,” says Amadou.

-- Reynaldo A. Morales is Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism and Media, Faculty Fellow of the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, and faculty affiliated to the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.


Top photo: Mbororo children playing and learning about cattle herding, land tenure and safety from elders. Text and photos, Reynaldo Morales.