Malama Amina stands quietly in the middle of her late husband’s compound in northwestern Nigeria trying to figure out how she will feed herself and her six children in the coming months.
Thieves stole 48 cows during a raid on their village in Kaduna State earlier this year. Her husband was killed trying to save the herd. At an average sale price of $500 per cow, the family lost its entire life savings as well as its sole means of income.
“They [left] us with nothing,” 40-year-old Amina told IRIN. “I don’t know how to take care of my children because we depended on the cows to survive.”
Amina borrows milk from a neighbour’s cow and sells it to earn what she can, but it isn’t enough.
Cattle theft has long been a problem in the region but the general insecurity caused by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has emboldened seasoned rustlers, while others struggling with endemic poverty and unemployment have turned to it as a lucrative second ‘career’.
The rustlers are not believed to have direct ties to the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed more than 15,000 people and displaced more than 2.1 million, but they wage similar, armed attacks on villages, setting homes on fire and killing anyone who stands in their way.
“Our people’s livelihoods are being destroyed by these bandits who kill and take away their animals,” Dodo Oroji, chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), told IRIN.
Accurate numbers are hard to gauge as many thefts go unreported, but the association estimates that at the current rate Nigeria will lose around 40 million cows to rustling over the next two years.
Most attacks occur in remote villages, close to forested regions in the northwest where there is little security presence.
Some rustlers, however, have become more brazen. Former vice president Namadi Sambo, for example, lost more than 1,000 cows to rustlers during one raid last year.
Like Amina, most of the victims depend on these animals as their main source of income. Instead of depositing their money in banks, farming families often save their profits by investing in livestock.
Though the big money comes from selling the animals during holidays or religious festivals, the animals are also used to plough fields and transport produce to and from market. Cow’s milk can also be sold daily to earn a little extra, while the dung is a key component of fertiliser for many farmers.
Without the animals, crop yields are also expected to suffer. Once the cattle are gone, it can take years to build up a sizeable herd again. Many find it is impossible to recover financially.
For all these reasons, many men are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect their cows. So as the raids have become more deadly, many families are also losing their main breadwinner.
Britain’s Department for International Development estimates that the sale of Nigerian animal skins and meat amounts to more than $800 million in foreign revenue each year. It warns that unless the rustlers are stopped, the economy in the north of the country could be crippled.
“People are afraid to venture into the cattle business because of the increase in rustling across the northern region,” Abdiel Kude, executive director of the Global Community Prime Initiative, a local NGO that promotes livestock farming, told IRIN. “If people don’t want to venture into the business because they are not sure of getting good profits, it becomes a problem.”
MACBAN’s Oroji said many farmers and herdsmen have begun migrating to neighbouring countries to keep their animals safe. This not only drains money away from Nigeria but it also uproots families.
"Their migration affects the education of their children," Oroji explained. "When they migrate, the children will be out of school, and because the parents spend more time rearing their animals they have no time to enrol the children in another school.”
Following a recent spate of attacks in Bimin Gwari, a town a few kilometres outside Kaduna’s main city, regional officials met in July to form a joint security operation to drive the rustlers out. It ended up recovering around 2,000 stolen cattle and arresting a number of suspected rustlers.
“Already, our joint security personnel have begun operations in these forests that link our states, but we need to deploy more troops to that area to stop the criminals from terrorising our people in the villages,” Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai told IRIN.
Nigerian authorities are now working with neighbouring countries to prevent the cross-border sale of stolen cattle and to return any stolen animals to their rightful owners.
Officials from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger are also discussing ways to address the underlying causes. These include diminishing grazing lands, conflicts between nomads and farmers, and ethno-religious tensions between the various tribes. But the principal cause of the insecurity allowing the rustlers to operate with a sense of impunity is the hardest to address: the Boko Haram insurgency.
For more on a related story, see: Cattle rustling and the politics of business in Kenya