African Pastoralism in the New Millennium

By Lane, Charles | UN Chronicle, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

African Pastoralism in the New Millennium


Lane, Charles, UN Chronicle


No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12

It is timely that on the eve of this millennium we consider what the next one might bring to pastoralists in Africa. If for no other reason, it is because around 20 million pastoralists form a significant proportion of Africa's total population and perhaps make up the majority of people in the arid lands. At the same time, they also constitute a minority internationally and a part of the diversity that is mankind. They have distinct cultures, with intrinsic value, and are rich with knowledge about the livestock they tend and the environments they inhabit. Their lands include some of the greatest geography on earth. Their demise will be our loss. Their future is our future, just as much as our future is theirs.

For most of the last thousand years, pastoralists were able to enjoy a way of life that sustained and enabled them to recover from the calamities that can befall those living in the climatic margins. At the height of their powers, for example, they once dominated the entire length of eastern Africa's Great Rift valley, built the Great Zimbabwe and controlled the inner Niger delta in West Africa.

Today, they are impoverished and forced to eke out a living on a diminishing resource base and at risk of being dislocated altogether from their lands.

What has changed and why have pastoralists fallen from ascendancy? Is it inevitable that pastoralism as a means of production is to be lost? Must pastoralists adopt another way of life? What will become of them if they do? Is there an alternative to their demise? If so, what will that be?

Only with time can these question be answered. But with the new millennium impending, we have a motivation to reflect on what is happening to pastoralists, so that we can ensure that the changes that will inevitably come in the next millennium do not inflict injustice and will in sonic way enrich us all.

At the beginning of the second millennium, most pastoralists in Africa were expanding their territories. It is uncertain what encouraged them to move from their traditional lands in the north to conquer others further south. It is possible that as the northern areas became drier they sought greener pastures. It can also be assumed that the success of their production based on livestock herding led to population increases to the point when new pastures were required. Whatever, they moved to lands where they prospered and formed friendly and productive alliances with farmers, fishermen and townsfolk all over Africa.

Pastoralism in the past was highly successful in sustaining people in adverse conditions. It has formed a robust livestock economy, serving distant markets that many non-pastoral peoples relied on. At the time, pastoralists were in the ascendancy; they were relatively numerous, mobile and well organized, with a whole stratum of society responsible for increasing livestocks, expanding pastures and protecting society as a whole. The warriors were fearless and used their weapons of spear and sword with great effect. They competed with each other and replenished their herds by stealing livestock from anyone who was not closely related. They were much feared and a legacy of prejudice from those times persists to this day.

At the turn of the last century, their expansion stopped. Europeans entered Africa for commerce and conquest, and as colonial Powers imposed a kind of peace that confined pastoralists to the areas they are linked with today, political boundaries were marked which bore no relationship to local ecologies. Independent countries have largely retained their borders and often acted to restrict pastoralist migrations. …

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