As youth groups mobilise locals against govt action
By Ismail Omipidan, Lagos and Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
The popular Yoruba saying that ‘you don’t shave a man’s head in his absence,’ is apt in describing the action of Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State, who allegedly ceded an island in Idoma land, without the consent of the locals, to Fulani herdsmen, for grazing.
Coming exactly one year after several people were killed with hundreds of houses burnt and farmlands destroyed, following Fulani herdsmen’s invasion of Agatu communities, the locals are seeing the governor’s action as an affront, and a grand design to “depopulate the area, ahead of the 2019 polls.”
After the 2015 herdsmen invasion, which left thousands of the locals stranded, and scattered across Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in the state then, the invading Fulani herdsmen had after sacking the communities, occupied their homes, until the Agatu people managed to reclaim their lands from them.
Saturday Sun learnt that since the communities were liberated from the hands of the herdsmen, the Agatu people have vowed never to allow the Fulanis into their land again.
Ironically, Ortom, who had all along been opposed to the provision of grazing land for the herdsmen anywhere within the boundaries of the state, is being accused of singing a different tune now.
Grazing Bill, the controversies
Following series of violence resulting from clashes between farmers and Fulani herdsmen, the President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, announced its decision to go for grazing reserves across the country.
The then minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina announced on Wednesday, March 25, 2014 a decision of the National Economic Council (NEC) to set up a committee to work out modalities for establishing the grazing reserves. NEC, at the time was chaired by the then Vice-President, Namadi Sambo.
According to the minister, grazing reserves would help to check the smuggling of arms and ammunition across Nigeria’s borders by foreigners who come into the country under the guise of being herdsmen, adding that “issues such as increasing population of cattle, coupled with influx of foreign cattle from Nigeria’s neighboring countries, as well as urbanization, resource degradation, were behind the need for the new government policy. We have a rising population of livestock, not only in Nigeria, but also from our neighboring countries. A lot of animals are coming in from Chad and several other places leading to a large population that our current capacity cannot cope with.”
But after the administration was sacked in May 2015, nothing was heard concerning the bill. However, some Nigerians kept insisting that a certain bill of that nature was already before the Senate. The Senate was forced to react to the story, as it came out to say mid last year that there was no such bill before it.
However, by November last year, the bill, resurfaced on the floor of the Senate. But it also suffered setback, as it was stood down for discussion and further deliberation.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso, APC, Kano Central, is entitled “A Bill for an Act to provide for the Establishment of grazing Areas Management Agency and for Other Related Matters, 2016.” It could not scale through the second reading, as the Senate opted for setting up a standing mediation committee in all participating states and local government areas, with a view to mediating between the parties and for other related matters.
Interestingly, on the same day, the lawmakers also stood down two other bills. The first was seeking for an Act to provide for the establishment of National Ranches Commission for the regulation, management, preservation and control of ranches and for connected purposes. It was sponsored by Senator Barnabas Gemade, APC, Benue North East.
The second was seeking for an Act to control the keeping and movement of cattle in Nigeria and for related matters. It wassponsored by Senator Chukwuka Utazi, PDP, Enugu North.
According to the Senate, its decision to reject the three bills was informed by the fact that the contents were not uniform, and that the National Assembly has no powers to legislate on livestock matters, since it was neither in the exclusive list nor the concurrent list.
Ortom’s initial stance
He had in May last year, reiterated his strong opposition to the idea, while reacting to a media report , credited to his Plateau state counterpart, Simon Lalong, to the effect that he (Ortom) had agreed to host grazing reserves in Benue State.
In a statement issued by his Special Adviser on Media and ICT, Tahav Agerzua, the governor had among other things said: “…just as I keep emphasizing, people who propose that we should do grazing areas and grazing routes, I tell them, yes, it can be done in other states, maybe. I don’t know, we are governors of various states, but in Benue there is no free land, or is there any land anywhere for grazing? The truth is that, in the 50s when cattle routes were carved and areas were designated for grazing, the total population of Nigeria as at then was less than 40 million. By 2012 projection, Nigeria’s population was over 170 million and by this year, it may hit more than 200 million. And likewise Benue State, we were less than a million people in the 50s. Today, we are over six million and we have farms and so there is nowhere that you can go and identify 10 hectares of land that is empty that people can go in and graze. There is nowhere in this state. I’m a farmer, four years ago when I wanted to acquire 500 hectares of land in my own village; it’s one of the remotest in this state where we believe that there is land. I went there and I had to settle more than 100 people to acquire the 500 hectares. So that is the challenge, the land is no longer there, the land that used to be, in the 50s, 923, 000 square kilometers is still the same land that we have and today in 2017 the land is even less but the population has grown.”
But by January this year, the governor told the Agatu people to allow “the herdsmen come in to graze and live with you. They are your brothers. Let peace reign.”
The governor, who had visited Agatu, alongside his counterpart from Nasarawa State, Tanko Al-Makura, tried without success to persuade the Agatu people, into allowing the herdsmen to graze within their community.
Although, at the meeting, which was attended by the locals, the locals voiced out their opposition to the proposal, the Benue tate governor and his Nasarawa counterpart, went ahead to sign the purported agreement, ceding part of Agatu, to the herdsmen, for grazing.
In the communiqué, after the meeting, which was made public on Thursday, January 19, 2017, and read by Ortom himself, the governor said both parties agreed to designate Oguto-Adanyi-Ogumagbo-Bagana, adding that “the above privilege is only granted to indigenous Fulani herdsmen, who were known to the Agatu people before the crisis. This is to forestall the destruction of farms and exhaustion of available green pasture.”
Curiously, even though the purported peace and reconciliation meeting was held on a Wednesday, January 18, 2017, the purported communiqué, signed by the two governors, was dated Thursday, January 21, 2017, whereas the said date fell on a Saturday. Saturday Sun gathered that the communiqué had been prepared, even before the said Agatu meeting.
Agatu people fault agreement
But just while the Fulanis were celebrating the feat, the Agatu people seem to be vehemently opposed to it.
Already, their representative at the House of Representatives, Ochepo Entonu, has submitted a petition from 17 communities in Agatu to the House, over the matter. And while laying the petition, signed by leaders of the 17 communities from Agatu, penultimate Thursday, the lawmaker declared that his constituents have vowed to oppose the take-over of their ancestral land by the herdsmen, by force.
Warning of possible danger
Entonu, further said: “We have to alert the world early before we witness mayhem in Agatu land because Agatu Local Government Caretaker Committee Chairman and some irrelevant self-acclaimed stakeholders in connivance with Benue State governor recently entered into despicable transactions to cede our community to herdsmen for grazing.
“This despicable act of ceding Agatu lands to Fulani herdsmen through the illegal agreement is a dangerous act capable of causing mayhem in the community.
“It is therefore imperative to state categorically that the entire people of Agatu and the 10 district heads are calling the attention of security agencies and the Federal Government to quickly intervene before this hideously contrived conspiracy to exterminate the people of Agatu becomes a reality. Let me also remind the House that our people are yet to recover from the last Fulani herdsmen attack in June last year,” cautioning that the entire Agatu community was uptight and ready to protect its land and people.
Speaking in the same vein, the member representing Agatu state constituency at the Benue state House of Assembly, Alhaji Sule Audu, in a chat with Saturday Sun recently insisted that no part of Agatu would be ceded to the Fulanis.
Audu who posited that the Agatu people have not provided any land for grazing to Fulani cows on their land, noted that the peace pact that was signed clearly stipulated that Fulanis are not to be seen in Agatu until after harvest at the end of February, stressing that the current occupation of Fulanis in Adapati community of Agatu was completely illegal.
State lawmaker backs Ortom
Unlike Entonu, state lawmaker Audu, came in defence of Governor Samuel Ortom, insisting that no part of Agatu had been ceded for grazing, just as he maintained that his people were solidly behind the governor’s call for ranching.
“It is only when Agatu people have completely ended their harvest at the end of February that Agatu people can now consider those Fulanis who had lived in Agatu for many years and are known by the Agatu people to come back. The focus now is how to rebuild Agatu.
“We are completely against the ceding of any Agatu land for grazing and the route that was approved for Fulanis for grazing did not include Adanyi and Ogumogbo. It was a mistake they appeared in the communique. Fulani should not attempt to enter any part of Agatu land for now,” Audu, declared.
Fulani leader defends position
On his part, the National Coordinator of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Garus Gololo, who lives in Benue State, said that no Fulani has bought any part of Agatu land, adding that the two governors solicited peace in the area following the worrisome reality of loss of lives on the side of the Fulanis and Agatus in the last five years.
Gololo who, in a telephone chat with Saturday Sun maintained that the peace pact became necessary due to the ongoing construction of the Loko-Oweto Bridge, which passes from Agatu through Nasarawa to Abuja, said: “The Loko-Oweto Bridge has been awarded and the work can be hampered if there is no peace in Agatu since the bridge is passing through Agatu.”
Asked why his people are occupying Adapati Island in Agatu despite signing agreement that they would not come into the place until the end of February, Gololo said his people had not breached the agreement as according to him, “Adapati is not on Agatu land but on Nasarawa land.”
While noting that the Fulanis have taken the agreement very seriously, the MACBAN official insisted that there were people working against the peace pact between the Fulanis and Agatu people to score cheap political points.
He particularly accused the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of fanning the embers of discord in the area to continually pitch the Fulanis against the Agatu people as a way of portraying the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in bad light ahead of the 2019 general election.
Benue govt reacts
Reacting to the development, the Benue State government has dispelled claims that a part of Agatu had been sold out to the Fulani herdsmen through the peace agreement that was signed.
The state governor through his Special Adviser on Media and ICT, Terver Akase, said that such allegations were far from the truth as the government of Benue State has neither ceded land to herdsmen nor conferred indigeneship on any individual or group of persons, as the reports have claimed.
Ortom explained that the decision to allow herdsmen to graze cattle in designated areas in Agatu was jointly made by stakeholders on both Agatu and Fulani sides who have lived together for many decades, both within Benue and Nasarawa communities, stressing that the decision was not imposed on the people by the government.
On his part, the Deputy Governor, Mr. Benson Abounu, reacted thus: “we have investigated that allegation and found it to be completely false. Mike Inalegwu never sold any island to anyone. The place in question is in the middle of River Benue and during the rainy season it’s always covered with water. It cannot, therefore, become a permanent place of abode for anyone.”
Abounu explained further that the agreement to allow cattle of the Fulanis who are known to the Agatu to graze on that piece of land was a temporary arrangement to stop the Fulani men on the Nasarawa bank of the River Benue from crossing over to Agatu settlement area and did not in any way transfer ownership of the island to the Fulani.
He further revealed that arrangement had been made with the Nigerian Army to provide armed soldiers to watch the cows while grazing, in order to prevent further movement from the island, just as he urged the Benue people to have confidence in the government.
“As long as Governor Samuel Ortom and I are at the helm of affairs of this state, not one inch of Benue land will be ceded to anybody. The position of government on the issue of grazing has not changed. Governor Ortom has repeatedly stated that Benue land is for farming and not for uncontrolled grazing and that ranching remains the best solution to the farmers/herdsmen crisis.”