•Suspected herders razed our 75-hectare rice farms, says farmer
Mr. Diamond Ojonugwa is a sad and angry man. The Benue State-based farmer is unhappy and aggrieved that some devilish people he suspected to be marauding herdsmen or insurgents dealt a big blow to him and his agricultural investments in the state.
Indeed, one month after his rice farms worth over a hundred million naira were allegedly razed, Ojonugwa still finds it difficult to believe that all he laboured for in more that 10 years was wiped out in a few minutes.
Ojonugwa is the CEO of Umuezerugo Royal Agro Tradings Limited, with headquarters in Makurdi, the Benue State capital. He said the incident has plunged him and his partners into huge debts. He could not fathom the next step to take to offset his debt or how to convince his partners to re-invest in the business, since there is still fear of more attacks across the state.
With high hopes, the farmers had, last year, toiled away on 75 hectares of land at different locations spread across Shanguheya, Tyhun, Ihea in Gwe-West Naka local government areas, as well as Aghasha in Guma LGA, but, unknown to them, their expectations would be shattered by men with evil intentions.
Narrating the sad development to the reporter, he said everything was in order and his entire team was set for a bumper harvest in January. But the clashes between herdmen and community residents, which enveloped a better part of Benue, disrupted their plans. Unfortunately, the areas where their farms were sited were some of the worst hit. While they were praying, waiting and hoping for the security situation to improve, he got the news that his farms had been razed by faceless persons.
“Our experts had told us last year September to expect, at least, N2 million sales from each hectare of our farm. When we further projected our expenditure, we pegged our expectation at a minimum of N100 million. All our partners were happy after receiving the information. That was expected because they had invested much in it.
“When I received the news of the attacks in the second week of February, it appeared that I was daydreaming. We hurried down to all the four farms, and, behold, it was the same shocking story all over,” he said.
Ojonugwa told Daily Sun that none of his labourers and other farmers was present at any of the farms when the disaster struck. He said they had all scampered to safety from the different farm settlements to the townships in the heat of the crisis. As a result, he could not tell the particular dates the farms were burnt.
He said: “I cannot also tell exactly whether it was herdsmen or terrorists who burnt our farms. Up till this moment, no report has been released by the security agencies to unveil those who were behind the destruction. We hear different stories every day and there are suspicions here and there. I believe it is the duty of the police to unravel what might have transpired and those behind it.
“My fear now is that there is new information on the ‘Operation Cat Race’ launched by the Army in Benue and Taraba states to end the endless clashes between farmers and herdsmen as well as other related criminal activities in the areas. We heard that it is not really an operation but a mere exercise for the military men to simply familiarise themselves with the nook and crannies of the states.”
He is pleading with the state and federal governments to find a lasting solution to the recurring clashes, which have claimed many lives and left others with permanent injuries. He maintained that there would not be development in an atmosphere of rancour.
Ojonugwa lamented that Benue had almost become a shadow of itself due to the havoc caused by the evil men behind the attacks in the state. According to him, more than 80 per cent of the state’s population, who depend on farming for survival, had been forced to abandon their farms. He said many people, who operated as subsistence farmers, were also affected, leaving them at the risk of hunger.
While describing the situation of the farmers as terrible and pathetic, he stated that, if the authorities did not rise quickly to stem the tide, the motto of the state as the “food basket of the nation” would become meaningless.
Hear him: “To those who lost their crops, they are in danger of hunger, and many others who operate as commercials farmers currently owe those who invested in their businesses.
“The challenges are, how will they go back to their farms and who is ready to invest in this unsafe zone for these people to start life all over again? In our own case, the Umuezerugo Royal Farms is deeply indebted to companies and individuals that invested in the farm. We don’t know how to settle the debt and return to farm.
“The herdsmen’s destructive activities are complicated and require genuine investigation to identify clearly who these terrorist groups are. The questions are, are they truly herdsmen or impersonators or foreigners as the Federal Government and other top government officials have said? And if they are terrorists, who are those sponsoring them and their aims? The atrocities and continuous threat to life by this band of killers are worth the investigation, if there is no political foul play underground.
“So many lives and property have gone. The 73 bodies buried in Makurdi in one day and the recent nine, the two civil defence men and the missing policemen found dead are just the number of the casualties found. Many corpses are yet to be located, family members are still missing, crops were burnt in the farms, stores, barns and warehouses. We could have harvested our rice before they were burnt down, but no labourer was ready to go to the farm settlements to risk their lives, even when one of our partners promised to guide them with some soldiers. They all ran away and we became stranded till the perpetrators launched the attack,” Ojonugwa said.
He said three of his purchasing agents, who bought soya beans and other crops were killed in the New Year Day attack and many of his staff lost their houses in the attack on Wadata area in Makurdi, prompting many of the victims to return to their villages.
Ojonugwa, who hails from Kogi State, said he was born into farming and had lived his life as a farmer but had never suffered such a huge loss. He still maintains that Benue, with its endowed natural resources, especially the arable land mass, remains the most suitable place to produce different variety of food crops for the country and beyond.
He is of the opinion that the local vigilance group is more reliable in combating every terrorist group and the like. He called for more reorientation and empowerment for the security agencies as well as allocation of more funds to their operations for better performance.
“I want government at all levels to do away with politics on this; be fair and sincere to residents of Benue on this issue. Fulani herdsmen or cattle rearers have a modern way of doing their business called cattle ranching. It is healthier and safer for the cattle business itself. Proposing colonies and grazing routes or whatever it is is simply an attempt to cause more crises. The governor of Kano State has called on the herders to come to the state, that there is enough space to accommodate even a million of them with their cattle to avoid these frequent clashes with members of the communities,” he said.
Ojonugwa pleaded with all stakeholders in the agriculture sector to lend their voices to the issue so that the needful would be done to address the issue once and for all. He emphasised that the sector could not be ignored, pointing out that it was the engine room of the economy and the future of Nigeria.