In the ’50s the Michael Okpara government of Eastern Nigeria had farm settlements. Farmers lived in those settlements close to their farmlands and there were facilities in the settlements that supported family life. They had water and electricity. Schools and dispensaries were not far away. In some parts of the former Eastern Region, those buildings are still there eventhough they have deteriorated, but they remain valuable relics of an era that people talk about with nostalgia. In those days there were no clashes between sedentary farmers and nomadic herdsmen. The nomadic herdsmen simply took their cattle through bushes that were not under cultivation because, at that time, most of the crop farmers were doing shifting cultivation. They would only return to the last farm after four or five years when nature would have restored the land to a state of rich, cultivatable space again. But there has been enormous pressure on land because the country’s population is growing; people are acquiring available land for residential and industrial purposes. Land is not expanding. It is shrinking. In the northern parts of the country, there has been a large measure of desertification and a low amount of reforestation; there are conflicts especially the Boko Haram insurgency, which have driven people away from their homes and left the land unavailable for cattle rearing. In addition, it is obvious that there has been some level of migration from some West African states by herders in search of fodder and water for their cattle. This has compounded the problems of the local herdsmen in Nigeria who have had to migrate southwards in search of fodder and water for their cattle.
This migration has come with adverse consequences for the farmers as their crops get destroyed in the process. Because of the easy availability of arms in the world and the general insecurity in Nigeria today, these herdsmen whose only equipment used to be sticks and water bottles now carry sophisticated guns as part of their work tools. Wherever they meet with confrontation as they search for grass and water, they do not hesitate in employing violence. This has led to an upsurge of violence in the North Central region and some parts of the South West and South East. It is estimated that, in 2016 alone, about 2,500 persons were killed during these conflicts between nomadic herders and sedentary food and cash crop farmers. Not only have people been killed in large numbers, farms have also been destroyed in the process. The audacity of the migrating herdsmen can be measured by the fact that, even in the heart of Ondo State, a prominent man like Chief Olu Falae, former Secretary of the Government of the Federation and former presidential candidate in the 1999 elections, was kidnapped by herders. They destroyed his farm and held him captive for several weeks.
These clashes have been very bloody in various states, including Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, Taraba, Enugu, Imo, Ondo, and Ekiti.
Before the clashes reached volcanic proportions, the Federal Government had been toying with different approaches towards resolving the problem. However, none of the proposals, namely, cattle colony, ranching and now Ruga settlement, has been generally accepted as the right pill for this headache. The reasons for the failure are not far to seek. One, officials of the Federal Government involved in resolving this crisis do not understand that land is every person’s valuable resource, it is in fact life. You can hardly do anything as a person without the use of land. But the officials of the Federal Government think that since they are trying to solve a problem that has consumed many lives any method that can lead to its resolution is fine. Land in Nigeria is vested in the state governors and, irrespective of differences in political complexion, any effort at resolving it ought to receive the consent of state governors. From the verbal clashes between some governors and implementing officials of the Federal Government, it is obvious that there has not been enough consultation or even consultation at all that would have ensured the buy-in of the governors on this ticklish project. The truth is that, no matter how useful a proposal is, you cannot impose it on people in a democracy. You have to confer with them, iron out the grey areas and ensure that everyone involved speaks with one voice.
Two, in Nigeria, we seem to believe, like the IMF, that one size fits all. But one size cannot fit all in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country like Nigeria. The failure to recognise the country’s diversity is part of the problem. We seem to think, quite erroneously, that everything must be done uniformly, irrespective of the obvious idiosyncracies in the system. It is futile to think that whatever is good for the North must be good for the South and vice-versa. Cattle rearing is predominantly a Fulani, or in a larger sense, a northern occupation. In the southern states, most people involved in agriculture are either food crop or cash crop farmers or both. They hardly rear cattle either in a nomadic or static fashion. Therefore, a policy that is aimed at bringing the current hostility to an end must incorporate the desires and the fears of all the constituent groups and stakeholders. This has not been the case in these various proposals, otherwise the sharp criticisms that trail these policies would not have occurred. Even the chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, APC member and Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, recently said that no outsider can take Ekiti land. That is very revealing because the impression has been given or gained that the governors had given their consent.
This ticklish matter deserved, and still deserves, a more wide-ranging involvement of most stakeholders. The governors may statutorily have power over all lands in their domain but they cannot give out land to “outsiders” except their citizens agree. There are very strong socio-cultural groups such as PANDEF, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere, the Middle Belt Forum and various other groups that have a resonant voice in matters affecting their zones. Land matters are not things to treat casually. Various communities in Nigeria have fought wars over land. The soil under our feet contains a lot of assets, exploited or unexploited and so no one who has a piece of land will be ready to relinquish it without understanding the terms under which he is doing so.
Three, the Fulani herdsmen as represented by their umbrella organisation, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), have not earned the support of most people in the communities where they want to do business. For starters, their business is their business and they have to do it in the way and manner other persons do their own business with respect to the rights of other people. I have watched some of the spokesmen of MACBAN on television and read their statements in the newspapers. My conclusion is that they are afflicted by the disease called insufferable arrogance. They seem to operate under the illusion of a sense of entitlement. Well, President Muhammadu Buhari is a member of their ethnic stock but he is above all the President of Nigeria. It would be inhuman for Buhari not to have sympathy for his Fulani brothers but they ought not to put him in a situation where he feels compelled to plead their cause while they go about destroying people’s farms and killing their owners. They ought, by their behaviour, to make it easy for him and his officials to plead their cause without causing a national furore. They must be reminded that they are doing their own private businesses just as other businessmen are doing. The argument ought to be that they should negotiate by themselves with land owners for land utilisation in their business and not depend on the Federal Government to fund their businesses for them. I believe that the Federal Government is thinking more about the resolution of the conflict and what benefits the country can get from the meat value chain. I understand that the Ruga settlement is modeled after the one in Tanzania. It seems to be a good idea but the transplantation of ideas from one jurisdiction to another is always a problem. It is always a problem because the devil is always in the details. Northern Nigeria alone has enough land to take care of the estimated 26 million heads of cattle in Nigeria.
More than 60 per cent of Nigeria’s land is in the north and by today’s technology in cattle breeding the herders do not need more land than is available in the north. The era of nomadic cattle rearing is over and the herdsmen must be so told. They must learn to reform their livestock management practices, curb cross-border movements so that they can do their business in peace.
Every farmer in Nigeria has problems. While drought and desertification have affected the business of cattle rearing in the north, extreme rain and flood have also affected the business of food and cash crop farming in the south. Farmers in both north and south have to learn to manage their problems without inconvenience to the other. If the government wants to assist any group in the country it must pay attention to the problems of diversity, fairness and a sense of justice to all concerned. It is a good idea that the Ruga settlement plan has been suspended. If it is to be revived, it should only be done with the states that feel comfortable with it. In matters of this nature there can be no uniformity. That is the only path to peace.