By Sunday Ani
Comments emanating from different quarters in the country and the recent pronouncements by governors in Nigeria, are all pointing to the fact that the days of open grazing of cattle may have come to an end.
Open grazing of cattle is an age-long culture of the Fulani. They move their cattle all the way from the North down to the Southern parts of the country in search of green fields for their cattle to graze in. This practice has led to a series of minor conflicts between the herders and farmers, but in the last two years, the conflicts appear to have assumed a frightening dimension.
At the dawn of 2019, Nigerians woke up to the gory pictures of lacerated and dismembered human parts, following attacks on communities in Benue State by suspected Fulani herdsmen. The trend continued and spread to Taraba and Nasarawa States with the same set of people alleged to have been at the centre of the dastardly act, forcing Nigerians to ask questions as to what could be responsible for such level of human destruction.
It was then the answers emerged that herders, mostly from the Fulani ethnic group, who engage in open grazing and farmers often clashed over the use of fertile land. It was also discovered that a growing population and the effect of climate change were alleged to have exacerbated the plights of herdsmen, as statistics have shown that more than 35 percent of Nigeria’s land is threatened by desertification, particularly in the Northern part of Nigeria. This has pushed the nomadic Fulani inward Southern part of the country in search of grazing land.
This development gave birth to varying schools of thought on the menace. While some attribute the incessant clashes between the traditional Fulani herdsmen and the pastoralists to the scramble for land, others are quick to conclude that the crisis has more to do with religion.
Those who argue that the quest for land is responsible for the unending clashes blame the herdsmen for intruding into people’s farms to graze with their cattle, thereby destroying their means of livelihood. They can’t fathom why the herders would deliberately move their cattle into people’s farms and eat up every crop, and even kill anybody that challenges them.
This school of thought has always supported its position with arrogant statements by some Fulani, particularly the Myetti Allah, that everything belongs to Allah, including every piece of land and not to the host communities, in this case the farmers.
However, those who hold the view that the clashes have religious undertone are quick to point to some communities and towns in Kaduna and Plateau States where the indigenous people’s magnanimity and accommodating spirit have turned out to be their albatross. In such places, they argue that the Fulani who were given land to graze their cattle eventually waged war against the people, subdued them and enthroned Islamic religion in such places.
However, much as proponents of increasing population and desertification occasioned by climate change would push their argument to convince Nigerians, the recent activities of the herdsmen in the Southern parts of the country, particularly in the South West and Edo State, South-South Nigeria, has equally provided a strong support base to those who argue that the problem goes beyond land for grazing.
Before 2015, the invaders were believed to be active in Southern Kaduna and Plateau State. Today, they are in the forests of every geopolitical zone in the South and Middle-Belt maiming, killing, stealing, raping women, kidnapping innocent citizens, destroying farmlands and committing all kinds of atrocities.
The Yoruba in the South West have recently been under heavy attacks by the herdsmen who have been riding roughshod over them. They invade their farms, recklessly destroy their crops and kill or maim anybody that challenges them for their dastardly act. The entire landscape in the South West seems to have been under siege by the criminal herdsmen as they kidnap people for ransom, and ruthlessly rape women even without any provocation.
In the South-South and South East, the story is not any better as the people no longer go to farm for fear of being attacked by the herdsmen. The women from these zones equally avoid all forms of farm work for fear of being raped and even killed by the same set of herders. The resultant effect of this act is that over the last two years, the people, majority of who are subsistence farmers and who rely on proceeds from their farms for survival have been suffering hunger and starvation.
Yet, there are other Nigerians, who believe that the government has not offered any concrete plan towards solving the problem, aside from making promises and such political statements as condemning the wanton destruction of lives and property, incessant kidnapping and raping of women each time they occur.
The Federal Government has come under heavy attacks by some Nigerians who believe that it has not lived up to its constitutional responsibility of protecting the lives and property of Nigerians. They noted that the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) has ranked the Fulani herdsmen as the fourth most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, yet the Federal Government has bluntly refused to recognise them even as security threat, let alone aligning with the GTI’s rating. The Federal Government prefers to see the herdsmen issue as herders/farmers clashes rather than an act of terrorism. They argue that rather than tackle the criminal herdsmen head-on, the government has always defended them by advocating the allocation of lands for pastures to cattle herders. They insist that the government’s plan in the past to establish a cattle colony or Ruga, was just a ploy to seize people’s ancestral land and hand them over to the marauding herdsmen.
A look at the top 15 countries that exported the highest dollar value worth of milk in 2019, showed Nigeria conspicuously missing on the list, yet herders cause mayhem everywhere in Nigeria, spilling blood of the innocent in the name of cattle rearing.
The countries include New Zealand with US$6.3 billion; Germany – $2.9 billion; Netherlands – $2.4 billion; United States – $1.9 billion; Belgium – $1.8 billion; France – $1.7 billion and Hong Kong – $980.5 million. Others are Australia – $891.5 million; Poland: $824.2 million; United Kingdom – $800.9 million; Ireland – $658.5 million; Belarus – $571.4 million; Saudi Arabia – $507 million; Denmark – $463.7 million and Spain – $462.3 million.
However, the evil activities of the herdsmen got to a point where they would invade people’s home and even rape their wives and daughters while their husbands helplessly watch. Criminal elements disguised as herdsmen have occupied most of the forests in the Southern part of the country, from where they launch kidnap attacks on innocent travellers along major highways. They collect ransom running into millions of Naira, with which they eventually acquire more arms to advance their criminal activities.
Today, all over Nigeria, herdsmen are synonymous with kidnapping, banditry, robbery and raping among other criminalities.
Their reign of terror in the South West particularly in Ondo State seems to be the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Their nefarious activities in the state forced the state governor, Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN) to give them an ultimatum to quit the forest reserve in the state or be registered with the government. The governor’s move was to enable the state government to separate the genuine herders from the criminal elements. But, as usual, some people in the North, including the Myetti Allah, threatened fire and brimstone if the governor’s order was carried out. They threatened to quit all the Yoruba in the North if Gov Akeredolu did not rescind his decision.
This response by some elements in the North gave more credence to many people’s suspicion that the herdsmen had other plans apart from grazing their cattle. And to ensure that such ulterior plans do not come to fruition, the entire South West governors, rising from their meeting in Akure, the Ondo State capital, banned all forms of open grazing in the region.
However, the Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi, who noted that the meeting was due to the exigencies of the present challenges of insecurity in the country, assured the herdsmen that they were not asked to leave Ondo State but to only get proper registration.
Following the footstep of their counterparts in the West, the South-East governors, under the aegis of Southeast Governors’ Forum, also banned open grazing of cattle within the region, and asked the security agencies to flush out criminals from all the forests in the region.
Chairman of the Forum and Ebonyi State Governor, David Umahi, said the Southeast Governors’ Forum had also banned the movement of cows by foot and enjoined leaders to exhibit patriotism in their conduct to guarantee the unity of the country.
As if steps by the governors of the two regions unveiled the blindfold which over the years had imprisoned the country’s sense of reasoning, the governors of the 19 Northern states, under the Northern Governors Forum, in a surprise move also banned open grazing of cattle, saying it was no longer sustainable. Their position was also sequel to a series of clashes between herders and farmers across the country. They called for intensive sensitization of herdsmen to adopt modern methods of cattle rearing.
The apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo has also lent its voice to the raging argument, describing open grazing as an ill wind that will do Nigeria no good.
Aside the South-South governors that have not made an official, unanimous pronouncement on the matter, every other governor in Nigeria is in tacit support of the ban on open grazing. This development has been generating reactions from Nigerians.
The former governor of Anambra State, Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife expressed happiness about the ban, saying “for the Western, Eastern and Northern governors to agree that anachronism should be left in the past gives me hope that Nigeria can be saved. Ancient history is ancient history. Nomadic rearing of cattle is ancient history”
Spokesman of the Afenifere Renewal Group, Dr. Yinka Odumakin said the ban was a popular move, even as he noted that open grazing had been banned since 1969 by a court pronouncement.
He expressed doubt on the preparedness of the Northern governors to implement the ban.
He also insisted that unless the president makes a pronouncement in line with what the governors have said, the herdsmen would continue to disturb the peace of the country with their nefarious activities.
Foremost Niger Delta activist and coordinator of Ijaw Monitoring Group, Comrade Joseph Evah, said the ban would encourage grass farming in the South and boost the local economy of the country.
He noted that the culture of just grazing cows has long changed from what it used to be as the herders go about maiming, killing people and raping women under the guise of grazing.
The National President of Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Alhaji Yerima Shettima commended the governors for finding a solution to the problem of incessant herders/farmers clashes across the country.
National Publicity Secretary of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Chief Alex Chidozie Ogbonna described the ban as a welcome development, saying he predicted long ago that open grazing would end the way it is ending now.
But, for the former deputy speaker of Jigawa State House of Assembly, Yawale Abdul Yankwashi, the governors should not have banned open grazing now; they should have waited to provide an alternative before doing that. “These people are Nigerians and they have the right to live anywhere in the country. At least, an alternative will have to be provided before banning,” he said.
So from all indications, the days of open grazing of cattle in Nigeria are numbered.