Written by the Editorial board of The Guardian Newspaper
With the incessant clashes between herdsmen and farmers across the country, Nigeria appears headed for another crisis, this time on too many fronts and with such devastating effect as could engulf the whole nation. The recent massacre in Agatu in Benue State and killings in Gassaka and Bali local government areas of Taraba State coupled with the earlier kidnap of a former Secretary to Government of the Federation, Chief Olu Falae as well as the killing of one of his security guards by herdsmen upped the anxiety. Two days ago in Nimbo, Enugu State, 46 persons at the last count were butchered by the herdsmen. Now, the whole nation is in tears. Indeed, the matter has become such as can threaten the corporate entity called Nigeria. And if there is any time when President Muhammadu Buhari would ever be called upon to see this as a national emergency, it is now.
So many temporary solutions, including laws, are already being proposed. It is important to note from the beginning that a bill entitled: ‘An Act to Provide for the Establishment of The National Grazing Reserve (Establishment and Development) Commission for the Preservation and Control of National Grazing Reserves and Stock Routes and Other Matters Connected Therewith’ sponsored by Hajiya Zainab Kure, who represented Niger South constituency of Niger State in the Seventh Assembly is not before the National Assembly. Given its odious content bordering on internal colonisation, it was dead on arrival and did not see the light of the day as it was resisted by the former House of Representatives.
The one being proposed by Hon. Dickson Tarkighir from Benue is on ranching and yet to be presented to the House. Its objectives among others include “to alter our husbandry practices towards cattle to ensure more productivity and profitability of cattle business as well as lead to trading in the cattle exports markets with a view to improving on the country’s trade balance; boost the beef industry and contribute to diversifying our economy while also halting the clashes between our farmers and our herders.” The bill entitled, “An Act To Create a Department of Cattle Ranches under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture or Any Such Ministry Overseeing the Production And Rearing of Livestock Including Cattle and For Other Matters Related Thereto, 2015”, specifically wants “The Creation of a Department of Cattle Ranches Under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture or any such ministry overseeing the production and rearing of livestock including Cattle.”
The Department of Cattle Ranches shall perform functions which among others include to “Facilitate and or sanction the lease or sale of land by persons, communities, Local, State and Federal Governments for the purpose of Cattle ranches and inspect the establishment of ranches; register and issue ranching permits to all cattle ranches.” The bill, by no means empowers the Federal Government to alienate land by fiat for herdsmen. Happily enough, some state leaders like Governor Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo State have kicked against any such grazing zone law, saying it would contradict the Land Use Act.
Nevertheless, there are still fundamental issues that the killings by the herdsmen raise and which must be addressed immediately. Given the sadistic patterns of killings by the herdsmen, not a few believe that there is something more sinister going on than mere clashes between farmers and cattle rearers. Fears are already being nursed that it might be a guise for insurgents bent on destabilising the country. And the resort to the use of sophisticated arms by the herdsmen in various parts of the country, especially in the South and Middle Belt calls for introspection and a need to act fast.
There is also a dimension of perceived government complicity occasioned by its disturbing silence in the face of killings as well as attempts by its functionaries to downplay the patterned mayhem inflicted by the “herdsmen” on Nigerians. When Agatu killings in Benue took place, the Federal Government and its leadership said little and upon public outrage belatedly ordered a probe. For example, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Lt. General Abdulrahman Dambazau even blamed social media users for aggravating the herdsmen/farmers’ conflicts while the Director of the DSS, sought to present the herdsmen as the victims, ignoring obvious and cumulative atrocious acts they had perpetrated. And today, a global terrorism index has named the herdsmen as the fifth deadliest terror group in the world.
A more sinister twist is that the Federal Government may be set to resuscitate the grazing reserve bill by other means. The president’s instruction to the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh to set up 50, 000 hectares of grazing reserves within six months, first in the north, before moving to the south is indicative. It is in fact akin to sections 21 (1) (2) of the old grazing bill which would have given power to a National Grazing Commission to acquire lands for grazing reserves and stock routes.
The desire of the herdsmen to have boundless access to grazing fields across Nigeria is certainly unacceptable. The Federal Government must be told in clear terms that it has no power to alienate lands from the people, for state governments hold land in trust for the people. The point should also be made that cattle herding business is a private enterprise. The so-called nomads are mere individuals in the employ of big cattle owners. Need it be said that contemporary cattle business is done through ranching. Besides, Nigeria is a federal state and not a garrisoned centralised government to be ruled at the whims and caprices of a particular group. Any such move would only raise further tension in the polity and create an all-round instability.
The continuing invasion of the farmers’ land, however, may soon lead to famine while the unending kidnapping, raping and killings by the same herdsmen may result in a backlash of catastrophic dimensions. Indeed, with the influx of riffle-wielding herdsmen traversing the length and breadth of the country and the carnage they are inflicting on the nation, there is a basis for comparison with the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur. A statement made by presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu that the southward movement of the herdsmen is as a result of desertification makes it more compelling for Nigerians to appreciate the gravity of the looming crisis and learn the right lessons.
Drought had induced northern Arabs and those from the Chad into Darfur where they sought to displace indigenous southern ethnic groups like the Fur, Masalit and Daju and this led to a series of conflicts in the southern part of Sudan. The Arab government in Khartoum, however, intervened on behalf of the Arab migrants in Darfur through land acquisition and arming of the Janjaweed bandits in ways that undermined the local people. The response of the indigenous groups was to seek self-determination with the formation of armed groups like Sudan Liberation Army/ Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Such impunity as the so-called herdsmen are perpetrating in Nigeria today by wielding automatic weapons and the magnitude of their violent activities without intervention from any arm of security forces, once again, smack of official complicity.
Meanwhile, the country is not short of examples or experience in dealing with the current conflict. The eastern regional government of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in 1951 asked a Scottish rancher to establish the Obudu Cattle Ranch for regional self-sufficiency. This was, of course, aborted by a disoriented ruling clique. Similarly, the government of Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia in the Mid-Western State also established a ranch in Ubiaja and the outcome was the same: it was abandoned.
Today, a few things can still be done. One is the establishment of commercial ranches by businessmen. Argentina, Uruguay and Australia provide excellent lessons in this kind of ranching. State government can support this in their respective states and of course encourage livestock or animal husbandry as part of agriculture. This position even gained support in the 2014 National Conference. For it can create an economy of grass sellers and cattle buyers and such ranches can also free the youths from their nomadic life and provide opportunity for formal education.
Rightly or wrongly, there is already a growing perception of a hidden agenda that borders on territorial conquest and faith imposition. This is not allayed by widespread killing, kidnapping and raping being perpetrated. Suffice to say that to take land from one people and give to another is a recipe for chaos. Land does not belong to government per se, but it is held in trust for the people. Over the ongoing crisis of herdsmen, the present government needs to tread softly and listen to the voice of reason to avoid a crisis that may well be Nigeria’s greatest undoing.