By Femi Falana
Following the tragic killing of 73 people during the violent attack on Logo and Guma in Benue State January 1, 2018, Chief Paul Unongo, a former minister had accused former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of masterminding the crisis since he is a patron of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association. Although Alhaji Abubakar promptly denied the allegation and threatened to institute a libel suit in court the governors of Nasarawa and Plateau states, Governors Tanko Al-Makura and Simon Lalong respectively, have publicly blamed their Benue state colleague, Governor Samuel Ortom for the tragic killing. As far as both governors are concerned, it was the enactment of the Open Grazing Prohibition Law of Benue state which provoked the violent attack.
But the two chief executives did not explain the basis of the reckless killing of farmers in Benue state before the enactment of the law or the incessant killing of hundreds of farmers by herdsmen in other states of the federation. In fact, after the Benue incident, not less than 10 people have been killed by herdsmen in Kaduna state. Apart from the fact that Kaduna state has no anti grazing law Governor Nasir El-Rufai once announced that he had paid an undisclosed sum of money to the herdsmen to stop further killing of unarmed farmers in the state! Even Governor Ortom has not been left out of the blame game. In his presentation to the visiting Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Security the governor said that the authorities in Abuja should be held liable for the crisis for ignoring several warnings of the impending attack. However, upon realizing the futility of blaming the Benue state government over the tragic incident, Governor Lalong has displayed maturity by apologizing for his comments.
But in his reaction to the tragic incident in Benue State, the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and Patron of Miyeti Allah alleged that over 800 Fulani people were brutally killed by ethnic militias in Taraba state in one weekend last year. In denying the allegation the Taraba state government has said that in the violent clash which occurred between the Fulani and Mambilla people in Sadauna last year “both sides suffered casualties and the figure of death from both sides put together was nothing close to genocide.” With respect, the revered Emir ought not to have waited for the killing of 73 people in Benue state before crying out over what he has described as “these acts of ethnic cleansing” by some influential people in Taraba state. We ought to have built a nation whereby the killing of every citizen is viewed as an assault on our collective humanity.
On that note, the Taraba state government and the Nigeria Police Force should ensure the prosecution of all persons indicted by the Justice Nuhu Adi commission of inquiry which investigated the crisis and has since submitted its report to Governor Darius Ishiaku. However, in moments of ethno-religious crises, traditional rulers, political office holders and religious leaders and should desist from making inflammatory statements which are capable of aggravating violence in the society. It is high time the political elite stopped the practice of blaming the victims of injustice in the land. Since the federal government has a legal duty to protect the life and property of every citizen it has failed to put an end to the perennial violent conflicts between farmers and cattle herdsmen which have needlessly claimed many lives and destruction of properties worth several billions of Naira in many states of the federation.
The official negligence of the federal government cannot be justified because, as far back as May 2016, the authorities in Abuja had rightly decided to establish ranches in line with modern practice in civilized countries. The plan was announced by the Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Chief Audu Ogbe at a public hearing organized by the Senate Committees on Agriculture, and National Security and Intelligence on May 3, 2016. On that occasion, the Minister of State, Agriculture, Honourable Heineken Lokpobiri, who represented Chief Audu Ogbe said that as a result of climate change resulting from global warming and desertification, herdsmen had no option than to migrate southwards to find pastures for their animals, which now faced starvation in the North. Mr. Lokpobiri pointed out that nomadic cattle rearing had become obsolete and this was why ranches were a necessity to provide adequate food to the cattle and forestall unnecessary clashes. He further said that with ranches, the livestock would be healthier, more productive, while the herdsmen would avoid unnecessary attacks and would also be able to give their children opportunity to be educated.
On May 30, 2016, Chief Audu Ogbe justified the decision to establish ranches across the country during the National Summit of Traditional Rulers in Nigeria. In his address at the summit the Minister said that the federal government had dropped the idea of acquiring grazing. He allayed the fears of governors who had thought that land in their states would be compulsory acquired when said that “Either way, ranches will not be established on lands extracted from communities, people have to farm in the ranches. In some parts of the North, some governors have given as much as 5,000 hectares of land, some even 10,000 hectares. Our job is to bring the right kind of crops, do the right kind of water source and provide veterinary services because some of these cows have some disease issues. We cannot afford to allow cows and human beings mix the way they are doing now. The essence is to stop the crisis. Too many people have died, there is too much violence in the land, we can’t go on like that. We can’t boast to the rest of the world that we thrive in killing each other. It is not right.”
Having decided to establish ranches the federal government announced that it was determined to disarm the herdsmen. The decision had been announced by the Agriculture Minister, Chief Ogbe in an extensive interview published in the May 4, 2016 edition of the Vanguard newspaper when he said that “The army, the police should find them wherever they are now and take the guns from them as the first step. They carry AK47s on the necks, they tie them around the bellies of the cows, they must be disarmed immediately. But since the federal government has neither established the ranches not disarmed the herdsmen the reign of terror has continued in Benue, Taraba and many other states. Instead of apologizing to the nation for such official negligence the federal government has turned round to compound the crisis by announcing the decision to drop ranches for cattle colonies. Since the volte face is based on the objection of a few powerful cattle owners the federal government has been accused of insincerity in addressing the crisis.
But the federal government is merely playing on words as there is no difference between ranches and cattle colonies. In fact, the arguments of Chief Ogbe for ranches and cattle colonies are the same. In defending the new policy, Chief Ogbe said that “The federal government is planning a programme called cattle colonies, not ranches but colonies, where at least 5000 hectares of land would be made available, adequate water and adequate pasture would be made available. We also want to stop cattle from roaming the streets, farms and other areas as they will henceforth be provided with water and adequate security by the rangers, adequate pasture milk collection and even security against rustlers to enable them live normal life. This has been successfully done in India, Ethiopia and even Brazil.” What Chief Ogbe did not say is that cattle colonies are called ranches in India, Ethiopia and Brazil!
Since the establishment of ranches is in the national interest and in the interest of cattle owners and breeders the federal government should restrain Chief Ogbe from confusing the Nigerian people with his pet project of cattle colonies. Having concluded arrangements to establish ranches the federal government should go ahead and convince the members of the Miyetti Allah to embrace the concept. This should not be a difficult assignment since the concept of ranches has been endorsed by powerful cattle owners and the patrons of Miyetti Allah. For instance, in his passionate defence of the Meyati Allah, Emir Sanusi has blamed the crisis on “failure of political authority, the cynical manipulation of ethnic identity by failed governments and the impotence of our security machinery”. More importantly, the Emir did not hesitate to declare support for all efforts to attract investment into cattle rearing. According to him, “This is global best practice. Capital is put into development of ranches and grazing areas, herdsmen settle. Their cattle are healthier and fatter, they sell their milk products and beef, their children go to school and they are economically much better off. This is what we all want.”
The federal government should immediately enter into dialogue with the patrons and leaders of the Miyetti Allah to work out the logistics for establishing ranches in the states with large scale livestock. It has to be made abundantly clear to the members of the Miyetti Allah that the freedom of movement of herdsmen and their cattle is circumscribed by the rights of farmers to life and property. Furthermore, that no one is authorized to bear weapons and that the killing of any unarmed person in any part of the country is punishable with death. However, not a few people have questioned the wisdom in involving the federal government in the establishment of ranches. But Chief Ogbe has stoutly defended the involvement of the federal government in the establishment of ranches when he said that, “We have spent money on cocoa, rice, groundnut, we have spent money on tomato and other fruits, palm oil, we are doing researches on these and nobody has really done much for the herdsmen and we have forgotten.”
However, until the Miyetti Allah recently announced that it had decided to launch reprisal attacks in Benue and other states wherever the Fulani people are attacked the federal government had given the impression that the armed herdsmen were nationals of Senegal, Mali, Niger and Libya. But whether the herdsmen are Nigerians or foreigners it is indisputable, as Professor Biodun Jeyifo has observed, that this is the first time in the history of Nigeria that any armed group has been allowed to possess arms and ammunition and attack law abiding citizens without any challenge from the neo-colonial State. Of course, the Buhari regime is right in saying that the herdsmen were not disarmed by previous regimes. But having crushed other armed groups in the country the Buhari administration cannot justify the decision to treat the armed herdsmen like sacred cows.
Therefore, it is high time the armed herdsmen were disarmed by the federal government. At the same time, the much delayed ranches should be established while all feuding communities are reconciled. With ranches and abattoirs established in a few states, meat would be prepared in large scale and distributed throughout the country and possibly exported. That is what has been done in Botswana which is the largest producer and exporter of meat in Africa. That southern African country of 2.2 million people with a cattle population of over 3 million has successfully stopped violent clashes between farmers and cattle herdsmen. Once ranches and abattoirs are established in Nigeria, all controversial anti grazing laws would become spent while Governor Ayo Fayose would not have any basis to risk the lives of the hunters in Ekiti state by mobilizing and equipping them with local guns to confront AK 47-bearing herdsmen!
Femi Falana, SAN