FULANI HERDSMEN RAISED TO ROYAL STATUS IN NIGERIA The decision of Nigerian lawmakers to promote a grazing bill that will make provision for lands across the country to be used by Fulani Herdsmen has been criticised by some Nigerians. In this opinion, Azuka Onwuka argues that since every businessman is responsible for the working and finance of his business, so should Fulani herdsmen be responsible for their cattle and operation without the federal government forcing Nigerians to be a party to it. When did cattle rearing become a national business? Is cattle rearing by Fulani herdsmen a Federal Government project? someone may ask? Let us look at this scenario.
If I need to set up a factory to make soaps or motor spare parts, or a farm for yam or rice, or a poultry farm, or a fish pond, or a school, or a newspaper house, I look for land/property to buy or lease or rent. Even if I want to sell clothes or meat or books or beans, I look for a shop to rent for my business. If I make a loss or profit, it is my business. The government does not care about it. Even though the government does not provide any free land for me, it – local government, state government and federal government – still comes to collect different taxes from me.
Last week, the Vanguard’s editorial of April 12 stated that President Muhammadu Buhari recently mandated the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, to establish 50,000 hectares of land across the nation within six months for the grazing of the Fulani herdsmen’s cattle as a way of ending the conflicts between herdsmen and farmers. So, the questions are: Are these cattle national project (like a road or a power station that serves the whole nation) that the Federal Government will take land from different parts of the nation for their grazing? When the cattle are sold, do the farmers pay the money into the federation account for all the states to share? If I need a cow, is it handed over to me free of charge as a Nigerian citizen? Yes, in his asset declaration, President Buhari said he owns 270 cows. Are we joint-owners of those cows too? If these cows are privately owned, on what basis should Buhari mandate Ogbeh to establish 50,000 hectares of land across the nation for their grazing? Is this fair? Is it just?
The Vanguard editorial entitled, “FG’s grazing reserve: invitation to chaos,” quoted Ogbeh as saying: “We are faced with cattle grazing challenge now and the conflicts. A lot of people are getting killed. It is my business to solve that problem. The President has told me so. I have done my survey and I have taken my decision that we have to grass up 50,000 hectares of land in the next six months across the northern belt before we move south. I’m bringing improved grass seeds. I will multiply it and I’m going to solve the problem of grazing. Whether critics like it or not, it’s my business.” The Grazing Reserve bill While that was on, the issue of the Grazing Reserves Bill at the National Assembly reared its head.
The bill, which has passed the Second Reading, seeks to establish grazing reserves across the states for Fulani herdsmen as a way of curbing the conflicts between them and the locals. On the surface, it looks like a well-intentioned bill, but looked at critically, it portends danger. The way many people in the South view it is that it is a subtle way of creating an official territory of the Fulani within each state of the federation. The relationship between the Fulani and the local communities where they operate has been turbulent. From Taraba to Plateau, to Benue, to Ondo, to Edo, to Delta, and to Enugu, it has been a tale of bloodshed. Recently in Agatu, a farming community in Benue State, for instance, the figure was put at over 300 people killed, houses burnt and villages sacked. Days after the Agatu attack, it was reported in the newspapers that armed Fulani men occupied Agatu with hundreds of their cows. The government did not send soldiers or police or the Department of State Services to the place. It was so bad that the Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, could not visit the scene until after five weeks. When the Inspector-General of Police, Mr Solomon Arase, addressed the two sides, he did so in the Benue State capital, Makurdi, rather than in Agatu. At that meeting, a leader of the Fulani herdsmen, Ardo Boderi, claimed that what sparked off the crisis was the killing of their 10,000 cows in Agatu.
That was a justification for the massacre by equating human lives with cattle and admitting taking the law into their hands. At the end of that meeting, there was no report that the man or any of the Fulani was arrested, even if merely for questioning.
Evidence of federal government support to Fulani herdsmen
Beyond not taking any action to curb the killings by Fulani herdsmen, two recent actions underscore government’s tacit support for the activities of the Fulani herdsmen. In February, a community in Awgu, Enugu State, alleged that two of their women were abducted by Fulani herdsmen. They protested by burning the huts erected by the herdsmen within their community. The army swooped on their community promptly and took away 76 men and detained them in Abia State without allowing people access to them. When people agitated about this, they were charged to court two weeks after detention and granted bail. The second action of government was in Abia. It was reported that five Fulani herdsmen were kidnapped, a dastardly and condemnable action. But shockingly, when a grave was found in a forest in Abia, shortly after, where about 55 corpses were discovered, the DSS immediately announced that five of the corpses were the kidnapped Fulani herdsmen, adding that they were killed by members of Indigenous Peoples of Biafra. This statement of the DSS was interpreted as a calculated attempt to cause an inter-ethnic crisis between the Igbo and the Hausa/Fulani and also brand IPOB a terrorist organisation. The DSS did not care about the identity of the other corpses in the grave. It did not tell anybody that it.
There are even fears that the 55 corpses could be those of civilians extrajudicially killed by security agencies, given the recently released report by the United States accusing Nigeria’s security agencies of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings. These two actions by these government agencies show that government values the life of a Fulani more than that of hundreds of other Nigerians. And that President Buhari is a Fulani makes it sadder, because ordinarily he should have ensured that he is not seen or suspected of favouring his ethnic group in matters involving human life. We are not all cattle rearers The message the government has sent out to the communities is that it will not protect them against any attack from Fulani herdsmen, but if they defend themselves against the Fulani, Government will come for them. Therefore, trying to carve out any part of any state as grazing reserves for Fulani herdsmen will be seen as a covert territorial expansion of the Fulani into all parts of Nigeria. It should be resisted by the National Assembly. Those who engage in cattle rearing should invest in the creation of ranches, within their environment, where cattle will be well taken care of without any contact with people in the streets. The cows will become healthier, bigger and more nutritional. They will also yield more milk that is more nutritional. And there will be no conflict between cow owners and communities.