THE Federal Government finally roused itself from its tepid, partisan response to the orgy of killings and arson by Fulani militia late in January by empanelling a committee of 10, headed by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. With nine state governors on board, it is expected to address the lingering problem of frequent attacks by Fulani herdsmen and militias and their clashes with farmers, while also apprehending perpetrators of the violence. But this is diversionary: a committee is no substitute for the responsibility of President Muhammadu Buhari to crush lawlessness and impunity.
Not surprisingly, the move has been met with scepticism. One of the decisions taken at the meeting of the National Economic Council held in Abuja, it seeks to douse mounting tension over the unchecked orgies of murder and pillaging by Fulani herdsmen and militias. While the communities in Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, Adamawa, Kaduna and Plateau states especially, that have borne the brunt of the mass killings, arson and forceful occupation of their land, distrust it, the Fulani and their supporters view the panel with contempt.
For the victims and the North-Central and southern states, as well as regional socio-political groups, the committee is a diversion from the reality of herdsmen terrorism and official inertia. Benue and Taraba states, for instance, reiterate that the primary task of the Federal Government is to identify the marauders, disarm them and bring them to justice. Ohanaeze Ndigbo, which speaks for the South-East, sees in it only a continuation of the government’s insincerity. The cry by its National Publicity Secretary, Achi Okpaga, that “Buhari should (instead) have ordered the Army to put a stop to the murderous activities of the herdsmen” cannot be faulted.
Opposition has also come from Fulani groups and their allies. The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria sees no value in the committee as long as the governors of Benue and Taraba states, who signed anti-grazing bills into law, are members. In line with their narrative of the crisis, all such laws must first be repealed, the right of herders to graze anywhere acknowledged, and the reopening and designation of grazing routes and reserves guaranteed, as the minimum conditions for peace.
The government should stop running around in circles. A new report by Amnesty International says at least 717 persons have been killed in the last two years in herdsmen-farmers clashes; it cites 168 killed in the first four weeks of this year, a figure local communities say is grossly under-stated. Solving a problem requires an accurate diagnosis. Unfortunately, the Fulani herdsmen conundrum has been enveloped in politics, religion, sectionalism and partisanship. With Nigeria’s cohesion under threat, leaders at all levels should act more responsibly and stamp out lawlessness.
The reality is obvious: decades of drought and desertification have denuded vegetation and dried up many natural water sources in the far Northern states, prompting cattle entrepreneurs to dispatch herders far more frequently and in geometrically larger numbers southwards. But, according to the International Crisis Group, this pits them against farmers and sedentary communities in the Middle-Belt and the South who, also facing population pressure, are confronted with herds eating their crops and grass and destroying their farms.
Rather than adopt the sensible option of ranching, leasing land and adopting effective afforestation, erosion control, irrigation and water supply schemes, the Northern states, cattle owners and herdsmen insist on nomadic pastoralist practices as their age-long “way of life.” They insist on states and other Nigerians ceding land to them for grazing routes and reserves. They expect the Federal Government to fund new ways of doing cattle business. As the Oyo State Governor, Abiola Ajimobi, rightly puts it, “Herding is a business and everyone who engages in such should make adequate provision for his or her business to grow without involving the Federal Government. If we provide land for cattle colony, who will provide land for poultry and pig farmers? In Oyo State, we won’t allow cattle to roam about.”
But elsewhere, creativity prevails. Once run as free-ranging cows on its expansive Pampas plains, Argentina’s shift to ranching enabled it to become the world’s third largest exporter of beef after Brazil and Australia. The cattle and sheep industry that injects $16.95 billion into Australia’s economy annually formally employs over 200,000 people and is ranked as one of the world’s largest and most efficient commercial livestock producers; the industry relies on ranches and “cattle stations,” not nomadic pastoralists. The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also vigorously adopted ranching and developed an efficient system of grass import and distribution while aspiring to self-sufficiency in beef production.
Buhari and key functionaries should stop making excuses for Fulani mass murderers or seeking unworkable and unjust solutions like grazing routes, reserves and lately “colonies.” Cattle farming is a business. Insisting on nomadic grazing on other people’s land is no longer feasible or enforceable; such people also need their land for farming, businesses and housing. Cattle-rich Northern states can acquire and set up reserves; no state should be compelled to do so. The government’s paternalistic treatment of herdsmen and cattle herders is discriminatory, provocative and divisive. Cattle herding is not more important than fishing, snail breeding or any other business.
The committee should, therefore, not be used to legitimise discrimination and official inertia: it should not distract from government’s reasonability to track down, apprehend and prosecute murderers and trespassers. States should resist any attempt to repeal anti-grazing laws; they should rather be vigorously enforced. The sponsors of armed militias should be identified as well as the source of the sophisticated arms they wield. Buhari should act as a unifying national leader and lead the campaign against lawlessness.