By Aper Zava
Since Crop farmers became unwilling to make their farmlands available for grazing, and since the proposed bill to create grazing reserves/routes failed to pass at the National Assembly, herdsmen have resorted to the use of extreme force to capture farmlands from native crop farmers, particularly in the states of Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba. It is strange that in this 21st Century, and in a free nation, people are able to successfully use force to acquire land to do their business with impunity. It is a fact that armed migrant herdsmen have successfully invaded rural communities, killed and displaced the native inhabitants and are grazing their animals on the deserted farmlands. They have not stopped at that, they have kept the engine of hostilities running to make sure the displaced farmland owners do not return home. Where they return, they do so as serfs, the herdsmen having established themselves as the landlords.
What gives herdsmen such effrontery? Why is the nation silent in the face of these heinous crimes by herdsmen? Why is the
government looking the other way as farmers continue to suffer this pogrom?
Perhaps the answers to these questions can be found in the following exposition.
Early this year, precisely on the 15th of March 2015, Herdsmen and their mercenaries, in one of their series of attacks on rural communities, invaded, for the umpteenth time, some villages in Agatu Local Government Area of Benue State. They reportedly slaughtered 94 persons including women and children, reduced many homes to ashes and displaced scores. When news of the carnage filtered out, the Director of Media and Publicity of the APC Presidential Campaign Organization, Garba Shehu, released a statement on March 17 2015 in response to the blood bath by herdsmen in which he called on “interested parties to recognize the rights of each other and make compromises for the sake of peace”. In other words, Mr. Garba Shahu enjoined indigenous crop farmers to recognize the rights of the wandering herdsmen to use their farmlands for grazing and be willing to concede same to herdsmen before they can know peace in their homes.
I thought Mr. Garba Shehu made that arrogant and careless statement because the Fulani blood in him had a better part of his judgment. I was wrong. The Governor of Benue State, Mr. Samuel Ortom, a Tiv man, one whose kindred has serially been invaded and torched by herdsmen; one whose kinsmen have been slaughtered and maimed and impoverished by the pogrom that is being perpetrated by herdsmen; one whose kinsmen are now living as serfs and in fear and with the pain and shame of having their wives and daughters defied by herdsmen; made the same statement as Garba Shehu when he hosted members of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACABAN) in Government House Makurdi. Governor Ortom called on crop farmers in Benue State to recognize the rights of herdsmen to use their farmlands for grazing pending when government will build ranches for the herdsmen.
I do not know if Governor Ortom truly believes herdsmen have rights over the farmlands of his people or he was simply trying to appease the patrons of the herdsmen.
Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear: It is this kind of thinking and statements from highly placed people in government that give herdsmen the effrontery to embark on this pogrom. It is this thinking that gives the sympathizers of herdsmen the audacity to justify these hostilities against crop farmers and offer unreasonable conditions for peace. It is this thinking that earns the herdsmen the cooperation and the shield they occasionally enjoy from the military and the police as they destroy farms, rape women, slaughter farmers and forcefully occupy farmlands.
The fallacy that their citizenship of Nigeria gives them right to graze any land in Nigeria is what has emboldened herdsmen to embark on mass genocide of crop farmers who are refusing them access to their farmlands in a bid to enforce their right to use any land in Nigeria to graze their animals, a right they have arrogated to themselves and which the government has consented to. To enforce this ‘right’, herdsmen have gone as far as killing soldiers and other security agents who refuse to cooperate with them and stand in their way to conquer farmlands.
How did Nigerians come to accept the fallacy that herdsmen have the right to access any land they deem fit and that the rest of Nigerians are under obligation to respect that right? How did it become unthinkable to question the fact that herdsmen are the only people who do their business of rearing livestock on other people’s lands? One is to fear these fallacies more than all the terrorist organizations put together.
Why does Governor Samuel Ortom and his counterparts in the Northern Governors Forum call on crop farmers to share their farmlands with herdsmen pending when government will build ranches for the herdsmen, but fail to call on home owners to accommodate the homeless pending when government will build homes for the homeless?
Why would the government set up a taskforce to check cattle rustling but remain indifferent to the plight of crop farmers? It is strange and curious that the government has committed to protecting the predators and has abandoned the preys to their fate.
Obsession with the past
Since our governments and the apologists of herdsmen are so much obsessed with the days when herdsmen and crop farmers co-existed peacefully, it is pertinent to examine this obsession.
Indeed there used to be an informal system of shared land use between crop farmers and visiting herdsmen. But that was before climate change disasters dealt a deadly blow on the sahel region, the native home base of the herdsmen.
In those days, herdsmen migrated into the savanna and forest zones only during dry seasons when farming activities were minimal. They usually grazed their cattle on uncultivated lands and on farmlands where crops had been harvested. The herdsmen would return to their native home base at the start of rainy season when farming activities commenced in earnest.
This seasonal migration by herdsmen was what sustained the shared land use system that saw relative peace between crop farmers and herdsmen.
Yes, relative peace: farmers and herdsmen always clashed but with far less viciousness. Throughout the history of herdsmen, they have been unable to completely prevent their cattle from destroying crops, neither have they ever succeeded in stopping their randy men from raping women. To speak of the good old days when crop farmers and herdsmen co-existed peacefully and omit to mention clashes that resulted from cases of rape and crop destruction is an unforgivable historical fraud.
Unfortunately, we cannot return to the ‘good old days’ because the conditions that made possible the system of shared land use between crop farmers and herdsmen no longer exist, and cannot be re-created.
Firstly, the seasonal migration pattern by herdsmen which ensured little or no interference with farming activities has been destroyed by the persistent draught and desertification in the sahel region, which includes extreme northern Nigeria. There are no more pasture and water sources there for the herdsmen to return to during rainy season. Thus, herdsmen, who used to migrate seasonally, have permanently relocated to the middle belt and southern parts of the country where there are vast pasture lands with water sources.
Secondly, the number of herdsmen and herds has exploded far beyond what the crop farming communities can accommodate. The past couple of decades have seen a steady influx of herdsmen into the country from the drying nations of the sahel including Niger, Chad, Mali and elsewhere. One can recall occasions when it was reported that some herdsmen could not speak or understand Hausa, the lingua franca of the northern parts of the country where the herdsmen originate from.
To make matters worse, crop famers also have had their fair share of population explosion. This development has only left little uncultivated lands available for the increasing herds and herdsmen.
Thirdly, in those days, herdsmen used to show remorse and take responsibility when their cattle destroyed crops. They used to pay damages for such destructions when caught. Today herdsmen, for whatever reason, gun down farmers who dare challenge them for destroying their crops. Today, herdsmen who are caught raping women disappear from police custody as soon as they get there.
So, anybody calling for the return to the days when crop farmers co-existed with herdsmen with relative peace should be tapped to wake up to the reality that the conditions that made possible the system of shared land use no longer exist, and cannot be re-created.
Another fallacy that emboldens herdsmen to intensify hostilities on rural communities in order to capture grazing lands is the controversial land concession agreements that are mischievously made between the patrons of herdsmen and traditional rulers. The power-wielding patrons of the herdsmen use the various state governments to entice, con and arm-twist traditional rulers into making agreements to make grazing lands available for herdsmen. Herdsmen believe that the criminal land concession agreements between their patrons and traditional rulers gives them title over any land, both cultivated and uncultivated, and whoever dishonours this criminal agreement does not deserve to live. Some commentators who suffer chronic ignorance use this to justify the hostilities by herdsmen.
To successfully fight the herdsmen monster, we must first of all debunk the fallacies that created and that sustain them.
The sustainability of the system of shared land use between crop farmers and herdsmen; the legitimacy of the land concession agreements between traditional rulers and patrons of herdsmen; and the sustainability of nomadic grazing system of rearing livestock must be settled once and for all.
Firstly, let it be made clear that farmers are not bound by any law or obligation to continue to share their farmlands with herdsmen. Those who are calling on crop farmers to recognize the rights of herdsmen to share in using their farmlands should know that herdsmen do not have such rights.
Rather, herdsmen and their apologists must be made to understand that, indeed, land belongs to somebody, and does not belong to everybody. That their citizenship of Nigeria does not give them right to access any land they deem fit. That there is a law that prohibits trespass and unlawful occupation of land, and their violation of this law can no longer be tolerated. That there are legitimate ways of acquiring land, to do so through hostilities (like their forbearers did in the 1800s) is unacceptable in this time.
Secondly, traditional rulers do not own the land. Land belongs to individuals and families. Any transaction made with traditional rulers cannot be binding on the owners of the land. Aggrieved herdsmen should seek justice through legal means. That is what others do when they are defrauded. To resort to violence is unacceptable, but if they must do, let them direct their hostilities to the persons that collected their money. They should leave the innocent poor farmers alone.
Thirdly, crop farming and nomadic grazing can no longer be combined in this time, they are mutually exclusive careers. Any policy or program that promotes nomadic grazing of livestock is a blue print for an endless war. In fact it is wickedness of the highest order to promote nomadic grazing in this 21st Century. It is wickedness to crop farmers because it threatens their lives and livelihood. It is wickedness to the nation because it threatens food security and national security. It is also wickedness to the future generation because it causes environmental degradation.
Yes, nomadic grazing threatens national security. The practice whereby herdsmen live their lives outside the purview of the law enforcement agents is extremely dangerous and unacceptable in this unfortunate time in which terrorism is the order of the day. Grazing routes are potential tracts for insurgents and other criminals to circulate arms and dangerous weapons undetected. There are dire consequences for the nation if nomadic grazing is allowed to continue.
One wonders why talk about building ranches does not interest the wealthy patrons of the herdsmen. Yet the ranch system of rearing livestock is what animal breeders in other nations that are serious about development have adopted and are making huge gains from. The ranch system is the only way to rear cattle without constituting a nuisance to both the social and physical environments.
Rather than finance the building of ranches and cultivate pasture for their herds, patrons of the herdsmen prefer to finance hostilities against farmers to forcefully capture farmlands for grazing. The huge funds they expend in acquiring sophisticated weapons and ammunition and for hiring mercenaries enough to terrorize at least three states simultaneously, such funds are more than enough to build ranches.
They want government to build ranches for them before they can stop terrorizing farmers knowing too well that it would take forever for a government that can barely pay workers’ salaries to build ranches enough to accommodate the increasing number of herdsmen and herds.
Obviously herdsmen are not willing to abandon the outmoded system of nomadic grazing of livestock and embrace the modern system of ranching. Understandably, it is difficult to willingly abandon a practice that is your culture and identity. But it cannot be so difficult for a serious nation to compel and give incentives to a section of her citizens whose tradition has become a calamity. And a good way to start is for every state of the federation to legislate against nomadic grazing of livestock.
Prohibition of nomadic grazing is not only patriotic it is also a moral duty. It is not only necessary, it is also very urgent.