ALEXANDER OKERE examines the controversy and eventual suspension of the Ruga Settlement programme initiated by the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration to curb the unending threats posed by deadly herdsmen across Nigeria.
Nigeria has come under the weight of rising security challenges – insurgency, armed robbery, kidnapping, and ethnic conflicts – which have led to the death of thousands of Nigerians and hampered the nation’s struggle to make its democratic system to work.
Notorious among these challenges is the insurgency by Boko Haram, which started as a Jihadist group in 2002 but grew to become one of the deadliest organisations in the world, following its attacks that have left in their trail pain, blood and death, as well as the displacement of thousands of Nigerians in the northern region.
While attacks by the Boko Haram sect have lingered for years due to the failure of successive governments to completely defeat it, the wave of ethnic violence occasioned by attacks allegedly carried out by armed herdsmen of Fulani origin appears to have become the new evil sweeping across the country and making peace elusive, especially in the southern and middle-belt regions.
Nigeria currently ranks 148 out of 163 countries and is said to have a ‘very low’ level of peacefulness, according to the 2019 Global Peace Index, a report by the Institute for Economics and Peace.
Horrifying tales of these gruesome attacks and their divisive consequences remain fresh in the minds of millions of Nigerians and have continued to threaten the unity of the country.
There have also been claims and counterclaims that the problem was aggravated by the failure of the Federal Government to take decisive measures against the perpetrators through arrests and prosecutions.
President Muhammadu Buhari has in the last four years been criticised by the opposition and human rights groups for not doing enough to bring the situation under control, with some accusing his administration of alleged sympathy for Fulani herdsmen.
But the Presidency has denied maintaining a silent position on the matter, insisting that efforts are still ongoing to address the situation.
During its first term, the Buhari administration announced that it would establish cattle colonies across the country as part of efforts to end the conflicts between farmers and herdsmen.
Although the idea was well-received by the majority in the northern part of the country with some state governments reported to have donated hectares of land for the project, it was largely rejected by many states in the southern region.
Critics had described the proposal as an alleged plan by the President to promote a Fulani agenda.
Similarly, the Federal Government in May this year said it had acquired an amplitude modulation radio broadcast licence to educate herdsmen and farmers and foster harmony between the two groups.
But the government’s action faced a backlash from the opposition, civil society and socio-cultural organisations.
On June 25, the Federal Government, again, said that it would create what it described as Ruga settlements across the country for herdsmen in the next five years in order to end open grazing, adding that 12 states had already keyed into the programme which received the endorsements of pro-northern groups, including the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria.
But like other initiatives perceived to be pro-Fulani, the policy was immediately rejected by virtually all the state governments and socio-political groups in the North-Central, South-West, South-East and South-South geopolitical zones.
The major reason put forward for the establishment of the herders’ settlements by the Federal Government and supporters of the programme was that it would reduce the security threats posed by open grazing.
The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, had in defence of the programme said that Ruga, which was optional for state governments, would also provide economic benefits for all Nigerians.
Shehu had in a statement explained, “The Federal Government is planning this (Ruga) in order to curb open grazing of animals that continue to pose security threats to farmers and herders. The overall benefit to the nation includes a drastic reduction in conflicts between herders and farmers, a boost in animal protection complete with a value chain that will increase the quality and hygiene of livestock, in terms of beef and milk production, increased quality of feeding and access to animal care and private sector participation in commercial pasture production by way of investments.”
But for socio-cultural groups, like Afenifere, such a claim was everything but true.
“They can tell that to the marines; The Federal Government simply wants to carve out land from every community to give to the Fulani,” the pan-Yoruba group’s spokesperson, Yinka Odumakin, had said.
He added, “For us in the South-West, no inch of Yorubaland would be given for Ruga because it is a plan to colonise the country. It is like what the British did.
“Now that they are talking of local government autonomy, the plan is to turn the Ruga settlements to local governments for the Fulani in the future. So we reject the agenda; we don’t accept it.”
The apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, described the planned settlement as an alleged quest by Buhari to “plant his kinsmen in all parts of Nigeria.”
There were concerns that the proposed settlements could fuel the conflicts that the government said it intended to address.
Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, pointed this out on Tuesday when he said that Ruga would be “an explosion” if not carefully handled.
Soyinka had while speaking at the inauguration of the United Nations Solutions 17 SDG programme in Lagos said, “People have been killed in hundreds just because of the failure of leadership at a critical time. And the cattle herders have been given a sense of impunity.
“They kill without any compunction, they drive away the farmers who have been contributing to the food solutions in the country, the cattle eat their crops and then you come up with Ruga. I think that there is going to be trouble in this country if this Ruga thing is not handled imaginatively and with humanity as priority. Any country where cattle take priority over human life is definitely at an elementary stage.”
Perhaps, in response to mounting pressure against the controversial project, the Federal Government announced on Wednesday that the programme had been suspended on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the National Livestock Transformation Plan.
Among other provisions, the NLTP has the development of ranches in any “willing state of the federation” as part of its focus and was approved by the National Economic Council chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.
But in spite of this action, many experts pointed out that the outcry that greeted the introduction of the scheme showed that it was a wrong approach to finding a solution to herders-farmers crisis.
In an interview with Saturday PUNCH, a former Provost Marshal of the Nigerian Army, Gen. Idada Ikponmwen (retd.), aligned with Soyinka, stating that the policy was a wrong measure.
Ikponmwen said, “Certainly, the issue of Fulani herdsmen being everywhere in the middle belt, South-East, South-South and the South-West is already causing enough problems, more so when there are abundant proofs that these herders are armed, and you want to come and now add that land should be carved out in every state albeit illegally.
“The issue is the struggle for land between the herders and the farmers. We have seen so many deaths, loss of lives, unwarranted as they have been, and we should be thinking positively on how to solve these problems.”
An agricultural economist at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State, Dr. Agharese Osifo, said that the project did not qualify to be identified as an intervention to support livestock farmers and would not succeed in areas where open grazing was unpopular.
Osifo explained, “Ruga is different from the livestock improvement programme. Ruga is a specific project which aims at acquiring land in all the 36 states but which has started with the pilot 12 states; and the Presidency explained recently that these 12 states volunteered for it. The national livestock grazing programme is an old programme which is meant to be restricted to the known states and then those other states where cattle have been known to be found, specifically, places like Kaduna, Bauchi, Borno, Sokoto and Kano (states).
“According to extant literature on the matter, research has shown that these states I mentioned have put together more than 60 per cent of the total cattle herd population. The Fulani spread across the northern states. This (Ruga) policy is in respect of Nigerian Fulani cattle herdsmen. If it spreads to the South-East, South-South and the South-West, the political resistance will make the thing not to succeed.”
But the Head, Department of Agricultural Economics, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, Dr. Abubakar Hassan, said that the programme came at the right time and was long overdue.
He urged Nigerians to detach sentiments when analysing government policies.
“But sincerely speaking, they shouldn’t have suspended that thing (Ruga project). It is something that is going to be beneficial. But you know Nigerians – there are those that will talk and use the social media to intimidate the Federal Government. We are just too sentimental in this country,” Hassan said.
Assessing the issue, a security expert, Dr Onu Ekhomu, stated that the challenge posed by herding in different parts of the country is a complex one that required a clear understanding.
“I mean herders do not kidnap people but there are many unemployed Fulani youths who have come into this country. They are foreigners; they are from Futa Toro (along the border between Senegal and Mauritania).
“They have come into this country and they have the correct information that our country is porous and vulnerable to attacks. They are the ones attacking people and acting as Fulani militia; they are the people who are called upon by some herders who have been wronged by communities and they come and kill people and burn houses, like what you have in Agatu (in Benue) (and) in so many communities around,” Ekhomu explained.
According to him, the poor management and concentration of resources on the roads, rather than the bushes where the threats exist, is a major problem hampering the operations of Nigeria’s security agencies in the fight against the bandits.
Ekhomu, who spoke with Saturday PUNCH, explained, “So, when the Federal Government is bringing up such a simplistic solution like Ruga settlements, I ask, ‘Don’t we have thinkers in that government?’ They should think through these things carefully; you are trying to solve the problem of beef production or animal husbandry but the real problem on the ground is not that of husbandry.
“People never complained that they didn’t have enough beef to eat; people said, ‘They are killing us in our homes and on our highways and kidnapping people and raping them in the bush; that is the real problem. They are roasting cows that belong to Fulani herders; the real herders have assets which are being destroyed by bastards from West Africa and instead of us to face the real problem, we are talking about Ruga.
“I think the Federal Government should get serious and focus on the problem of crime and criminality. They need to go into those forests, flush out those bastards and kill them; that is what they need to do. Many government officials know what is going on.
“I am worried that because the problem has become widespread, the name, Fulani, is being rubbished. But that is not the issue now.
He added, “It (providing land for herders) will even aggravate the problem because now you are putting them (herders) in close proximity with their targets, so they can exploit the target easily. The problem here is impunity; you have not punished these bastards enough (and) we have not made them pay for their crimes.
“If you make them pay, they will go away. It is because they found Nigeria to be welcoming of security threats and attacks that they are coming here. If they pay a price for it, they will go away or they will change their behaviour but you don’t do that by pacification.”
But with the suspension of the Ruga settlement programme, Nigerians are waiting to know how the Buhari administration will come up with a more popular solution that will promote national unity.