I spent the weekend in Benue State with a delegation of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which had gone there on a fact-finding mission for the association. The NBA President A. B. Mahmoud led the mission, with some members of the executive committee and other lawyers. At the stakeholders meeting in Makurdi, the basic narrative of the State Branch of the NBA was that it is a ruse to say that the violence that had been on-going in the state was due to the anti open grazing law passed by the government last May. We were told that before the said law was enacted; there had been 49 attacks on Benue farming communities by Fulani terrorists engaged on a genocide mission that is coordinated by the Miyetti Allah and its leader, President Muhammadu Buhari. That was the tone of much of the discussions.
President A. B. Mahmoud made a passionate plea for moderation but the atmosphere was highly charged with numerous narratives of massacre, slitting of throats, cutting up stomachs of pregnant women and killing of children. Two psychologists gave testimonies on how the direct victims, especially children and the wider community has been traumatised by the atrocities and that the impact of the trauma is likely to remain for generations. The anger was palpable and some of the participants explained that the killings continued and security agencies have refused to intervene to stop it. What we heard was a clear narrative from a community that is convinced that the Nigerian State and its security agencies were active collaborators in the atrocities that had or were being perpetrated against the people. The crisis had been allowed to fester for too long and minds had been made up.
Some voices explained that they were aware that due to climate change and over-population in the country, Fulani pastoralists had been forced to move southwards with their herds but they were emphatic that there was no land available in Benue State for pastoralism so the only solution was the ranching proposed in the Benue law. Many speakers expressed the sentiment that the Federal Government was trying to seize land and fund the development of the said land for Fulani herders. They decried investment of government funding into pastoralism on the grounds that keeping cattle is a private business. I reminded them that the Buhari Administration has been investing huge amounts of money on the Anchor Borrower's programme to help farmers grow more crops so why not do the same for pastoralists and I was shouted down and told the "real" Buhari plan was one of colonisation and the proof is in Minister Audu Ogbe's insistence on the establishment of cattle colonies. I felt bad at the thoughtless decision of the Minister of Agriculture to talk about the establishment of cattle colonies when narratives of colonisation have already become part of the problem.
I was alarmed to hear Bishops and the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Benue State expressing the sentiment that they had; "lost confidence in the unity and oneness of Nigeria" and one of them openly said that the way forward was "to procure arms and free themselves". There was one voice of moderation, a former Attorney General of the state and former Ambassador who explained that there were other countries in Africa who have more cows than Nigeria and they have been successful in managing their pastoralism without excessive conflicts. He blamed the Nigerian crisis to the way in which conflict resolution mechanisms and planning and administering pastoralism have been abandoned.
We visited the two IDP camps in Daudu where 9,865 people were living in terrible conditions without adequate shelter, food and water. We saw a baby born less than 24 hours before our arrival lying on the flour, without clothes and with chickens running around. Clearly, the suffering and misery that followed the January 1 to January 4, 2018 attacks on some communities in Benue State had become the last straw that has created conditions for the extreme antagonism that had developed towards Fulani pastoralists in the state. The IDPs described how they were attacked at 10pm while sleeping as the mayhem started leading to the mass killing that occurred.
The problem with the visit was that there was no one to tell the other side of the story. The Miyetti Allah Association was invited but both the Benue branch of the NBA and the association itself said it was not safe for the Fulani to come into Benue. We did notice that we saw neither pastoralists nor cows in our travels in the state. Given the situation, the NBA has decided to invite the association to its headquarters to hear their own story in the spirit of the principle of fair hearing
Benue State has of course passed a law banning open grazing. The law specifically prohibits; "pasturing livestock to feed on dry grass, growing grass, shrubs, herbage, farm crops, etc, in open field without any form of restriction". People who rear livestock are required to buy land from the owners of the land to establish ranches. Following acquisition of the land, the new owners are then to apply to the governor through the Livestock Department for a permit to set up the ranch, upon the annual payment of a permit fee. The permit is only valid for one year and must be renewed each year. It beats the imagination to understand why anyone would invest on the purchase of land to establish a ranch that is valid for only one year. I asked the Attorney General of the state why so little time was allowed before the full implementation of the law and his position was that the six months period before implementation was sufficient. What struck me about the law is that as most farms purchased would not be big enough to provide sufficient food and water for the animals and there is no commercial production of hay in Nigeria to feed the animals, the law has been designed not to create a pathway to settling pastoralists but for sending them out of the state and that is what happened as they all had to move to neighbouring states. As more states adopt similar measures, the pastoralists would be cornered and their cattle might be starved to death. This process is likely to exacerbate rather than solve the crisis.
Nigeria's former Director General of the State Security Service, A. A. Gadzama argued yesterday (Daily Trust, 25/1/2018) that we should not forget that, "The Fulani like every other Nigerian has the right to reside anywhere and move freely in any part of the country. The constitution guarantees them this." He therefore advised that a solution that excludes the other is not the best option. I agree with his core argument that the problem has been the failure of security agencies to stop the wanton killing of Nigerians by herdsmen, I would say criminals, and that the solution is for the said security agencies to do their job and stop the killings and destruction of property. Today, too many communities are convinced that the mission of pastoralists has been transformed from following the green grass to seizing the ancestral lands of some communities. This perception is so widespread that even if it were not true, people who believe it would act on the basis of their belief. The state has a responsibility to show that it is a neutral arbiter that has the duty to protect the lives and property of all Nigerians. As religion and politics have fully entered the equation, confidence building, a lot of dialogue, negotiations and sensitization would be required to put our communities back to the path of problem solving and away from the cycles of reprisal killings.