Nigeria: This Quarrel We Must Have

opinion

When President Buhari looked into the furore around the National Livestock Transformation Programme (NLTP) being designed by his Deputy, and the Ruga Project under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, and announced suspension of the latter, you could bet a healthy fortune that the nation would have one of its regular quarrels that shake its very foundation. If President Buhari thought so as well, he may have thought it will blow over one way or the other, and, in any case, it would not be his fault, whatever happens. Well, we have an almighty quarrel brewing, the type that will open up old wounds and create many fresh ones. Whatever he thought would be the consequences of his decision, President Buhari is now a hero or villain (depending on your location and faith).He has not only made further decisions on a complex matter more difficult, but his entire political standing could be seriously damaged. Perhaps it is out of place to worry about his future at this stage, but he may be president for at least three additional years in a country requiring serious mending.

Land. That asset that the nation has plenty of, but is too politicised to manage well or share. Land, the source of most conflicts in Nigeria and a solution rarely applied to solve them. Basically, this is a quarrel that looks to be about land, but is actually about the type of politics about the uses and abuses of land and water. The federal government has awesome powers given to it by a military which thought a strong and powerful center was the solution to Nigeria's quarrelsome communities. This powerful federal government does not have land outside the Federal Capital Territory (except for roads and facilities and institutions), but it has near-total monopoly of the legitimate use of violence and responsibility to solve virtually all the nation's security problems, including many caused by the federating units which have powers over the nation's pieces of land. So when you have conflicts with roots in land use, they become particularly intractable because the federal government is hamstrung in terms of providing solutions.

What the federal government does have are huge resources to use and abuse, and extremely variable political will to deploy in development and peace policies. It has sank trillions in developing land and water resources all over the country to strengthen agriculture as the backbone of the nation's economy in the last century. Without its own land or water resources, it has invested colossal amounts to achieve food security and a strong agricultural export economy through its Ministries of Agriculture and Water Resources. It has subsidized inputs, research and extension services in all sectors of the agriculture economy, making the contributions of States appear puny. Its investments in development of food and export products and livestock have impacted on every citizen's life, such that the nation could live substantially without the rapacious and damaging oil sector if the nation had not suffered from incredibly poor leadership in the last few decades.

Yet, as we speak, the federal government cannot design and implement policies on agriculture and water resources if one or two or a few states do not like them. We live in an age in which communities and states lay exclusive claims to land and water and reduce the federal government to begging to improve them for their communities and others. Barricades are going up, turning the federation into a collection of enclaves policed by the most short-sighted and dangerous sentiments. Make no mistake about it: we are looking at a nation in which citizens can severely curtail the rights of others without the intervening influence of the rule of law or superior authority to create minimum conditions for co-existence. A nation which had ignored the need to address creeping parochialism and ground-level politics is now having to deal with a dangerous clash between the rights of citizens to live in all parts of the nation in lawful pursuit of livelihoods on the one hand, and the insistence of others that they have powers to abridge those rights.

There are two basic fallacies feeding the debacle regarding which policies are most appropriate for a problem seeking urgent and decisive action. The first is the fallacy that Fulani have no land, and must therefore depend only on the goodwill and political disposition of some states or communities for their livelihood.The fact is that we may have abused and stretched the Land Use Act around political and traditional whims, but no community actually owns land. Land use is vested in governors, but the constitution does not allow them to discriminate or cause disadvantages to any Nigerian in the manner they use the power it gives them. Fulani with cattle, like all other Nigerians, does have land, and it is called Nigeria. Every inch of it, subject to the obligation to use it in a manner that does not constitute a threat or hindrance to others' livelihood. The second fallacy is that a weak leadership such as President Buhari's can successfully intervene and solve a conflict that requires sensitivity to the political terrain and requisite levels of decisiveness.

The current situation suggests a worst case scenario for problem-solving. Disputants are digging in. They are states and communities which shout, "To the Fulani, not an inch", and others who insist that no one will have justice unless the Fulani have justice. The federal government cannot get ten Nigerians to agree on what Ruga or the NLTP mean, because its own ineptitude and prevarications have messed up concepts and plans literally beyond redemption. Movement beyond this point for the federal government is difficult to imagine, which may explain the frantic efforts of Northern governors to intervene. And they should. Whether they succeed or fail depends on the degree to which they have the capacity and the will to provide solutions that improve the position of the federal government, which suggests that doing nothing at this stage will chase away the problem.

The media war between the President of Ohaneze Ndigbo and those precocious coalition of northern groups which issues exit orders to 'southerners' as if that is all it exits for is symptomatic of very deep problems. No one will encourage Fulani to stay in those places where they are being threatened.

Nor should the nation downplay the deep sentiment that supports the demand that every Nigerian must relocate to their grandfather's village. If northern governors can help, those states with the land and other resources for Ruga should immediately swing into action. If the federal government wants to help, it should invest resources in Ruga development without delay or apology. If Fulani want to help, they should place upon themselves the burden of accepting and living with radical changes in the manner they live and manage their assets. If responsible Nigerians want to help, they should tone down the rhetorics and engage in responsible discussions. This quarrel must produce something useful. Ideally, this should be the opportunity to look at the type of federal system we operate and mobilize Nigerians towards addressing its limitations.

Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja

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