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The politics of land

By Muyiwa Adetiba

If you were familiar with Sherlock Homes, the popular but fictional British detective, then you would know the phrase, ‘things are not always what they seem.’ It was a phrase he loved to use as he unravelled the intrigues of crime to Dr Watson, his bosom friend.

The nation woke up on January 1, to the gruesome death of about 80 people in Benue state. It was some people’s bizarre New Year gift to the nation; a sort of libation to some blood thirsty gods. Immediately, all sorts of conspiracy theories sprang up. ‘It was a reprisal attack,’ some said. A theory the Emir of Kano seemingly supported when he brought up the purported killing of Fulani in their hundreds in Taraba state.

Our Super Cop followed another line when he initially said it was a communal clash. Some followed the line of ethnic cleansing. Some opined that it was religiously motivated. An intelligence agency suggested they were invaders from outer space.

But things are not always what they seem. I believe these are largely red herrings; the kinds a devious murderer uses when he wants to throw people off his trail or confuse people as to his motive knowing crimes are difficult to solve when motives are not identified. I believe what we are facing is organised, calculative and deadly. It goes beyond the often stated theories. It even goes beyond religion, though that helps if it can serve as an extra motivation to the foot soldiers. It goes right to the cultural and economic survival of a group of people.

I want to play a little Sherlock Homes today. My deductions which may be wrong—I am not a genius like Sherlock Homes or Matlock—will be based on historical antecedents of nomadic herdsmen and settlers. Cowboy films were very popular in my youthful days. We loved the swagger of the Cowboys. They were deft with horses and swift with guns.

They were our heroes. They were the good guys who fought and almost always triumphed over the Red Indians who came in their tens to fight against three or four Cowboys.

It was lost on us that the Red Indians were largely bare chested, bare footed and bare handed while our heroes rode fast horses and had different calibres of guns. We romanticised them and loved to play cowboy in our spare time using all sorts of objects as guns.

But Cowboys were herdsmen whose job was to protect the cattle against rustlers and to look for good grazing land to feed the cattle on. The Red Indians were the settlers, the original owners who were being driven off their land. Cowboys were really the bad guys; the land grabbers. Today, the Red Indians are an endangered specie in America; hardly seen, never heard. Their land taken and appropriated. You get my drift?

I grew up seeing cattle rearers—as we called them in Ilesha in those days—with thick staffs in their hands and flasks of water slung across their shoulders. Much like the Cowboys, their job was to protect the cattle against rustlers and provide food for the flock. They minded their business and disturbed no one. They were generally harmless.


Why shouldn’t they be? There was food; there was water and the natives were friendly to borrow a cliché. Then the bushes became farms and the farms became settlements as population grew across the country. Grazing fields became more and more scarce. The encroaching desert and the instability in central Africa also compounded the dire situation.

Suddenly, a people’s lifestyle and culture were threatened. Worse, their economic well-being was threatened. So, stakeholders in the cattle business, some of them highly placed and influential, sat to strategize a way out. Grazing land must be found by hook or crook. And so benign herdsmen became cowboys exchanging sticks for AK47. Only those who are wielding the guns know more about guns than cattle. Many are battle weary soldiers, mercenaries if you like.


The goal, according to my Sherlock Homes’ deduction, is to seize land by terrorising settlements. The more brutal the attack, the more frightened the settlers will be and the more reluctant they will be to return to their farms. Why plant cassava or maize when the chances of harvesting them are slim?

Lending credence to my theory is what happened to Agatu where hundreds of people were slaughtered in a most brutal manner. The villagers have been too frightened to return to their villages and cattle have taken over homes and farm settlements. That the killings have gone on for so long unfettered, uncensored and in such a brazen manner suggest that those pulling the strings, the puppeteers, are in influential and powerful positions.


Whatever my deductions—again I might be wrong—the solution is to domesticate the animals and rein in the cowboys AKA herdsmen. To do that effectively, you will need ranches. Ordinarily, the various states in the country should welcome ranches the way they welcome new investments because that is what they are. Ranches should create jobs and increase IGR. Unfortunately, too much has happened to create distrust between herdsmen, settlers and governments—both state and federal. The Federal Government wants to set up colonies in all the states.


A colony is a cluster of ranches according to the Ministry of Agriculture, which means that in some instances, it could be bigger than a local government. Is the Federal Government going to acquire colonies and simply allocate them to herdsmen? What will be the mode of allocation? What will be the relationship between beneficiaries of the colonies and their neighbours? Between them and their host governments because nobody wants a Local Government he cannot have sovereignty over?


Land ownership is a very sensitive thing in southern Nigeria. It pitches brother against brother; family against family. It is difficult enough to get land for development even for the natives. It will be almost impossible to have them willingly give their lands to people whose long term intentions are unclear. The herdsmen have not demonstrated good intentions much less goodwill towards those who own the land they want to feed on.

The Federal Government should therefore examine the short and long term implications of allocating large swathes of land to a people whose culture and beliefs might not be compatible to the culture and beliefs of the host states. Ranches are desirable as a means of domesticating livestock. But they must be done with a thorough knowledge of the politics of land in the different parts of the country.

Finally, my message to those who are wary of having cattle or their rearers invade their homestead is ‘Grow what you eat.’ That’s the national slogan. If you love cow meat, then set up ranches or encourage your people to do so.  Also, defend what you have. The cattle owners are doing so.


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