By Obi Nwakanma
The word “colony” has a very fraught implication for Africans who were themselves “colonized” by European powers from 1895. The use of the term, “cattle colonies” is doubly contentious, and it is at the heart of the current, fierce resistance by people over the recent declaration by the Federal government, through the minister of Agriculture, Mr. Audu Ogbeh, that the federal government would establish “cattle colonies” nationwide to solve another problem, the increasingly intractable problem of the so-called “Fulani Herdsmen.” Perhaps Mr. Ogbeh, a trained linguist, should have used another word, as has been suggested by some other interlocutors, and there is great sense in that suggestion, because words themselves carry the weight of our actions, and signify the codes of meanings implicated in those actions.
Governments often strive for subtle conversations on double-edged issues. The wrong choice of words could lead to consequences as devastating as wars. This is where Mr. Ogbeh showed a profound lack of insight and sensitivity – in the choice of the word “colonies” as the operative language of the government’s policy for resettlement for the Pastoral Fulani. The image it conveyed is of humongous implication – the forceful expropriation of indigenous lands nationwide for colonial purposes – for resettling the wave of Fulani pastoral herdsmen and migrants streaming in from outside of Nigeria in search of arable land for occupation. This of course will not fly, and will be resisted, and is being resisted as a policy.
There are a number of fundamental questions which all these talk about cattle colonies have thrown up about the rights of the Fulani as Nigerians; about the current status of pastoralism in cattle production; about the rights of the federal government to intervene on behalf of a single group by imposing a policy literally of land expropriation in order to settle a historically migrant group, and indeed about whether the federal government is not creating or even abetting a national security quagmire in its Fulani policy, by initiating a program which would hobble the sovereign capabilities of other existing sub-nationalities within the current Nigerian nationality. These are important questions that ought to be fully addressed.
First, it must be made very clear, that a population of Fulani are Nigerian citizens, and as Nigerians, they have a right to seek residency transact their businesses practice their crafts, and resettle in any part of Nigeria, where they should, if it pleases them seek integration to existing cultural lifestyles, or if they want preserve their lifestyles if it suits them, without violating standard municipal laws, including laws that forbid the clogging of streets and public spaces with their cattle. Violations of such laws must follow the prescribed penalties and consequences including fines, seizures of the cattle, and even jail for repeat or defiant offenders. Nigerians are actually saying that new methods of animal husbandry, including ranching must be explored by the Fulani operators of the cattle business, as well indeed as other Nigerians willing to invest in the business of animal production.
The pressures on the Fulani are clearly environmental. As the traditional grazing grounds of the savannah disappear, these pastoral nomads are now forced to seek newer and newer grounds for water and fodder. The disappearance of grazing land leads to new, often violent encounters, and these encounters have created the fear of the armed intruder who is harassing and displacing long tenured owners of the land, as they move southwards, and who are backed by the force or the might of the federal government, with a Fulani president playing possum. But we must also realize that the Fulani cattlemen serve a social and economic need in Nigeria, and in the discussions that have gone on, and in the hysteria that has largely accompanied their increasingly violent encounters, we have failed to factor in these facts. Many a Nigerian family will go without meat without the Fulani herdsman – that hardy, defiant, agnostic wanderer with his cattle.
The quality of Nigerian beef is also high because of the leanness of the meat, the result of its grass-fed, organic, and generally more environmentally friendly production. The quality of Nigerian leather, the by-product of this cattle, which has been falsely called, “Moroccan leather,” is also a testimony for the quality of the Fulani cattle. Those who have been talking about ranching have not factored in the environmental impact of settled cattle breeding or other animal husbandry. Ranching has its place certainly, and so does the open grazing of pastoral herding.
We must therefore not throw away the ancient experiences of these pastoral herdsmen, who have by a long history of delicate symbiosis and balancing between their practice of cattle production and mastery of the environment, created a formidable, hardly studied model of effective agricultural practices thatmanages the environment. My point is quite simple: it is the federal government, through a generally incompetent policy or mechanism that has created this problem of the Fulani herdsmen.
There is the question of distrust: the Miyetti Allah, armed to the teeth, has been given the full license to kill without consequence, and have taken to forceful occupation of places they consider grazing areas. This must be curbed. The Federal government cannot use the term “cow colonies.” Otherwise, who says those whose business it is to produce sheep, may not soon form their own violent Shepherds Association, “Otu Ndi n’achi Aturu N’aha Chukwu” and force the federal government to build “Sheep Empires” alongside the “Cattle colonies.” It is of course preposterous.
And of course, the proposed cattle colonies are unlikely to work either, particularly in the Igbo areas, with their unique land tenure systems, and the unique land pressures in any case, in these areas. Yet, this problem must be solved because it is now a uniquely Nigerian problem: the pastoral Fulani, as I should emphasize again does have a right to his livelihood and lifestyle. But where his rights end, the rights of other Nigerians begin.
The Fulani does not have the right, even so forcefully backed by a central power and a policy of appeasement by Nigeria’ Federal government under the Buhari presidency, to occupy land that they just feel like occupying, but which belongs to another by long tenure. If he wants, he can negotiate the purchase of land, and that transaction should give him his legitimate claims on the right of tenure and residency. But to forcefully occupy another’s property and kill them too is an act of war and brigandage.
The Fulani herdsman must be domesticated to the civil laws. Nigeria must also establish the clear nationalities of these Fulani herdsmen. Two leading Fulani – the Sultan of Sokoto and the Emir of Kano – have frequently denied that the armed Herdsmen are actually Fulani that they know, and have advocated severe reprisal for anyone caught to that claim. This calls for the immediate protection of Nigeria’s northernmost borders. The Fulani of Niger or Chad or Mali, cannot be given the license to displace the Berom or the Tiv or the Igala, and surge increasing southward to take over parts of the Yoruba, Igbo, Edo, and the minority communities of the south, because that seems to be exactly what’s going on with their pattern of infiltration.
The armed, trans-border, and trans-national Fulani seems to be fighting an intense war of colonization right at the very noses of Nigeria’s modern national state, and are given the coverage of Nigeria’s own national security apparatus. This is why the word, “cattle colony” seems profoundly thoughtless. But to the question of cattle production: it does seem that the National Assembly would ultimately have to weigh in on this matter, and enact an Act of parliament creating grazing routes with weigh stations; Veterinary stations, Campsites,Commodities exchange pits and the cattle markets, with the compliments of police and military stations on what should be rural routes. These clearly marked routes must be isolated from, and closed off to urban developments. Clusters of modern farming communities could emerge and develop around them, and these intentional farm communities might therefore complement these grazing routes, and supply those who might choose to settle for more ordered or organic ranching for their own production.
It is imperative that Nigeria solves this problem thoughtfully, quickly, and within the principle of a sustainable framework, otherwise, we may have the “Tutsi situation” in our hands! Everybody now is pissing on the Fulani, and blaming them for the Nigerian condition. We must be wary of such easy conclusions, as the Fulani must of giving it legitimacy or justification.