By Muyiwa Adetiba
The image of the herdsmen that I grew up with is not the image kids of today have. Today’s herdsmen carry AK47. They kill. They burn down houses. They take over communities. They have heightened religious and ethnic distrust in the country.
They have stretched the concept of good neighbourliness to its limit. Scarce resources have been deployed to contain them to little or no avail. Some political defections have been attributed to the scourge of herdsmen. So big is this menace that some political watchers believe it could influence the outcome of next year’s elections.
But it has not always been like that. Time was when they were rarely seen, at least in the rural Ilesha where I was raised. And when we met them, they were treated as esoteric but friendly creatures. They disturbed no one and took our jokes including taunts sometimes, good naturedly. They had clubs for their cows, straw hats for their heads and pouches of water for their thirst.
So when a credible, high ranking official of this administration said—in passing by the way—that he had a solution to the menace of herdsmen, my curiosity as a newsman was aroused. Mr Audu Ogbeh is the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development which means all forms of agriculture, including livestock, fall under his portfolio.
We were discussing a wild range of issues, including insecurity in the land, when the issue of herdsmen/ farmers’ clash came up. His solution seems far-fetched and yet simple. In his opinion, if we want to rediscover the image of herdsmen we grew up with, an image of benign men who wielded clubs instead of guns and played with kids instead of destroying them, then we have to revisit the past. We have to re-tread the path we once trod.
By way of explanation, he took me back in time to the days when Nigeria lived by agriculture. He reminded me that the Federal Government prosecuted the civil war without borrowing a single kobo through agricultural proceeds. He reminded me of the days of plantations and more importantly, grazing reserves. He then took me to the period grazing reserves were either abandoned or encroached upon. The natural consequence of that was that, left on their own, herdsmen followed water and green pastures down south. And because they no longer travelled along recognised and beaten paths, they were exposed to new dangers.
They therefore needed to protect their cattle against wild animals and rustlers. That necessitated their initiation and introduction to arms. The Benue valley comprising parts of Benue, Nasarawa, Enugu, Kogi, Taraba and Adamawa was a place they were sure of water and grass, and so they moved there as soon as the dry season started. In their desperation to get grass and water—a cow needs about 40 litres of water per day—their enemies were no longer confined to wild animals and rustlers.
Their enemies now included those who deprived them access to grass and water. Hence the increasing destruction of farms and settlements. Some, who soon realised that it was by far more lucrative to kidnap than tend cows took to crime using guns which were freely available in the Sahel. That to him, is the problem we find ourselves in today. A problem caused by lack of anticipatory planning.
According to him, he had anticipated this looming danger and within weeks of becoming Minister, had written to all state governors to provide land for ranching. Only 16 bothered to reply. The intention was not to force anybody to provide land but to show the advantages of ranching in different parts of the country since cattle roam everywhere in the country. It was also to prove that herding was not the preserve of any ethnic group.
As a matter of fact, cattle rearing would ultimately be more lucrative in the south because of cooler temperature and availability of water. Unfortunately, the whole thing became politicised and different meanings were read into the name colony. A colony is simply a cluster of ranches. It is also a familiar word used in agriculture like the colony of bees and butterflies.
But mischievous people took it to mean there were attempts to colonise certain parts of the country. ‘It is a sort of vindication for me,’ he said, ‘to hear the Ghanaian Government announce in July that it would stop the roaming of cattle and go into ranching. The Government even used the word colony.’
‘The good news however, is that we do not need any state government to donate a square meter of land to ranching if they don’t want to any more.’ He said. ‘A recent survey has shown that the country has 415 grazing reserves spread across the northern states with the largest in Adamawa. One hundred and seventeen of them were gazetted.
Checks have shown that the 415 reserves cover a total land mass of five million hectares (one hectare is a football field). Some have been encroached upon but the country still has over 4 million hectares which means the country has enough reserves to take care of over 60 million cows. Nigeria, according to ECOWAS estimate currently has less than 20 million cows while Niger has ten million.
What the country needs, according to the Minister, ‘is for us to rehabilitate them, create mini dams and lakes for water and food.’ ‘The issue now is how quickly we can get to work as a nation to accommodate the cattle and stop them roaming around.’ ‘I should also state that there is no restriction as to who can apply for space for their cattle.’
He debunked the notion that government was assisting herdsmen by saying government has always aided farmers and a herdsman is a farmer. He gave examples of government sometimes subsidising maize to poultry farmers by as much as 50% and paying compensation for poultry, piggery and tomato farmers who have been victims of natural disasters. ‘So what we do for other farmers we should do for the herdsman. And I can’t emphasise enough that you don’t have to be a Fulani to own cattle.’
Interestingly, some of the oppositions to ranching came from some Fulani who claimed that roaming was a cultural thing and they should be allowed to practice their culture. His counter argument to them was that it was inhuman to subject a five-year old to the wild in this day and age when he should be in school. ‘The poor deserve a life too,’ he said indignantly and added that the earlier the nation came to grips with ranching the better for our economy. More importantly, the sooner we would address the herdsmen/ farmers’ clashes.