By Olu Fasan
President Muhammadu Buhari bowed to the inevitable last week. Following intense public outcry, he suspended the Rural Grazing Area, RUGA, project. But the RUGA plan is so dangerous, so provocative, that he was utterly wrong to have even mooted it. With RUGA, Buhari risks stoking the unravelling of Nigeria’s artificially maintained façade of unity.
But why? Well, RUGA is dangerous for at least three reasons. First, it would create a special category of Nigerians, Fulani herdsmen, based on their ethnicity and way of life. Second, it would accord to those “special” citizens privileges and advantages not accorded to other Nigerians, contrary to section 42 of the Constitution. And, third, it would offend the sensibilities of the nationalities that have suffered untold injustices in the hands of the seemingly untouchable herdsmen, thus subjecting the people of those nationalities to humiliation as second-class citizens.
Yet, the government was defending the RUGA project on false pretences. President Buhari’s special assistant on social media, Lauretta Onochie, tweeted that the government was hearkening to everyone’s cry that “the killing is too much” and”government must do something”. In its press statement,the presidency said: “RUGA Settlement is to resolve the farmer/herder conflicts”.
Of course, the incessant killing of innocent farmers by criminal herdsmen is too much. Of course, everyone wants the government to do something. But what exactly? What about disarming the herders and stopping the killing? What about giving justice to the victims? No, the government has done none of these. Instead, President Buhari’s idea of “resolving the conflicts” is to appease the herdsmen by settling them in the same states whose people they’ve been killing in sometimes genocidal-type attacks!
In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly recognised the “Responsibility to Protect” in cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing and massive violence. But the Buhari government has done nothing to protect communities oppressed by the herdsmen or to give victims of their appalling atrocities the justice they deserve. Yet, the same government has reportedly set aside an initial sum of N12 billion to settle the herdsmen in exclusive cattle colonies across the country. Every step the Buhari government has taken on the herder-farmer conflicts has been to appease the herdsmen at the expense of the traumatised farmers and communities across Nigeria. It’s difficult to think of any enduring conflict-resolution without justice.
Of course, the herders face environmental challenges, such as desertification and droughts, and, as Nigerians,they are entitled to move around to feed their cattle. But their rights to free movement cannot supersede the farmers’ rights to the peaceful enjoyment of their property, their farmlands. Legally or morally, herders cannot enter other people’s farmlands to feed their cattle without negotiations and agreements with the farmers, and the government has a duty to protect farmers against any violation of their property rights.
What’s more, as cattle-rearing is a private business, if the herders want ranches across the country, they should, either independently or through their state governments, negotiate with other state governments to create such ranches in their states, perhaps on commercial terms. The Federal Government should not nationalise cattle-rearing, either through RUGA or the so-called National Livestock Transformation Plan. But if, being a statist government, the Buhari administration wishes to play a role, it must negotiate with state governments and incentivise them to establish ranches. In doing so, it must duly respect the states’ constitutional rights under the Land Use Act, and not bully them into giving up lands.
Unfortunately, that spirit of negotiation has been lacking in the herder/farmer saga. For the herdsmen, they’ve behaved like the colonialists who wanted trade routes in other countries, but, instead of negotiating with those countries, used military force not only to secure the trade routes but also to colonise the countries. That’s exactly what the Fulani herdsmen have been doing. They invade communities, appropriate their farmlands and displace the people, colonising their lands. That’s why many see the herdsmen as pursuing a “Fulanisation” or Islamisation expansionist agenda!
Unwisely, Northern politicians, including the president himself, who is a Fulani, have fuelled this suspicion. For instance, in 2016, it was a Northern senator, Zaynab Kure, who sponsored the grazing reserve bill, while another Northern senator, Abdullahi Adamu, threatened opponents of the bill that “government has the monopoly of violence”. Now, President Buhari wants to create not just ranches, but settlements for herders”with provision of necessary and adequate basic amenities, such as schools, hospitals, road networks, etc”.
The RUGA settlements would be special communities within states, with the herders in those communities, which are like special economic zones, enjoying federally funded basic amenities that most citizens of the state will never enjoy. And, of course, as the herders grow in population and wealthier, thanks to government subsidies and protection, they would be emboldened to advance their ethnic expansionist agenda in the states in which the cattle colonies are established. Is it difficult to see how, as Professor Wole Soyinka warned,Nigeria could explode because of RUGA?
Sadly, the Presidency is disingenuous and ill-intentioned. It says RUGA is voluntary, yet it’s bullying states to sign up to the scheme; it says it has suspended the plan, yet it secretly wants to pursue it. But unless President Buhari wants Nigeria’s fragile unity to be blown to smithereens on his watch, he must cancel the RUGA plan altogether. It’s too dangerous!