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Those who ordered herders out of South are not true northern elders — Paul Unongo

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By Chioma Gabriel,
Editor Special Features

Second Republic Minister and former Chairman of Northern Elders Forum, NEF, Paul Unongo, in this encounter, posits that the problems associated with the suspected herders will continue except Nigerians embrace ranching. He also speaks on some other national issues. Excerpts:

Herdsmen, Imo, herders

What is your take on former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s letter to Buhari which has generated furore in the polity?

The current democratic system was nurtured by Obasanjo. He handed over to civilians in 1979. He emerged as a civilian President in 1999.   He is in the best position to advise his military colleagues.   In his recent letter, I think he was trying to be a guiding figure. He believes Buhari should do something because of the integrity of the corps. He felt he needed to call the attention of Buhari to the current state of affairs. Obasanjo is very proud of his uniform even though he is no more in it. The uniform gave him prominence. He is a historic figure and when God decided that the Biafra war should not split the federation, it was Obasanjo that the Biafran forces surrendered to. I think when he makes a comment, we should listen to him. I believe Obasanjo wants ex-military personnel to protect the image of the military.   I know that some people are angry at his approach. Buhari with all the capacity he has is a very respectful person and Obasanjo has access to him.   Maybe he tried many times to talk to this man in private and since he wouldn’t listen, he decided to write a public letter.   When he calls Buhari’s attention to something, the President should listen, especially having been a former Head of State and also a civilian President. If the situation in the country appears tense and a man like Obasanjo complains, we should listen. Many people think he likes mischief but I don’t think so. Politics apart, we should listen to a man in the capacity of Obasanjo, especially with the way things are going. Buhari served under Obasanjo when he (Obasanjo) was Head of State. Buhari was a junior officer under him. Ordinarily, one should expect that Obasanjo should seek Buhari’s attention and advise him secretly. But this is Obasanjo’s style and he does this anytime he feels something is not right about Nigeria. It is not like he is witch-hunting anybody because he is not seeking political position or attention. Obasanjo fought the civil war and was a commander of one of the divisions of the army and the forces of disintegration surrendered to him. Within that context, he has a very big stake in this nation. He should be allowed to be Obasanjo because he is not playing any mischief. He is seeing something and he is drawing attention to it.

Buhari in the eyes of his political constituency cannot do wrong. Therefore, taking on him publicly as Obasanjo was not right in the eyes of his followers. But is Obasanjo an active politician?   He has graduated to the position of a statesman and should be allowed to make comments about this country.

Apart from Obasanjo’s letter, the NEF recently called on the Fulani in the South to return to the North. Do you think the group took the right step?

The Fulani in Nigeria is Nigerian citizens. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees every Nigerian to live in every part of this country. I think no matter what anybody feels, they are also subject to the rule of law that exists in Nigeria. There is no law that says certain people cannot live in certain parts of Nigeria. Anybody who says so is trying to instigate tension in the polity and anybody who has lived through the civil war and participated in it will not want to create a situation that will remind us of the past. I think it is wrong. I am a northerner and I don’t know the northern elders that made such an instigating statement. Are these elders the ones that I once headed before I was removed as the head? No true northern elder would give such an order to the Fulani to come back to the North. I think we should stop playing games with the unity of Nigeria.   In that context; I am in support of the President coming out quickly to ask the Fulani and other Nigerians residing in every part of this country to stay where they are. Nigerians, including the Igbo-speaking people living in the North, should remain where they are. We should work together to build a strong Nigeria and we should not listen to the voices of dissent or people who are angry. Nobody in the North has the right to recall northerners in the South back to the North and I don’t know which northern elders issued such a statement. We should ignore it and continue to live with our brothers and sisters in the South. No politician would able to push us again to war. There are problems in this country and we need to sit down and address it. Nobody can break this country. We shed so much blood in the past. We cannot afford that again. The war was not a joke and Nigeria has passed that stage. No country that is sensible will fight a civil war twice and no country can survive it twice. America fought a civil war about 240 years ago but today they are together. And those who think Nigeria is failing are wrong. How old are we? I don’t see why people who call themselves leaders from the North should call on our people from the South to come back. I am a northern leader and elder and I am telling Nigerians to stay where they are and be law-abiding. Nigerians should stop doing things that divide us and concentrate on what unites us. They should intermarry, socialise and forget about divisive tendencies.

Nigeria seems to be hanging on a precipice with the spate of kidnapping, killing, banditry, and herdsmen menace. Are you not concerned?

My ideal Nigeria is very close to the ideals of the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, who championed the cause of one Nigeria. Zik chose one Nigeria. When his fellow Igbo called him a traitor for his position, he still stood on one Nigeria.   I was a youth, who was inspired greatly by people like Zik. I shall continue believing in one Nigeria. I participated in the struggle for the democracy we have now.

I don’t like what I am seeing now. There is too much insecurity.   I don’t think some forces will come from the blues and wipe out the problems. It is the little acts of people like us that will push us to ideal Nigeria. I trained a young-man from Igboland called Rochas Okorocha. He was not called Rochas then but I am proud of him because I travelled to Owerri recently and I passed through the roads to Okigwe and the one that leads to Port Harcourt and I saw what this boy did. He is one of the young Nigerians, who keep giving me hope about Nigeria. You may not like him, but what he did in Imo, if we had three, four, five governors doing it in their states, I think the Nigeria of our dreams will become a reality.

I don’t like to concentrate on the bad and the ugly, I remember the cattlemen that used to come and graze their cattle in my village when I was a young boy. Now, I am 84 years old, they used to give us milk we gave them yams. They never fought us, they never destroyed our farms. We gave them roasted yam or boiled yam. I hope Nigeria will be like that again.

We should not concentrate on ethnicity. Nobody wants to take over Nigeria. The federal government in its wisdom and at the wrong time and without proper preparation introduced a very good policy of ranching to stem the killings going on in the country.

Unfortunately, the implementation came at the time when Fulani herdsmen started using AK 47. In the past, they were using sticks and people welcomed them in their communities and there were no killings like they do today. That in itself shows we didn’t prepare for the consequences of development because there is more competition. I see hope in what Buhari is doing. He feels RUGA will resolve the issue of conflicts.   The advantages of ranching are so enormous. Nobody should have opposed ranching. I think the Fulani herders should reduce these killings by doing ranching without making anybody feel that somebody is encroaching on his land or attempting to Islamise him. I think we should shun ethnicism and religiosity and be more like Zik.

Ranching is good but anywhere there is a law existing like what exists in Benue, the federal government should not go with something new or different. After all, the President is not going to contest another election. He should be above party politics to support the laws made by a state.

All over the world, ranching is a personal business, not a government business. What is the business of government in dabbling into personal businesses? 

As I said, some good policies come at the wrong time. What many southerners don’t understand is that the land in the South is fertile. If what you said is true, that some of these herdsmen are foreigners, then foreign cows have come. Then with the increase in settlements, increase in population, they can’t continue to roam about. There must come a time when we have to refer to history. What did Venezuela do? What did Brazil do? What did Britain do? What did France do? Herdsmen in these countries at one time were roaming with their animals. But they don’t do that anymore. They ranch. If you allow conflict to affect the introduction of ranching, then, we will continue to have all the problems we are having now.   As far as I am concerned, Nigerians will have to sit down and decide that the time has arrived to accept ranching. If we don’t accept ranching, these problems will continue.

Many Nigerians believe the government is trying to forcefully give out ancestral land to foreigners. Most of these herdsmen do not speak English or Hausa. They speak French and their local languages. What do you make of that?

If our governments allowed our borders to be so porous, and foreigners are pouring in to increase our problems, then, there is an issue. That should be condemned and we should point out to them that the people who want to benefit from RUGA are predominantly foreigners. Why are you allowing foreigners into Nigeria? Why don’t Nigerians go to court?   We have existing laws that can take care of every single problem that we have in Nigeria. Nigerians only pay lip service to the rule of law.

When you take your citizens’ money and resources and give to others, you should be stopped because it is illegal and we can stop it. If it is true that the RUGA programme is for foreigners, it should be discontinued. We must find a solution to the problem. Otherwise, we are going to hand over a troubled Nigeria. But if we plan properly, these people will have the opportunity to raise their cattle where they could yield three to four times more than their haggard animals that roam around are currently doing. We need to teach people how ranching works. Nigerians spend too much time on politics instead of trying to solve problems and problems are not solved by ad hoc methods.

If ranching is becoming a problem then we need to discuss with the people, especially the landowners. What people are opposed to is this attitude of not explaining things before implementation. You don’t impose a policy on the people. We have to discuss the problem of migration.

Also read: Miyetti Allah’s call for Obasanjo arrest nauseating- N’Delta agitators  

Someone invades your territory with cows and destroys crops, kidnaps people, rapes women and the government calls the situation farmers/herders clash. Is that what it is?

People all over the world have gone through this and emerged from it stronger. With the advancement of ranching and organised farming, they addressed the problem. They set aside land in those areas or bought lands for ranching. We need to accept that. We must provide a solution to that and the solution is dialogue. We should talk transparently about the intentions and policies of the government and we should give time to people to query them. I have read reports where people said they should use Sambisa forest for ranching and it is a good idea.   I don’t think there will be any fight if ranching is accepted. There used to be cattle routes in the past but these places are all occupied. Anyway, we are in the 21st century and such things are no longer obtainable. Those who suggested Sambisa forest have a point and grass could be imported to fill the place. But let’s dialogue.

Isn’t herding a personal business?

We should not abandon some businesses in the hands of people alone, because 90 per cent of the individuals in Nigeria are so weak.   If businesses are left in their hands,, the greed inherent in a capitalist system will make those that stole money to make all of us slaves. Within that context, the government has an obligation to protect the commonwealth for the common people.

If we leave ranching in the hands of individuals, three per cent of Nigerians will take over all the lands in the country. A government has an obligation to protect the poor and protect the young. We cannot compete with the very powers that have money. If we do it that way, in less than one year, we would be fighting civil wars. Within that context, I criticise the implementation. I am 100% with that thought the implementation of RUGA can make people rich.

How come that in this 21st century when other countries are talking about advanced technology, Nigeria is talking about cows?

I don’t agree with you. When this government came into power in 2015, our economy was down. I was with Jonathan and I told him our economy was in a very precarious state. When this government came in, the security situation in the North-East was terrible. I am an old man that went to school. I saw the areas that were captured by insurgents being retaken by our soldiers. This government has recovered stolen funds and brought them back to Nigeria. They made tremendous efforts to stop corruption and they chased away Boko Haram. But the government could have done better. Saying that it achieved nothing is not true.   I have also seen the economic activities of this government and the economy of Nigeria is getting better.

Where are those recovered monies? Don’t you think they have been re-looted?

That is another issue. We were talking about the achievements of the government, you said they have done nothing and I said no. They have done something. But they could do more because there is still kidnapping, banditry and general insecurity but they have done something, much more than ever before. Anybody who wants to steal in Nigeria now is afraid.

Or anybody who wants to steal has to be in All Progressives Congress, APC because in APC sins appear forgiven?

I know that the former Secretary to the Government, two Senators and a governor who are APC members are being punished A former governor from my state is being punished. And another one from Plateau is in jail. My former governor was jailed for misappropriation and he is also a member of APC. I think people shouldn’t generalise. We should say that they have done this correctly but they could have done better. I am extremely worried about the lack of security because our country now is like when you sleep, you are not sure whether you will not be kidnapped while sleeping or someone will not gun you down while sleeping. They could have done better in this area but they have achieved something. They can still take care of these things.

There is a lot expected of this government to do. Let them tell us what the problem is so we could suggest solutions. For instance, we have to convince them that foreigners must not take advantage of RUGA and invade our territories.


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