For the best part of the new year, Fulani herdsmen have dominated the national discourse, for all the wrong reasons.
After the brutal execution of over a hundred people in attacks allegedly orchestrated by herdsmen in Benue and Taraba, the nation’s security frailty has been thrust under the spotlight once again.
“Farmers vs Herders”
According to a 2015 Global Terrorism Index report, “Fulani militants” were responsible for the death of 1,229 people in 2014, making them the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world at the time.
The nomadic herdsmen have been in conflict with local farmers, especially in the Middle Belt, over the access and control of lands on which their cattle graze.
Tensions between both parties have long ago resulted in the armed conflicts that have been coloured by tribal and religious sentiments that have escalated the problem.
However, the recent spate of killings appears to be as a result of a legislation that has been borne out of the conflict: the anti-open grazing law.
Lead up to Benue’s anti-open grazing law
With the emergence of herdsmen troubles in Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Plateau, Taraba,Zamfara, Enugu, Ekiti and Ondo, and half-hearted attempts by the Federal Government to find a solution, state governments have taken on the responsibility of finding unique solutions to the problem.
In May 2016, Oyo’s Governor Abiola Ajimobi announced that grazing lands, feedlots and ranches had been established for herdsmen who rear cattle in the state. He also outlawed night grazing and straying of cows outside the proposed enclosed designated grazing areas.
The same year, Anambra state governor, Willie Obiano was compelled to pay compensation for about 70 cows to herdsmen after they clashed with local farmers who were also compensated for crops destroyed.
After two residents of Ekiti State were murdered by roaming herdsmen in 2016, Governor Ayodele Fayose outrightly banned cattle rearing and grazing in the state, advising cattle owners to get their own ranches to cater to their herds.
In response to the recurrent problem in Benue, which is the hotbed for a lot of herdsmen troubles, state governor, Samuel Ortom, backed the enactment of an anti-open grazing law in the state.
Benue’s anti-open grazing law
On November 1, 2017, the Benue State government implemented the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law that outlawed open grazing in the state.
While speaking on the implementation, Ortom’s Special Adviser on Security, Colonel Edwin Jando (rtd), said the government would not build ranches for herdsmen, and advised interested livestock owners to acquire land through the due processes and build their own ranches.
Colonel Jando also revealed that part of the implementation of the law, to be enforced by special livestock guards, includes building pivot ranches that would be used as a holding facility for impounded cattle.
He explained that impounded cattle would be kept in confinement for seven days before being auctioned off or the owner pays a fine.
The state’s Commissioner of Police, Bashir Makama, also urged stakeholders to abide by the guidelines for the implementation of the law in the interest of cattle owners and farmers.
While Ortom noted that the law was not targeted at any individual or ethnic group, that’s not how it has been perceived.
Miyetti Allah groups
Since this year’s killings gathered attention, Governor Ortom has used every medium within his reach to lay the blame at the feet of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, a Fulani socio-cultural group.
The group has been vocal in its resistance to the state’s law before and after implementation so much that the governor had been writing letters of warning to the Federal Government and security agencies before 2018’s massacres.
Just a day after the implementation of the law in 2017, Kautal Hore zonal leader in charge of northcentral states, Gidado Bebeji, had criticised the method of implementation.
He expressed concern that the herdsmen’s human rights to free movement was being violated as a result of the restriction placed on the conduct of their business, and raised an alarm that they were already fleeing the state as a result.
“The state government has been speaking English with nobody caring to properly inform the pastoralists. They (herders) may be leaving the state as being reported because they would not want to be lawless especially against a law they do not understand very well,” he said.
Two days prior to the implementation, the National President of the association, Bello Bodejo, was compelled to dismiss Ortom’s warning over an alleged plan by Kautal Hore to launch attacks on local communities in the state.
Since the January 2018 attacks happened, the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore has distanced itself from the killings, claiming its members are peace-loving people.
However, another group that didn’t deny possible responsibility for the attacks is the country’s premier pastoralist body, Miyetti-Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN).
In the wake of the killings, the association attributed the attacks carried out by “misguided and criminally motivated elements”, as the consequence of unfavourable laws by some state governments that targeted their way of living.
MACBAN’s press statement read, “Our case is worsened by long years of exclusion suffered by the Fulani herdsmen as the most neglected community in the country, thereby depriving us of so many things.
“The current situation in our opinion is fuelled by the draconian laws put in place by some state governments with the singular aim of chasing our people out of the states simply for ethnic hatred.
“The anti-open-grazing law in Benue, Taraba and other states is nothing more than a symbol of intolerance and do not in any way intend to solve the farmers/grazers conflict as the livestock breeders interest is neither captured in the law nor in its implementation mechanism.”
The group explained that the attacks are likely reprisals for the loss of over 1000 Fulani people and over 2 million cattle in attacks carried out by state-sponsored militias.
The group further urged the Federal Government to “create a Federal Ministry of Livestock Development to attend to the multidimensional needs of the industry as is obtained in many countries and the enactment of a national law to carter for the peculiar needs of pastoralists”.
Despite their slightly different reaction to the recent killings, MACBAN and Kautal Hore agree on one thing: anti-open grazing laws need to go.
Federal Government intervention
With Fulani groups strongly opposing ranching as a solution to the crisis, the Federal Government has been working on a different plan.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh is proposing the idea of cattle colonies across the country.
According to Governor Ortom, the minister said the cattle colonies will be a combination of many ranches restricted to one location.
This plan has already been openly criticised by the Nigerian public and state governors who have said they won’t give up their lands for such a venture.
After a stakeholder meeting between President Muhammadu Buhari and a delegation of political leaders, traditional rulers and elders of Benue State led by Governor Ortom at the Presidential Villa on Monday, January 15, the governor said the state will not walk back its anti-open grazing law for the Federal Government’s resource-draining plan.
He said, “They are looking for 5,000 hectares we have no 10 hectares to allow it for that kind of a thing to take place. So people are free.
“Other states have the land but we in Benue State we don’t have and that was what led to us enacting this law.”
Amid a host of uncertainties frustrating efforts to find a lasting solution to the farmers-herdsmen crisis, or what many have labelled a Fulani incursion, the humanitarian cost is worrying.
Apart from the figures of the dead and injured, the Benue government has put the number of people displaced by the attacks at 60,000.
It’s yet another problem the country could do without.