By OBINNA EZUGWU
President Bola Tinubu on Thursday resurrected the Ruga settlement controversy – which many had thought died with the exit of his predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari – when he announced during the submission of a report from the National Conference on Livestock Reforms and Mitigation of Associated Conflicts in Nigeria, that his government would acquire lands for the settlement of Fulani herdsmen.
The pilot programme, it was gathered, will involve the construction of 1,000 housing units for the herders in seven states, one being Benue, one of the epicenters of herders crisis.
The reaction thus far has been largely subdued, and leaders of various sociocultural groups, who spoke to Business Hallmark, while expressing surprise, said they were still waiting to know how and where the new president wants to acquire such land.
On Sunday, leaders of tribal and socio-cultural groups in Benue State vowed to resist any plans by the Federal Government to build houses and settlements for Fulani herdsmen in any part of the state under any guise.
The leaders, in a statement issued weekend and signed by the President General of Mzough U Tiv, MUT, (Woridwide) Iorbee Ihagh and the President General of Ochetoha k’Idoma, OKI, AVM Toni Adokwu (retd), maintained that the recent hasty announcement by the Federal Government of its intention to build 1,000 housing units in seven states including Benue smacked of mischief and would not be welcomed in the state.
Ruga, a settlement programme proposed for Fulani herdsmen across the country by Buhari during his tenure as president in 2019, had nearly set the nation on fire, as leaders of different parts of the nation – from the middle belt region to across the south – vehemently opposed it, dismissing same as an attempt at Fulani colonisation.
The proposal had come at the height of violent attacks – often described by the authorities as farmers-herders clashes – on farming communities mostly in the middle belt and parts of the south by marauders often identified as Fulani herders, and the Buhari government, which had until then demonstrated seeming unwillingness to tackle the menace, was seen as using Ruga as a decoy to grab lands for his kinsmen, being himself Fulani.
The rejection of the policy was unanimous, with various stakeholders, such as southeast governors, southwest governors, middle belt leaders, Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, among others, speaking out forcefully against it.
Darius Ishaku, former governor of Taraba State had described it as ‘colonisation plot.’ Gani Adams, the 15th Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, said it was ‘an Afonja scenario,’ a reference to the ancient Oyo Empire king in Ilorin, who was killed in a rebellion led by Alimi, a Fulani priest, which led to the fall of the city to the Fulani. The Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, in a joint statement with Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, told Nigerians to defend their land against any attempt to cede them to anyone for Ruga settlements.
Garba Shehu, spokesperson to the then president, as the controversy raged, added flames to the fire by confirming in a statement that, “It is true that government at the centre has gazetted land in all states of the federation.” But that “the government has limited the take-off to the dozen states with valid requests.”
Eventually, however, the outrage forced the Buhari administration to backtrack. And not even the subsequently National Livestock Transformation Programme, which came as alternative to the policy, and, indeed, the Water Resources Bill meant to cede control of water bodies and adjoining land to the federal government, saw the light of the day, as many people, particularly Samuel Ortom, former Benue State governor, argued that they were yet Ruga through the back door.
Nonetheless, while many would have thought that they had had the last of Ruga with the exit of Buhari, his successor, Tinubu, last week resurrected the policy, triggering muted resentments; one that could yet explode into heated controversy.
“Tinubu is advised to let this Ruga matter rest,” said a prominent opinion leader in Lagos, who craved anonymity. “If he thinks we would accept to cede any land for herders under any guise, he should have a rethink. He’s trying to play with fire.”
President Tinubu had during the meeting on Thursday, established a presidential committee dedicated to the reform of the livestock industry and the provision of long-term solutions to recurring clashes between herders and farmers.
Blaming past Nigerian leaders for failing to resolve the crisis, he promised to do so, while emphasising that it’s neither the fault of the herders nor the farmers that the crisis has persisted.
“It is not the fault of herders and farmers that this crisis has persisted. It is the fault of the leadership, who failed to find immediate solutions to solve their problems. Leadership is about thinking and doing,” he said.
A statement issued by the official spokesperson and special adviser to the President on media and publicity, Chief Ajuri Ngelale, further noted that the conference was convened by the former Kano Governor and Chairman of All Progressives Congress (APC), Alhaji Abdullahi Ganduje.
“Out of every tragedy, if you are careful, you will see an opportunity. We have faced this conflict for some time. We know it is a homegrown problem. It is very hard for people to stay away from their traditional, old ways,” Tinubu had said.
“I tried in 2018 to bring about a solution to this problem, but it proved elusive. But I’ve been told not to ever give up, and today I believe the solution is here,” the President stated.
“The Federal Government is fully prepared to cover the cost of acquiring the land. These opportunities will provide gainful employment for our veterinary doctors, while opening doors for the private sector as the provision of new educational opportunities for herders and their children emerge. Medical facilities will be established. This is a life-changing opportunity that we have.
“Imagine us producing enough milk for our school children. Imagine us becoming net exporters of cheese and yoghurt. Imagine us producing the skin massively with a major Nigerian leather industry. Imagine us providing cold storage facilities and employment across the nation. These things are possible in front of us,” the President added.
Ganduje had in February, in the final weeks of the Buhari government, maintained that Ruga as proposed by the former president, was the only option to mitigate clashes between herders and farmers, arguing at the National Conference on Livestock Reforms and Mitigation of Associated Conflicts in Abuja that the policy would afford herders land to graze their livestock and prevent them from going into farmlands.
“The RUGA or ranching, which has been deliberately politicised, remains the only option that would go a long way in mitigating existential problems, as pastoralists would have lands to graze without cattle encroaching on people’s farmlands,” the former Kano governor had said.
“Because herders need fodder for their cattle and promote alternative means of producing feedstock, which reduces the need for grazing land.
“We have gone far in the establishment of Ruga settlement in Kano. Already, 25 housing units out of the projected 500, situated on 4, 413 hectares of land at Dansoshiya Forest in Kiru local government have been completed and handed over to the herders. The replica of the houses will be displayed during an exhibition planned as part of this conference.
“Modernising the livestock sector is not only key to resolving the herder-farmer conflict but was envisaged that this economic investment pillar will support and strengthen the development of market-driven ranches for improved livestock production through breed improvement and pasture production.”
The APC chairman had also argued that there was a need to educate the herders about the development of grazing reserves, noting that it was equally important to avoid the dangers of allowing the conflicts to harden to religious or ethnic conflicts.
Since the announcement by Tinubu on Thursday, the Ruga controversy has gradually returned to political discuss, especially on social media. While some supporters of the programme have wondered why there’s not been outrage as was the case under Buhari, others have maintained that the policy remains rejected, whether it’s Buhari or Tinubu.
“So RUGA that was rejected by Southerners under Buhari is now accepted under Tinubu by Southerners. This is great! I am glad Buhari was strong willed and laid the foundation for RUGA. Tinubu can continue and make it a success from there,” noted Muhammad Ohinoyi, @MuhammadOhinoyi.
But for Steven Kefas, @SKefason, a journalist and activist from Southern Kaduna, the epicenter of the herders crisis, “No Middle Belt indigene will sell his or her ancestral land for such purpose.”
According to him Tinubu should “make sure to only buy land from South West for such…”
Ruga remains a highly controversial topic. While its promoters argue that it is the best way to resolve the persistent conflict associated with open grazing, its opponents see it as a ploy to establish settlements for the Fulani, which would serve as footholds for their alleged conquest agenda, with examples of displaced communities in parts of the middle belt, particularly in Plateau State often cited.
“We are still struggling to understand why the Federal Government is pursuing the private business of an ethnic group. They are announcing it and are providing all the logistics, said Chief Okey Okoroji, lawyer and public affairs commentator.
Okoroji argues that it is not about cattle rearing, but a conquest agenda. “It is not about mere cattle rearing,” he said. “Those, who have benefit of history will understand that the Fulani have steadily sought, and still seeks to conquer Southern Nigeria. And it’s not just for Islamisation purposes alone, but also for political and economic conquest,” he said.
“They want to establish their emirates here and there and rule over the indigenous people. They have used warfare in the past; they succeeded in Northern Nigeria and parts of the Middle Belt.”
When When the idea was first suggested by Buhari, many pointed out that there was a certain “mischief” in the idea that taking over people’s ancestral land to house the Fulani would bring an end to bloodshed that the government has made little or no effort to curb.
Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos, His Eminence, Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie had delivered a scathing response to the Buhari led government over the policy
In a statement he titled “Face-to-face with truth”, the Catholic clergy took the administration to the cleaners, describing Shehu’s claim that the Ruga settlement was to solve “farmers herders clashes,” as “insolence” and an insult to Nigerians.
Okogie had pointed out that Ruga was an act of injustice, stressing it amounted to the height of duplicity for the Presidency to tell Nigerians that this is the solution to the problem of violent herdsmen.
“We are dealing here with a strain of duplicity that is rendered more tragic by the arrogance of government spokespersons. As has become the stock in trade of image makers at the Presidency, whoever disagrees with any policy of this government is treated with disdain,” he said.
“And that is coming from a government that claims to have been democratically elected! The statement that emanated from the Presidency on Sunday, June 30, 2019, rather than offer a credible explanation, served insolence on a platter” he noted.
“Nigeria professes to be a representative democracy. As we write, some figures put our population at 200 million. So, we pride ourselves as being among the largest democracies in the world. Since the different arms of government cannot contain 200 million people, we elect some of us to represent us in the legislature and the executive arm of government.
“These representatives of the people have the obligation to consult and report to the people before they act in government. This is what is termed ‘democracy’ – a government of the people, by the people and for the people. But can we find truth in the governance of this country?” he asked.
“Is there truth in Aso Rock or in any of the state government houses? Can it be found in any of the local governments? Can it be said that there is truth in our country’s national assembly? Is it not the case that those, whom we elect to represent us take us for granted? Those we hired to serve us have become our masters. And they are despotic.
”We are fed with a steady diet of lies. We are told lies during campaigns when candidates, who are utterly unpatriotic and lacking in good character, are packaged by campaign organizations and presented to Nigerians as God-sent.
“As soon as they get into governance, they begin to break their campaign promises. We were promised peace and prosperity. But we are offered insecurity and poverty. The length and breadth of our vast country is covered by a thick veil of injustice. When you are citizen of a country, where government has repeatedly demonstrated its insincerity, its readiness to tell lies and mix duplicity with insolence, it would be reckless to believe pretentious promises.”
According to him, “It amounts to a gratuitous insult on the intelligence of those, who know the history of this country to say: ‘RUGA settlement that seeks to settle migrant pastoral families, simply means rural settlement in which animal farmers, not just cattle herders, will be settled in an organised place with provision of necessary and adequate basic amenities, such as schools, hospitals, road networks, vet clinics, markets and manufacturing entities that will process and add value to meats and animal products.”’
Okogie’s intervention had come after Southern and Middle Belt Leaders, in a statement by now late Yinka Odumakin (South West), Prof. Chigozie Ogbu (Souh East), Senator Bassey Henshaw (South South) and Dr. Isuwa Dogo (Middle Belt), accused the government of nursing a hidden agenda.
They had said Shehu’s statement was full of sound, fury signifying nothing.
“We are interested in having the gazette number and its content as we know per the constitution and laws of the country that all land in each state of the federation is vested in the governor.”