Fulani herder

…Southern communities come under attacks

By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU

Travellers were last Tuesday stranded along the Akure-Benin Road, following the protest by residents of Owan community in Ovia North East Local Government Area. The residents protested the shooting of two community members by suspected herdsmen.

The gunmen were said to have attacked the farmers in their farms and opened fire on them, killing them on the spot. The protesters said one of the farmers was killed by the herdsmen without any provocation, as he was eating in his farm when he was shot dead. The protesters pulled logs of wood and benches across the road, barring travellers from continuing their journey.

At a point, the United States had dubbed them terrorists more deadly than the dreaded Boko Haram insurgents. Herdsmen have undergone a dangerous rebranding from a harmless stick-wielding herders of cattle who move from one community to another across the country to AK47- users who terrorise farmers along their grazing routes leaving in their wake trails of blood, violence and destruction of farms , often with impunity.

While the north east and some part of the middle belt regions have been the main theatres of this perennial conflicts, other parts of the country have not been completely spared. Just recently, tension rose across the South-South region after herdsmen killed more than 18 persons in Avwon, Agadama and Ohoror communities of Uwheru kingdom in Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta State.

This latest attack that has triggered rhetoric of genocidal killings by the Urhobo Progressive Union (UPU) and other stakeholders was one of the bloodiest incidents perpetrated by nomadic herdsmen in the South-South region, who have wreaked havoc in Delta, Rivers, Edo, and Akwa Ibom States in recent times.

Between Thursday and Saturday last week, unspecified numbers of armed herdsmen in search of grazing path, invaded the aforementioned communities and allowed their herds of cattle to stray into locals’ farmland and destroyed farm products. Growing frustrations and grievances against the herdsmen had resulted in frequent violent encounters between locals and the herdsmen, with some farming communities opting to stay away from their farms to avoid death.

Thus, on sighting the herdsmen, incensed youths, who accused the herdsmen of often destroying their crops, polluting streams and unleashing terror on farmers, especially women, quickly mobilised and warded them off their farms.

But the herdsmen, who have been compelled by changing climatic conditions to migrate southwards for lush green grass, perceived that their survival that is dependent on their cows was being threatened, regrouped, armed themselves with lethal weapons, reinvaded the communities and went on killing spree that had left over 14 dead.

At the hostility, several corpses including those of eight farmers had been recovered from shallow graves where they were hurriedly dumped by the marauding herdsmen.

“Six more shallow graves, where our boys were buried, have been discovered by our gallant boys. We are waiting for the military and police high command to come and evacuate them. Yesterday, two corpses were deposited at Ughelli. We are still counting,” Muoboghare, Delta State commissioner for Higher Education who hails from Uwheru said. He also indicted the army of complicity in the invasion of Uwheru, adding, after the herdsmen had finished killing, soldiers were deployed to the community to protect the herdsmen from reprisal attacks.

“In the last few years, they had killed not less than 50 people in the community, and the yearly killings were a plot by the Fulani herdsmen to take over our land. Before now some Fulani herdsmen were arrested and handed over to the police, but they were promptly freed, because the police national command structure is in the hands of Fulani officers. The community, known for its production of sweet potatoes, groundnut, pepper and fish can longer go to their farms due to the menace of herdsmen,” he said.

The violent clashes between farmers and herders have been recurrent in Delta State since 2000. But it reached an alarming magnitude since 2017 till last week. The herdsmen’s nefarious activities had been mainly in Ughelli North, Ethiope East, Ndokwa West and East Local Government Areas of the State. But Uwheru and Abraka have largely borne the brunt of brigandage and violence.

Former President-general of the Uwheru Community Development Association, Ogarivi Utso, explained  to newsmen that the nomadic herdsmen always arrive the community during the dry season, especially around November of every year in several trailers loaded with cows, and take over the open lands, ponds and farmlands and barred indigenes from entering their land.

He said the herdsmen always arrived Uwheru at the night in a long convoy of trailers shooting their AK-47 guns into the air as their trailers arrive the community, to warn locals of their presence and to stay away from the open lands and farms, which they subsequently occupy with their herds. According to him, the herdsmen leave at the beginning of the rainy season and return in November.

Utso said Uwheru people now live in perpetual fear as the Fulani herdsmen had wreaked havoc in the kingdom in the past 12 years ranging from unwarranted assaults, raping of girls and women, and maiming to deaths. He disclosed that the problem with the herdsmen in Uwheru started in 2004 when Ohoro community of Uwheru was brutally invaded by Fulani herdsmen with active collaboration of soldiers and that many houses were razed down including the palatial residence of the then president general of the community, Emmanuel Enivwegha.

During this attack, he said no fewer than 10 youths were killed, including one Edjerigho Enivwegha, the immediate younger brother of then president-general.

“Ohoro was like a floodgate that opened the way to further invasions of the entire Uwheru kingdom till date. Uwheru is peace loving people known world over as groundnut producers and majority of them also indulge in hunting, farming and fishing activities, but the brutal activities of the herdsmen have affected these economic activities of the people and have thrown them into hunger”.

He explained that all efforts to contain the herdsmen, including bringing them to a roundtable discussion was abortive. Reports and representations made to all government levels and the police over the years also yielded nothing.

Meanwhile, the consistent infiltration of Uwheru by heavily armed Fulani herdsmen have continued to create hardship, pains and difficulties for the harmless natives. The State Governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, had condemned the attack on Uwheru communities. He described the killing of innocent people in the affected communities as unwarranted and wicked. According to him, the suspected herdsmen alleged to be aided by unidentified military personnel, were mindless.

Similarly, the publicity secretary of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), Abel Oshevire, told journalists that he escaped the herdsmen’s bloody rampage and took  refuge in other communities. He said other Uwheru communities like Oreba, Owarovwo, Ophororo, Ohoro, Urede among others had constantly been victims of herdsmen attacks.

“These herdsmen are known to even demand for levies and protection money from our people in Uwheru, who are pursuing their legitimate livelihood of fishing and farming on their ancestral lands. Those who resist these demands have been known to be attacked, raped, maimed or killed by the wicked herdsmen.

“We are particularly worried at the allegations that on Saturday, the 15th of February, 2020, men in military uniforms, allegedly on the side of the herdsmen, were deeply involved in this recent saga and shot sporadically at harmless citizens of Agadama-Uwheru, leaving some of them dead or gravely injured.

“The UPU urges the Federal and military authorities to investigate this allegation, with a view to bringing the security agents and herdsmen involved in this dastardly activity to book,” Oshevire said.

Before last weekend’s attack, Abraka had long been overwhelmed by the persistent attacks of armed herdsmen. Many people were reported killed in their farms. Farmers abandoned their farmlands, causing the astronomic rise in the price of staples like gari and yam.

President-General of Abraka Kingdom, Emmanuel Idogho, had recently appealed to the state government to act fast and save the town from the onslaught of armed herdsmen. Idogho said he was grieved over how his people were being murdered gruesomely as a result of unprovoked attacks on them by the bloodthirsty hoodlums.

It would be recalled that on Wednesday, January 7, suspected herdsmen invaded Isele-Azagba, Aniocha South Council Area of Delta State, shooting sporadically, and killed an unidentified man and kidnapped a 17-year daughter of a teacher at Azagba Mixed Secondary School. Efforts of the community’s vigilance group that combed the entire forest in search of the victims and the herdsmen, was to no avail. The abductors later called to demand for N10 million ransom for the girl.

As tempers flare over recent killings, hope for a peaceful coexistence between local residents of the State and the nomadic herdsmen appear at the moment to be dashed. Already, the Delta State Council of Traditional Rulers, after an emergency meeting of the council in Asaba, through its Chairman, Dr. Emmanuel Efeizomor II, described the attack as very provocative, warning that any further attack in any Delta territory by Fulani herdsmen would not be taken lightly.

The monarchs hailed the prompt response of the community’s vigilante outfit and the police, which repelled the herdsmen. Also affected was the Abavo Kingdom, in Ika South Local Government Area, where the traditional ruler, Obi Uche Irenuma II, recently raised the alarm over the invasion of his kingdom by persons suspected to be Fulani herdsmen.

The monarch announced that two of his subjects had been kidnapped along the Obianyima-Okpe Road. He also explained that tension had heightened in the community as a result of the activities of the herdsmen. The monarch further stated that yam barns owned by his subjects had been destroyed by the invaders, who allegedly cut tubers of yam to feed their cattle in addition to the destruction of other economic crops, including cassava, noting,

“As a result of the herders’ menace, my subjects have abandoned their farms for fear of being kidnapped, killed or raped.”

For years now, the alarming activities of herdsmen had taken a toll on communities in Edo State. One of the worst hit is an agrarian community, Odiguete in Ovia North East Local Government Areas of the state.

Recently, a farmer and a policeman were murdered by herdsmen in Owan community. The youths of the community said they had called in the police to help retrieve the body of the farmer from the herdsmen. And it was in the process of trying to retrieve the remains that the herdsmen, who have been accused of being in possession of small arms and engage in highway robbery, fired at the policemen on a rescue mission, killing one of them in the process.

In the same vein, an undergraduate was reportedly killed by herdsmen at Ugboha, a rural community in the state. About 12 people, who sustained various degrees of injuries, were hospitalised at the Benin Central Hospital, and other private hospitals. The incident at Ugboha occurred when the deceased identified as Collins Ojierakhi, and his friends were on their way back to the village from Uromi, headquarters of Esan North East Local Government Area, according to the father of the deceased student, Festus Ojierakhi.

Also Akwa-Ibom State had not been insulated from the deadly conflict between herdsmen and farmers which has continued to cause social upheaval across country. Between August and September 2019, the State witnessed two major attacks in Ukanafun and Mkpat Enin local government councils.

Although, there has not been any attack afterwards, the government and respective communities are not resting in their oars to guide against any upsurge of the nefarious activities of herdsmen, especially now that there are reports of such heinous acts in some states in the South-South states. When the killing by the herdsmen happened in the state then, Senior Special Assistant to the governor on Security Matters, Capt. Iniobong Ekong (rtd), described the incident as unfortunate.

“But I must tell you that they are not anywhere near those things that they are calling herders/farmers invasion. In interpersonal issues you cannot rule out aggression. But we are cautious to prevent a misinterpretation, and we are conscious to ensure that we don’t allow a situation where it becomes a people against a people.”

In the last four years, herdsmen have established themselves as lords of the manor in many agricultural communities across Nigeria.

Professor Olaniyan Ojo of the Department of History, Kogi State University told  this newspaper that “Herder–farmer conflicts in Nigeria have mainly involved disputes over land and/or cattle between herders and farmers in the Middle Belt and across parts of the country since the return of democracy in 1999.

“This phenomenon and pattern of conflict are seen in some quarters as ethnic but it is not. Though often misrepresented as ethnic and/or religious conflicts, they are the result of economic, political and environmental tensions in the country.”

Land conflicts

Professor Aderemi Adekunle, an expert in social migration at the Centre for Social Relations, Nasarawa State University told BusinessHallmark that “Conflicts between farmers and herders can be understood as a problem of access to land. The beginning of the 21st century witnessed an expansion of agriculturist population and cultivated land at the expense of pastureland in the Middle Belt.

“In an already politically unstable region, it has never always been possible to ascertain a legal title to land for every farmer. As a result, trans-humans routes of herders were no longer available especially in a context of global warming.”

Another reason often cited for the conflict between herders and farmers in the country is the deteriorating environmental conditions, desertification and soil degradation have led Fulani herdsmen from Northern Nigeria to change their transhumance routes. Access to pastureland and watering points in the Middle Belt became essential for herdsmen travelling from the North of the country.

The farmer/herder conflicts have been taking place in regions which have been unstable since the 2000s. Urban conflicts in Jos and Kaduna have been particularly violent and, despite violent clashes with the authorities, their causes have never been addressed politically.  Adekunle said “Conflicts might not have been addressed adequately because traditional authorities have not been fulfilling their role in colonial-era settlements”.

However, the intensifying nature of the clashes have reached a level were Nigerian and foreign newspapers are often unable to provide exact numbers of casualties. Despite the high number of attacks, Nigerian and foreign journalists have rarely access to first-hand testimonies and trend to report the figures.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, these conflicts resulted in over 800 deaths by 2015.The year 2016 saw further incidents in Agatu, Benue and Nimbo, Enugu State. In April 2018 Fulani gunmen allegedly killed 19 people during an attack on the church and afterwards they burnt dozens of nearby homes.

In June 2018, over 200 people were killed and 50 houses burnt in clashes between farmers and Fulani cattle herders in Plateau State. In October 2018, Fulani herdsmen killed at least 19 people in Bassa. On 16 December 2018, Militants believed to be Fulani herdsmen attacked a village in Jema’a, killing 15 people and injuring at least 24 others, the attack occurred at a wedding ceremony.

On 11 February 2019, an attack on an Adara settlement named Ungwar Bardi by suspected Fulani gunmen killed 11. Reprisal attack by Adara people targeted settlements of the Fulani killing at least 141 people with 65 missing. The attacks took place in Kajuru LGA of Kaduna State.

According to to the governor, Mallam Nair El Rufai, the motive was to destroy specific communities. The Coalition Against Kajuru killings stated on 18 March 2019 that 130 people have been killed in a series of revenge attacks since the massacre was announced by El-Rufai. In January 2018 about 10 persons were killed in an attack and reprisal involving herders and local farmers in Numan local council of Adamawa State.

In May 2018 over 400 herdsmen attacked four villages of Lamurde, Bang, Bolk, Zumoso and Gon in Numan and Lamurde local councils of Adamawa State killing 15 people; 21 people were killed by herdsmen in a village in Demsa local government area of Adamawa State.32 Christians were murdered by Muslim Fulani herdsmen

The Nigerian government has been unable to address the causes of the crisis. Fighting Boko Haram in the North-East and facing rising levels of violence in different regions of the country, the government has nonetheless tried to implement a few measures. Since 2012, there have been projects to create transhumance corridors through the Middle Belt.

Mostly supported by Northern lawmakers and opposed by their Southern counterparts, these endeavours have been rarely successful. In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari tried to create Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) settlements. His decision was met with fierce criticism.

The majority of farmer-herder clashes have occurred between Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers, exacerbating ethno-religious hostilities. Insecurity and violence have led many populations to create self-defence forces and ethnic militias, which have engaged in further violence. Critics and media have accused Fulanis of trying to Islamize the Middle Belt.

In 2014, many Nigerian and foreign newspapers widely reported the Global Terrorism Index which ranked the Fulani as the fourth deadliest terrorist group on the planet. In 2019, journalist Tunji Ajibade accused the media of promoting ethnic hatred, by often attributing killings to Fulani herdsmen without any confirmation from the police.

In contrast, ethnic and/or identities of attackers targeting Muslim or Fulani communities are often unidentified by the media. Blaming the herders and the Fulanis in particular for an alleged genocide must be understood in a context of intense rivalry between different communities in the country.

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