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The problems with an unfinished business

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file photo; Cattle owned by Fulani herdsmen graze in a field outside Kaduna, northwest Nigeria in February 2017.<br />Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty Images


Could the current controversy over the Fulani herdsmen in Ondo and Oyo states that put the entire South-West in a fighting mood and heated up the polity have been prevented? Here is a story that might offer you a clue to the possible answer to that question.

Sometime in June/July 2019, the eruption of public complaints and protests over the killings and kidnappings blamed on the Fulani herdsmen especially in the North-Central zone, forced the Federal Government to take more than a casual notice of a dangerous and growing security challenge among the cocktail of such challenges it had been tackling ineffectively. It woke up, you see, from the comfort zone of assumptions that would normally stretch common sense.

It decided that in keeping with global practices in animal husbandry, the country needed to end the wandering days of the cattle rearers in search of fresh pasture for their animals by providing them with secure areas where they could settle down and breed their animals in peace. The government bought into the suggestion by then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, to create cattle colonies in various parts of the country. This immediately kicked up a right royal political dust.

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The government retreated and emerged with a new suggestion, to wit, reviving a more familiar option: cattle ranches. We were quite familiar with this in Northern Nigeria in the first republic when regional governments took agriculture, including animal husbandry, seriously and assisted farmers which anyway they could to be more productive. This again did not receive the kind of public applause the government expected. Not to inflame passion beyond a level that was safe and containable, the government again went back to the drawing board and came up with what it called Rural Grazing Area, known by its acronym of RUGA.

Actually, ruga is a recognised Fulani traditional settlement for animal breeders. Nothing innovative here but it was good to see an attempt by the government to turn a traditional animal breeding settlement system into a modern system able to address a critical national challenge that should not have arisen in the first place if successive governments had improved on the thoughtful policy of the Northern Regional government under Sir Ahmadu Bello, premier of the region, in this regard.

The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development at the time, Dr Mohammed Bello Umar, said that the objective of the RUGA settlement plan was to address and possibly end the clashes between herdsmen and farmers that had taken, and still take, a heavy toll on our human and agricultural resources. He further said that the plan would end migration by pastoralists in search of green pastures for their animals. That, actually, was the big idea behind all three proposals – cattle colonies, cattle ranches and RUGA.

Again, the idea was caught up in a whirlwind of opposition and soon began to dance in the wind. President Muhammadu Buhari did not like seeing his policy dancing to the drum beats of the whirlwind. He suspended the plan, perhaps, to end the controversy, rejig it and re-presented it to the public for its informed support. He has not revisited it, meaning, he did not suspend the plan, he killed it; he has since committed himself to the status quo with all the attendant security implications for his administration, the herdsmen and the farmers, and, of course, the browning of our agricultural fields. Yet the president is a cattle breeder. His cattle do not roam. They are accommodated in a ranch. A man with this practical experience should be the right man to push for either cattle colonies, cattle ranches or RUGA.

RUGA was a huge national project that perhaps would have addressed much more than ending the wandering days of the pastoralists and their clashes with peasant farmers. It would have helped to modernise animal husbandry as a critical component of our national agricultural development. There are some 20 million cattle in this country. It is clearly unwise to continue to allow this large number of animals and their breeders to roam the country at will in search of green pastures. It is inconsistent with government claims of commitment to modern agricultural development to condemn our animal breeders to the ways of their forefathers.

In my column of July 12, 2019, I noted that RUGA was “conceived as a modern pastoral settlement for nomadic herdsmen and other animal breeders. It would have a market, an abattoir as well as schools and medical facilities for the pastoralists.” Eleven states showed interest in the scheme and were willing to donate land to it for the take-off of the pilot scheme.

The loud and incendiary opposition to the scheme stemmed largely from the failure of leadership on the part of its sole promoter, the Federal Government, to market and sensitise the nation to it. I noted in my column under reference that “Those who have rejected it out of hand suspect it is part of an alleged plot to give the Fulani preferential treatment at the expense of other groups, ethnic and religious, in the Buhari administration. I would think that a matter this complex and this complicated in a country sitting on fault lines widened each day by suspicions with or without basis requires a massive education and sensitisation by the Federal Government, the sole promoter of this idea before its implementation. Those who accuse the Federal Government of arrogant stance, as in take-it-or leave it, have a point.

“A well-grounded policy in a matter of this nature (are you following me?) properly marketed to the public would not have commended itself to a hasty retreat as has happened. This country should have a sound national policy for animal husbandry as part of our national agricultural development. It may or may not be RUGA, but any such policy must aim at ending open grazing and be conceptualised and executed as a process that would mature over a given period of time.” Perish immediate effect policy.

Perhaps to show that it meant business, the Federal Government ditched RUGA and latched on to another proposal. It announced what it called National Livestock Transformation Plan. It was approved by the National Economic Council as a possible replacement for cattle colonies, cattle ranches and RUGA. I heard that there was no opposition to it from the members of the council. Maybe it was conceived as the least controversial plan so far in tackling the problem.

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I do not know about you but I have heard nothing about the new plan nearly two years after it was mooted. The problems it sought to address are worsening. The Buhari administration has rather blissfully forgotten all about what it must do with the herdsmen and the security problems that unrestricted open grazing represents for the country.

This story illustrates the fact that our leaders are afflicted with two wasting policy diseases. Their endless search for solutions to problems are accepted now as evidence that a particular government is performing. The big irony, not strange in a country of ironies, is that when solutions are identified, they are ignored and the search for new solutions continues. This should partly explain why we have progressively perfected the art of the Nigerian shuffle: one step forward, two steps backward, wiggle your waist and dance in a circle.

The second national affliction is the wasting policy disease of unfinished businesses. If you survey our national horizon, you would not fail to notice hundreds of abandoned projects caught up at various stages of completion. But the more insidious unfinished business is the apparent amnesia that makes a president or a governor sabotage his own policy, leaving it unfinished. Think of what difference it would have made to the lives of the pastoralists, the peasant farmers and the state governments and the needless crisis if one of the policies thrown up by the Federal Government in 2019 had been implemented. The herdsmen would not have made themselves unwelcome in Oyo and Ondo states. It is that simple.

By the way, the response of the presidency to the order by Ondo State government to the herdsmen to vacate the forest reserve they are occupying was jejune politics of the uninformed kind. The constitutional argument missed the point. Ownership of land is not vested in the constitution. It is vested in the state governments. The constitution grants citizens the right to live anywhere they choose in the country but it would be a grave mistake for a man to take another’s land and insist he acted legitimately because the constitution gives him the right to live wherever he chooses. The constitution gives no one the right to take another’s property without his consent. All constitutional guarantees of rights and freedoms are conditional and contingent on the conditions attached thereto being met by anyone who seeks to enjoy them.

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