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The RUGA palaver: Adopting Awo’s template as panacea


Herdsmen’s children

Ethnographers have cautioned that there are certain lexical items in a language possessing such emotive force as to seem the last word in barbaric dislocation or cynical dis-illusionment. The word “Ruga” appears to fall into this category. As a noun, “ruga” in Fulfulde (the near-esoteric language of the migrant Fulani tribe) is said to mean “settlement” in its entire ecological ramification. Its connotation as a verb, however, gives the impression of a command, a mandate or a charge to over-run huge neighbourhoods, sack their cultures and replace them with a subtle albeit insidious reign of the exploitation of local incompetence, internal treachery and cowardly collapse. The Fulani jihad of the early 19th century over-ran a large part of northern Nigeria. The conquerors as settlers assimilated with the people among whom they lived. They adopted their language while enriching it with numerous items from their own lingo. They brandished their mode of Islam even as they dis-avowed religious syncretism that was prevalent among the indigenous people.

Traditional Hausa or Habe kings had drawn their authority from a syncretic blend of Islam and “pagan” precepts. The jihad itself reportedly arose, among other reasons, from Fulani opposition to the mixing of “pagan” practices with the observance of the tenets of the “true” faith. With the passage of time, however, virtually all the previously condemned Habe institutions and practices found their way back into the emirates as formal practices. Many of their memorials survive in fascinating hybrids up to this day. Once they had integrated and settled, the invaders seemed no longer able to present a serious problem. On the move as they are nomads, they continue to be formidable. They leave behind them local concerns or anxieties of massive onslaughts expected from a people “on the move.”

The present controversy over a putative national programme for providing land and access for herdsmen and their cattle across Nigeria’s land mass has been largely conduced by an invidious or partisan Federal Government position. Cattle rearing or the protection of livestock has become, in Nigeria, the metaphor for identifying the true nature of the official perception of the “commanding heights” of the economy over which government’s attention and energy are understandably concentrated. Official attention to other sectors of the economy trail behind the requirement or urgency to forestall a feared anger or exasperation of the Fulani herdsmen and the consequences attendant thereto. These ones must be courted, placated or pacified for the “wrongs” which the indigenous people of Nigeria have done them.


Ignoring the clear provisions of the law under a convenient perception of the primacy of “national interest” over and above the rule of law, President Buhari has been hand-in-gloves with his Fulani tribesmen. Buhari has openly preached an impassioned sermon of brotherly accommodation of “fellow Nigerians” who are legitimately seeking grazing land for their cattle. Prime members of the President’s government including the out-gone Inspector-General of Police, and the former Minister of the Interior have peculiarly re-created the meaning, intendment or objective of the Fulani herdsmen militia attacks just to lead us into a responsive awareness of the “inevitability” of the situation or of our plight.

The thrust of the Land Use Act vests all lands comprised within a state in the governor of that State. The federal government was however poised to railroad its programme of open grazing, “cattle colony” or “grazing reserves” down the throat of the governors of Nigeria’s federating units.

The government has not been discerning enough to recognise that nomadic life is anachronistic or out of tune with modern existence. Many societies had been nomadic in the early days of their formation. The American Indians used to shepherd their buffalos, guiding them across long, uncharted territories. However, the requirement of or the search for an acceptable social system has paved the way for a modernist, less-prickly inter-personal relations milieu and genuine progress. The earth’s land resource being so finite, all available land space has been mapped out, surveyed and appropriated by individuals, families, villages, towns, etc. There are therefore no longer frontiers or “no man’s land”; there are only well defined boundaries. Trespassing has generally been criminalised. Farm settlements, ranches, animal husbandry and grazing enclosures, etc have been identified as generally acceptable and less prone to the vexatious, painful and murderous activities of people like the Fulani herdsmen militia who rampage sleepy communities, destroy farm lands and crops, kill and maim innocent villagers in farming communities and lay siege on motorists on the highway, killing or abducting them for ransom.

Flustered or embarrassed by the popular rejection of a programme for rewarding errant Fulani herdsmen, the government devised a detour. It self-complacently announced it had secured land in all parts of the country for establishing composite ranches consisting of grazing land, modern social amenities in the form of schools, hospitals, veterinary clinics, markets, road networks, dams manufacturing entities, etc for the convenience of herdsmen, their wives, children and other dependants. The whole nation expectedly rose in bemused uproar, countering the government’s claim that it had been consulted and its concurrence obtained. Government shame-facedly renounced its position, saying it was “suspending the implementation” of the programme. From community to community came echoes of bewilderment regarding a patently partisan and invidious attitude and action of a government. All over the place, there is a pervading sense of a nation on tenterhook. So much anxiety about the future of a federation administered from the standpoint of a self-indulgent, impunitous and un-ethical tapestry abounds.

There is however a redeeming quality in a scenic flashback to the all-time prescriptions of inimitable Obafemi Awolowo regarding many of our nation’s seemingly intractable challenges. The ruga settlement conundrum, for instance, has situated the centrality of the Awo dialectics to the resolution of this and other nagging issues of our time. An insightful recourse to the Awo template will therefore save us un-necessary hare-brained interventions whose proponents are now on the prowl canvassing. They are taking undue advantage of a tactless, truly clueless or rudderless administration.

Awolowo first as Leader of Government Business and later as Premier of the Western Region of Nigeria proposed and implemented for the Region an innovative programme of agricultural production, storage and marketing which included in its amplitude animal husbandry by way of the establishment of ranches, grazing enclosures and farm settlements. Awolowo considered that it was too irksome or energy-sapping for cattle to be driven across long distances for foliage and fodder. The animals are sure to lose weight en route their indeterminate destination even as they are exposed to unsavoury weather conditions, the elements and to diseases, among other risk factors. Their handlers are no less exposed. Awo, in fact, introduced a special breed of cattle into his Region by importing a tse-tse fly resistant variety whose other features included a naturally endowed good quality beef panoply and a splendid variety of health giving milk products, etc. The herds were garrisoned in large farm settlements or ranches at Shaki, Apoje, Ikorodu. Ikare, Agege, By Alade Rotimi-JohnIkirun, Ibadan, Oke Odan, etc.


It is a sad commentary on the pace and direction of our development trajectory that the aforementioned great achievements of the pasthave been reversed through ineptitude or mediocrity in governance and by sheer lack of foresight on the part of successive administrations in Nigeria.

We close with one of Awo’s many thorough and thoughtful statements on the blighted state of the Nigerian nation:
“… In the ordering of our public life, merit (has been) discounted, mediocrity (has been) enthroned and above all, there (has been) inter-ethnic envy which as time went on began to crystallise into a feeling of inferiority among some Nigerian leaders, and of superiority among others.

‘‘In all these, the masses of the people in some groups (have been) taken for granted, and their wishes flouted; similarly, in their unhealthy jockeying and bargaining for subordinate positions of power most of the leaders of the other ethnic groups paid little or no regard whatsoever to the yearning and self-respect of their fellowmen within their ethnic groups.”
(Excerpt from Speech delivered at Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos on the 8th of February, 1970).
•Rotimi-John, a lawyer and public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja.


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