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Fulani herdsmen do not have monopoly of violence, says Ortom

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Samuel Ortom

Before the harvest of deaths on New Year’s day in Benue State, where Fulani herdsmen killed about 50 people, Governor Samuel Ortom spoke exclusively to The Guardian’s Abuja Bureau Chief, IGHO AKEREGHA and MSUGH ITYOKURA, on why Fulani herdsmen were attacking and killing farmers and villagers in the state. He expressed confidence that the 2017 Anti-Open Grazing Law would put an end to the herdsmen/farmers face-off ravaging the state, and insisted that ranching was the way out of the menace.

Insists Fulani Herdsmen Are Out To Kill The People, Destroy Everything And Settle On Their Land

How would you evaluate the level of compliance with the 2017 Anti-Open Grazing Law since it came into effect?
Compliance is quite reasonable; there is substantial compliance, even though there are still issues, but we are tackling them. However, before November 1, 2017, those who were not ready to ranch their livestock had left the state for neighbouring states, or somewhere else. We are working with the security agencies in enforcing the law. Livestock guards who are supposed to assist the security agencies to enforce the law have been put in place and equipment, vehicles, motorcycles have been provided to facilitate their job, and we have about 10, 000 of them working with security agencies. So, it has been easy enforcing the law.

But let me point out that the law is not targeted at any individual and it is not only talking about cattle, it is dealing generally with livestock, so everyone involved in the business of breeding livestock has to comply. As I speak to you, some arrests have been made of people rearing goats or pigs, so it is not just targeted at errant cattle rearers. This law is meant to protect all Benue citizens, and it is to protect all those residing in Benue State. If you are on the streets of Benue State and you ask an Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa man, or any other person about the law, they would tell you that it is the best thing that has ever happened to the state because everyone in the state was affected by the menace of these herdsmen. They were out to occupy the land because of the way they killed and raped our women, maimed the people, took over their land and stayed there with their arms and resisted the security men. It is on record that policemen and soldiers were killed anytime they came around the herdsmen, talkless of harmless civilians. Imagine confronting and killing armed security operatives with superior weapons and at no time did we hear that they were arrested. So, the law is meant to protect all. At a point, the herdsmen’s complaint was that their cattle were missing, and that was why they went wild, and I began to wonder what kind of country we live in, where two wrongs make a right. So, it is the law that is protecting everybody otherwise if all of us begin to take up arms when we are wronged, it will not be good for us.

The Fulani do not have the monopoly of violence and as a governor, my administration believes in the rule of law and due process. That is why we have decided to take this course. Some people say we are chasing the Fulani away from the state because we don’t like them, but that is very far from the truth. The law is meant to protect farmers and if you read Section 19 and 20, it covers both the farmers and the herdsmen. There are provisions that those, who rustle cattle will also be penalised. So, as it is today, it is very easy to identify a cattle rustler because there is no room for open grazing, and you don’t have people moving about with cattle anyhow like they do in Abuja. If anyone tries it here, they would be arrested by security men and livestock guards.

But despite your assurances that the law is being complied with, investigation reveals that open grazing is ongoing in the state. What is your government’s stand on these cases of violation of the law?
We have told our people that anytime they see violators they should report them immediately because security is the responsibility of all. We have also educated them against attacking the violators. So, recently, seven herdsmen were arrested and they are in detention. Prior to this, we arrested six others and they are being prosecuted. Four of them have been remanded in prison custody. I have told the commissioner of police to properly inform the public so that people will know that the duty of compliance is left to those who are ready to do business, our duty is to enforce the law. There are three youths from one of our local governments-Ogbadibo Local Government Area to be precise- that attacked Fulani herdsmen and killed one of them and their cattle. We ordered their arrests and they are all in detention. The other four herdsmen that are in detention killed a fisherman and wounded three others. They were even struggling to rape somebody’s wife when someone arrived and raised the alarm before they shot at him. They were eventually arrested and they are in detention. As law-abiding people, we intend to go the whole length to enforce the law and I appreciate the security agencies for their cooperation. We are working together.

Why did it take the state government so long to respond to the crisis with the law?
We are an administration with a human face. We initiated moves to come up with the law a while ago, but the herdsmen were still pleading that they needed more time. At some point I had to say no because five months was long enough for them to make up their mind. Meanwhile, this is a law that I started working on since I came in as governor, and I eventually signed this bill into law on November 22 last year. But as a governor with a human face, I understand that this is a new initiative; a new programme that would require re-orientation for the herdsmen to understand, adapt to and understand the process of having ranches, or relocating to other places of their choice where open grazing is permitted. But we have prohibited open grazing in Benue State.

The argument about massive grazing land being available in the state, where they were grazing freely no longer holds water. Now what is left of that land is less than 34, 000 square metres.

In Benue State in the 1950s when they were doing their open grazing, the total population was still less than one million people, and today by projection, we are eight million because of the crisis up north, as all those people affected by the crisis are relocating massively to the state. So, there are increased human activities, more schools, roads, hospitals and more settlements and so on. All these have made land to become very scarce, and there is no single hectare of land today that is available for open grazing because everything is being cultivated.

How valid is the claim by one of the Fulani groups that the entire Benue Valley belongs to them?
This kind of mischief will help you to understand that this is not about grazing alone, it is about occupation. Their plan is to come kill the people, destroy everything and then settle there. That is what they were doing, but the land is no longer there and the best method for you to do cattle business is to ranch. I have a ranch as well, and I have three Fulani herdsmen, who work for me in my farm. They are in decent houses and their children are going to school. I am living by example, so what are they talking about? Because of my ranch, I am adding value to the farmers because we buy rice straw, soya beans straw from them. The animals eat from my farm, but we still buy to keep because it does not cost so much, as a token can give you a very big heap because if nobody buys them, they will all be wasted. So, the earlier the Fulani herdsmen embrace this, the better for all of us because even in other states, neighbours are lamenting the menace caused the herdsmen. I think the whole country needs to come together to work and achieve better results, because the land is no longer there, not just in Benue State, but the whole country. I am aware that 96, 000 square kilometers have not increased rather it is decreasing. The ceeding of Bakassi to Cameroun has also created some gaps. Right now, the only global best practice for breeding cattle is ranching.

Herdsmen and everyone should know that cattle rearing is a business, and so they have to invest before they can make profit. Herdsmen are the only ones who move from North to South without paying anything. They drink free water, eat free grass and sell their cattle, but that is not the way to do business. We who are farmers pay for tractors and people to cultivate the land; we pay for everything why should you do business that destroys other people’s business and make profit alone? It is not right.

You recently called for security to be strengthened in the state for the law to succeed. Does this mean that you are not getting enough support from the Federal Government?
I was just being pro-active because of the threat and I don’t want to take things for granted pursuing from behind. Currently, we have enough security to contain the challenge, but when you hear threats from this people that they will come and attack and so on, then as a leader you have to be pro-active and not just wait for them to carry out their threat because it is said that prevention is better than cure. I don’t have to wait till they come before I start running helter-skelter to bring security. So, that is all that I did. For now, I am receiving maximum cooperation from the security agencies.


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