Political Intrigues to the Bloodletting by Herdsmen in Benue State
Even countries that have more cattle than people – like Uruguay, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia and Brazil, with Uruguay having the highest cattle per capita in the world at 3.44 – their cattle breeders do not murder fellow countrymen over grazing land
The horror of violence by nomadic cattle farmers across Benue State cannot be overstated. No fewer than 16 out of 23 Local Government Areas have been attacked by Fulani herdsmen. From Agatu to Makurdi, Guma, Logo, Buruku, Gboko, and other LGAs; thousands of indigenes have been killed and maimed by the invading group of armed herdsmen. Defenceless women and children are not spared from the bloodletting. With people's crops ruined and houses burnt to the ground, the affected Benue people end up as refugees in their own state and their country.
But the relationship between Benue people and Fulani herdsmen was not always belligerent. For over five decades, nomadic herdsmen and their host communities across the country generally lived in peaceful coexistence, until the escalation of violence in recent years. In his March 2017 column in Financial Nigeria, Cheta Nwanze reported that as of the first quarter of this year, the death toll from attacks by the herdsmen was nearly 5,000. The inescapable implication is that the Nigerian beef industry is soaked in human blood.
Ati Kengkeng, a member of the Movement Against Fulani Occupation (MAFO) in Benue, told me that during a recent raid on a compound in Katsina-Ala, a cache of weapons was seized, as part for the Benue State Government's disarmament of militia and unscrupulous youths. Ati, who has a B.Sc. in Statistics and Computer Science from the University of Agriculture, Makurdi, said he supports the efforts of the government in this regard given that proliferation of arms is a big problem all over the world. "But paradoxically, not as much as a jackknife has been taken from a Fulani herdsman," Ati noted with apparent scepticism. According to Amnesty International, Nigeria handed down 527
death sentences in 2016 – this figure was more than any other country in the world except China. However, not a single member of the militia-herdsmen has been prosecuted for murder, illegal possession of firearm, or even arson.
In the aftermath of the bloody Agatu massacres, Myetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) – a body that defends the interest of the herdsmen – claimed responsibility for the attacks. Ati said a meeting was held at Government House in Makurdi, where the Benue State Coordinator of MACBAN, Garus Gololo, was in attendance. “I want you to know that the man was in that meeting. Nobody arrested him; he walked out of the meeting untouched.” Whoever its patrons are, MACBAN is currently one of the most influential organisations in Nigeria.
MACBAN often claims the attacks by its members are executed in reprisal. But the carefully coordinated attacks, the rising intensity, the inaction by the federal government, and the feeble response of the state government all smack of political conspiracy. So, my interview with Ati last month tried to explore the agenda of the herdsmen and the possible endgame for the Benue people.
In the absence of laws restricting the movement of cattle in Nigeria, the obvious reason for herding livestock across vast territories is to find grazing land. However, Ati's opinion is that the herdsmen and their backers have a territorial and religious agenda. He said, “Our land is fertile, which is why they bring their cattle to graze on it. There is also a religious agenda. That is what we have come to believe. They want to take hold of our land and establish their culture and religion here.” And the means to this end seems to be the path of destruction and bloodshed, according to the MAFO member.
MAFO and other civil society movements are putting considerable pressure on the government to stop these attacks on Benue people and provide support for the hapless ones whose farms and homes have been destroyed. "That is why we formed MAFO. It is a collaboration among individuals who are worried about the ineptitude and docility of government whose primary responsibility is protection of lives and property." Other groups with similar agenda include the Vanguard Against Tiv Massacre (VATIM) and the Tiv Diaspora Forum (TDF), which recently wrote a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, specifically demanding for the leadership of MACBAN to be interrogated over the attacks.
Following several peaceful protests, MAFO proactively submitted a bill to the Benue State House of Assembly in March 2016. In June of last year, the state government eventually submitted its own bill, called Open-Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Bill, which sort to outlaw the itinerancy of cattle across people's farms. The bill, which MAFO and others applauded, also aimed to establish a Livestock Special Marshals Corps, whose role would be to identify, apprehend, and charge to court erring herdsmen.
After scaling the first and second reading stages in the legislative process, the bill was scuttled. By October, it was replaced with a Livestock Protection Bill, which simply seeks to provide protection for cattle and promote cattle ranching by Fulani herdsmen in Benue State. "If you see the bill, you would think the Governor is a Fulani man," Ati told me. This has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many people.
MAFO led protests against the new bill. The group picketed the lawmakers and insisted on the enactment of the bill the group had proposed. But Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly, James Okefe, went on radio to deny the legislature was in custody of any bill by MAFO. Ati said the group resubmitted the bill to the leadership of the House of Assembly.
During one of its protests, Speaker of the House of Assembly, Terkimbi Ikyange, addressed the group promising an opengrazing prohibition bill would be passed by end of March 2017. The bill has not been enacted, giving weight to possible conspiracy to prevent the All Progressives Congress (APC) administration of Governor Samuel Ortom from taking decisive actions.
“Governor Ortom has good intentions. But intentions don't get problems solved. We demand for actions from Ortom,” Ati said, as he switched gears to intone the praises of the Governor's campaign promises to solve the problems in Benue. But unfortunately, Ortom has failed the farmers by not addressing the pastoral conflict. "Fulani herdsmen can attack any part of Benue, including Makurdi and nothing will happen," Ati, who is also a Director and Senior Partner at Think Benue Youth Initiative, was emphatic.
In a tepid response, Governor Ortom made the headlines in March of this year when he said herdsmen must leave some Benue communities. He gave herdsmen a two-day ultimatum to leave TomboMbalagh in Buruku. Talking tough, he said “My job as the governor is to provide security for lives and property. I cannot watch seeing people being killed unprovoked. It is not right.” But the attacks have continued in other parts of the state. Last month, suspected herdsmen attacked his own Local Government Area, Guma. While responding to this latest attack, he reiterated his call for the idea of ranching as the panacea to the herdsmen/farmers conflict. He said “We must ranch our cattle. Nigeria must come together to support herdsmen ranch their cattle.”
While the mainstay of the Benue State economy – which is farming of crops, not animals – is on the decline, the government's solution is to acquiesce to the
herdsmen. Governor Ortom gave N10 million to Fulani herdsmen as an appeasement and compensation for their cattle that was rustled. Meanwhile, Benue State, as the food basket of the nation, has no agriculture policy to leverage its resources – both human and natural – and develop the communities.
The absence of a coherent response to the herdsmen attacks in Benue is the Nigerian society writ large. Even countries that have more cattle than people – like Uruguay, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia and Brazil, with Uruguay having the highest cattle per capita in the world at 3.44 – their cattle breeders do not murder fellow countrymen over grazing land. The reason isn't farfetched – there are proper legislations guiding the cattle industries, thereby formalising the industries and attracting foreign investment. No government in Nigeria has considered the prospect of formalizing the cattle industry, a potentially win-win proposition given the vastly huge global beef market.
With over 213 million head of cattle, Brazil is the world's largest beef exporter, generating $5.5 billion in beef exports last year. But Brazil's much smaller neighbour, Uruguay, has one of the most sophisticated beef production systems in the world. Uruguay became the first country in the world to electronically tag all its cattle at birth. While most people who consume beef in Nigeria do not even know where the meat comes from, the computer-controlled tagging system in Uruguay makes it possible for individual cuts of meat to be traced back to the single animal and the farm it came from. The country's stringent laws on how beef is produced has earned it the reputation as the world's premier supplier and producer of quality beef. Its beef exports generated $1.5 billion in 2015, accounting for 16% of the nation's total exports.
Although cattle ranching has been responsible for much of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, an environmental legislation to protect the rain forest has seen significant compliance level by the cattle industry. As of 2013, 85% of ranchers and meatpacking companies had signed an agreement to reduce deforestation to zero.
Some environmental experts have tried to link the current pastoral conflicts to the climate change effect of desertification in some regions of the north. Formalising the beef market in Nigeria will protect the environment and prevent illegal deforestation activities by herders, in addition to forestalling clashes between the general public and cattle breeders.
To start the formalisation process in Nigeria, the federal government and the National Assembly would need to enact legislation on cattle farming. But unfortunately, what is being discussed at the highest level of government is how to import high-nutrient grass from Brazil for ranches and grazing reserves in Africa's largest economy. Another attempt at obfuscation is an upcoming national conference in June that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbe, said would proffer solutions to the herdsmen/farmers conflict. It is a classic case of playing to the gallery. And not unexpectedly, MACBAN – whose leadership supports the killing of humans to protect livestock – is a key part of the group flying this kite. The elephant in the room is the justice crying out for the nearly 5,000 dead people across various states.
But while justice for the victims of these attacks remains a mirage, the agribusiness opportunities in Benue and across other states should not be undermined on account of some political or religious agenda. “We are sending investors out,” Ati bemoaned. “This is part of the reason our agriculture remains at subsistence level.”
Therefore, the pressure from civil society and the media must continue until the government rises up to its responsibility. The campaign to boycott beef as MAFO and other groups have embarked on could at best be symbolic. Nevertheless, as Ati himself acknowledged, “We may not be able to control the appetites of all the people; but we are trying to send a message.” Martins Hile is Executive Editor, Financial Nigeria publications.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari
Governor of Benue State Samuel Ortom
Youths from Agatu Local Government Area, Benue State protesting on March 2, 2016, in Abuja, the killings by Fulani herdsmen in their communities
Cattle being herded along a major road