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Ogbeh: Disgraceful and thoughtless talk about "cattle colonies"

Nigeria’s “cattle colonies”: When stupidity colonises the mind

Nigeria’s agriculture minister Audu Ogbeh, who is tasked with pulling off the pretence that his government is trying to deal with the mass slaughter across several communities by Fulani herdsmen, claimed a few days ago that the solution is the establishment of “cattle colonies”.

Ogbeh tried to explain the policy:  “One of the most topical issues we have today is that of farmers and herdsmen clashes.If we do not deal with it quickly, we run the risk of damaging the harmony and the co-existence of Nigeria as a country. The killings are getting too many. In our attempt to solve the problem, we have proffered certain solutions but perhaps we were not sensitive enough to Nigeria’s fragile sensitivities and suspicions. When we spoke of colonies, we were immediately greeted with reactions that this was an attempt to cease Nigeria’s land and give to the Fulanis to colonise. The intention is not for Fulanis or anyone to colonise any territory. It is to provide a haven for cattle to graze in peace under controlled environments to prevent the conflicts between farmers and herdsmen. Only yesterday, a committee was set up by the Vice President with members, most of them, state governors discussing this matter and resolving that states that are interested will begin work on this matter as soon as next week.’’

He argued that the current practice of taking cattle from place to place for grazing was not sustainable: “It doesn’t allow us to harvest milk; the cows are not well fed. What is going on is almost torture to animals. If we can create a new environment for cattle, give them what they need, protect them from rustlers, the herdsmen will quickly discover that they are making far more money than what they are doing now.’’

There are many things wrong here. Ogbeh comes from Benue State – a mainly agrarian state in an area known as Nigeria’s “food basket”.  The state has borne the brunt of the recent deaths from Fulani herdsmen-related violence.  About 70 people were killed by the herdsmen in the state in the first few days of the New Year.  In Agatu Local Government Area between late February and early March 2016, over 500 people were killed, with entire communities sacked.  Rather than treat this as a national emergency, Ogbeh and his government have carried on like it is a minor administrative difficulty, while continuing to the use “pox on both houses” euphemism of “farmers and herdsmen clashes”.

A demonstration against the massacre in Agatu, Benue State

This misnomer is deliberate.  At one point, President Muhammadu Buhari claimed it was farmers attacking herdsmen.  The intention behind this inaccurate description of the violence is to shift blame from the culprits and deflect attention from the causes of the violence.  The violence usually stems from the destruction of farmers’ crops by cattle in the care of the herdsmen.  This destruction of livelihoods occasionally prompts attacks by the farmers and then reprisals by the herdsmen – that are usually disproportionate and have devastating consequences on the farming communities, with some locals abandoning their villages to become refugees elsewhere.

The herdsmen and their cows encroach on people’s farms.  The problem stems from this encroachment.  So to deal with the problem involves ending the encroachment.  Because the cattle are herded across lands, states and even countries for hundreds of miles, they run the risk of exposure to rustling.  This means that communities are at risk to reprisal attacks from herdsmen when cattle is stolen in their area, alongside the other risk of disproportionate reprisal when a herdsman or cow is harmed due to crop destruction.

So the problem clearly has the herdsmen at its nexus and the death toll is overwhelming stacked against the farming communities.  It is therefore callously disingenuous to categorise the issue as “farmers and herdsmen clashes” – as if both sides were equally at fault.  The people encroaching on private lands with their cattle and killing those fighting to protect their crops are aggressors and the menace to society.

Ogbeh knows this very well, but alongside the president, their interest lies in covering up the real causes of the conflict – the fact that the owners of the cattle do not want to invest in sustainable (but costly) rearing practices and have chosen to use the entire country as grazing land.

In this climate of deception, it is pertinent to note that one of Ogbeh’s previous and pathetic “solutions” to the crisis was to announce in 2016 plans to import grass from Brazil for the cows.  Not much has been heard of that proposal since.  Now, with a fresh round of bloodletting, Ogbeh announced that the “solution” was “cattle colonies” where the cows can presumably be fed with imported grass.

It is disgraceful that a minister in a former British colony like Nigeria is so ignorant of the negative connotations around the term “colony”.  It is even worse that the term is deployed in a diverse country in which thousands of people have died as a direct consequence of encroachment on their lands by herdsmen that are from the Fulani ethnic group.  The insensitivity is even worse in areas like Benue State in which British colonial rule, in alliance with a Fulani oligarchy, had placed under the Northern Region. Politicians from the region led by Joseph Tarka formed the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) to resist what they saw as Fulani domination.  Prior to British rule, the Fulani led by Usman dan Fodio had conquered most of northern Nigeria to form the Sokoto Caliphate, with a minority Fulani elite controlling the majority.  With this backdrop, the suggestion that “colonies” should be carved out for the benefit of Fulani herdsmen and their cattle is callous indifference and the type of idiocy and thoughtlessness that seem to afflict the Buhari regime.

Joseph Tarka campaigned against perceived Fulani domination

Even if the term “colony” is disregarded, Ogbeh didn’t address how the cattle would arrive at each “colony”.  Standard practice is by foot.  Herdsmen trek with their cows from A to B either for grazing or to get them to markets.  So cows on the move to new “colonies” would still be running the risk of passing through farms and destroying crops.  Therefore the cycle of violence is unlikely to end because of these “colonies”.

Ogbeh didn’t address why it is government business to provide land for private business.  The cattle business is big business in Nigeria.  One cow retails at anything from 200,000 naira ($550).  Is the government buying a stake in the business by providing cattle owners with land to rear the cattle?  Will the government get a share of the proceeds when the cows are sold?  Do cattle owners even pay taxes?  Why are their needs being prioritised over others?  Answers to these questions may reveal the real owners of the cattle (therefore the real sponsors of the herdsmen’s violence) and why there is such indecent haste to give them preferential treatment.  So the agriculture minister conveniently declined to provide answers.

Responding to the herdsmen crisis, human rights activist and lawyer Femi Falana said that the government is not serious about dealing with the problem:  “In 1951 we had the first cattle ranch in Nigeria, in Obudu Calabar. Now it’s been converted into Obudu holiday resort. Ahmadu Bello regime in the North established the Mokwa ranch. The Obafemi Awolowo regime in the West in the 50’s established the Akunnu ranch, now in Ondo State”.  None of those facilities is being used for the purposes they were built today.  The Mokwa Cattle Ranch was built in 1964 as a joint venture between Nigeria and Germany with a capacity of about 10,000 hectares of land.  By 1973 the ranch had about 3,000 cattle and it was handed over to Nigeria in 1974.  From then it slid into disrepair and was finally shut down in 2004.  It is very likely that a similar fate awaits Ogbeh’s “colonies”.

Several states and groups have already declared that they have no interest in such “colonies” in their domain.  This is hardly surprising.  No one, including the agriculture minister, has bothered with an impact assessment on local communities of an influx of cattle and their herders in large numbers.  There are no guarantees that such a “colonial” settlement would restrict itself to its designated area.  Would the interaction with locals be one of mutual understanding and benefit?  How would the locals react to what seems like preferential treatment for cattle at the expense of goats, chicken, yams, rice and other farmers/livestock breeders?

It is quite clear with this “colonial” endeavour that Ogbeh and his government have not bothered with thinking through the proposal.  This lack of rigour signifies the lack of a political will to deal with what, has over the past five years or so, been an even greater threat to Nigerian security than Boko Haram violence.  Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist who was one of the most foremost writers on the colonial psyche, wrote in “The Wretched of the Earth”: “Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand”.

Ogbeh and the Buhari regime have deliberately chosen to mislead Nigerians about Fulani herdsmen violence because a proper explanation would help Nigerians understand why the government is protecting the killers from justice, obscuring the issue from proper scrutiny, and why supporting private business with land and funding is now a priority.


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