The year 2018 opened on a bloody note in Benue State of central Nigeria. As the rural folks slept, dreaming of a happy new year to come, little did they expect the blood and fire lurking around their dark corners.
In Guma and Logo Local Governments, invading herdsmen hacked down many defenceless rural dwellers that night. The official count was 73 (unofficial figures are much higher) who lost their lives in the attack. Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue broke down openly and wept as he visited the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, where the wounded were being treated. It was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back.
Clashes between nomadic herdsmen and rural sedentary farmers are not new to Benue State or states that are in the Benue valley. These have been there -as old as Nigeria itself. Under colonial administration when agriculture was the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy, the colonial masters took measures to ensure the rural populace involved in sedentary farming and the roving pastoralists- in the norther region – both had adequate space to earn their living. Forest reserves and grazing routes were carved out and maintained as state policy. Those who offended the law received punishment.
This policy continued in the first republic.
The radical change came with the collapse of the first republic and the ascendancy of oil as the major cash cow of Nigeria’s economy. Agriculture and agricultural practices suffered a serious relegation in the eyes of government, whose officials were lured away from the backbreaking hard work that agriculture demanded, to the easy milk and honey that flowed from the barrels of oil.
Consequences of this radical change in state policy soon emerged. Grazing routes gave way to highways built by governments with money derived from crude oil sales; schools, hospitals and other rapid infrastructure, and sometimes whole modern cities like Abuja took much of the land that was reserved for grazing under the governments of the colonial masters and the first republic.
And from the lean, light-complexioned, friendly and even shy Fulani cattleman who carried a stick has emerged a rotund, dark, aggressive AK47 carrying herdsman. He invades your farm, destroys your crops, dares you, and if you are foolish enough to stand up to him, he guns you down
Government officials were too deeply engrossed in sharing the booty that came from oil to ponder over the long-term effects of their change in economic focus and direction. Their ill-guided policies were aggravated by the effects of climatic change. The Sahara Desert started its southward movement from the Sahel region aggressively in the 70s with the draught that affected Nigeria’s northern neighbours, particularly Chad and Niger. There was mass migration of men and livestock from those countries into Nigeria.
At the beginning of the present republic, in May 1999, I was appointed the founding Editor of a monthly Magazine called The Crystal. In one of our early editions – March 2000-we did a story on desertification in Northern Nigeria. Working with me on the story was Tijanni Bande, a Professor and current Permanent Representative of Nigeria at the United Nations who was at the time a member of our editorial board. Government officials and experts who spoke to us revealed that the Sahara was advancing into Nigeria at a speed they said was “frightening”. They quantified the loss of arable land to desertification at an average of eight kilometers per annum.
Now that the reconciliation of the warring groups of Governor Shettima and Sheriff have resolved to sheathe the sword, let there be peace and not just truce. Borno has suffered enough. The state has witnessed blood, deaths and sorrow
One of the experts who spoke to us-Dr. Kabir Abdulkadir, the Executive National Coordinator, National Forests Conservation Council of Nigeria, warned us about the effects of this aggressive movement by the desert. “The social effects of this aggression are the loss of dignity, social value, and increasing spate of communal clashes between pastoralists and the farmers. The farmlands and grazing lands are limited. Occasional incursion of the cattle into farmlands will trigger unprecedented clashes resulting in the loss of lives.” That warning was given in the year 2000.
Today, the situation is worse. What Dr. Kabir saw as “Occasional incursion of cattle into farmlands” is no longer occasional. It is now frequent. And from the lean, light-complexioned, friendly and even shy Fulani cattleman who carried a stick has emerged a rotund, dark, aggressive AK47 carrying herdsman. He invades your farm, destroys your crops, dares you, and if you are foolish enough to stand up to him, he guns you down. The typical Fulani herdsman apologises to you if his cattle destroy your crops and even offers to compensate you. The new herdsmen believe you should be grateful and or even pay them for the ‘favour’, after his cattle have eaten up your crops.
The new aggressive herdsmen started their adventure in the Benue valley during the tenure of President Olusegun Obasanjo, 1999-2007. It resulted in a number of some bloody clashes. In 2007, when Governor Gabriel Suswam was elected governor of Benue State, he felt concerned about the clashes enough to set up in 2008, a committee he named the ‘Tiv/Fulani crisis resolution committee’ – or something like that. It was to function under the joint chairmanship of the Sultan of Sokoto and the Tor Tiv. The Sultan delegated the Emir of Gombe to represent him. I was not a member of the committee but my friend and professional colleague, Salle Bayare, a Fulani man who knows about my itinerant journalistic career all over northern Nigeria, was secretary. He invited me to attend its meetings, with the hope that I could help out with my deep knowledge.
I attended two of the meetings. Just two-at Transcorp and Agura hotels in Abuja – and I said enough is enough. I thought this was a serious committee that would investigate the remote and immediate causes of the clashes between Tiv farmers and Fulani herdsmen that were becoming too frequent. I thought they would look at the environment, the economics, the social and even the religious causes and ramifications. As it turned out, I discovered from the discussions going on that the people at the meetings were very unserious. They kept on humouring themselves with stale, boring tales of Tiv-Fulani relations and medieval jokes. I have never been a comedian and did not see myself as a one on an issue that involves the people’s lives.
I left and told Salle Bayare why I left. I did not stop there. In my column in the People’s Daily of July 19, 2009, I made it clear that the committee was a waste of time and government resources. I argued the problem is not between the Tiv and the Fulani but environmental, economic and a clash of civilisations; that the committee and government were wasting their time looking at it from the narrow perspective of Tiv and Fulani. The comedy continued even after I left and made my views public.
As the committee members met in the airconditioned rooms of expensive Abuja hotels, the herdsmen and farmers continued killing themselves in the bush. The reality did not dawn on them until the Tor Tiv’s country-home was overrun by herdsmen who killed many people and took possession of the Royal’s country-home and his farmlands. Later, I learnt of some unspeakable developments at the committee involving the Tor Tiv and the Emir of Gombe over finances. Both monarchs are late now and there is no need going into such details. Before the death of Tor Tiv, Akawe Torkula, he issued a press statement calling the Sultan of Sokoto, Said Abubakar, unprintable names.
Things fell apart for the committee at a rapid pace. The comedy had turned into tragedy. My man, Salle Bayare himself, soon graduated from a ‘comrade’ to a ‘renegade’.
(To be continued)