BY MIRIAM SHEHU
For those familiar with the Holy Scriptures, the idea of a Promised Land was a significant component of the migration of the Jews from the land of Egypt. It was a migration anchored on the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. For the promise of this land to materialise, it simply meant that the previous inhabitants of the Promised Land were going to be displaced and dispossessed of their land paving way for the Jews to settle in.
Fast forward thousands of years later, somewhere in the Sahel, the concept of a Promised Land for cattle settlements has stirred a controversy that now threatens the very foundation of the world’s largest black democracy.
It all began when the Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Alhaji Mohammadu Umar said the Federal Government of Nigeria has started to establish the Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) or ‘Ruga Settlements’ for herdsmen in 12 of the 36 states of Nigeria as a pilot scheme for a nationwide programme designed to curb farmer-herder clashes. ‘Ruga’ in Hausa means “A cattle camp of the nomad Fulani.”
Following the public outrage over this development, the General Secretary of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), Baba Uthman Ngelzarma stated that; “This Ruga settlement model is a component part of the livestock development and transformation plan that is being implemented under the Office of the Vice-President.”
The Office of the Vice President disclaimed the statement by MACBAN, stating that “Contrary to claims reported in sections of the media, Ruga settlements are not being supervised by the Office of the Vice President. Ruga is different from the National Livestock Transformation Plan”. This was contained in a tweet by Osinbajo’s spokesman, Laolu Akande.
In the heat of the raging controversy over the Ruga settlements, a 13th March letter signed by Osinbajo’s Chief of Staff, Ade Ipaye and addressed to the Aku Uka of Wukari in Taraba State surfaced on Facebook. It introduced “Dr Kyantirimam Ukwen who will be conducting the mapping assessment in Taraba” as part of a federal government “strategy for tackling the farmer-herder crises.”
The leaked letter only made the situation worse. In what appeared a hasty crisis management approach, Osinbajo’s office issued another statement; “As the said letter itself shows, the reference is to the National Livestock Transformation Plan, as different from RUGA. The two are not to be confused: the one is different from the other.”
The unfolding drama took a new twist when a new letter dated 21st May 2019, signed by Dr Hussain Adamu, Director Procurement, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development surfaced. Addressed to a contractor in Abuja, it states in part, “I am directed to inform you that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) at its meeting held on 8th May, 2019 approved the award of contract for the construction of 8 Nos. Ruga Infrastructure with Sanitary Facilities (Red Brick structure) each in Taraba State as detailed in the attached to your company at the sum of N166,336,380.00 (One hundred and sixty-six million, three hundred and thirty thousand, three hundred and eighty Naira)”.
Presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu soon confirmed that ‘Ruga Settlement’, is part of the federal government policy “to settle migrant pastoral families simply means rural settlement in which animal farmers, not just cattle herders, will be settled in an organized place with provision of necessary and adequate basic amenities such as schools, hospitals, road networks, vet clinics, markets and manufacturing entities that will process and add value to meats and animal products.”
The ‘Ruga Settlements’ project has since been suspended. Moments after the news of the suspension, a group that calls itself the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNGs) issued a 30-day ultimatum to Nigerian State Governors urging them to reconsider the establishment of Ruga settlements and then proceeds to issue a threat of eviction to Igbos living and trading in Northern Nigeria. In a reaction, Ohaneze Ndi Igbo called on all Igbos to get ready to defend themselves against the threat by the Northern group to forcibly evict them.
In the past few days in the Nigerian social media, the controversy over Ruga continues to elicit provocative conversations. From all indications, this has been a blunder by the Nigerian Government. However, not much of the public commentary and outrage is paying attention to the real dynamics of this scary development. It appears not even the Nigerian Government is aware of the imminent security concerns of the Ruga ‘Promised Land’. But how did we get here and how do we navigate our way out of this looming apocalypse?
Recall that President Muhammadu Buhari has come under great criticism severally for attributing the rise in Nigeria’s herder-farmers clashes to the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who was killed in October 2011.
“The problem is even older than us. It has always been there, but now made worse by the influx of armed gunmen from the Sahel region into different parts of the West African sub-region. These gunmen were trained and armed by Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. When he was killed, the gunmen escaped with their arms. We encountered some of them fighting with Boko Haram. Herdsmen that we used to know carried only sticks and maybe a cutlass to clear the way, but these ones now carry sophisticated weapons,” Buhari had said.
Despite the problematics of Buhari’s narrative, it has thrown up new perspectives on the issue at hand. Climate change is partly to blame according to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
“The United Nations estimates that roughly 80% of the Sahel’s farmland is degraded. Temperatures there are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. As a result, droughts and floods are growing longer and more frequent, undermining food production. About 50 million people in the Sahel depend on livestock rearing for survival. But the land available to pastoralists is shrinking. This is aggravated by surging population growth that is pushing farmers northward to cultivate more crops. And while adverse climate conditions are sparking violence, proliferating jihadi insurgencies are also creating no-go areas, turning a bad situation even worse”, says the WEF report.
Putting more context to the fallout of the Gaddafi regime and the collateral damage now evident with forced Fulani migration from countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, The Middle East Eye, in a March 28 2019 report explains that; “A rebellion by Tuareg separatists in 2012 inflamed ethnic tensions, driving Fulani herders into the hands of militant groups. A nomadic people inhabiting the Sahara, Tuareg political leaders had long sought their own homeland free from marginalisation in Mali and neighbouring countries. The Western-backed removal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 was a turning point. With his demise Tuareg who had fought on his side as mercenaries returned home across the Sahara, bringing with them heavy weapons looted from Libya’s armouries.”
Over the past few months, hundreds of militia have emerged in Mali and Burkina Faso killing at least 800 since the beginning of 2018. These militias which are most active in Mali say they hunt jihadists. In reality they are targeting Fulanis, a mainly Muslim minority group in Mali according to a recent report by The Economist titled ‘States in the Sahel have unleashed ethnic gangs with guns.’
Clearly, what we are dealing with is far more complicated than the divisive rhetoric that Nigerian Fulani herdsmen are on rampage with an agenda to ‘Fulanise’ Nigeria. That would be over-simplifying the conversation.
It is true that endangered Fulanis are migrating and seeking safer havens and greener pastures across the Sahel. What is also true is that the Buhari administration has mismanagedthe heightening tensions betweenherders and farmers in Nigeria over the past four years. Criticised over its indecisive approach to arresting farmer-herders clashes,the Nigerian Government simply adds more fuel to an already raging inferno with the announcement of nationwide Ruga settlements!
Western Sahel Fulanis who share the same heritage as the Northern Nigerian Fulani have been encouraged by this announcement of a ‘Promised Land’ for herdsmen in Nigeria. This promise has now attracted Fulani herdsmen from all over West Africa who are responding in numbers due to ethnic tensions and environmental problems in their home countries. The Fulanis are arriving Nigeria in droves and there is no land. They are not happy and they have started taking the land by force. Indigenous farmers are left with no option but to react and defend themselves, escalating years of violent herders-farmers conflicts.
Who are the President’s advisers? Had the Nigerian Government proceeded with the Ruga initiative, principally, how do you even select allottees given the poor ID and record keeping system? How do you now establish a distinction between Nigerian Fulanis and foreign Fulanis who have arrived the country on the premise of a Ruga Promised Land? In a situation where you are able to identify the non-Nigerian Fulanis and other foreign nationals now resident in Nigeria, what is the plan? Evict them or help them settle down in Nigeria? We are sitting on a time bomb.