Transforming agriculture to agribusiness has been one of several rhetoric of the Federal Government in recent years. However, the decision to establish what it calls Ruga settlements for herdsmen appears to be yet another state intervention in what should be business-driven and private sector-led.
Government, agric stakeholders say, should be focused on creating an enabling environment and enforcing law, order, and security for the investments of all Nigerians without fear or favour.
A Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) settlement, according to the Federal Government, seeks to settle migrant pastoral families. It means a rural settlement in which animal farmers, not just cattle herders, will be settled in an organised 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 owner of the cow is a businessman, the owner of the farm is also businessman, and it is the duty of government to ensure it protects each one from the other,” said Emmanuel Ijewere, vice president, Nigeria Agribusiness Group (NABG). “Government should create enabling environment for it to run as a business, but not get involved.”
Reactions were swift in condemning the announcement of the Ruga initiative by the Federal Government, which necessitated a statement tweeted through @NGRPresident, official handle for Nigeria’s president.
A user @kcnaija, responding to the statement released through the handle, wrote, inter alia, “If the herders cannot buy lands like any other Nigerian to run their livestock farming, they should quit and look for other businesses.”
This sentiment appears to be shared by millions of other Nigerians.
With an estimated 19 million heads of cattle valued at over N1.9 trillion, the cattle business has potential for significant growth if cattle owners can develop independent ranches where they can commit their own funds to invest and meet international standards.
At present, herdsmen, popularly of the Fulani extraction, move cattle across thousands of kilometres from the north to the south in search of pasture to graze. The north-south movement, and later the south-north movement in search of pasture, consistently leads to losing whatever weight has been gained during grazing periods, according to experts.
“When your cow in Nigeria marches from Adamawa to Lagos, that is a little more than exercise. Therefore, we have to confine Nigerian cows in ranches,” said Audu Ogbeh, immediate past minister of agriculture and rural development, at last year’s BusinessDay Agribusiness and Food Security Summit.
Advocating what would be private sector-led and with full business intentions, Ogbeh explained that for a young person with just 20 milk cows behind the house, well secured, and fed with at least 10kg of fodder per day, and 40 litres of water, one can collect enough milk to be a very comfortable Nigerian without looking for a job.
The administration where the same minister served is, however, planning to allocate thousands of hectares of land to create settlements for herders at the expense of taxpayers. Curiously, in the heat of violent attacks, government officials have on some occasions said those carrying out the attacks are not Nigerian herdsmen. It, therefore, begs the question why the same government would use Nigerian funds to create settlements for herders who are very likely not Nigerians, going by claims from the same government.
“The entire RUGA thing or whatever name you call it is no longer agribusiness but a political contention,” said Ijewere. “Agribusiness is a private business. If the business is going to be profitable, you do it by yourself, and government should not be involved.”
The idea of a settlement follows several proposals that have either been aborted or put on hold, including the grazing reserves and cattle colonies.
While Nigeria has foot-dragged on taking decisive actions through security agencies to curb the excesses of herdsmen, in neighbouring Ghana, a taskforce set up by the government ensures herdsmen are kept on a short leash.
Called “Operation Cow-leg”, the taskforce early last year was deployed to the country’s Ashanti Region to pursue herdsmen from the area in order to curtail their acts of destruction and carnage.
Operation Cow-leg has existed for over 17 years to solve conflicts between herders and farmers, but in Nigeria, this has never happened. If anything, herdsmen appear to have grown more daring and bold with every passing year.
“Within the confines of the ranch, the animals can be sustained. You will be sure you can get feed and water for them, providing all these within the ranch. That then will minimise the movement outside the ranch in search of water and feed, in the course of which destruction of farmlands and communal clashes occur,” Chryss Onwuka, a professor of ruminant animal nutrition, told BusinessDay in a previous interview.
As Ijewere explained, just as there is poultry farming, piggery or aquaculture, the owners determine where they site their businesses, and there should be no difference with cows.
“If government has problems about the physical movement of cows, make the laws to ensure that those movements do not infringe on the rights of other people,” he said.
Soji Apampa, CEO, the Convention on Business Integrity, an organisation which says it introduced cultivation of Napier grass in the Laduga grazing reserve in Kaduna State where cattle owners are reporting significant improvements in their livestock, believes provision of fodder and water is the solution to the crisis.
According to Apampa, the Ruga settlement for people who are not sedentary will not work.
“It is not settlement that they need, rather, fodder and water for their cattle. Even in a ranch, what still matters is fodder and water. If they can find water and fodder in one place, they will not move,” he said.
The prospect of readily-available grass to feed cows across the country has the potential to curb recurring violent clashes in different parts of the country between farmers and herdsmen. It will also see the value of cattle improve as better feed implies improved beef and milk quality.
“That is the only thing we need if we want to improve cattle, dairy and beef production in Nigeria,” said Ayoka Adebambo, a professor of animal breeding and genetics at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, in a previous phone interview with BusinessDay.
“We have the land required and instead of going to places like Brazil to import grasses, many places in the north can be used to produce adequate high quality grass,” Adebambo explained.
With the idea of Ruga settlement, if the herdsmen are confined within settlements as being promoted by government, when they fail to find water and fodder within the settlement, they will surely breach the perimeters of the settlement, going as far into people’s land as they can until their cattle have grazed to their satisfaction. With this, the cycle of violence is bound to persist, unless a more sustainable model, such as promotion of grass production as a business is encouraged.