• Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Cattle colonies: Buhari’s provocative response to the herder-farmer conflicts

Cattle colonies

Following widespread public outcry, President Buhari last week suspended his plans to create rural grazing areas, otherwise known as “RUGA settlements” or “cattle colonies” across the country. This was a thoughtless and provocative idea, and Buhari was wrong to have mooted it in the first place.

Anyone who objectively read the Presidency’s press statement justifying the RUGA settlements would immediately see that the government’s plans would 1) create a special and protected category of Nigerians, based on their ethnicity and way of life, 2) accord to those special citizens privileges and advantages not given to other citizens, contrary to section 42 of the Constitution, and 3) offend the sensibilities of the nationalities who have suffered untold injustices in the hands of the seemingly untouchable herdsmen, who are of the Fulani extraction, thus subjecting the people of those less-favoured nationalities to restrictions and humiliation as second-class citizens.

The government said the RUGA Settlement plan “is to resolve the farmer/herder conflicts”. So, instead of stopping the incessant killing of innocent farmers by criminal herdsmen and giving justice to the victims, the government wants to appease the herdsmen by settling them in the same states whose people they’ve been killing, maiming and raping in genocidal-type attacks.

How can you resolve the herder-farmer conflicts without justice? How many criminal herdsmen have been arrested, prosecuted and punished? How many of their victims or families of those victims have been compensated? The RUGA settlement plan is wrong for many reasons, the first is its inherent injustice!

But any solution to the conflict must begin with a proper understanding of its nature. Those sympathetic to the herdsmen’s case often cite environmental challenges, such as climate change, desertification and droughts, which have reduced the supplies of grass and water for cattle, as the reason for the endless conflicts. They argue that the desperate search for grazing areas has led the roaming of cattle herders, which, inevitably, brings them into regular conflicts with farmers.

Yet, the violent nature of the clashes, with trails of destruction, rape and murders in several communities across Nigeria, cannot simply be the consequence of some environmental and economic challenges that the herders face. After all, there are herders across Africa, and most face similar environmental and economic hardships, but it’s only in Nigeria that herder-farmer clashes have taken the forms of invasions of communities, seizures of farmlands and massacre of innocent farmers, with over 5000 people killed between 2015 and end of 2018, not to mention the humanitarian calamity of nearly 300,000 internally displaced people!

I have been trying to understand the herder-farmer conflict conceptually. Is it a conflict of two rights, namely, the right to freedom of movement and the right to peaceful enjoyment of private property? Or is it a jihadist agenda or the “Fulanisation of Nigeria”, as former President Olusegun Obasanjo controversially put it? Which of the two conceptualisations – conflict of rights or jihadism? – is true matters for the solution.

Surely, if it’s a question of competing rights, that is, the right of herders as Nigerians to move freely around the country to feed their cattle versus the property rights of farmers, the solution should be relatively straightforward. Competing rights are not new; for instance, my right to move freely can clash with your property rights if I want to cross your land. The law responds proportionately to such a conflict by creating, in some cases,“easements”, that is, rights to cross or otherwise use someone else’s land for a specified purpose. But, generally, where freedom of movement and property rights clash, property rights prevail because everyone has the right to peaceful enjoyment of his or her private property. Thus, the herders cannot enter other people’s private farmlands to feed their cattle without negotiations and agreements with the farmers, and the government has a duty to protect the farmers against any violation of their property rights.

However, as I said, the herdsmen are Nigerians, and should enjoy freedom of movement in any public space, as opposed to private lands, in Nigeria, subject to state or local government regulation of the use of public spaces. Nigeria is a single market and, like every single market, such as the United States, citizens are entitled to move freely from state to state to look for jobs, to buy and sell and to engage in social intercourse, provided they do not violate private property rights. You can’t just barge into my home or office, for instance!

In the US, the Constitution protects commercial and social intercourse between citizens of different states, with the “Commerce Clause”, which allows Congress to regulate to protect interstate commerce. But to preserve the principle of federalism, the US Supreme Court held in US vs Lopez that Congress could only use the Commerce power to regulate “activities which have a substantial relation to interstate commerce”, meaning that such regulation must not undermine the constitutional rights of the states to govern their affairs in the spirit of true federalism.

What the foregoing means, therefore, are the following: 1) herders must negotiate with farmers if they want to use their private property, i.e., their farmlands, 2) herders, individually or with the support of their state governments, should negotiate with other state governments to create ranches in those states, and, in the spirit of promoting interstate commercial and social intercourse,the states so approached should respond cooperatively, subject to any reasonable conditions they may wish to impose, and 3)while the federal government should facilitate interstate commerce, it must not undermine the principle of federalism, which means that it must negotiate with, and not bully, the states to provide lands for ranches, fully respecting the provisions of the Land Use Act!

Sadly, that spirit of negotiations has been lacking in the herdsmen’s saga. The herders have behaved like the imperialists or colonialists who wanted trade routes and market access in other countries, but, instead of negotiating with those countries, used “gunboat diplomacy”, that is, military force, to secure the trade routes and markets and, what’s more, to colonise the countries. That’s exactly what the Fulani herdsmen have been doing. They invade communities, appropriate their farmlands and displace the people, colonising their lands. That’s why some have described their activities as jihadism and Fulanisation!

Of course, the government’s seeming complicity or tactic condonement hasn’t helped. In 2005, the UN General Assembly recognised the “Responsibility to Protect” in case of genocide, ethnic cleansing and massive violence. But the Buhari government has done nothing to protect the oppressed communities. Rather, every step it has taken is aimed at appeasing the Fulani herdsmen. But RUGA is a step too far. Note that the RUGA settlements are not just ranches, but special communities for the herdsmen, with “necessary and adequate basic amenities, such as schools, hospitals, road networks, etc”. These would be funded by the federal government, which allocated initial sum of N12bn for a pilot project.

To be sure, RUGA settlements would be special communities within states. The citizens of the states with such settlements would not enjoy the same basic amenities that the herdsmen enjoy. What’s more, as the Fulani herdsmen spread their tentacles, increasing their population, expanding the cattle colonies, they would gain confidence in spreading their culture, their religion etc in the states. You can imagine how explosive this could be.

Unfortunately, the presidency’s assurances were full of contradictions. The government said RUGA is voluntary, yet it also said it “has gazetted lands in all states” for the settlements. It said 12 states had voluntarily made lands available, yet it also attacked those that didn’t, implying they are irresponsible! The government’s motive simply wasn’t right.

Buhari has rightly bowed to the inevitable by suspending RUGA. Truth is, he must abandon the provocative idea altogether!


Olu Fasan