Stiff opposition is building against the move by some states to forbid open grazing in their territories. This is principally because Fulani herdsmen, who are entombed in a time warp of roaming their cattle unchallenged, feel boxed into a corner by new laws being rolled out by state governments banning the practice. The herdsmen, under their umbrella body, Miyetti Allah, have threatened anarchy in these states.
The law, first, by Ekiti State, and now Benue, is a last resort to the menace. In the course of engaging in their livestock business, nomadic Fulani herdsmen have caused unspeakable destruction to lives and property. Plateau, Benue, Kaduna, and Taraba (which is finalising its own anti-grazing laws), are the hardest hit. In these places, herdsmen have maimed, raped, slaughtered people, and devastated farmlands. Recently, they invaded Riyom, Plateau State, leaving a trail of anguish and deaths. In 2016, they massacred over 500 people in Agatu communities in Benue State, before confiscating their farmlands.
Farming communities in Enugu, Ekiti, Delta, Bayelsa, Abia, Osun, Oyo, Ondo and Anambra states have been subjected to ceaseless attacks by herdsmen. Olu Falae, a former Minister of Finance, was abducted in his Akure farm, while they slaughtered 40 people in Ukpabi-Nimbo in Enugu State in April 2016. In Delta State, women have staged nude protests against the imperious activities of the herders on their farmlands that have deprived them of farming. Before they were banned, the herdsmen had the audacity to graze their cattle in the federal capital, Abuja.
On the pretext of grazing cattle, they infiltrate farming communities and conquer such places through violence. An account said Fulani nomads killed about 800 people in Southern Kaduna villages between November 2016 and July 2017. The Director of Operations, State Security Service, Godwin Eteng, told a House of Representatives hearing that herdsmen import AK 47 rifles into the country, and stockpile them in Nasarawa, Benue and Plateau states. The 2015 Global Terrorism Index, compiled by a global think tank, the Institute for Economics and Peace, puts the issue bluntly. It described Fulani herdsmen as the fourth most deadly terrorist organisation in the world. In 2014, they killed 1,229 Nigerians. 847 of those casualties were in five North-Central states.
With the Federal Government and its security agencies watching idly as the herdsmen rampage through the land, state governments have been left with no other choice than to enact laws to eradicate open grazing. This is a welcome development. It resonates with the communities suffering torment from herders’ impunity, whether in Adamawa, Taraba or Zamfara, where they massacred 100 people in April 2014 in Galadima village.
However, Miyetti Allah is opposed to this new legal regime in the affected states. All that matters to it is the sustenance of its livestock; human life does not count. To it, its members are free to roam their cattle anywhere in the country. Ranching, the contemporary antidote to open herding and conflict elsewhere, is interpreted as an anti-Fulani scheme. “Anti-grazing laws are nothing but populist agenda designed by visionless and desperate politicians to destroy our means of livelihood,” Saleh Alhassan, Miyetti’s secretary, railed. “These laws are oppressive and negative and are fundamentally against our culture as Fulani pastoralists.” He is totally wrong.
Cattle rearing is not superior to other economic activities; nor are the Fulani a special breed who must always have their way at the expense of other Nigerians. Therefore, the states experiencing destruction wrought by the herdsmen must firmly implement the anti-open grazing law. Fulani pastoralists have a legal duty to respect another people’s right to property. No culture that violently appropriates the farmlands of other people can lay claim to peaceful coexistence. Cattle rearing is not different from other forms of agriculture. Globally, it is a multi-billion dollar business. It generates huge incomes and jobs from domestic sales, packaging and exports, peaceful cohabitation with farming communities, prevents rustling and expands milk production.
In 2014-15, the beef cattle industry in Australia accounted for 21 per cent ($11.5 billion) of the total gross value of farm production and 23 per cent of the total value of farm exports income, according to its Department of Agriculture. The Washington, DC-based North American Meat Institute says the meat and poultry industry, which is the largest segment of the United States agriculture sector, processed 32.2 million cattle in 2013, employed 482,000 persons and paid combined salaries of $19 billion. Conversely, a 2011 survey by the Ministry of Agriculture puts Nigeria’s total cattle head at 19.5 million. To make up the deficit in milk production, for example, Nigeria imports milk worth $1.3 billion annually, says Audu Ogbeh, the Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources.
The cattle-grazing business should be commercialised. States with high population of cattle herders should encourage and support cattle farming and ranching. Open grazing is an infringement upon other people’s legal right to enjoy the benefits of land ownership. Cattle should be grazed on the owner’s land or on leased land, and not just anywhere. Livestock property interest should not be placed above national interest. Criminal charges should be brought against cattle herders who interfere with another person’s legal property rights. The states that have enacted the anti-open grazing laws should not succumb to sentiments, but effectively enforce them.