By Kingsley Moghalu
The Nigerian state is sitting on a grenade. Ours has increasingly become the peace of the graveyard. We may never be certain what could finally set off a conflagration in a country in which its citizens have previously been remarkably docile. But the RUGA settlement controversy…is positioning as a prime candidate for the “demolition” job. Fulanis and other Nigerian nationalities deserve SENSIBLE solutions to their problems. The victims of criminal herdsmen deserve JUSTICE. They have not received it. Any “solution” to the herdsmen invasions, appropriations of farmlands and other crimes in communities across the country that is forced on the victims, whether directly or by stealth, is a needless provocation to conflict.
The Nigerian state is sitting on a grenade. Ours has increasingly become the peace of the graveyard. We may never be certain what could finally set off a conflagration in a country in which its citizens have previously been remarkably docile. But the RUGA settlement controversy, in which the Federal Government of Nigeria plans to set up permanent settlements for nomadic Fulani herdsmen across the country, is positioning as a prime candidate for the “demolition” job. What’s the problem, and how can it be best addressed? To solve a problem, we must first understand and admit that there is a problem, agree on the fix, and then have the will to execute that fix. Often in Nigeria, we either don’t understand the problem, or we understand but mischaracterise it because it is convenient to do so for any number of reasons.
When we do, we muddy the whole picture and make it difficult to overcome the challenge. The result is that we either continue to “admire the problem”, or we tackle it not holistically or foundationally as we should, but rather from an angle that might be self-interested and thus may end up creating another, possibly larger, mutation of the problem. One of the root causes of the Fulani herdsmen problem in Nigeria today is the combination of climate change, desertification and droughts in some parts of Northern Nigeria. This has affected their economic fortunes. The incredibly shrinking Lake Chad Basin in the North-East has reduced the feeding and drinking sources for cattle, and the pressures progressively prompted a southward shift in the herdsmen’s grazing movement.
Let’s be clear, however. Attempts to portray the problem of terrorist herdsmen roaming the country, armed with sophisticated weapons and killing, raping and maiming Nigerians in the Middle Belt, the South-West and South-East regions as a purely economic problem are less than adequate – and perhaps less than honest. Poverty is the reality of millions of Nigerians of several other ethnic groups across the country. They are not killing other communities or taking their land. The reality of the victims has not been seen to have drawn a sense of urgency on the part of the federal government beyond the usual political platitudes until, very recently, President Muhammadu Buhari’s welcome ambition of taking 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next ten years. We await a clear path and plan to make poverty history. But the Fulani herdsmen crisis has now attracted a plan by the federal government to establish a Fulani-language radio station with government funds, which is controversial because, unlike Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba, the Fulani language, Fulfude, is not recognised as an auxiliary official language. And now RUGA, for which N12 billion has reportedly been set aside.
The hysteria over RUGA stems mainly from a combination of the collective traumatisation of communities – especially in the Middle Belt – that have been victims of the rampaging Fulani herdsmen. The herdsmen-killers have operated with impunity, and have not been brought to justice. It is against this background that we can situate the searing psychological rejection, by many parts of Nigeria, of the notion of “rewarding” the killer-herdsmen (who will inevitably be mixed in with many innocent and law-abiding settlers) with a permanent piece of real estate in the communities of their victims. The body language of the Buhari administration has at best been defensive or evasive and, at worst, there have been allegations of collusion between security forces and the criminal herdsmen. The occasional counter-attacks against the original killers by victim communities have, on the contrary, spurred security action.
Add to this proximate cause, the history of an incomplete Fulani jihad – the military conquest of significant portions of Nigerian territory in the 19th century, halted by effective military resistance in what is today known as the Middle Belt region and the Yoruba of the South-West. It is against this background that we can situate the searing psychological rejection, by many parts of Nigeria, of the notion of “rewarding” the killer-herdsmen (who will inevitably be mixed in with many innocent and law-abiding settlers) with a permanent piece of real estate in the communities of their victims. These communities fear that, despite today’s protestations of good intentions, they ultimately will be overrun in the future, dominated by an expanded Fulani population, and that these settlements will ultimately become emirates.
Around the country, antennas are up at what many perceive, rightly or wrongly, as an ethnic expansionist agenda. Or, one that could be the outcome of RUGA, even if that was not the original intent. There is an overall context of a general collapse of security across the country, especially in the “core North” and the South-West, with kidnapping, banditry and cattle rustling rife in the North-West, while the Boko Haram insurgency continues unabated in the North-East. Most importantly, non-Nigerians – and weapons from recent and ongoing regional conflicts – continue to pour into Nigeria mainly through its porous northern borders, fueling the herdsmen problem. The RUGA conundrum also raises constitutional issues of both federalism and the Land Use Act. The Act vests final authority over land in each state in the hands of the state governor. It is interesting that the Presidency, in a recent statement, clarified that the RUGA scheme is voluntary, involving only states willing to participate in it. But the statement also rather ominously noted that the federal government has “gazette lands” in all states of the federation.
Critics point to this fine print as an indication that the “voluntary” status of RUGA may not be the last word! And there are reports in the media of attempts to forcibly establish such a settlement in Benue despite the State’s strong rejection of the idea. Is there any reason President Buhari’s government cannot engage a country with the necessary, proven expertise and track record to solve this solvable problem? Dealing with desertification is fundamental to achieving a sustainable solution, and is far better than the RUGA idea. RUGA is not a solution to this problem, even if it were to be taken at face value. If individual states agree to it, fine. But the Nigerian government cannot export the problems of one ethnic group to every part of Nigeria based on weak arguments, a clear absence of adequate consultation, and the obvious reality that long-lasting solutions have not been fully thought-through. Culture is dynamic. It is not destiny. There are other and better approaches. The fundamental point of departure is to answer the question: Should cows be roaming about alongside human habitation and activities in towns and cities anywhere in Nigeria in the 21st century? The answer, clearly, is no.
Bearing in mind that cattle business is private business, the federal and relevant state governments should pursue foreign and local investments into modern ranching, along with irrigation, in predominantly cattle-rearing and producing states. Modern ranching, combined with innovative technologies that increase productivity in the meat and dairy business, will result in a real economic boom from this business, as opposed to the subsistence level at which it operates today. The federal government might consider intervention support at single-digit interest rates for such businesses as a strategic support, instead of direct capital investments. Second, we must address the fundamental problem of desertification in the North-East in particular. This can be reversed, with ranching and grazing opportunities expanded for the herdsmen. Israel has achieved this feat. Is there any reason President Buhari’s government cannot engage a country with the necessary, proven expertise and track record to solve this solvable problem? Dealing with desertification is fundamental to achieving a sustainable solution, and is far better than the RUGA idea.
Third, Nigeria’s porous borders must be effectively controlled. The question is whether there is in fact political will to do so. Again, we cannot secure our country if criminal elements and weapons can find easy entry into Nigeria. RUGA settlements won’t solve this problem. Rather, such elements will increasingly find homes in such settlements and make the fears of the affected communities a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fourth, which I would consider a holding solution but a brilliant one, is the agreement reportedly reached between representatives of the herdsmen and the South-Eastern state governors, on what is essentially a barter of supply of grass from the region to the cattle herdsmen in the Northern states, while the latter supply beef from the North to the Eastern states. All the five states of the South-East combined have less than 50 per cent of the land mass of Niger State; why would anyone expect them to accept expansive cattle colonies?
Nigeria’s security problems are in fact a political problem. If ethnic or other affiliations prevent our leaders from taking hard decisions about our borders, and punishing those who take the lives and properties of Nigerians of whatever tribe and creed, all the talk about security will remain just that, rhetoric. Summoning that political will is the very first task. A well thought-through constitutional restructuring of Nigeria to restore true federalism will be far better than a sudden unraveling which RUGA and its allied security implications – anarchy – will likely bring if the idea is pursued across Nigeria. Assumptions about the [“inevitability”] of Nigeria’s continued existence are fed by a lack of knowledge of world history. Ask India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all once one country. Or Czech Republic and Slovakia. Or the Former USSR or Yugoslavia. Or Ethiopia and Eritrea. The only way we can remain one country is to live and let live, to build a nation where, in the words of our national anthem, (true) peace and justice reign.
Kingsley Moghalu, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and a presidential candidate in the 2019 elections, is the Convener of To Build a Nation (TBAN).