President Muhammadu Buhari almost for the first time in the life of this administration directly spoke to the herder-farmer crises but curiously offered the wrong antidote.
His avowal of archaic and controversial gazette supposedly unveiling grazing routes is antithetical to peace and not being a federal law, unlikely to withstand the test of constitutional law. A president that is himself a herder, not by open grazing but ranching, should preach the global best practice, in this instance, the practice that he embraced and thereby diffuse escalating tension across the South.
Though herder-farmer crises dates back to the colonial era, its resultant often violent conflict in the Middle Belt and Southern regions stand out like a sore thumb in the Buhari administration. The issue is even more complicated by the shared nationality between herders and the helmsman.
On the other hand is Buhari’s erstwhile silence on mass killings and land-grabbing by suspected Fulani herders in the South. So, as farmers are routinely killed and properties destroyed without Buhari’s condemnation, victims kept pointing accusing fingers at ethnic leanings and presidential bigotry. Caught between the rock and a hard place, states in the South have banned open grazing, solely to dislodge machine gun-wielding criminals that are masquerading as herders in the forests.
Apparently flustered by the ban on open grazing by 17 governors, Buhari recently in a TV interview drew attention to the open grazing gazette of 1965, as a justification for the controversial practice and a tacit reason why state governors should have a rethink on anti-open grazing. “What I did was ask him (Attorney General of the Federation), to go and dig the gazette of the First Republic when people were obeying laws. There were cattle routes and grazing areas. Cattle routes were for when they (herdsmen) are moving up country, north to south or east to west, they had to go through there. Their route is known, their grazing area is known. So, I asked for the gazette to make sure that those who encroached on these cattle routes and grazing areas will be dispossessed in law and try to bring some order back into the cattle grazing.”
But if Buhari is in search of a legitimate ground for open grazing, the 1965 gazette is a poor choice. For a fact, the First Republic gazette was for the Northern region rather than a national policy. Besides, Justice Adewale Thompson in Suit AB/26/66 of April 1969 in the Abeokuta Division of the High Court described the grazing of cows as “repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.” That ruling has not yet been set aside 52 years after. How come Buhari and Abubakar Malami (SAN) are not in the know?
By the way, more modern provisions of the law and 21st-century development in cities and state policies have no place for cattle grazing routes. Though the 1999 Constitution (as amended) guaranteed freedom of movement, it is for citizens, not cattle. Under the Land Use Act, which is also part of the 1999 Constitution, Sections 1 and 2, every state government is vested with the right to the title of the land. The landscape of the state is under the ownership and control of the governor who holds it in trust for the people. Therefore, the governors and indigenes are at liberty to reject open grazing and prohibit other business concerns from roaming animals on their streets.
It is curious that Buhari’s approach to today’s problems readily contradicts state policies aimed at taking Nigeria forward. In 2019, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo launched the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) in Adamawa State. The programme seeks a permanent solution to the frequent farmer-herder crises through the establishment of grazing reserves. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mohammad Nanono, recently said 22 states, plus the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), have agreed to provide land for grazing under the NLTP initiative, with over 400,000 hectares already dedicated for that purpose. These are forward-looking programmes that should be supported by the president too. If countries like the United States and Ethiopia can boast of over 200 million cattle apiece and not one is seen on streets of New York or Addis Ababa, why have grazing cattle on streets of FCT, Makurdi, Ado-Ekiti among others?
More disturbing are the undercurrent moral perfidy, sectional injustice and lack of empathy in the entire narrative. Open grazing leads to cattle encroachments of private farmlands, attendant economic deprivation and conflicts. It is curious that the president was not bothered by the inherent insecurity and killings. He characteristically missed the opportunity of fellow-feeling with the bereaved and victims of a failed system that should have protected them. As the president and the father of all, he owes the people succour and compassion, which he did not show in the entire cattle narrative. Was that deliberate? Buhari as well missed a golden opportunity to publicly condemn and disassociate himself from criminal elements that are often called Fulani herdsmen disturbing the peace of all and giving the president a bad name.
Indeed, the president’s desire for an out-fashioned open grazing route is repulsive and completely out of tune with modernity. If by reason of open grazing, residents and herders are always at daggers drawn, then it is only proper to explore alternatives. A parochial insistence on open grazing portrays lack of sympathy for the wellbeing and welfare of the citizens. Such disposition will only inflame passion as it is already doing in parts of the South. A president’s word will either make or mar his country. Pitching a tent with an obnoxious open grazing gazette is not the way to salvage what is left of a united Nigeria.