By Ephraims Sheyin, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
The Federal Government’s plan to establish cattle colonies as a way of checking the incessant herdsmen/farmers clashes has continued to attract reactions and vast interest since it was announced by the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, three weeks ago.
Ogbeh, while unveiling the policy, said that 16 states had indicated interest in the scheme and were prepared to volunteer parcels of land for it.
Reviews from across the states indicated that the policy has become an issue for discussion at newspaper stands, social joints, eateries and offices, with anxious Nigerians either condemning it or suggesting that it has some merits that should be considered.
Many state governments, as well as ethnic and regional associations, have met over the policy and took positions, while many more are still conferring before deciding.
Already, many states in the south have openly rejected the policy, while some governors in the north, who earlier endorsed the idea, have backed out.
Kogi governor Yahaya Bello, for instance, who was quoted as endorsing the policy, has been told by two of the three major ethnic groups in the state – the Igala and Yoruba – to steer clear of their territory in his search for the land to be used as cattle colony.
The Kogi situation is similar to Plateau’s, one of the states listed by Ogbeh as ready to allocate land for the purpose. Some of Plateau’s leaders have openly rejected the idea and vowed to resist it.
First, to fire the salvo was Senator Jonah Jang, Gov. Simon Lalong’s predecessor, who said that his Plateau Central constituents were opposed to the creation of cattle colonies and were not ready to relinquish their ancestral lands to be used for that.
Mr Titus Alams, former Speaker, Plateau House of Assembly, also voiced his opposition to the policy, declaring that Plateau has no land to spare as its farmers do not even have enough.
With more voices kicking against the policy, Lalong capitulated on Friday and told Plateau residents, via a statement signed by his media aide, Dan Manjang, that no Plateau land would be carved out and donated to be used as a cattle colony.
As the policy gets increasingly controversial, pundits appear lost over the difference between the colonies and ranches. Or even the grazing reserves the National Assembly rejected in 2008.
Ogbeh explained: “Cattle colonies are better for the breeding of cows because 30 or 40 ranches can share the same colony. A ranch is usually owned by an individual or a company with generally few cows. In a colony, you could find 30,000 cows owned by different owners.
“The reason why we are designing the colony is that we want to prepare on a large scale, on the economy of scale, a place where many owners of cattle can co-exist, and where cows can be fed well because we can make their feeds. They can get good water to drink. Cows drink a lot of water. We can give them green fodder.’’
From the minister’s explanation, colonies will be larger and sit on lands acquired by the Federal Government, unlike ranches where cattle breeders will acquire land according to extant rules and subject their operations to the norms and cultures of their host communities.
But for Dr Sylvanus Atoh, a retired teacher and farmer, the idea of cattle colony has remained largely unpopular because it sounds “rather abstract’’.
“The idea may be a good one, but many people still do not know what it means and therefore suspect that it may be a tool being used to achieve some sinister agenda.
“The initiators have not clearly explained its modus operandi, thus giving an impression that communities will be created or carved out of existing ones solely for herders, availing them access to lands that are not theirs,’’ he said.
He advised the government to step up efforts to address fears by providing answers to some crucial posers.
“There are many posers. If the land is acquired and the cattle colony is established, who owns that land? Who controls it? Does it belong to the Federal Government, traditional communities or families from whom it had been collected?
“What of the economic trees in such lands? Do they belong to the original owners of the land or the herdsmen occupying the colonies?’’
Atoh expressed the fear that the cattle colonies could turn out to be “states’’ within a state because they would be autonomous communities whose lifestyle might not be the same with their host communities.
Mr Emeka Anosike, Chairman, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), has also expressed reservations about the potency of the cattle colonies as a panacea to the herdsmen/farmers clashes.
“The minister has said that a colony will host 40 ranches which means that hundreds of herders will settle there. Such herders will increase in number and seek more land to occupy which could cause more clashes.
“Again, the lands to be donated are arable lands belonging to people which perpetually denies them of their ancestral property. If each state donates 10,000 hectares of land as proposed, it will translate to 370,000 hectares of land mass given to a group for personal business.
“Nigerian communities are agrarian in nature and need lands for their agricultural activities; taking away scarce arable lands will impede farming activities in rural communities.
“The best step is to encourage individual cattle owners to acquire land for ranching which is the practice in other civilised climes,’’ he said.
Some analysts have also argued that cattle colonies must first be preceded by a census of herdsmen and their cattle, so as to know what number to cater for.
One such analyst is Mr Adamu Yusuf, a retired civil servant now a farmer based in Saminaka, Kaduna State.
“As it is, we do not know the number of cattle in Nigeria. We do not know the number of herdsmen either. So, how can we effectively plan?’’ he asked.
He said that a census of herdsmen was important in view of recent observations that most of the herdsmen attacking rural farming communities were not Nigerians.
Yusuf recalled that Kaduna Governor, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, in 2016, confirmed that herdsmen attacking rural communities in that state were not Nigerians.
He quoted the governor as saying that he had established contact with the attackers who were based in some West African countries, and had begun discussions with them toward halting the attacks.
“So, if we established such cattle colonies, what is the guarantee that they will be occupied by local herdsmen and not foreigners?’’ he asked rhetorically.
Accounts of attacks on Plateau rural communities, as relayed by their traditional rulers, appear to lend credence to Yusuf’s position.
The monarchs, at a meeting organised by the Plateau Police Command and held in Jos recently, said that the attackers were very different from the herdsmen they had related with, over the years.
Mr Patrick Mandong, the Gomre of Kuru and Rev. Ronku Akaa (rtd) the Braa Nggwe in Bassa, all disclosed that the attackers were “strange people’’, and urged the government to strive to rid the nation of such strangers.
Like Yusuf, the monarchs advised that effort to settle the herdsmen and their cattle must be preceded by a thorough screening so as to avoid accommodating foreign elements that were not interested in peace.
But as government trudges on with the policy, Ogbeh has tried to assuage the fears by saying that communal land ownership would not be transferred to herdsmen wherever colonies are established.
“There is no truth in the speculations that government is conspiring to grant supremacy over communal land to herdsmen. Government is not using herdsmen to colonise anyone because the project is being executed in partnership with the government of states that volunteered land for it.’’
He said that the Federal Government would fund the project while those wishing to benefit from it will pay some fees.
Ogbeh said that government would soon hold a stakeholders’ meeting on the implementation of the new policy so as to listen to the complaints and address the fears.
Dr. Ahmed Muhammad, former Executive Director, National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI), Vom, believed the colonies have their merits. However, he suggested that ranching remains the best option for the cattle breeders because “it is more compact’’.
He advised the government to sell the ranching idea to the herdsmen with conviction, saying that it would make it easier to draw a line between Nigerian and foreign herdsmen, who cannot be steadied in one place.
“The herdsmen also desire a better life and will buy into an initiative that promises them that; they should be enlightened to focus more on quality instead of the quantity of cows,’’ he said.
Muhammad said there is need to settle cows in one place, and attributed the opposition to the cattle colonies on the delay in establishing them when land was available.
“Government should have established the colonies, grazing reserves or ranches long ago. It will be difficult now because the land is getting smaller.
“Livestock has been neglected and more attention paid to crops. There are grazing reserves and cattle routes in every state; the respective governments know this because they were all gazetted. It is unfortunate that they have been sold or turned into settlements,’’ he said.
Ironically, some leaders of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), the umbrella body of the herdsmen, do not believe on the need for cattle colonies.
Alhaji Sadiq Gidado, its Chairman in Awka, Anambra State, told newsmen recently that cattle colonies would not work “especially in the South-East geopolitical zone’’.
“In the South-East, the proposed cattle colonies cannot work; you cannot just take somebody’s land and give to another person to conduct his own business; it is not right,’’ he said at a press conference in Awka.
He said that the Anambra government has devised a way of avoiding herdsmen/farmers clashes by working in synergy with security operatives, farmers and herdsmen through the Cattle Menace Control Committee.
Gidado, who dismissed cattle colonies and ranches as “political creations’’ by politicians to bring disharmony between farmers and herdsmen, blamed the frictions on migrant cattle breeders, who were not members of MACBAN, saying that the body had fashioned out some measures to forestall future incidents.
“The regulation is that you only graze where there are no farms. If you destroy farmlands intentionally or unintentionally, you must be punished for what you have done and be made to pay for what you have destroyed,’’ he said.
As the debate rages on, many observers have seen merit in Gidado’s position that what was required is a workable solution that will protect the interests of all sides.
Observers urged the government to consult widely to arrive at a lasting solution that will address mutual fears and restore the age-old cordial relationship between the farmer and herdsman.