In this interview with catherine agbo, the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Benue State University (BSU) and lecturer in the department of archaeology, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, Prof Zacharys Gundu speaks on the farmers/herdsmen clashes in the country and the recent furore in BSU over fees increment.
What’s your take on the recent escalation of clashes between farmers and cattle herders particularly in the North Central part of the country?
My take is quite simple. I think because of increased desertification because of the long standing desire of the Fulanis to bring in their kith and kin from other West African countries into Nigeria, they have been gradually choking the North Central zone because this is the zone they believe is not well populated. Of course this is the zone they ravished with slave trade so because they took so many people away from this zone, the argument has always been that the zone is not very populated and then of course if you compare it ecologically with the extreme north, it still has a lot of rich grasses which they have been eyeing and they have been bringing in cows to graze here. Initially, there were skirmishes but I think these skirmishes have intensified so now you can actually talk about a war going on in the North Central zone because the Fulanis who are coming here now are well armed and they want to take land by force and turn it to grazing reserves. This strategy has a very long standing history. All the ranking Fulani chiefs, politicians and businesspeople are behind it. There used to be an NGO in Kaduna called Pastoral Reserve and it is headed in terms of its board by very top Fulani leaders and records show that they have voted billions of naira to make sure that they turn the North Central zone into grazing reserves and the argument is quite funny because the issue of grazing reserves started actually before the colonial period. As soon as the Jihad of 1804 had succeeded, because the Fulanis took over many parts of the North in terms of the Caliphate, they decided and legislated for grazing reserves and routes especially within the boundaries of the Caliphate but unfortunately, at independence, the Hausa farmers woke up to the extent that there are no functional grazing reserves in places like Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Kano and Borno today. All the grazing reserves have been abandoned and where they exist, they are not used as reserves but have been taken over by criminals. These are some of the forest reserves that criminals now hide in to perpetrate crime. So it is amazing that the places where these cattle herding Fulanis can actually argue as their states don’t have grazing reserves and no person is putting pressure in Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Kano or Jigawa for grazing reserves, rather, pressure is being put in the North Central zone and this of course is for political purposes because in a place like Kachia in Southern Kaduna where a grazing reserve exists in terms of the fact that there are Fulanis there who have their own cattle, the Fulani people in the Kachia grazing reserve are more interested in putting pressure on the Kaduna State government to have a chiefdom based in that reserve. So if the Fulani are talking about grazing reserves in Plateau, Nasarawa or Benue or any other part of the North Central, the logical implication is that sooner than later, they will be talking about Fulani chiefdoms in these areas. I think we are talking about politics here, about a strategy to take the lands of people and if we really want to reform the breeding of cattle in the country, the way to go is not grazing reserves.
But the cattle herders have lived among the people for long without crisis of this magnitude. Don’t you imagine that this could be another social problem masquerading as herders against farmers?
There’s no new social problem here. Yes all of these communities in the North Central zone are familiar with Fulani herdsmen and some of them have lived for many years with these herdsmen. The idea is that the herdsmen used to come and go and used to come in very small numbers but now they are coming in very large numbers. If you go to Benue now, in places like Agatu, Guma, Tarka, Logo and Kwande where they are coming in from Taraba, you will discover that the numbers are many and the herds they are carrying are very many. They are doing this because they have deliberately invited their kith and kin from neighbouring West African countries to come into Nigeria and possess the country and there’s no doubt about that.
In one of your papers on this issue, you alleged that all presidential candidates from 1999 committed themselves to the Fulani in writing on the issue of grazing reserves. Could you elaborate on that?
The Fulani people are extremely smart. What has seemed to happen is that anytime we are in a political dispensation, they organise themselves to meet with presidential candidates and leaders of the various political parties and they tell them that what they want is for the issue of grazing reserves to be solved and you know when people are looking for votes, there are a lot of stupid things they do or accept just because they want to get votes. You can imagine that now the Fulanis want grazing reserves in every part of the country and if they ever give them that, it means that technically, they will be in a position to determine the results of elections because they are everywhere and they are inviting their brothers to come in. Don’t forget that within the current dispensation, we are talking about census so if they come in in large numbers, they can also overturn the demographic balance in their favour. The truth of the matter is that they have always sought the attention and support of presidential candidates and the current president is actually the life patron of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria. During his own days as the PTF chairman, he had actually planned cattle routes and grazing reserves across the country and if Abacha had not died suddenly, probably they would have used military fiat to establish this. But they couldn’t do that and now, without any proper study, they are talking about grazing reserves without any proper legislation. The National Assembly already approved a budget for grazing reserves and I think this is not tidy. It is only someone who doesn’t want to look at the Nigerian situation critically that will not see through what they are doing.
But at a recent public hearing on the issue of grazing reserves, the minister of state for agriculture said the government was planning ranches…
I think the government is being dubious in terms of taking a position on this. If you look consistently at the position that Audu Ogbeh has canvassed, it is either as minister of agriculture, he doesn’t know the difference between grazing reserves and ranches or he just wants to be mischievous. I also listened to what the minister of state was trying to say; these are people who really don’t want to come clean. Grazing reserves are different from ranches. Grazing reserves is what government attempted in the past to establish to keep herdsmen but the truth of the matter is that the herdsmen rejected the grazing reserves because they didn’t want to be in one place and have never wanted to be in one place. What they keep on saying is that that is their own way of life and because of that, they didn’t stay in the grazing reserves that were established for them in Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Kano, Jigawa and other northern states and because they didn’t stay there, instead of government telling them to try to establish ranches, they are going back to grazing reserves. The point we are also trying to make is that breeding cattle is a personal business. Government cannot establish ranches for herders. People who have herds of cattle must buy land and establish ranches. That means that if they come into a state, they must try to do some feasibility to show where they can establish ranches and where it will not be profitable to establish ranches. During the Second Republic, when Aper Aku was governor of Benue, he actually did a feasibility study and it was discovered that grazing reserves cannot flourish in Benue and that was why they went for ranches and as a model, they established one at Ikyogen. It is just unfortunate that his government didn’t last long enough to see this through but in any case, the people who own the herds of cattle and are going about with them for which people are complaining are probably not those who go about with them. There are Fulani generals, politicians and businessmen and of course other Nigerians who are not Fulani who also own these cattle but they ask the Fulani to look after the cattle. And as far as I am concerned, they are just exploiting them because as long as they are going about in the bush, it means their children are not going to school, it means they are not living in proper conditions. The people who have the means are in the township and are the ones who own these cattle so government has to identify the group behind them and focus and put pressure on that group to do the right thing.
The chairman of the Senate committee on agriculture said nobody is in a position to stop government from taking any land for its use. Do you share his view?
He doesn’t know what he is saying. Senator Abdullahi Adamu says government can take any land anytime so if today government takes ancestral land from the people to give to the Fulanis and tomorrow these people want you to take their own land and give to them for farming what is he going to say? It will be unwise to think that if you take land and give it to the Fulani, the problem will be solved. If you dispossess people of their land, they may start fighting to take it back and organising so that government can also give them land for use. Senator Adamu is also arguing that the constitution allows people to move and settle anywhere, yes the constitution allows that but the constitution does not allow people to go from one part of the country to the other perpetrating crime, the constitution does not allow the movement of animals. What the constitution allows is the movement of people who are doing legitimate business not those moving with animals destroying farmlands and spreading diseases because if you don’t regulate the movement of animals there are certain diseases that transfer from animals to man. They call them zoonotic diseases, things like tuberculosis can spread very fast through this means. The constitution doesn’t allow people to move in the manner these people are moving and when people like Senator Adamu begin to say these, it means they are leaders but also mischievous. He was governor in Nasarawa for two terms, why didn’t he establish reserves there? It was apparently because he knew that the people there will resist taking their ancestral land for reserves.
The government has said the people carrying out the attacks aren’t Nigerians. Will establishment of grazing reserves where they will also graze their cattle not give them undue advantage over Nigerians?
That is what government wants from the way it’s going. I told you that the Fulani are deliberately asking their kith and kin in other parts of the sub-region to come into the country and there is no way people can come from outside the country, go deep into Benue for instance and carry out attacks on communities. Just yesterday, at a place in Sevav, between Buruku and Ugba, called Agwabi, Fulanis barricaded the road and killed about 10 people. There is no way you can move from Burkina Faso, Niger or other West African countries and do that in the centre of Benue, there’s no way you can move from another country and come and attack Agatu the way those people attacked that place except those in this country are guiding you. The Fulanis outside the country and those within are actually working in league and it is quite clear from my own analysis that the Fulani have an international militia which they mobilise at short notice to go to any part of the West African sub-region and attack. This herdsmen/farmers crises is not something government should take as an ordinary misunderstanding. For most people in this country, they think that the government has been petting certain sections of the country. The Fulanis literally forced the government to establish nomadic education and government built a lot of schools but no person is going to the schools while children of people who are sedentary are reading under the trees. At a point they left nomadic schools to build Almajiri schools. The concept right from the beginning was senseless because if you go to a typical northern town like Kano or Zaria, how many Almajiri schools can you build to accommodate all of them because they are virtually everywhere but they went ahead to build the schools and now, they are talking of grazing reserves. If farmers for instance who farm yams say they want reserves for their farms, what will government do? There will be a crisis. So it is important for government to appreciate that Nigerians are seeing through what the leaders are doing especially on this issue of grazing reserves. The minister of agriculture was talking about importing grass from Brazil and I find it very shameful because this grass was taken from Nigeria and domesticated in Brazil and because those people are more serious than we are, somebody wants to use scarce foreign exchange to import grass from them. We have agricultural research institutes in this country who have actually developed local pasture which we can use to feed our animals but we are not patronising them. For me, I think government has to be very careful not to set the country on fire in the way it handles crises between its people before people come to the conclusion that government cannot protect them and so they need to protect themselves.
You are the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the Benue State University. Recently, there was furore in the university over the issue of fees increment. What went wrong?
The Benue State University has a vision which is to be one of the top 200 universities in the world and that is a very tall ambition. So when we came in, we discovered that since 2012, the state government stopped supporting the university with overheads. What the government has been doing is just payment of salaries and we discovered that if you want to be one of the top 200 universities in the world and you are not even very close there, there is no way the only support you’ll be getting will just be payment of salaries, you need money for other things. So we looked at what the students were paying and discovered that for medicine for example, it costs the state slightly more than N1 million to train one medical student for a session and in the meantime, that medical student pays less than N100,000 as school fees and other related charges and we said it wasn’t really fair because if we have to move the university to the next level, there has to be more commitment and we were putting pressure on the state to give us more money and the state was saying they don’t have money. It was obvious because they are not even up to date in payment of salary. They are paying the university because they consider tertiary education a priority. So we decided for the increase but of course the governor is a listening governor so when the House of Assembly waded into the issue, the governor intervened and said we should suspend it and we are hoping that at an appropriate time, we will still raise the issue because it is not just about graduating a person and giving the person a degree, you want the person to be competitive nationally and internationally. So it is about repositioning the university.
But the governor is the Visitor to the university, does it mean the fees increase was not done in consultation with him as Visitor and employer of the university staff?
By the time the increment was announced, the university didn’t have a council to properly interface with the government. The announcement was made close to when students started resuming and this was about the time the council was put in place too and when we came into the picture, by then the students had started protesting and the governor had travelled but when he came back, it became quite clear that we could do this in future especially when the House of Assembly came into the picture. The consultation that ought to have been made wasn’t very thorough, there were gaps but we are hoping that the next time we bring this up, we’ll consult properly. We are also hoping that because the new fees was suspended at the instance of the Visitor (governor), the Visitor will be gracious enough to make money available to do some of the things we need to do.
Govt Must Treat Farmers, Herdsmen Clashes As Serious Issue – BSU PRO-CHANCELLOR
Reviewed by Link Naija