By Sufuyan Ojeifo
I have read different narratives about the conceptualization of “ruga settlements” for Fulani herdsmen. To be sure “ruga” is said to be a Fulani word for village. There have been arguments for and against the initiative of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration. The issue has become so emotive that the nation is being pulled apart in different directions. The centre is fast giving way and except there is a holistic review of the policy, the nation may just have sat on a tinderbox with the potential to explode.
Interestingly, there is dalliance in the Presidency over the issue. Ordinarily, the presidency should have spoken with a voice on the issue if there had been clarity and sincerity of intention. It is doubtful if there was consensus ad idem on the policy before it was announced. If that was the case, then it amounted to a strategic communication misstep for two seemingly contradictory positions to be issued on a policy.
The administration should have subjected the policy to a series of interrogation, explanation and negotiation with all critical stakeholders in the Nigerian state. Obviously, that was not done. The Office of the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo is understandably playing possum over the “ruga settlements” policy because of its tendentious nature. Credible feelers from the office say that the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) which the vice president’s office recommended was denatured and replaced by the controversial “ruga settlements” policy.
In the praxis of our rigged federalism where the northern and the southern regions live in mutual distrust, wisdom dictates that Osinbajo must be prudent lest, as a Yoruba axiom goes, “his head would be used to crack the coconut”. And that would not be a good idea at all. Therefore, it was understandable that on the heels of the confusion that had submerged his office, following a statement issued in which his Senior Special Assistant, Laolu Akande, distanced the office from the policy, the Buhari Presidency, through its Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu had to confirm the proposed “ruga settlements” policy but clarified that they were not meant for only Fulani herders. That clarification came too late.
Garba Shehu had salaciously listed some of the benefits of “ruga settlements” and disclosed that while it was voluntary, twelve states had already signed up for the settlements. But for the deployment of the word “voluntary” in his significant policy communication, the benefits he reeled out would have been construed or related with as a brazen attempt by the Buhari presidency to foist a fait accompli on the nation.
Although the envisaged benefits of NLTP and “ruga settlements” would appear to be largely the same; yet the Fulanisation of the conceptual framework through rechristening of the NLTP to “ruga settlements” to enable direct ownership by the Fulani herders/settlers over and above settlers of other ethnic stocks forms the plank of the real fear that such settlement could over time metamorphose into Fulani emirates. There must be emirs to be superintend over the affairs of the settlers that are projected to cover a land mass that is said to be equivalent to an average local government area in the southern part of Nigeria. At least, that is the counter narrative.
But for the expansionist tendency of the Fulani and the huge preferential treatment that they enjoy under the administration of President Buhari, who is himself a Fulani and cattle-breeder, such that the administration has not deemed it fit to forcefully rein in or take restraining actions against the bogus herders-farmers crises that have claimed thousands of lives, perhaps a national conversation would have produced a compromise to allow and encourage as many Fulani herders to settle anywhere in the country. After all, they have already settled in different states of the country, grazing their cattle.
However, it is the proposed structured settlements rather than ranching that have belied the professed sincerity that would have underpinned the acclaimed benefits of the “ruga settlements” policy. It is clear that the southern part of the country does not fancy the policy. In that circumstance, it cannot be foisted on it. There was a whole lot of respite or reassurance in the announcement by the presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, that the policy was voluntary. Therefore, if the Buhari presidency must push through the agenda, it will have to do it in pari materia with states that have the land to voluntarily give up either in the south or in the north.
In the event that it becomes a Hobson’s choice, there will be no legal and moral justification for the administration to spend such a humongous amount ($11 billion) that is being touted as the cost of building the settlements countrywide without also coming up with policies that will confer similar advantage and benefits on other ethnic groups within the space of the Nigerian nation-state. The rationalization will be that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
However, the essential motivation for this piece is the need to douse tension by appealing to the sensibilities of the Buhari administration to stand down from its high horse on this issue. The predident should not continue to come across as an ethnic jingoist because whereas, as a man he has his frailties since blood runs through his veins, but he should realise the huge responsibility that providence has placed on his shoulders to unite rather than divide Nigeria and Nigerians. He should emphasize things that unite us. “Ruga settlements” policy is certainly not one of them.
Besides, President Buhari should also remember the oath of office to which he swore that he would uphold the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Pandering to Fulani ethnic ideals at the expense of the ideals of other ethnic nationalities is not constitutionally-circumscribed. I would have loved to see a much more passionate disposition on the part of the President in solving the herders-farmers crises. Continuous engagements of stakeholders cutting across all ethnic groups in the direct line of “attack” by herders would have been the best approach.
Effort should have been invested in policies and mechanisms that would have encouraged individuals to ranch their cattle. Alternatively, if Fulani herders must graze their cattle, grazing routes could have been carved out, which farmers would take note of and ensure that they farm far away from such routes. This is the best way to go to pacify both the Fulani herders and farmers. Unfortunately, the crises between both have been allowed to fester to the extent that “Fulani herders” or pretenders have taken over highways nationwide replicating the evil franchise of abduction, rape and extortion of innocent Nigerians.
It is imperative that a national consensus is reached on how to contain the menace of herders-farmers crises so that the franchise of evil on our highways can be stopped. It is possible that “ruga settlements” policy could have been salutary in that direction; it is also possible that the policy could have escalated it without the voluntary buy-in of ethnic nationalities that make up the 36 states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). If Federal and State Government-assisted ranching is also pushed through and that provides an elixir to the menace, it will be welcome as long as the evil franchise on our highways nationwide is extirpated.
▪ Ojeifo, a journalist, contributed this piece from Abuja.