‘Ruga’: Steeped in history of distrust, Nigeria’s botched solution for deadly conflicts

Cattle graving on a portion of the expanse
Cattle graving on a portion of the expanse

Hands on the hip, elbows turned outward, a sword pouch dangling – the young Fulani man watches as his cows stray into an already harvested farmland where they graze marginal grasses.

This is Karu, a neighbourhood off Abuja-Keffi Expressway, central Nigeria. Several kilometres away, in Benue State, a herdsman who is reportedly armed with a machete, perches on a cashew tree, hacking away its lush branches, felling them to the ground for the cows to feed, while trampling on ridges.

These happen in rural areas where the government is far removed.

Irate farmers sometimes resort to self-help, for instance, poisoning water sources upon which herdsmen and their herds depend. Trouble then blows open, many times resulting in vindictive reprisals marked by extreme violence.

Such clashes can be projected as (Fulani) Muslim versus (Middle Belt) Christian battle in the media and public discourse even when the farmer and the herdsman in the village are barely concerned about any religion or ethnicity but survival and resource-use.

This is Nigeria’s farmers-herders’ conflict, which, as research shows, is rooted in ecological phenomena such as environmental degradation, resource competition and unsustainable population growth.

It is, however, a case that shows the ecology-conflict relationship is not simplistically linear, rejecting the Malthusian mono-causal environmentalist explanation.

‘Historic drivers’

So, crucially, it has other drivers: a history of distrust and poor state capacity which form the socio-political context – apart from the ecological context.

The conflict has now assumed a seemingly intractable dimension, exacerbated by Nigeria’s problem of national unity, precipitating a humongous humanitarian disaster.

The trigger, meanwhile, is that of unrestricted pastoralism or open grazing, which, as in the Karu and Benue scenarios, almost always causes straying into farmlands by herdsmen and their cows, thereby inciting violence.

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Ruga birthed

An immediate solution, the federal government thought, is then to make the herdsmen sedentary thus enabling them to practice ”a settled form of pastoralism”, increase productivity and address the conflict with farmers.

Then Ruga is projected as a fresh idea to create the infrastructure that encourages restricted pastoralism, which many have demanded as an alternative to the highly risky open grazing.

Its suspension was, however, announced on Wednesday, after a meeting governors had with the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, who has been under fire lately.

But before the announcement, it had elicited reactions that further exposed the façade that nationhood is in Nigeria. It took the curtain off what appears to be simmering crisis in the high government circle, with the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, publicly distancing his office from the programme.

The controversy generated by the Ruga programme exposed a dearth of capacity for policy communication and stakeholders’ engagement management in the context of a turbulent polity.

“Just ten days ago, President Muhammadu Buhari approved a programme called the Ruga settlement where herders will live, grow their cattle and produce milk,” announced the immediate past minister of agriculture, Audu Ogbe, on May 21. “This is essential to avert any conflict between herders and the farmers.”

Contradiction

Ruga was voluntary for states willing to yield parts of their land for the programme, the government had announced.

However, in a statement, presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu said the federal government had “gazetted land” in all the states of the federation. His statement seemed to have contradicted an earlier one where he claimed the programme would only be implemented in the states that signed up.

“Without discarding that (Mr Shehu’s) statement, the truth is that the federal government has no land in any place apart from the FCT,” another presidential spokesperson, Femi Adesina, told PREMIUM TIMES on Tuesday, trying to address the seeming contradiction inherent in Mr Shehu’s statement.

So far, 12 states, all in the country’s north have signed up for the pilot phase, the government said. None is in the South.

A contract award letter seen by PREMIUM TIMES suggests implementation had already started by the time Mr Ogbe made his announcement. But there was no prior public consultation, and details of the procurement process are not immediately clear.

Although Mr Adesina confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES the programme was approved by the Federal Executive Council and the contract paper indicates that approval was granted on May 8, yet there is no such item as Ruga in the 2019 Appropriations Act.

But this paper confirmed the programme is under the ministry of agriculture and officials say funding appropriated for another item in the budget is to be used for Ruga.

Mr Shehu had said a Ruga settlement “which simply means rural settlement” would have “necessary and adequate basic amenities such as schools, hospitals, road networks, vet clinics, markets and manufacturing entities that will process and add value to meat and animal products.”

It is not certain if Mr Shehu was revealing actual details of the provisions in a Ruga settlement.

The contract paper seen by PREMIUM TIMES shows N166 million is the “total sum” for the “construction of eight Ruga settlements with sanitary facilities (red bricks structure) in Taraba State”. We are yet to authenticate the award letter from the ministry of agriculture.

PREMIUM TIMES is requesting details of the procurement process from the ministry.

Osinbajo’s NLTP

Meanwhile, for about two years, Mr Osinbajo worked as the head of the efforts of the National Economic Council, which comprises all state governors, to produce the National Livestock Transformation Plan, 2019-2028 .

The plan, according to the office of the Vice President, “is built on six key pillars: economic investment, conflict resolution, law and order, humanitarian relief, information education and strategic communication; and cross-cutting issues.”

The economic investment pillar rests on the proposal for the development of clusters of “market-driven ranches in pilot states.”

These states include those referred to as frontline having been severely hit by the conflict – Adamawa, Benue, Ebonyi, Edo, Kaduna, Nassarawa, Oyo, Plateau, Taraba and Zamfara.

Governors are to donate land for the ranches which would be dedicated to livestock production, commercial rainfed/irrigated fodder pasture production for animal feeds, and value addition and service facilities.

Sidelined by Ruga

But even before the Osinbajo-led plan was unveiled in June, the new idea – Ruga – had emerged, gaining the approval of the Federal Executive Council presided by President Muhammadu Buhari on May 8.

With public engagement barely happening ahead of the Ruga programme, many had assumed the Ruga was an offshoot of the NLTP. But Mr Osinbajo, through spokesperson Laolu Akande, distanced himself from Ruga.

“Contrary to claims reported in sections of the media, Ruga settlements are not being supervised by the Office of the Vice President,” said Mr Akande. “Ruga is different from the National Livestock Transformation Plan approved by State Governors under the auspices of the National Economic Council.”

“(So) where did Ruga emerge from?” queried former minister Oby Ezekwesili in a tweet on Monday.

Divided Presidency?

Like the Ruga, the NLTP also involves land grant from the states willing to participate. Both also include a cluster of settled (Fulani) pastoral families. But unlike Ruga, the NLTP has followed a clear process of stakeholders’ engagement and inputs culminating in a policy document disclosed to the public – and it is clear in terms of social capital, justice and law, conflict resolution and livelihood recovery plan for displaced persons.

Asked why the federal government had pursued Ruga, instead of implementing the Osinbajo plan, Mr Adesina told PREMIUM TIMES the latter was a long-term project on Tuesday.

“The VP’s plan is a long-term programme – it is for ten years,” the presidential spokesperson said. “Ruga is immediate. It can’t wait. It is an emergency response. Do we wait for people to continue to be killed and violence to continue?”

Asked for comment on the suggestion that Mr Osinbajo was side-lined and his efforts made irrelevant, senior officials attached to the vice president, who asked not to be named, declined to comment.

Steeped In Distrust

Traditionally Muslims, the Fulani, in 1804, led by Othman Dan Fodio, successfully launched the Jihad, a political cum military campaign aimed at a rule based on the principles of Islam.

Within 30 years, the Hausa kingdoms had fallen to them, marking the genesis of the Sokoto Caliphate and the Fulani Emirates now found in most of the Muslim North; they reached Yorubaland in today’s South-west and contributed principally to the collapse of the Yoruba’s Oyo Empire.

One of the effects of the Fulani political and military expansion was to clear a way for the southward movement of the pastoralists as they sought to exploit the vastly grassy sub-humid Middle Belt during the dry season.

Another effect which persists up to the present date is that Nigeria’s other ethnic groups remain fearful and suspicious of an alleged Fulani domination and expansionist ambition. This effect is even more so in the Middle Belt, placed geo-politically in the North as a group of minorities.

The Fulani pastoral expansion culminated in the sedentarisation of many of them in the Middle Belt and the nomadic exploration of the zone by others. The sedentarisation thus led to indigene-settler dichotomy and consequent conflicts over land and access to political powers at the state and local levels.

For instance, this is the case in Taraba State and Plateau State between the Fulani and such groups as the Mambila and the Berom.

So, while there exists evident ecological degradation and resource competition playing as drivers of the conflict, the history of distrust and tension, in which Nigeria is steeped, continues to draw out the conflict, and heavily impacts the capacity of the state to deliver any solution that is commonly acceptable.

So, not surprising, while many critics of open grazing had demanded restricted pastoralism, Ruga still met huge opposition from suspicious groups even outside of the states that have signed up. Consequently, the federal government suspended the programme.

Fears of ‘expansionist’ agenda

Commenting for this report (before Tuesday’s suspension of Ruga), Yinka Odumakin, spokesperson for Afenifere, a Yoruba socio-political organisation, told PREMIUM TIMES: “Ruga is an expansionist agenda of the Fulani across Nigeria along with the ‘Fulanisation’ agenda spoken of by Obasanjo (former President Olusegun Obasanjo). It is an agenda of conquest and domination. We don’t need Fulanised settlement(s). It is all part of elevating Fulani above others.

“They first dealt with the Hausa (referring to the Jihad) …and then Yoruba before they were stopped in Osogbo. They now want to start from where they stopped. It (pastoralism) is a private business. What is the federal government’s business?”

But for decades the government has supported crop farmers with public resources, others would argue.

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) also resolutely opposed to Ruga, citing lack of consultation in the process.

Although Ruga was only planned for states that signed up for it, CAN spokesperson Bayo Oladeji told PREMIUM TIMES that the programme should even be more decentralised such that “it is only for local government areas where it is wanted” even within a state that signed up.

“You can’t solve a problem by creating another one,” he said and recalled the repeated explanation of the Buhari administration that the herdsmen attacking local farming communities were foreigners: “Are they creating Ruga for foreigners?”

National newspapers like the Punch and the Tribune have also condemned the Ruga plan in their editorials.

Benue and Ekiti states, among others, also said they would not accept Ruga amid widespread opposition by the natives.

But Mr Adesina replied them: “All the states and groups rejecting Ruga, you can’t reject what you have not been offered in the first place. It is only for those that are interested and apply.”

Hate driven?

The Presidency told PREMIUM TIMES opposition to Ruga was driven by hate.

According to Mr Adesina, “The critics are talking out of hatred and malice. We should be less suspicious and accommodate each other. If you don’t want Ruga, what do you want? I have asked them. They keep quiet.”

But Messrs Odumakin and Oladeji were separately asked what solution they would proffer.

For Mr Odumakin, individuals should apply to state governments for ranches. “But we are against any Fulani territory or settlement in any of our (Yoruba) soil.”

But Mr Oladeji asked that CAN be consulted first.

“When we get to the bridge. We’ll cross it,” the CAN spokesperson said. “Let them call us first.”

Support from other quarters

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Plateau State Governor Simon Lalong sounded strongly in defence of the Ruga programme, which he considered the same as a ranching policy.

“I think the Ruga thing should not be anything that should bring any controversy …we have said that the only solution that can address some of these insecurity issues is the ranching policy,’ said Mr Lalong. He added that other tribes could benefit from the Ruga plan as pastoralists too.

“Livestock rearing is not a prerogative of one tribe. Everybody must get involved, and that is what we had done in our state when we registered for it.”

In a series of tweet on Monday, civil society leader Oluseun Onigbinde, also weighed in on the Ruga debate, saying “honestly, we need to slow down on the RUGA vitriol. We are the ones that said we don’t want open grazing.

“FG is paying willing states for lands for grazing within a space. Isn’t that what Ruga is?

But he regretted the communication handling: “However, FG is late with the communication …as usual FG is in firefighting mode.”

At any rate, the Ruga programme has now hit the rocks, leaving the federal government with the Osinbajo plan, which involves mainly Northern states and some in the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria for clusters of ranches.

Based on Mr Odumakin’s submission, the demand is that individual herdsmen should acquire land for ranching. What is rejected, then, is “any federal government-backed” location or settlement hosting a cluster of Fulani pastoral families by whatever nomenclature.

Although clearer and more encompassing, this what the Osinbajo plan envisions. So were there other plans even in the years before the Buhari administration?

The sense in such a plan, other than the Odumakin proposal, is to enable dedicated infrastructure and support services, which may not be possible for individuals to acquire themselves or for government to procure for them in a scenario of scattered ranches.

North’s ecological problem untreated

In any case, both the Ruga and Mr Osinbajo’s NLTP are weak with regards to action towards combating the severe ecological problem of desert encroachment in the country’s North-west and North-east.

Massive parts of land in those regions are lost annually to the desertification, thereby decreasing resources needed for farming and compelling herdsmen to move southwards especially during dry seasons.

It is thought that addressing this problem would reduce the pressure on the Fulani herdsmen to migrate southwards and, subsequently, de-escalate the intense competition for resources in the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria.

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