John Duuba arrived at the banks of River Katsina-Ala in the Jato-Aka area after a gun attack in his Gbodi home in Kwande Local Government Area of Benue State.
He was fortunate to flee with his two wives and 14 children unlike other members of his community who died in the February 2019 afternoon attack he blamed on herders.
“No one expected it; we fled without picking a thing. Others were killed during the shooting by the herdsmen for the sake of their farms or produce,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Duuba still suffered some losses. Those who attacked his community set fire on 90 bags of rice, 20 bags of sorghum, and five bags of bambara nuts and bags of maize he stored after harvest.
Now, living near the river about 65 kilometres from Gbodi, the 60-year-old cultivates vegetables and maize to feed his large family. He begs too.
“I’m always thinking about what I used to get and now that I have to beg to feed. I’ve tried to control myself to avoid high blood pressure,” he said, his eyes bloodshot from the tobacco power he sniffed intermittently.
Global food prices reached their highest levels in a decade in September, caused mainly by the coronavirus pandemic, and Nigeria has seen its share of accelerating food prices with food inflation reaching a 13-year high.
Besides the dollar shortage that makes it difficult to import food to cover domestic shortfalls, a significant cause of rising food prices in the country has been rampant insecurity that has sent farmers like Mr Duuba away from their fields.
Deadly attacks in the North-east where Boko Haram raids communities and kills many, and in the North-west where the so-called “bandits” sack communities and kidnap people for ransom have severely impacted farming communities. In the North-central where Benue is located, residents say the main culprits have been armed herders who attack farmers over land.
No state tells a better story of how insecurity could take a toll on the nation’s food supply and security than Benue, reputed for decades as “the food basket of the nation”.
The All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Benue State chapter, said 40 per cent of farmers had been displaced in the state since the crisis escalated in 2018.
“Farmers in so many local government areas of Benue State are not able to cultivate crops. Half of Guma Local Government Area is left to insecurity. Farmers are all in IDP camps. So many farmers are being killed,” said Saaku Aondongu, chairman of the group in Benue.
“In Gwer-West, three-quarters of the arable land lay fallow due to insecurity. There are no farms. In Kwande LGA, you have majority of the people not farming, because most of the farmers were chased out of their homes by the herdsmen conflict. So, there is a real food shortage in the state. That is why prices of garri, cassava, and yam are so high. There used to be a glut of these products.”
He painted a gloomy picture of the food crisis that awaits Nigeria if the problem is not brought under control.
“The future for crop farmers is bleak because this is the time that herders come to destroy harvests from the farms. So the shortage will be much,” he said.
The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), the association of pastoralists whose members are blamed by farmers for the crisis, agreed on the negative impact of the crisis on farming.
“Many agrarian communities in Benue State are not farming due to this conflict. It is tension across the state,” MACBAN secretary in Benue State, Galma Ibrahim said.
Mr Ibrahim, however, denied that herders, especially those of Fulani origin, were behind the attacks.
“The attacks on farmers are being carried out by criminal elements in the state,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in September.
In this state of over 4 million people, it is not difficult to see the telling signs of the crisis on food production and supply.
The Ugba International Yam Market in Logo Local Government Area of Benue State used to be a beehive of activities. As a weekly market that holds Wednesdays, with traders mostly from the South-east traveling to buy truckloads of yams there, farmers used to assemble their products ahead of the market day.
“Farmers from all council wards in Logo would bring their yams here, especially in September,” Ikume Agber, a farmer in Logo, told PREMIUM TIMES. “A day after the market day, lorries numbering between 45 and 48 would load yams from Ugba International Market, and head to Southern Nigeria.”
That much is no longer possible. Mr Agber said they barely get up to 10 truckloads on a market day now. Weeds have taken over a part of the market.
Things changed after the area erupted in deadly violence in 2018. According to the state government, since then, thousands have died, and more than a million people have been displaced. Local authorities and residents blame the attacks on migrant herders.
“Nigeria has started paying, and it will continue to pay heavily for allowing herdsmen terrorism to fester,” said Kundushima Akaa, a former local council chairperson of Logo LGA.
As he sat at his home overlooking the Anyiin-Ugba Road, a day after the yam market when truckloads of yams usually move from Logo to southern Nigeria, Mr Akaa said: “When the attacks by Fulani cattle rearers were not violent, you could see the movement of produce; dozens of trucks moving produce (yams, rice and garri) from here (Ugba), Anyiin, Ukum and all over Sankera to markets outside the state.”
Referring to this reporter, he queried: “You have stayed here for over two hours across this road that used to be very busy with vehicles of farm produce, but have you seen a single lorry pass?”
He described the violence as a “hunger war”.
“Go to Abuja or Lagos now and price yam; if you don’t know the reason for the high cost of foodstuff it is as a result of the displacement of local farmers here who were doing this at no cost. Now they have been killed, displaced and that is why we are faced with this,” Mr Akaa said.
History Of Violence
Clashes between herders and farmers date back in decades and at the centre of it is the struggle for land. The conflict worsened after President Muhammadu Buhari came to office in 2015.
In 2016, a massacre occurred in Agatu area of the state where over 500 villagers were killed and thousands displaced, according to the Benue State government.
In January 2018, an attack claimed 72 lives in several communities in the state, leading to a mass burial. As recent as May 2021, the Samuel Ortom-led state government said suspected herdsmen killed over 100 persons in Katsina-Ala LGA.
In response, the government in 2017 enacted a law banning open grazing of cattle in a bid to halt the violence. That hasn’t solved the problem because the police, controlled by the federal government, have not effectively enforced the new law, government officials and farmers told PREMIUM TIMES.
The Benue State police command spokesperson, Catherine Anene did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES’ request for comments when reached by phone.
The Benue government accuses Mr Buhari, a Fulani, of refusing to act against killings in the state as the perpetrators are also from the same ethnic stock, an allegation the president denies.
“Mr President is pushing me to think that what they say about him, that he has a hidden agenda in this country is true because it is very clear that he wants to fulanise but he is not the first Fulani president,” Governor Ortom told Channels TV in August.
“Shagari was a Fulani President, Yar’Adua was a Fulani President and they were the best in the history. But President Buhari is the worst President when it comes to issues of security and keeping his promises.”
The Federal High Court in Abuja in May 2021 affirmed the right of states to implement anti-grazing laws, rejecting the federal government’s argument championed by Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, that such legislation is unconstitutional.
Attempts by the Benue government to enforce the law using its own security unit, called Livestock Guards, has not solved the problem; instead, it has led to more bloodshed.
Abokaa Solomon, who fled Katsina-Ala to Jato-Aka in the wake of violent attacks in 2019, said rural communities were left vulnerable to herdsmen reprisals whenever the Benue State Livestock Guard seized cows caught grazing openly.
“Whenever the livestock guards impound cows that are grazing openly, the herdsmen return to the communities where the arrests were made, and they begin to kill and injure people,” Mr Abokaa, who used to cultivate rice, said.
The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Benue State chapter, said its members were not behind the attacks and that indeed they were suffering too.
Galma Ibrahim, secretary of MACBAN in Benue State, said members of the group paid over N80 million as fines for violating the state’s anti-open open grazing law, and said Fulani cattle rearers in the state had no choice but to graze their cows in contravention of the law.
“Our member are still grazing in Benue State, despite the anti-open grazing law, because the cows have to feed,” Mr Ibrahim told PREMIUM TIMES in a telephone interview.
He lamented that the (anti-open grazing) “law requires a herdsman to acquire land and set up a ranch,” adding, “The procedure is a long-term goal that requires massive financial investment, which the nomadic herdsmen lacked.”
He said since the coming into force of the law, over 25,000 cows had been arrested for violating the law.
“Over 400 herdsmen have been arrested, some have been jailed, while others are awaiting trial over infractions of the law,” he said.
He explained that a herder is fined the sum of N2000 per cow over breach of the anti-open grazing law.
Denying the allegations that Fulani herdsmen were responsible for the series of violence on farming communities in the state, Mr Ibrahim said, “I will not accept those allegations because unknown criminal elements are the ones responsible for such attacks.”
“Usually, when cows are impounded, the communities where the arrests were made often get scared of reprisals and abandon their homes. Then some of the farmers themselves move in and begin to cause havoc,” he said.
“So, criminals take advantage of fear reprisals from herdsmen when their cattle are impounded to cause havoc. So, the attackers are not herdsmen; even our members are also victims of the attacks.”
Crop farmers disagree and point to the devastating impact the bloodshed has had on their livelihoods.
Forty-year-old Iortim Teryem fled his Chenumgyo home in Ukempergya-Tswarev in Logo to seek refuge at NKST Primary School at Anyiin, after a scorched earth attack claimed several lives in 2018.
“During the attack in 2018, my elder brother, Terver, who adopted one of my children, was killed. The herdsmen set fire to anything they could see. They burned all my rice and bambara nuts bags to the ground,” Mr Teryem said.
After losing his farm produce of that year, Mr Teryem began to carve mortar and pestle to survive.
John Ikwulono, vice chairman of Agatu LGA, where one of the worst massacres took place, told PREMIUM TIMES that in some communities, farmers gave up not only for fear they would be targeted but because if they grew their crops herders would feed their livestock on them.
“The herdsmen violence has affected food production a lot in the local council. For instance, at Okokolo, farmers don’t have yams, because there is none to cook. There is no yam anywhere in the community. This community was reputed for its rice and yam production, owing its fertile farmlands,” Mr Ikwulono said.
“After eating the rice farm up, the herders would set fire to the entire farm before disappearing into the forests,” Mr Ikwulono said.
Before the crisis started, Anshu Jeremiah said he harvested between 92 and 100 bags of guinea corn and soybeans a year.
“With the combined efforts of my two wives and six children, we used to harvest a lorry load of yams, which we transported to Port-Harcourt (Rivers State) every year. But all that is now gone as a result of these attacks by herdsmen,” Mr Ashu said.
Setting out on Saturday morning to a nearby farm at Gbajimba, Guma LGA, where he tills the soil for a fee to support his family, Mr Ashu said his wives go to the Gbajimba market to scavenge for grains, which they live on.
William Jagun, also a farmer, said the rice section of the Aga market in Kwande LGA was producing between 50 and 60 truckloads of rice every market day.
“Due to the herdsmen attacks, all the farmers on the Fadama area of River Katsina-Ala have been displaced. From between 50 and 60 truckloads of rice every market day before the problem to 30 and 35 now,” he said.
Forty-two-year-old Anshu Jeremiah used to cultivate yam, millet, soybeans, maize, and guinea corn at Tse Anshu in Taraba State, but now he shelters at a displaced persons camp in Gbajimba, Guma LGA.
“On May 26, 2021, herdsmen invaded my community, Tse Anshu, killing and setting houses ablaze,” Mr Anshu whose great-grandfather founded the community narrated his journey to the camp.
“The herders have been killing our people, destroying our farms every day. They force our wives and sleep with them and after that kill them,” Mr Anshu said.
Similar attacks on farming communities have occurred in several states across the country. Together, they have fuelled an unprecedented food scarcity and price surge.
In April, food prices rose 22.72 per cent more than their rates a year before. President Buhari blamed the spike on middlemen who seek to make outsized profit. But events in Benue and other places show that intermediaries merely contribute to a deeper problem.
“Some of the rice farmers, for instance, have been caged in IDPs camps for close to two years. Most of the areas for agriculture productivity are lying dormant. Farmers cannot go back to farms. The capacity is declining,” said Bem Ugoh, an agricultural research and political economy expert at the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi.
“Quite frankly, it has been a very bad weather for farmers. And there is a very serious threat to food security, so that even for their sustainability, farmers can’t get enough not to talk about feeding the markets.”
A traditional ruler of Tyoor Mbayam at Ugba, Orlu Mbakor, said the shortages in food production and the attendant high prices were caused by the displacements of farmers caused by insecurity.
“The crisis has not abated. If you go to places like Ayilamo and Tombo, they can’t go back because the Fulani herdsmen are grazing on their fields. They cross over from Nasarawa (State), launch attacks, and go back,” Mr Mbakor said.
At Aga market in Jato-Aka, reputed for its high variety of grains, Agabus Aga, the market overseer said the magnitude of the herders’ crisis is unquantifiable.
“The predominant farmers across the (Katsina-Ala) river – a whole ward; Moon, Mbadura, Yaav, Mbaav have been displaced,” Mr Aga said of the farmers who provided bulk of the grains.
“All these people used to bring produce to this market. The produce has dropped by 80 per cent. Now abject poverty has become the problem of the farmers here.”
The market head revealed that the number of truckloads of farm produce that used to ferry goods to other parts of Nigeria has reduced from 35 to 10 per market day.
The MACBAN leadership said governments at all levels must “carry out advocacy and sensitisation programmes on the law for herdsmen,” while the federal government should provide funds for the establishment of ranches in conjunction with private people.
“The solution to this crisis lies with the federal and state governments, because they are the ones in control of our resources,” Mr Ibrahim suggested.
Mr Ugoh, the agricultural research expert, suggested the anti-open open grazing legislation should be enshrined in the Nigerian constitution.
“The worrying aspect is the aggravating dimension of it. It has grown into full time criminality. Sometimes you find herdsmen carrying arms and force their way on farms.
“It looks more like a sabotage. It’s no longer like the traditional clashes during trespassing. They kill and even occupy. It is more like a terroristic act. Herders come in organised form to attack farmers, displace them and chase them out with the ultimate aim of occupying the land,” Mr Ugoh explained.
He said both farmers and herders must be protected as they are partners in agricultural productivity.
“The way forward is to sharpen a policy that will guarantee the security of both farmers and herders. There is need to look at these laws to strike a balance,” he said.
“The two must be secured to exist in a parallel form. The main target is to strengthen local economy through agricultural productivity.”
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