OPINION BY PAUL UNONGO: My Take On the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law of Benue State & The Farmers-Herdsmen Conflicts (Must Read)




    I want to first start by saying; I know the heavy burden I bear on my shoulders in making a comment on the Law assented to by my Governor for the Prohibition of Open Grazing. I know that there is anger in the country and particularly in the place where I come from as a result of the extreme brutality and violence caused to peasant communities by conflicts, and I dare say, enhanced conflicts, between herdsmen and local peasant farming communities that had once lived together periodically, interacting with each other, co-habitating peaceably at times that the herdsmen came for grazing and passed through these lands of our people that were peasant farmers, very peacefully. So what has happened to cause this strange earthquake of hostilities?

    I want everybody to be aware from the onset that I make these observations sincerely from the background of being both a Tiv man who is very proud of his heritage as a Tiv, but whose parentage and blood include the blood of Tiv, Fulani, and Etulo nationalities. Because of this, I count myself lucky and uniquely put together by my creator to be an instrument for peace. All my life I have been intensely interested in conflict resolution and in peaceful co-existence. I have however, never failed to express a view point. So here is my take on the controversy surrounding the enactment of a Law to prohibit Open Grazing in Benue State.

    First of all, roughly, what does the function of a government entail? In my judgment, a government’s primary function is to provide security and protection and create an enabling environment, for citizens to lawfully maximize the realization of all their potential, and this includes everybody who resides within the space defined by the Constitution, as a nation or state within the nation. So the first point of departure from other considerations is that, I consider realistically and emphatically that we (all citizens of Nigeria) should have at the back of our minds that Nigeria, no matter her shortcomings and no matter where the different nationalities of modern Nigeria came from, has consolidated itself for approximately a hundred years now as a nation-state with a written constitution which gives the states powers of legislation for governance within the nation-state of Nigeria, created by the Constitution.

    So there is no question that anybody who has finished even primary school or didn’t go to school even, will not know the fact that Nigeria is a country and that there is a government in Nigeria and that today this existing government is headed by a President, currently Muhammadu Buhari who is from a particular but distinct place within that defined space that constitutes the nation-state of Nigeria, and that the component units that make Nigeria for now are the 36 states of the Federal Republic and the Federal Capital Territory. The Constitution is very clear. It gives powers to these components, to legislate for the welfare of the people who reside within the states. Consequently I like to confirm that there is a legal entity that is established by the Constitution and the will of the people called Benue State. It (Benue State) derives powers from the Constitution of Nigeria. There is also a State House of Assembly properly established by the Constitution to legislate and an Executive Branch properly established and constituted by the Constitution, to implement the laws passed by the House of Assembly.

    Within that context, when the House of Assembly exercising the powers conferred upon it, to make legislation to govern and cater for the welfare, protection and comforts (and/or discomforts) of the people living within the state known as Benue State, and when such a legislation is presented to the Executive Head of of Government and he assents to such a Bill, that Bill becomes the Law! That Law becomes applicable to all the people who occupy the state covered by the legislation, in this case, Benue State. So all people in Benue and those wishing to transmit business in Benue State MUST obey this law. People who advocate violent confrontation/opposition to such a law, and people who say they will not obey the law and even call on their supporters to disobey the law are wrong, unless they are interested in anarchy! I make this statement responsively and responsibly. In the process of legislation, it is incumbent on democratic Governments to consult, and I’m aware that before this law was made, consultation was expansive for a period of not less than 6 months before the legislation was enacted. This was the Government of Benue’s response to security challenges confronting the people of Benue. I urge humbly, all my people to subscribe to this legislation enacted by the State Assembly and assented to, by the Governor of Benue State. There is a truism confronting us all who interact with Benue which is: Open Grazing in Benue State now, is illegal and technically, anybody insisting on carrying on with and actually proceeding to carry on with Open Grazing is committing a crime. Open Grazing has been criminalized in Benue State, that is the fact. This is the law, now!

    As a civilized society, we are expected to reflect upon new challenges which confront us as a consequence of the enactment of this legislation. It is to these potent challenges that I would like to briefly turn my attention to, now.
    The question we must pose, in my judgment is what led to the evolution of this law? I think the answer is not far. It is the persistent severe security challenges brought about by herdsmen/peasant farmers conflicts, arising from herdsmen moving their cattle through Benue this time and the agrarian peasant farmers of Benue having their farms destroyed by these huge herds. This time, unlike in the past, the conflict ensuing from the two opposing economic activities, resulted for the first time, in the brutal killings of the peasants and the sacking of whole communities. This situation resulted in the movement of whole populations of these peasants as IDPs who appeared to have no protection from their government.

    The herdsmen this time, came very heavily armed, with sophisticated weapons, which they used to sack whole communities which they occupied! This activity was very strange to the host communities which had reacted in most friendly manners to the Fulani of old, who came, settled in our midst of old, killed no one, did not sack whole communities, and never settled in any areas which were not allocated to them by the native host communities!

    The responsibility imposed on the Government of Benue in an apparent lack of response from the Federal Government regarding this very strange, new phenomenon of massive killings, in a most brutal manner by these new herdsmen who indulged in the physical sacking of whole communities, in some places, frightened and agitated the people to demand for action from Government objectively! As agitations appeared more vocal, and more violent and more focused on retaliation, the Government of Benue State in my view, reacted correctly and resorted to legislation, to separate the combatants and to assert the power of Government, to arbitrate and provide security for all the people of Benue State, within the law. There is no gain saying that government has a right to legislate. There is a law now existing because the Bill prohibiting Open Grazing has been assented to by the Executive Governor of Benue State. It must be obeyed.

    My interest now is to juxtapose the law and its implementation on an existing lifestyle of a significant group of Nigerians who resided with us the people of Benue State peacefully and amicably, the Fulani people of Nigeria. But let me examine the response of the Meyatti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria an organization which claims to represent Fulani and Fulani interests. Meyatti Allah said they would not obey this law because it is unjust; it violates their rights of citizenship, particularly rights of free movement; it violates their way of life – they don’t settle in one place, and do not herd their type of cattle in ranches. Meyatti Allah claims ranches are prisons to its people. In consequence calls on their supporters to mobilise, to confront the Government by refusing to obey the law. Meyatti Allah says that they will challenge the law in courts. The Meyatti Allah threatened in particular the Tiv, asserting that they were in the Benue Valley before the Tiv whom the Meyatti Allah claimed came from the Congo and settled in Cross River. They promptly warned Governor Ortom to reflect on the fate of Governor Jonah Jang of Plateau who had confronted them and what consequences ensued!

    As distasteful as this intervention by Meyatti Allah is, I concede that Nomadic Fulani have come in contact with the peoples of Benue for over four hundred years. Our Government must also know that it is their way of life. They never settle in one place permanently. They NEVER contested for lands. We grew up in Benue State seeing this way of life that has gone on, if we are to go by our parents, for hundreds of years. How come then, there was never such excessive conflicts and such despicable brutal killings in those good old days? The conviviality was great and to such an extent that the Fulani even intermarried with the indigenous people of Benue. These are the questions troubling our minds to which we invite the Meyatti Allah to avert their minds to, instead of issuing threats. Is there something we don’t know?

    The nomadic life, moving from place to place, is not a new thing to us. Our friends, the Fulani have engaged in this for centuries. During the time that I was a kid, there was no fight, they were not contending for land, they were not sacking whole communities. They were not killing large numbers of people, as it is happening today. This is what the indigenes of Benue and the herdsmen need to sit down and talk seriously about.

    I am inviting the indisputable leader of the Meyatti Allah, and respected son of Nigeria, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who is an honoured son of the Tiv, with the title of “Zege Mule U Tiv” conferred by the late Tor Tiv, HRM Alfred Torkula, to join in the dialogue to find a lasting solution to this very troubling challenge we are currently facing.

    At the 10th Anniversary Celebrations of His Eminence, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto I said (inter alia) the following…

    “As a Tiv man, I come as a friend, a brother and a comrade. I come as a Northerner, for it is not immoral and subversive to suggest that our loyalties must first be to ourselves. I come with a strong belief and conviction in what our great Arewa stands for. And as a Nigerian, I come as a compatriot with all the faith in the non-negotiable indivisibility of the nation-state of Nigeria…

    As we join your Royal Majesty, your Eminence, in celebrating the 10th anniversary of your ascension to this revered throne, we must also make out time to think about issues that trouble our nation not just in lamentations or repressed nostalgia but as elders and leaders, we owe the nation not just a responsibility to rescue it from falling into the abyss, but to also create a conducive environment for peaceful co-existence and for cementing the bonds of friendship that have held us together over the centuries…

    The Tiv and Fulani came to meet and establish a symbiotic relationship nearly 400 years ago. This relationship was based on mutual respect and trust. While appreciating each other’s attributes and world views, they yet recognized in their people, a similarity in ways of life; like integrity, valour and honour, values by which a man’s character is measured. It is therefore not a surprise why these two groups that are by physical attributes and by occupation so different would come to be such great friends, since values and ethics are the basis of all sensible human relationships. And this relationship has continued to be so until quite recently.

    It is within this context, a shame that the Tiv and Fulani must now examine the bestiality of their decent in their once fraternal relations; juxtapose same against their seeming incapacity and inability, to amicably iron out their differences! While there are bound to be differences amongst people living together, as even siblings of the same parentage have their differences, we are proud to recall through history that our two peoples over the years, perfected their conflict resolution mechanism which ensured civilized peaceful co-existence that was unparalleled. The Fulani had become seasoned diplomats and administrators, throughout history crafting enviable relationships between herders and arable farmers, while living off adjourning lands. What went wrong can be fixed and should be fixed urgently, Mai Alfarma…

    The Tiv and the Fulani ethnic groups had co-existed side by side for over a hundred years before the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1803. The story of their friendship is known to all Fulani and Tiv people.

    History has it that the two nations went into a covenant in which, if a Tiv man had a burnt item such as a cloth, any Fulani man could lay claim to such a cloth except the Tiv man redeemed it with a token sum of money to save the burnt item. Likewise, the Tiv laid claim and collected Fulani clothings or items perforated by fire except the Fulani redeemed with a token sum of money
    The renowned Tiv scholar, Akiga Sai pointed out that the Tiv and Fulnai shared a common historical relationship in a common fraternity of brotherhood. Against this backdrop, the two ethnic groups, entered into understanding to further cement their relationship. According to tradition, one of such controversial deal is centered around the ‘cow debt theory’, in which it is alleged that the Fulani loaned out cattle to the Tiv, who being farmers and not knowledgeable about cattle rearing slaughtered and ate the cattle. The Fulani, upon the agreed time of repayment asked the Tiv for the cattle, the Tiv responded by simply saying, “munchi” meaning “we ate them…

    The relationship of the Tiv and Fulani is not limited to cattle. Another legend which has also become a tale which further cemented the relationship between the two ethnic groups, is noted by the Tiv.

    The Tiv claim that over a long period of living together, they observed an undeniable fact that some Fulani children delivered turned up stockier than their normally slenderly built siblings
    It is in a veiled reference to the above fact that on his first maiden visit to Gboko, the then Tor Tiv, Zaki Makir Dzape advised the then Northern Premier, the Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello to permanently relocate to Gboko because he resembled a Tiv man with his stocky looks more than his slightly slenderly built Fulani brothers.

    On a lighter note, even now as I cast my eyes around this gathering, Your Eminence, I am really tempted to suggest to the Mai Alfarma, the Sultan of Sokoto to seriously investigate the paternity of quite a few stocky Fulani men I see right here now. They may be of Tiv ancestry!

    Interestingly, whether the foregoing is a myth, legend or fact, the Tiv – Fulani relationship is inexorably and inextricably woven around the “munchi” story. It has been the basis of our friendship. The story has also been the fulcrum of our jokes and ironically of our fights as well.

    It is on that basis that I, Wantaregh Paul Iyorpuu Unongo, traditional leader and by the grace of God and spirits of our ancestors, spiritual head of the Tiv nation, stand before you, Mai Alfarma Sultan Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, leader and spiritual head of the Fulani on this day, to repay the debt of cows allegedly owed by our ancestors. I come with a contingent of over a hundred and fifty people, representing the soul of Tiv and all Tiv from all over Nigeria including elders, youths, jurists, professionals, artists and traditional dancers, all in solidarity with you Your Eminence.

    By this gesture, a gesture of brotherhood, we have once again, today extended a hand of peace, fellowship and reconciliation to the caliphate. We do not have much to say again. Everything we have to say is eloquently symbolised in the gesture of our action here today. Let this gesture speak for itself.

    May I use this occasion to appeal therefore, on behalf of the Tiv Nation to the Fulani Nation and advise/request that we have fought long enough! We must return to our brotherhood fraternity which has long been the envy of all. I come in peace. Let there be peace between the Tiv and Fulani. I am both and I hurt deeply, my people!
    Thank you all.”

    Periodically, Meyatti Allah leadership should note that minor skirmishes used to take place in our land between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and our peasant farmers, but on a much smaller scale. The elders and young men would dialogue with these nomadic people traversing our lands once every year. These skirmishes were always settled amicably and anytime these herdsmen were moving on, they would leave presents.

    What went wrong, Atiku Abubakar, the Zege Mule U Tiv? What is happening today is NOT normal, hence the heightened hateful rhetoric our youth are indulging in. Whenever we had skirmishes, some of us would say, let’s have a dialogue and that dialogue always produced results.

    I am a Tiv by parentage; my mother was a mixture of Fulani (her father) and Etulo (her mother) nationalities. I am proud of both my Fulani indigineness and my predominant Tivness. I have stood firm in my defence of the Tiv but have NEVER forgotten who gave birth to me. I believe firmly in constitutional government; a government (Benue State) has properly enacted a law and it must be obeyed by all. I also believe firmly in a united Nigeria, let’s remember history, because I see a lot of funny things going on in the press. Young men, out of frustration perhaps, rejecting that there was nothing like Northern Nigeria. That assertion is historically, and factually wrong. Nigeria came into being by the conquest of the British. For the purpose of administration, the British divided Nigeria into what they called Regions. They had a Southern Nigeria, made up of the Eastern Region and the Western Region. They then called the huge land mass slightly below Niger and Benue rivers confluence stretching northwards to the limits of the Northern Protectorate of Nigeria, Northern Region. The British developed Regional Governments in the Regions, and governed Nigeria for many years on the basis of Regions. When the British acceded to the sovereign will of the Nigerian people to grant us independence, it was Northern Region, Eastern Region and Western Region that became the component units which came together to give the composite Federation of Nigeria.

    I wish to finally reiterate that in Benue State an Anti-Public Grazing Prohibition Law has been enacted. The Benue State Government submits that they had no alternative but to pass this legislation to solve the serious problem of massive pogrom confronting them. The prohibition of public grazing legislation is designed to give the people of Benue an opportunity to live in their communities peacefully without being massacred and sacked from their indigenous lands by the strange new Fulani herdsmen.

    The Government of Benue is being invited by the Meyatti Allah, to consider their need to be allowed live their constantly shifting kindof life in Benue, just as the indigenous people of Benue are also allowed to practice their shifting cultivation. They feel their freedom of movement (with their cattle) across the territory of Nigeria is guaranteed by constitution. Consequently, they should not be herded into ranches. The nomadic Fulani’s arguments should be considered, but the question should be raised if that freedom necessarily requires the massive killings observed nowadays. They say firmly that this is their way of life, and to them, settling in one place is like imprisonment, in these (so called) ranches.

    How does the Government provide for this? Can solutions be offered for this through dialogue that had worked in the past for hundreds of years? I submit seriously and humbly that the problem can be sorted out through dialogue and I so advise. The need is not met by telling people, “we don’t want them in our land.” Equally the controversy is not helped by the provocative statements of Meyatti Allah, who say they were in Benue Valley before the Tiv and so they will not obey the anti-public grazing law of the Benue State Government. Is this not a public declaration of war? Should the Tiv people then, now go back to the bush and get their poisoned arrows ready, as they did hundreds of years back? No! It is not a civilized thing to do, in a modern society. When laws are made, society submits itself to lawful governance, under the laws made. These laws are obeyed. If any member within the jurisdiction of which such a law is applicable feels aggrieved, he submits proposals for the amendment of such laws, or he approaches courts of competent jurisdiction and asks that the law be set aside.

    My humble appeal is that Government and interested committee of experts sit to balance the requirements of nomads, who feel their lifestyles are being threatened with the reality of innocent peasant citizens of Benue who are being killed in manners indescribable.

    I had the unpleasant task of taking some gory pictures of slaughtered Benue citizens to confront Mr. President, with the raw reality of the problem. I then confronted His Eminence the Sultan of Sokoto and finally the Honourable Minister of Internal Affairs Gen. Dambazzau, with the same gory pictures. I pleaded then, and I still plead now, that the question of Fulani herdsmen and peasant farmers be given a front burner status in our security challenges and be resolved or diffused most urgently.
    We should not discourage the Government of Benue State for attempting to proffer a legal solution by the enactment of a law to address this serious security challenge capable of destabilizing the nation-state of Nigeria, bequeathed to us by our founding fathers: the Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. Let us consolidate this nation by remaining faithful and truthful to the dreams of our founding fathers.

    We now have a functional nation-state that is certainly not “a mere geographical expression,” as being contended by disappointed youths and mischievous elders. The Nigeria we have now is a nation-state distilled from the crucible of a most bloody warfare-Civil War in which we slaughtered three million men. This war was fought with a frightening ferocity that shook the world for almost three years. It came to a logical conclusion in which we rejected Fractionalization (Biafranism), Confederalism and instead embraced Federalism and togetherness through our sweat, tears and blood, thus resolving to keep this great country, the Federal Republic of Nigeria one.

    In this regard, Benue State as a component unit of Nigeria established by the Constitution has the power to make laws for the good governance of Benue. When such laws are made, they should be obeyed. All people who challenge illegally, are anarchists and should be arrested and prosecuted. But those who challenge legally should be listened to, and efforts be made to accommodate them and their suggestions, proposals, and even their proposed amendments for the improvements of the law so enacted. This, is my sincere take.

    Wantaregh Paul I. Unongo OFR


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here