The menace of cattle on farmlands in Abia State is a potential conflict prompter unless the federal and Abia state governments jointly set up grazing reserves and cattle routes for the herdsmen, writes Emmanuel Ugwu
John Pepper Clark’s Fulani Cattle remains an issue of many sorts, either as a victim of man’s inhumanity to the cattle kingdom and the fact that the herdsmen who lead the cattle in search of pasture, turn them into agents of destruction to the communities they invade their farms. In Abia State, cattle menace may soon be a reason for bloody encounter between Fulani herdsmen and farmers if the authorities do not come in quickly to find an answer to this boiling cauldron waiting to explode.
The cattle apart, a new wave of crime incorporating rape, murder and ritual killing, robbery, and stealing of the farm proceeds of natives, has emerged. His Royal Highness Eze Edmund Chukwu, the king of Lokpanta Ngada-Umuelem in Umunneochi Local Government Area, is happy to tell his visitors how on September 9, 1949 the people of Umuchueze capitulated to the superior fire power of his forefathers. “Umuchueze wanted to occupy here by force. We conquered and re-possessed our land. Now, all that is history because we remain good neighbours and still inter-marry. The conquerors and warriors of old are gone,” he added.
While Chukwu is glad to re-tell the conquests associated with his ancestral past, the new wave of crime that has filtered into his kingdom is the fear of Hausa/Fulani nomadic cattlemen from the Northern part of the country and the West Coast.
“We live here with them. We fear them; we don’t kill, poison or deal with juju. We fear blood. Our visitors kill, rape, whether married or single. People have stopped going to the farms for fear of encountering them. These people have come here to desecrate our land and farms. My sister Mrs. Rhoda Chukwu was killed by these herdsmen in her farm in 2009. She went to one of our farms known as Oru Agbara and her head was cut off for ritual sacrifice.
Two weeks ago, a man who went to burn wood for charcoal in the bush experienced a similar fate; his private parts were cut off. They cut our palm nuts and before our very eyes sell them to their people; the same goes for our palm wine. Cases of ritual murder, which did not exist here before with their advent is now common.”
Has Eze Chukwu brought this to the knowledge of lawmakers, law enforcement officers and the state government? He replied: “Uche Chukwumerije is our senator while Nkiru Onyeagocha represents us at the House and Ezekwesisili Ikedi is at the state House of Assembly. They have done nothing about it. His Royal Majesty G.I. Ezekwesili, the Ochi 1 of Isuochi is very much aware of what is going on. They have taken us as abandoned property. In the last elections, this place gave them their largest number of votes but the dividends are hardly felt in any way. Nobody speaks for us. The Prime Minister of Ngada- Umuelem Joseph Awobi interjected: “They graze our farms and loot what is left behind; they rape our women and kill those they can for ritual purposes. They have taken over the express and sealed the culverts with cow dung.”
At the cattle market, the crew met Alhaji Musa Bishara 63, an indigene of Borno State and chairman Abia Cattle Market Association. Bishara acknowledged there was a problem but exonerated his association from the vandalisation of farmlands in the state with emphasis in Umuelem. Bishara stressed the Fulani cattle herdsmen who come all the way from the West Coast, swoop the farms with their wild and young cows, ravaging cash crops. “It is the Fulanis and their white cows that cause this trouble. My cows come here and two days, three days we don’t sell them but this people live inside bush. We are in peace here and no kata kata.”
James Onuoha Igwe, 36, the veterinary officer in-charge of the market, who is an animal health and husbandry technologist, said this problem started in the 1990s when the late Col. Ike Nwosu was military administrator of Abia State. He ordered the gyanakos and their cattle out of the state in 1995. The Imo State government received them and they relocated to Okigwe. Sadly, their menace could not be contained and they found themselves back here, with their number doubled and increasing by the day.”
On the issues on ground, Abia State Commissioner of Police, Ambrose Aisabor, said he had called two meetings of stakeholders in his office including the Sarkin Hausa and Sarkin Fulani, the natives, association of farmers and that the ball was in the court of the Ministry of Agriculture. According to him, a panel was earlier set up to follow up all decisions taken. “They have to wake up because we cannot afford to have a crisis in the state. A taskforce has also been set up to act as foot soldiers checking these excesses. All cases of malicious damage will be investigated and charged to court.”
How has he handled cases of ritual murder and rape? Aisabor said such cases were not reported to the police, which without evidence cannot act. “In other states where I served, cattle zones are usually demarcated with specific grazing zones and not anywhere else. Let’s cross our hands and watch how the taskforce performs its job. We need to prevent attempts at matching these incidences as reprisal attacks against the activities of Boko Haram in the North.”
The director of the State Security Service (SSS), Barrister Matthew Obodoechi, said: “Most people from this part of the country see the activities of Boko Haram as primarily targeted at them and hence the tendency for violence and attack on the face of provocation is very high. We have become more proactive by using key communicators or agents of influence to mould opinion and curtail excess reaction. A committee known as the Pastoralists Development/Livestock Routes and Grazing Reserves Rehabilitation Committee has been set up to handle the cattle menace issue. One is a peace brokerage committee set up with rules and resolutions, while the task force enforces the rules. We are actively involved in enforcing the rules. Ohafia community lodged a complaint recently and we quickly nipped it in the bud. Our experience in the kidnap saga is very useful now and I can tell you timely intervention has helped. Umunochi is a Hausa settlement where destruction is very common, always ending up in violence. This trend is more pronounced in the North in such places as Nasarawa and Borno but because the people of the South-east are long suffering, violence more often is not the response. Ugwunagbo has a serious case and we notice that sometimes the cattle strays without a deliberate attempt to destroy a farm but the response of the herdsmen does not suggest a remorse. In all cases we try to prevent people from taking the law into their hands.
State Chairman of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Chief Dunlop Okoro, said: “They are always willing and ready to fight, armed with swords, shot guns and arrows. Their actions suggest they have the backing of a superior agent. They act with impunity; our argument is a visitor cannot have the audacity to challenge a native if he is not spoiling for war. In Ahaba Imenyi, a farmer was arrested for killing a cow and was even labelled an armed robber. The losses cannot be quantified. It is all over the state. Our patience has ran out. We will no longer take this deliberate destruction of our farmland. We borrowed money from government and nobody pays us compensation.”
His Royal Highness Sariki Yaro Danladi is the leader of the Hausa Community in Abia State as well as the Vice-chairman Northern Traditional Rulers Council in the South-east and South-south. Danladi, 46, has lived all his life in Umuahia where he was born, and is married to a native Ohuhu woman. His narration therefore is that of a man on the spot. “This problem started long ago. Many more cattle keep coming from the North, having found Abia more convenient for their business without realising what injury is being inflicted on farmers. The solution is to set up a grazing area for them. My appeal is for peace to reign and we are asking the honourable Commissioner for Agriculture, Ike Onyenweaku, to convey our wishes to our listening governor, His Excellency Dr. Theodore Orji, to act immediately on this vexed issue of cattle menace. The Commissioner for Agriculture said the Abia Exco met and directed a 19-man cattle route committee be set up with responsibility to identify the problems on ground and proffer solutions. “In spite of this the invasion kept rising to unprecedented levels. We raised an alarm in the BBC Hausa Service. An agreement was reached including the understanding they must not come to the state capital, and should stop henceforth grazing on people’s farmlands.”
According to Onyenweaku, a task force was set up on August 16 with the mandate to enforce the rules. The task force will be replicated in all the 17LGAs. They are to track cattle that come with traders and those that come from neighbouring states in particular cattle that come to graze in farms with the herdsmen.”
Is Onyenweaku optimistic he will get it right this time? He answered in the affirmative but wants the Federal Government to assist the state government in the set-up of seven grazing reserves with two for each senatorial zone and one major reserve at Lokpanta as well as a 269 kilometre stock route already marked out and not developed. “Finally, the Federal Government should assist the herdsmen in the management of their cows.”
When these propositions are in place, Onyenweaku said, this conflict situation between Abia farmers and the natives on one hand and the recalcitrant herdsmen on the other, would have been averted.