A Divisive Grazing Bill

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The different versions of the grazing bill in the House of Representatives intended to resolve incessant clashes between farmers and herdsmen are generating tension among lawmakers. Damilola Oyedele writes

When recently reports filtered through the newswires that the federal government wanted to create, through a bill in the National Assembly, grazing routes amounting to 50,000 hectares of land across the country for nomadic cattle rearers to feed their cattle, angry reactions were rife and almost spontaneous. But clarifications were made both government officials and officers of the National Assembly. Some officials of the government stated that what was being planned was grazing reserves, and not grazing routes. Either way, many Nigerians opposed the grazing initiative, saying it amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Bloody Farmers/Herdsmen Clashes

From Benue to Taraba, Ondo to Enugu, and other parts of the country, Nigerians are painfully aware of the constant clashes between Fulani herdsmen and local farmers whose crops are destroyed by cattle. In recent times, the clashes have degenerated into killings and reprisal killings. In Agatu community of Benue State and its surrounding communities, recently, nearly 1,000 persons have been reported killed during attacks by Fulani herdsmen since the beginning of this year.

More recently, communities in Uzo-Uwani Local Government Area of Enugu State were attacked by the herdsmen, leaving at least 40 persons dead and incalculable property razed.

The Fulani herdsmen have been accused of murders, kidnapping, rape and other atrocities. Some have, however, insisted that the marauders are not Nigerians. Hon. Aminu Shehu Shagari (Sokoto APC), a Fulani, noted at plenary Tuesday that the Fulani were peace loving people. Shagari alleged that marauders were merely taking advantage of the country’s porous borders and insecurity in the West African sub-region to unleash violence on communities in Nigeria.

Shagari’s sentiment was echoed by Hon. Adamu Chika (Niger APC) who also noted that there was a high likelihood the marauders were not cattle herders, as there were hardly traces of their cattle in places they had attacked.

Many, however, believe the citizenship status of the raiders does not diminish the fact that an urgent solution to the menace of herdsmen invasion is needed to avert anarchy in the country.

Grazing Bill

A proposal to create grazing routes or reserves across the country for the cattle herders as a way of solving the problem of farmers/herdsmen clashes is facing stiff opposition by many lawmakers. There are three bills currently in the House of Representatives on the grazing issue, all private member bills. But THISDAY gathered that an executive bill was being expected from the presidency to back the establishment of grazing reserves.

The National Grazing Routes and Reserve (Establishment) Bill, sponsored by Hon. Sunday Karimi (Kogi PDP), passed first reading on November 16 last year, while the National Grazing Reserve Establishment bill 2016, sponsored by Hon. Sadiq Ibrahim (Adamawa APC), was introduced last April 13.

Both bills are expected to be consolidated ahead of second reading by the lawmakers.

However several caucuses in the House are already mobilising to ensure that the bills, and the executive bill being expected from the presidency, do not pass.

The National Grazing Routes and Reserve Bill seeks the establishment of a commission to establish, control and manage grazing routes and reserves in all parts of the country. The commission is expected to undertake a physical/geographical analysis of land use in each state in order to ascertain the best and most appropriate place to locate the federal government reserve and route within the state.

The second bill, which also seeks the establishment of a commission, wants the commission empowered to undertake and make regulations to establish at least one cattle reserve in each state.

Mounting Opposition

The two bills have faced stiff opposition in the House and beyond. Several Nigerians have queried why land should be taken from some states to serve cattle rearers who are in private business.

The Minority Leader, Hon. Leo Ogor, while speaking on the Enugu murders, noted that a more modern solution such as ranching would be the most appropriate solution.

Ogor stated, “We have to bring in modernisation. The idea of moving from one place to another with cattle should be discouraged. Everyone who wants to raise cattle should have his own farm or reserve.”

Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha (Abia PDP) said the grazing bills would die in the House, as the lawmakers would not allow them to pass. She added that insisting on grazing reserves in state was an invitation to more clashes, this time with the people.

“When you take land from the people and give it to cattle rearers, what will happen to our cassava or yam farms? Are we going to live on meat alone? Let them buy ranches and rear their cattle there,” Onyejeocha said.

Also speaking with THISDAY, Hon. Uzoma Nkem Abonta (Abia PDP) said the attempt to pass the proposed bill at all cost was a misplaced priority, stressing that it is capable of compounding the clashes between farmers and the herdsmen, while impoverishing the people whose lands would be forcibly taken.

Abonta said, “A situation where a council is being proposed in the bill with the powers to seize lands deemed suitable for grazing without the owners having a say is draconian.

“Cattle rearing is done by private persons, so why would government be seizing or acquiring land for such venture. We are already crying that the Land Use Act is not good anymore.”

He added that President Muhammadu Buhari should declare his interest in pushing the bill, which would favour people who are “probably not even Nigerians.”

A lawmaker who spoke off the record said the grazing reserve bill was capable of pitting the North against the South. He alleged that the leadership of the House was already mobilising to ensure that the executive bill, when it is brought to the National Assembly, was passed.

“Even if we are muscled in the parliament, and it passes, the violent protests that would follow across the country would be hard to contain. Imagine that they want the funding to be included in federal government annual appropriation. How unfair is that?” the lawmaker stated.

For some others who also spoke off the record, taking land from people, where land is already insufficient, does not just amount to exploitation; it amounts to treating some citizens as second class.

Presidency Denies Pushing For Grazing Reserves/Routes

In response to widespread allegations that the Buhari government was proposing a bill to create grazing reserves across the country, special adviser to the president on media and publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, was recently reported as denying the existence of such a bill or idea.

“There is nothing called the grazing bill,” Adesina was quoting as saying during an interview programme on Radio Continental, a Lagos-based radio station. “It is a figment of imagination of some people. Some people are just there to cause mischief in this country.”

Adesina said, “What has happened is that the government has agreed to have what is called ranches for cattle rearers. When you set up ranches in different states, cattle rearers don’t have to drive their cattle round in the wild again and in the process get into the farms of some people and destroy their crops. When you set up ranches, it then becomes illegal for anybody to drive his cattle openly. That is the way forward.”

Ranching to the Rescue

Onyejeocha said the practice of ranching was common in the developed countries. She explained that since the cattle rearers were in private business for profit, they should purchase land from those willing to sell to them to establish ranches where they will rear their livestock, without trampling on the rights of other citizens.

To Abonta, if Buhari who declared several heads of cattle among his assets is rearing them in his ranch in Katsina, there is no reason why other cattle owners should be allowed to trample on the rights and livelihoods of other citizens. Abonta believes the ranching matter can be handled by the states and local governments without the involvement of the federal government.

Opposition to the grazing reserve or route proposal has tended to indicate support for the Cattle Ranching Bill 2015 sponsored by Hon. Dickson Tarkigir (Benue APC).

It is difficult to determine how the bills would pan out in the legislature. What seems obvious is that there is a preponderance of opinion that ranching is the best solution to the conflict between farmers and herdsmen.