Hon. Tarkighir Dickson represents Makurdi/Guma federal constituency of Benue State in the House of Representatives. He is sponsor of the Bill on Ranching, which has passed through first reading. In this interview with Damilola Oyedele, Dickson discusses his motivation for proposing the bill and other national issues. Excerpts
THISDAY recently rated your state governor, Dr. Samuel Ortom, low, saying he needs to go back to the drawing board. Do you agree with the rating?
It was not realistic and I don’t know how the paper got the assessment. But I am not sure the person who did that analysis came to Benue State at all, or saw what is happening on ground. For starters, in handling the problem of insecurity, he introduced and prosecuted an amnesty programme, which led to the recovery of over 600 arms, light weapons, and thousands of ammunition. Seven hundred youths embraced the programme. He has also sustained efforts to promote peace between farmers and herdsmen. This is necessary because you cannot develop a state without peace and security in place.
Infrastructure wise, the state raised N7.6 billion for the construction and rehabilitation of 700 primary schools in the 23 local government areas, approved geophysical survey and drilling of 100 boreholes in some of the schools, and plans have been concluded to supply the 700 schools with furniture. In the last one year, the governor commenced payment of salaries of Benue State University Technical School staff, after five years of non-payment of salaries, and he has completed the retraining of 10,000 primary school teachers and 6, 000 secondary school teachers.
The government has secured the accreditation of the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria for relevant programmes in the state university, and there is on-going rehabilitation of the School of Nursing and Midwifery as well as the College of Health Technology, Agasha, for re-accreditation. The government has also released N80 million out of the N114 million required for the completion of the Cancer Screening Centre in Markurdi.
Benue State under Governor Ortom has made history as the first state in Nigeria to meet the requirements for accessing the 2015 Round of MDG/SGD conditional grants in the country.
The state obtained a N10 billion facility and has embarked on completion of 11 abandoned road projects, and awarded two new ones. The governor also ensured the release of N300 million for the completion of the new House of Assembly Complex.
Cost-saving measures have been introduced through trimming of the number of commissioners from 17 to 13, and advisers from 28 to 20, and the reduction of local and international travel.
I could go on and on, but the fact remains that the assessment of the governor by THISDAY is incorrect.
There has been a ranching versus grazing discourse in the polity lately, which was the background to the bill on ranching that you sponsored. What are some of your motivations for proposing the bill?
I am a victim of herdsmen attack in Benue State. As far back as 2014 herdsmen invaded my community and burnt down my house, killed a whole lot of my folks in the village. In the same year, herdsmen rendered the residents of about six local government areas in Benue State refugees, and two of my local government areas, Makurdi and Goma, were affected. The attacks were heavy; in fact, it was a huge crisis then under President Jonathan. Later troops were deployed to these areas. So I have tasted a very bitter pill in the hands of herdsmen. My house is still destroyed because anytime I think of fixing it, herdsmen attack a community very close to mine.
Also, just a few weeks ago, my mother went to the farm and was uprooting cassava, when some herdsmen came into the farmland and the cattle started eating the cassava she had uprooted. She called me and I told her to leave the cassava and go home. When she returned the next day, the herdsmen had also uprooted her cassava and fed their cattle with it. That is the problem we are facing in Benue State. Farmers do not have access to their farmlands and this government is talking about diversification into agriculture. Something needs to be done.
Have you had a first-hand experience of how ranching is done in societies where it is common?
When I came into the House of Representatives in 2015, I decided that my main focus, which was the thrust of my campaign, was to sponsor a bill on ranching, as is done in other climes. I travelled to two countries – Bulgaria and Brazil – where they have good ranching systems, on my own account, before the inauguration of the House, to get first-hand information on their regulations and the kind of facilities they provide for cattle rearers.
Incidentally, in Brazil, cattle rearing is in the North, in the Para region, but the amazon forest goes right through that. Individuals acquire lands and provide their facilities for ranches. Brazil is one of the biggest beef exporters in the world and their foreign exchange earnings on beef are huge. It contributes so much to their GDP. So I have had a first-hand experience in what they do in terms of ranching and it’s the same thing in Bulgaria.
Cattle rearing is a private business, just like the person who is farming rice, and so government has no business at all providing land for somebody who is doing a private business. Which is why in my bill, I suggested that a department on ranches should be created under the Ministry of Agriculture with a director to sanction the sale or lease of land to those who are willing to raise cattle.
Cattle rearing is a huge business, but the way it is done in Nigeria, they do not even make the kind of money that beef exporters make in advanced countries. It is not just about the beef, there is cheese and milk.
What can be done to make cattle breeding more profitable in Nigeria?
The money potential in milk is more than beef, because a single cattle can produce up to 40 gallons of milk a day, but the breed here can barely produce five gallons daily. So our suggestion is that there should be a moratorium on when the species here can be changed or there should be cross-breeding. Government can intervene so that we get a better breed of cattle in Nigeria and there would be huge benefits. The multiplier effect of people creating ranches is that there will be people who would sell hay, which is the grass cattle feed on. There would be employment generation.
These will stop the farmers/herdsmen clashes, as a cattle rearer has to approach a community to buy land. He would create his ranch and settle in the community peacefully without conflict with the farmers.
That is the difference between a ranching bill and a grazing bill. The proponents of grazing suggest that government can come into a state or in a community and appropriate land and create a grazing reserve for people who are doing a private business.
Don’t you think government can assist with funding for the setting up of ranches?
If it is the issue of funding, government can do the same thing they are doing for those who are cultivating rice, by creating incentives through the Central Bank of Nigeria where those who want to rear cattle have access to loans, even free interest loans. Secondly, the administration of land is domiciled in the hands of state governments. So to pass a grazing bill, which would give the federal government right to appropriate land, there would be a need to amend the constitution.
What would you say about the grazing laws that have existed since independence?
The proponents of grazing talk about the law on grazing reserves, which was in effect in the 1960s. The population of this country then was 36 million and now we are close to 200 million. While the population is growing, the land is not growing. So there is no way you can suggest that government is going to retrieve the lands that were appropriated or the grazing reserves that we created at that time.
For instance, Abuja was a grazing reserve, a grazing route, how do you recover Abuja? Ahmadu Bello University was a grazing route, it is a university right now, there is no way you can take away that and create a grazing reserve for anybody. We should think like advanced societies and ranching is the best way to go.
In any case, the Igbo are into building shopping complexes, there is no way the federal government can go and take lands in Sokoto State and give it to an Igbo man to build a shopping complex to do his business. The same way the people who raise pigs, who are into livestock business, who are into poultry; government cannot go and take land in Kano and Zamfara and give it to people who are doing these simply because they are doing an economic activity.
And I must add that the destruction that is going on in the North Central region, particularly, Benue, Taraba, and Nasarawa states is huge. Those who are causing the crisis should be punished and be regarded as criminals and economic saboteurs, just like the Niger Delta Avengers, because they are committing the same crime. Government should not regard them as herdsmen or as some special people, as they are destroying the Nigerian economy, they are denying farmers access to their land.
What is your take on the invasion of communities by herdsmen, especially, as it relates to the spate of insecurity in the country?
The herdsmen crisis is causing a lot of security issues and I am very disappointed at the response of the federal government to this issue, and I will provide reasons. The federal government has provided security by deploying troops to Zamfara, Katsina and Kano to protect cattle from rustlers, but the same government has refused to provide security in the areas where farmers are under constant attack by cattle herders.
Human beings are being killed, cattle are being protected. What do you expect an average farmer to do? He is going to arm himself, so in the end we have arms everywhere in the society. There is proliferation of arms in the society and that is what is causing this insecurity.
When people have guns they can use it for anything – robbery, kidnapping and all sorts of things. So what government needs to do is to ensure that it nips the issue of herdsmen in the bud, because people are arming themselves to defend their communities.
If government does not protect you, what do you do? Do you run away from your ancestral home and abandon your property for herders? No way, you are going to defend yourself and how do you defend yourself? You procure arms. In the end, we have a whole lot of arms – small, light or huge arms – in communities. What would some of the youths in those communities who are unemployed but holding those arms do? Some would go into crime, which is what is happening.
So government needs to look at the issue of insecurity holistically. Herders constitute one of the biggest threats, even more than Boko Haram because they travel with cattle and arms. They arrive communities, armed, and then they attack those communities. There has been no time where herdsmen in this country have been so emboldened to threaten communities like under this administration, and that is quite sad.
The rate of insecurity is closely linked to rising unemployment, which is indicative of the state of the economy, and a stark contradiction of the change promised by your party, All Progressives Congress. Do you think there is still a basis for hope regarding the promised change?
Yes, there is hope; the APC government inherited a very terrible economy. Oil prices went down and for the past 16 years that the PDP was in power, oil sold above $100 per barrel. But when we came in, oil went down to $27 per barrel and oil is the mainstay of our revenue in this country. Government is trying to diversify to other sectors, like agriculture, mining, and industry, but diversification takes time. It is going to take time for somebody to set up a factory, for instance, to start production and start creating employment. Nigerians need to be very patient with this government.
The government is fighting corruption, it is doing quite well in that angle and we are hoping that with the level and zeal with which the federal government is fighting corruption, things will stabilise.
But there is a growing feeling that the anticorruption war of the federal government is basically targeted at opposition elements.
I do not agree with that; if you are pursuing a thief you are looking at who stole, who stole what you are looking for. Now in the last 16 years the PDP has basically been the custodian of the Nigerian economy, the resources and all that. When you look at the people that are being chased around in terms of corruption, you look at the people who were in the PDP, who were in the government that just left. The APC people are just coming in.
I know you are trying to tell me that there are some members of the APC who were in the last government. Of course, the EFCC boss said he is sparing nobody. In fact, you can see that on the issue of corruption, the APC members are being probed, including our own Senate President, the chairman of the National Assembly, who is before the CCB and a court of law on the case of corruption. That is the number three person in government. It does not get higher than that. So I don’t think that the PDP people should cry wolf.