Emmanuel Addeh examines the wrangling that has trailed the decision of the Bayelsa State Government to allot the Bayelsa Palms, an area of 1,200 hectares, to herdsmen for cattle grazing
The danger caused by activities of some ubiquitous cattle herdsmen in most parts of the country has recently become a cause for concern to almost every Nigerian, some of whom, though have not had physical confrontations with them, daily read the havoc wreaked by the cowhands.
Given the huge number of lives and property that have been lost to the menacing phenomenon and the life-long trauma (physical and psychological) inflicted on those who have been unfortunate to come in contact with some of these nomads, governments, especially at the state level have been left confused as to how best to tackle what has become a clear and present threat.
From Agatu in Benue State to Beji in Niger, from Tunari Village, Wukari in Taraba to Southern Kaduna, in Kaduna State, from Ndokwa in Delta, to Nimbo in Enugu and even to Oke Ako, in Ekiti, the story has been that of sorrow, tears and blood.
The response by the authorities at the federal level, many say, has at best been lethargic, while many states have had to reverse their knee-jerk reactions to the menace, some of which clearly violated the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria.
In Bayelsa, there have been cases of clashes between farmers and the cattle herdsmen. Before these pockets of altercations, civil society groups and community leaders had at their levels tried to mediate among the various contenders until it drew the attention of the state government.
The government maintains that after series of consultations, and following reports from the intelligence community in the state which were debated at the level of the state Security Council, it decided to allocate the Bayelsa Palms to the herdsmen, many of whom it contends are indigenes of Bayelsa.
It insists that it had not ‘ceded’ any of its land to any herdsman, whether Fulani or from any other part of the country.
However, in the main, the arrowheads of the opposition to the government decision hinge their agitation on the fear that the Fulani herdsmen have come to take over Ijaw land, a very strong sentiment which the government says is capable of creating tension and resulting in the breakdown of law and order.
The most vocal of the groups, led by Ijaw activist, Ms Ann-Kio Briggs, who took to the streets recently in protest against what the government termed a purely security and economic decision, argues that if the policy is allowed to take roots, the Ijaw people could as well kiss their heritage goodbye in Bayelsa.
“All what we are saying is that no land belonging to the ijaw people should be ceded to Fulani people,” the fiery activist told journalists during the protest which ended abruptly, with the woman claiming to have been attacked by some youths in the state during the rally.
Briggs argues that the Fulanis have natural expansionist tendencies and therefore would use the Bayelsa Palms area which they have been allotted as a springboard to execute the expansionary plans.
She accused the governor of donating the future of Ijaw people to the Fulani people, whom she said have shown that they could not be entrusted with anything.
“l pray with Ijaw people to get Governor Dickson to reverse this donation of our children and their future to people whose aim is to impose their religion on Christians, and take other people’s land by force, murdering, burning and destroying communities,” she said in an earlier statement.
Those against her viewpoint position that she was only reveling on scaremongering, rather than rational thinking.
But perplexed that perhaps, his attempt at being proactive about the security of lives and property may have been misconstrued, Governor Seriake Dickson, has told everyone who cared to listen that his decision was in the best interest of the state.
While taking cognisance of the right of people to debate decisions of government, the governor says those who are up in arms against the resolution of the security council, headed by him are acting from the standpoint of inadequate information.
Dickson maintained that having fought for the interest of the Ijaw people in the past, even through his activities as an executive of the Ijaw National Congress (INC), a pro-Ijaw association, he could not turn around to sabotage the same Ijaw interest.
“She (Briggs) more than most people should know my type of person and what I stand for as far as protecting Ijaw fundamental interest is concerned.
“What I can say is that while I concede to people their right to disagree and even to venture alternative points, they too should concede to me that we know our governor, he must be driving this policy for a good reason.
“They should also concede that to me especially on matters that affect the protection of Ijaw people and the defence of Ijaw fundamental interests because none of these people can say they rank higher than me in terms of pedigree.
“And as governor, you look at all you have done and you will also concede to me that I am running a government that will stand by you and protect Ijaw national interest.” he said while elaborating on why he was sticking with the plan.
Dickson insists that apart from the fact that confining the herdsmen to a specific location to ply their trade would enhance security, he would be going against the Nigerian constitution by picking and choosing who should and who should not step their foot on Bayelsa, same way he will resist anyone asking an Ijaw person to stay away from their states.
He continued: “But you are in a country where you cannot stop the exercise of freedom of movement within Nigeria by anybody.
“Those who are not running government, those who want to be popular, claim that herdsmen should not come to Bayelsa. But as we speak, herdsmen have been in our community for years.
“It is not this government that is bringing the herdsmen to Bayelsa. Ann-Kio knows that in Rivers State there are a lot of herdsmen in many communities.
“Also in Delta State and everywhere across our country, they are there and they did not start today even though most of these violence-related activities are things we are beginning to see.
“But the truth is that we cannot stop people from moving from one place to another just like people cannot stop Ijaw fishermen from going anywhere to fish.
“As a government, it will be irresponsible on our part to promote that kind of notion, that people should be expelled, attacked or prevented from being in Bayelsa,” he noted.
According to him, having received several reports on a daily basis from community and security agencies, the decision to ensure that all herders in the state are congregated in one location was unassailable.
He argues that the decision was not unilateral as the decision went through several levels before the implementation began.
“We set up a committee and in this committee we have youth leaders carefully selected from the areas of impact and these areas of impact we all know. Some of them are in Gbarian, Kolga area, Sagbama, Ogbia and Amassoma area.
“We carefully observed this and selected youth leaders in a committee that has been serving. In that committee you have representatives of the relevant security agencies.
“We have very senior police officers, and assistant commissioners of police with enough experience and capacity to take charge once there are suspected security breaches.
“You have a very senior officer of the SSS, Civil Defence Corps and the king of Kolokuma Opokuma and one other traditional ruler representing the traditional rulers in that committee,” he narrated.
According to the governor, he could not fold his hands and allow the situation to deteriorate before taking concrete action to safeguard the lives of the people of the state.
“If you look at the papers, the reports of such clashes are daily and this was almost spreading down to us, so we took a proactive security measure first to put this committee in place so that they always resolve this conflicts and disputes and then we discuss it in the security council.
“What we decided to do is to confine them to an area and regulate their activities and operations. We put up structures and mechanisms of identification because from the reports we have read, cattle men and herdsmen will come attack places and run away, nobody will know who has done it.
“We say that cannot happen in this state. In that place of husbandry, there is a register. All those who have cattle must be registered in the state. If you come into Bayelsa with any cattle, we would know your identity, have your photograph, name, phone number, and at least ask you where you come from,” he said.
Dickson argued that aside the security implications, there are also economic reasons for his decision.
“They will also pay tax every month for the services. We have not given any herdsmen any land other than what remains government land. Bayelsa Palm is property of Bayelsa State government and it is in full possession, occupation and control and management by the government of Bayelsa State.
“Let it be clear, the government of Bayelsa State has not given any community or Ijaw land to herdsmen. We only provided a place where their cattle can be raised and a place that is already used for raising cattle.
“Cattle and palm plantation can effectively co-exist. We have studied it, seen what is happening in Malaysia, Indonesia, and we believe that the available place we can use now to forestall this looming crisis that is playing out day by day in most states,” he explained.
He said that while a security post is being constructed in the area, where security men will be based, no permanent structures will be allowed to be erected by the occupants of the Bayelsa Palms.
“It is not in the security interest of our people to allow herdsmen who may be armed to be roaming our communities. I am not one that will take your security lightly.
“There is no benefit for me in this decision. But this is the right thing to do and it is a model that a lot of states are looking at. There will be no permanent structures there. My judgement in consultation with the state security council says we should confine them.
“They go round destroying peoples farms and if we do not contain them it will lead to a major clash which we do not want to see,” he reasoned.
While noting that those opposed to the idea have not proffered any other alternative solutions, other than the extremist view that herdsmen should be kept away from the state, the governor stated that the decision was not all about Fulani people, but even Ijaw cow owners and herders.
He queried: “Or what other option do we have? Is it to leave the herdsmen that come from far and anywhere to come and wander about and take over Amassoma or other communities? That is not good, I cannot allow that.
“I would like our young men to even own cattle and rear them as a means of livelihood, because most of the cattle there now are even owned by Bayelsans. Some of the cattle are owned by our people, Igbo traders, Yoruba traders and so on,” he argues.
But as the debate rages, many notable persons from the state have also thrown their weight behind the decision of Balyesa State government.
Speaking in support of the administration, Chairmen of the Restoration Caucus in the eight local government areas, stressed that as the Chief Security Officer of the state, the decision was strategic to avoid loss of lives and property.
The chairmen led by veteran politician, Chief Thompson Okorotie, said the designation of the area for grazing activities was to enable the government restrict the activities of herdsmen and monitor them.
“The governor has not sold any land to the cattle herders. That decision was taken to confine them to a particular area and to avoid clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the state, as witnessed in some parts of the country,” Okorotie said.
Also, two Niger Delta groups, the Ijaw Patriots and Niger Delta Youths Coalition (NDYC), in their separate reactions, said the entire opposition to the idea was to weaken the Dickson’s administration and incite his kinsmen against him.
Rightly or wrongly, they accused the arrowheads of the resistance of working for some political interests in the state ahead 2019.
In a statement signed by the NDYC spokesman, Mathew Seikumo, while the protest was hinged on issue of the Fulani herdsmen and their cattle grazing in Bayelsa Palms, the sponsors had ulterior motives.
“The real motive of the protest is political and it is all about 2019,” the statement noted.
The NDYC spokesman said: “Politics is what is at play here and we must sound it loud and clear that as Niger Delta youths we cannot allow ourselves to be deceived and used by those who have failed us before to further plunge the Niger Delta into crisis.”
Also, the Executive Secretary of the Ijaw Patriot (IP), David Lawson, who signed the release on behalf of the group, said the action of a female politician in the state to sponsor public dissent against government action, was to avoid paying taxes to the government on her own herds, herself, being the owner of over 500 cattle in the state.
“She owns 500 cattle and the protest was to ensure she does not pay tax per head of cattle as part of government’s decision to restrict herdsmen and their cattle to the Bayelsa Palms Area for grazing.
“We call on all Ijaw sons and daughters to join forces with government to keep the peace in the state rather than allow some people use their own selfish interest to destroy the state,” the group held.
While the influential Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), has also aligned with the Bayelsa government, they however condemned the alleged attack on Briggs by some youths.
President of the IYC, Udengs Eradiri, argued that those who are vehemently opposed to the action of government have failed to throw up alternative ways of dealing with the cattle herders.
“If they do not want cattle in their land, let them stop eating cow meat. But ask them to make that little sacrifice and you see everyone complaining,” the youth leader told newsmen.
In the same vein, a statement by the IYC’s Chairman, Central Zone, Mr. Bobolaiyefa Owoupele, said the fears harboured by Briggs and others of North‘s domination of Ijaw land due to the decision were not only unfounded but smacked of scaremongering.
“Their fear of annexation of Ijaw/Niger Delta territories vis-à-vis acquisition of Ijaw lands on the pretext of cattle grazing are unnecessary and unfounded as the land is not donated or sold to anybody including her so much feared cattle herdsmen.
“The Bayelsa Oil Palms farm space is provided for cattle business just as the Ekeki Motor Park is provided by government for transport business in the state,” the IYC said.
The IYC maintained that even Ijaw people are engaged in fishing business in faraway places like Baro, Lokoja, Kaduna, Pategi and Yauri in Northern Nigeria and have not constituted any threats to their hosts.
“The fishing grounds and camps allotted to them by their hosts and where they have been doing legitimate business over the years have not become Ijaw land,” the group maintained.
It added: “If the Hausa quarters in Warri and Port Harcourt where Hausa/Fulani people have stayed to do business for decades have not become Hausa/Fulani land, how then does anyone come to the conclusion that the Bayelsa Oil Palms farmland meant for cattle ranches, abattoir and market will become Hausa/Fulani property.”
Meanwhile, Security agencies in Bayelsa State have started to implement the governor’s directive that cows found outside the designated areas should be impounded.
Already, two truckloads of cattle being taken to two local governments in the state were apprehended and taken to the Bayelsa Palms.
Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Daniel Iworiso-Markson, said the arrest of the cattle and their owners was on the orders of the state governor.
A statement signed by the CPS, said that both truckloads which were heading to Imiringi and Amassoma in Ogbia and Southern Ijaw local governments respectively have been moved to the designated grazing area at the state-owned Bayelsa Palms where they were properly documented and their biometrics captured.
But politics and sentiments apart, many believe it was a good decision to make, especially if the herdsmen are thoroughly monitored as explained by the governor, who also admitted that there must have been a gap in communication between those opposed to the new policy and the government.