Still Wrapped in a Haze of Controversy


Nseobong Okon-Ekong, Chuks Okocha and Ojo Maduekwe write that the smouldering fire ignited by disagreement trailing the controversial idea by the federal government to establish a community for the nomadic Fulani herdsmen across the country through the Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) Settlement initiative may not have been quenched totally with its suspension

Traditionally, herdsmen were known to graze the arid and Sahel regions. As a result of the environmental conditions that limit the amount of land available for agriculture, they were not known to have competitors for land. This is according to a paper by the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS).

Also, due to recurrent droughts in the arid and Sahel regions, which led to unfavourable environmental development in the Sahel and Chad Basin, over time, the herdsmen began to move from place to place. Reduction in the Lake Chad Basin as a result of climate change, led to southern migration of the herders to the Guinea savannah and the rain forest in search of pasture. Advertently, their movement led to trespass on farmland and reverse-aggression between them (herders) and farmers.

History has it that Fulani herdsmen migrated from Senegambia to Nigeria in the 13th to 14th century and became ingrained into the Hausa culture of Northern Nigeria by the Uthman dan Fodio movement. With the reduction of Tsetse fly in the dry season, the herdsmen moved their cattle into the Middle-belt, South-west, South-east and South-south. Incidentally, these areas are dominated by non-Hausas and differ in language and culture, thus leading to trespass on lands owned legally or ancestrally by the affected farmers.

Dr. Umar Ardo, a onetime aide to former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, considered one of the Fulani intelligentsias, concluded that the herdsmen and farmers clash happened as a result of the drying up of the River Benue, as well as, its tributaries. Specifically, he faulted the dam at the Cameroonian side of River Lado as contributing to the drying up. Ardo said that even the River Gongola and other rivers supplying water to River Benue are gradually drying up due to the negative effects of climate change. His extensive studies blamed the construction of the dam starting from the Cameroonian side, explaining that it was done against an agreement reached between the German and British colonial masters that there should be no dam on the River Lado.

Brief History of Ranching In Nigeria

With a history that dates back to pre-Independence, the Obudu Cattle Ranch was the first ranch to be established in Nigeria. To be exact, it was developed in 1951 by one M. McCaughley, a Scot who first explored the mountain ranges in 1949. He camped on the mountaintop of the Oshie Ridge on the Sankwala Mountains for a month before returning with Mr. Hugh Jones, a fellow rancher, in 1951. Together with Dr Crawfeild, they developed the Obudu Cattle Ranch. The ranch is still in existence. Ranches were also established in different locations in Western Nigeria by the Chief Obafemi Awolowo government in the First Republic.

The Idea of RUGA Settlement

The federal government claims that it conceived the idea of Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) settlement initiative to address the incessant clashes between farmers and herders in the country. The news of the idea was first dropped by the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. However, the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari, Garba Shehu, would later expatiate on the idea.

Describing opposing comments to the idea as “unhelpful”, he said what RUGA sought to achieve was “settle migrant pastoral families”, and “stop roaming of cattle herders with the attendant clashes with farmers.” Shehu said that it was not just cattle herders that would be settled, but everyone who is into animal farming. The government would equip each Settlement with schools, hospitals, road networks, vet clinics, markets and meat processing factories; this was, curb the open grazing of cattle.

According to Shehu the government hoped that aside from a reduction in conflict between herders and farmers, other benefits would be “a boost in animal protection complete with a value chain that will increase the quality and hygiene of livestock in terms of beef and milk production, increased quality of feeding and access to animal care, private sector investment in commercial pasture production, job creation, access to credit facilities, security for pastoral families and curtailment of cattle rustling.

Reassuring Nigerians that the government had no plans to seize lands to give to the Fulani tribe, colonise territories or impose RUGA on any part of the country, Shehu said the programme was voluntary. According to him, “So far, 12 states have applied to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, making lands available for the take-off of the scheme in their states. This number is sufficient for the pilot scheme.”

Admitting that the federal government had indeed gazetted lands in all states of the federation, however, Shehu said it wasn’t the government’s plan to force the initiative on anyone, and so was limiting take-off to states that had requested for it.

RUGA vs. Fulani Cattle Colonies

Sources say the President Buhari administration has commenced construction RUGA Settlements in the 36 States of Nigeria. The project has started in Kotongora, Niger State on a 31,000-hectare piece of land, and will be initially replicated in 12 States with six of such colonies to be constructed in each state.

In Hausa language, there is the word Zagon as well as RUGA, which means resting place while on a journey, or Cattle Herder Settlement for herdsmen, their families and livestock. Such settlements as presently planned by government will contain 8 brick blocks building and sanitary facilities, and will cost over N16 million each. With a complete range of infrastructure required to support and sustain a local government area, each settlement will also contain ranches, grass or feed farms, abattoirs, dairy, meat and skin/leather processing plants, housing, religious houses, schools, roads, power and water supplies.

Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the idea, the federal government is undeterred and has commenced the building of RUGA Settlements in some states. THISDAY gathered that contracts have been awarded in several states. According to a letter of one of such contracts dated May 21, 2019, (name of contractor withheld) and signed by the Director of Procurement, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Developments, Hussani Adamu, one contractor was mobilised to site and asked to deliver within four weeks and according to specifications.

Part of the contract letter reads, “I am directed to inform you that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) at its meeting held on March 8, 2019, approves the award of contract for the construction of 8 Nos. Ruga Infrastructure with Sanitary facilities (Red brick Structure) each in Taraba State as detailed in the attached to your company at the total sum of N166,336,380.00 (One hundred and sixty six million, three hundred and thirty six thousand, three hundred and eighty naira) only inclusive of VAT with a completion period of four (4) weeks with effect from the date on the letter.”

Vice President Osinbajo’s Involvement

Though Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has distanced his office from the RUGA controversy, a letter signed by his Deputy Chief of Staff, Ade Ipaye, with reference SH/OVP/DCOS/Misc/1913334, and dated Match 13, 2019, gives an insight into the level of the Vice President’s involvement in the RUGA Settlement scheme.

As it turns out, the Rule of Law Advisory Team in Mr. Osinbajo’s office is implementing the Justice and Conflict Resolution Pillars of the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP). The NLTP (2019 – 2028) was recently unveiled by the federal government as part of its strategy for tackling the farmer-herder crises, and was also recently approved by the National Economic Council (NEC).

Addressed to the traditional ruler, the Aku Uka of Wukari in Taraba state, the letter stated, among other things, that the RUGA project was supported by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), and seeks to “substantially reduce and ultimately eliminate inter-community crises in Zamfara, Kaduna, Benue, Taraba, Plateau, Nasarawa and Adamawa States.” The letter was to introduce Dr. Kyantirimam Ukwen, who will be responsible for conducting mapping assessment in the state.

When the General Secretary of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Baba Uthman Ngelzarma, had alleged that the Vice President’s office was helping the herdsmen to create RUGA settlements across the country, Mr. Osinbajo’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Laolu Akande, reacted through a signed statement that the scheme was not under the supervision of his boss.

“Contrary to claims reported in sections of the media, the establishment of RUGA Settlements is not being supervised by the Office of the Vice President. The RUGA initiative is different from the National Livestock Transformation Plan approved by state governors under the auspices of the National Economic Council (NEC) chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. NEC on January 17, 2019, approved the plan based on the recommendations of a Technical Committee of the Council chaired by Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State. Other state governors on the committee and Working Group of NEC are those from Adamawa, Kaduna, Benue, Taraba, Edo, Plateau, Oyo and Zamfara – mostly the frontline States in the farmer-herder crises,” Akande said.

Akande said that the NLTP would be implemented in the seven pilot states of Adamawa, Benue, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, Taraba and Zamfara (as decided by NEC in January), being states in the frontlines of the farmer-herder crises; followed by six other states that have indicated readiness to also implement the plan. According to him, they are Katsina, Kano, Kogi, Kwara, Ondo, and Edo.

He also said that the plan had six pillars through which it aims to transform the livestock production system in Nigeria along market-oriented value chain while ensuring an atmosphere of peace and justice. “The six key pillars include: economic investment, conflict resolution, justice and peace, humanitarian relief and early recovery, human capital development and cross-cutting issues such as gender, youth, research and information and strategic communication,” Akande said.

Buhari’s Aide Contradict Osinbajo

There have been insinuations that the RUGA controversy was pitting the Vice President against the President. If Nigerians still doubted this, the reaction by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, contradicting the Vice President’s claim on RUGA, was a pointer that all may not be well.

Speaking on The News at 10 on Channels Television last week, Shehu, when asked about the difference between the RUGA project and NLTP, said, “It is just a matter of semantics. These herders who roam the entire country and overrun farmlands cause disaffection and the government wants to stop this.”

Issues Stoking the RUGA Controversy

Most opposition to the RUGA Settlement are borne out of the fear of ‘Fulanisation’ as enunciated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Delivering the keynote address at the 2019 Synod of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, held in Oleh, Isoko South Local Government Area of Delta State, sometime in May this year, Chief Obasanjo said the Boko Haram insurgency was no longer an issue of lack of education and lack of employment for Nigerian youths, which it began as, but now about “West African Fulanisation, African Islamisation and global organised crimes of human trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, illegal mining and regime change.”

A public issue commentator and analyst, Nnamdi Elekwachi, shares the same view as Obasanjo. He alleges that there’s a grand scheme by the Fulani to dominate other tribes and their ancestral lands through the RUGA project. According to him, the size of the first RUGA Settlement, the one in Kotongora, Niger State, with a landmass of at least 31,000 hectares of land or 310 square kilometers was the size of an average Local Government Area (LGA) in many states in Nigeria.

Anti-RUGA proponents argue that the average size of an LGA in the South East is 331 square km and in the South West, 574 sqkm. Lagos has the least average LGA size at 179 square km, Imo has average LGA size of 205square km, Akwa Ibom 229square km, Anambra 231sqkm and Osun 308 square km, to mention a few. At 310 square km in size, a RUGA Settlement or Fulani Cattle Colony is the size of a Local Government Area in Nigeria.

One RUGA Settlement will comprise of six Fulani settlements in each of the 36 states in Nigeria. At completion, there will be 216 new exclusive Fulani LGAs in Nigeria. Bearing in mind that Nigeria has 774 LGAs, and a population of about two hundred million people, the average population of an LGA is roughly two hundred and sixty thousand people. Presently, and according to the CIA Factbook on Nigeria, there are about 13 million Fulanis in Nigeria, which is 6.3% of the country’s total population. According to Elekwachi, the RUGA programme on completion is projected to increase the Fulani population in Nigeria by over 69 million.

Elekwachi said that the implication of the above was that at the completion of the RUGA Settlement project, the Fulani tribe would have become the most populous nationality in Nigeria (in today’s population figure) having outgrown the Hausa (25.1% or about 50.4 million), the Yoruba (21% or about 42.2 million) and the Igbo (18% or about 32.2 million). “In one fell swoop the Fulani becomes the majority nationality in Nigeria. The tripod balance in Nigeria becomes quad-legged,” he said.

He, like others, argued why the federal government was so much invested in settling the Fulani herdsmen when even President Buhari, and Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, have on record stated that the Fulani herdsmen engaged in the massacre and pillage of farming communities across the country are not Nigerians. Like both men, Nigerians agree that the Fulani herders and terrorists engaged in land grab and terrorist activities are non-Nigerians from West and Central Africa.

Response by South-east Governors

The South-east Governors Forum have weighed in on the controversial RUGA Settlement. Chairman of the forum and Governor of Ebonyi State, David Umahi, in a statement by his spokesman, Emmanuel Uzor, said there was no plan for a RUGA Settlement in any part of the South-east and South-south. According to him, the South-east is purely agrarian with limited land mass for farming and therefore cannot accommodate RUGA, what could happen is that members of the MACBAN and the South-east region would engage in symbiotic trade of cows and grass.

“Umahi was the Chairman of National Economic Council sub-technical committee on farmers and herdsmen clash and he toured the states of Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, Adamawa, Zamfara and two other states where he made one recommendation to the federal government for revamping of grazing reserve, where all the cattle breeders in the South will take their cattle to and rely on the grass grown in the South.

Further expatiating, Umahi said, “the way it works is that the herdsmen will bring down their cows to the South-east and sell to us as meat while they will load the grass which are grown here in the same trailer with which they transported their cows to feed their cattle in those grazing reserve which should be made comfortable for them. By this, the herdsmen are expected to embrace anti open grazing by returning to the ranches in the North can do their business on the trade by barter basis of selling cows to the South and buying grass to feed their cows in the North.”

Other Ethnic Nationalities React

Representatives from the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum also weighed in on the matter. The groups said after reviewing all the arguments for and against the RUGA Settlements, it concluded that the plan was “repugnant, repulsive and provocative”, and went ahead to allege that the RUGA Settlement project was a subtle attempt to “colonize the rest of Nigeria under the guise of promoting cattle rearing.”

In a joint statement issued by Yinka Odumakin (South West), Chigozie Ogbu (South East), Bassey Henshaw (South South) and Isuwa Dogo (Middle Belt), the Forum said cattle rearing was “private business” that does not require government’s involvement, arguing that “a government interested in the unity of the country should not dabble into such business which tends to promote one ethnic group over another.”

While also saying that in the last four years, herdsmen had turned non-Fulani communities into killing fields “with the government turning a blind eye to all their crimes”, the Forum challenged the government to name any court where defaulting criminal herdsmen were being tried for their crimes.

The Forum concluded by saying, “We therefore reject any attempt to establish any Fulani colony within our space in Southern Nigeria and the Middle Belt. We warn all our governors not to succumb to any pressure to cede an inch of our land for this awful project as any governor who does so would be seen as an enemy of the people he governs. Our people will defend their land against colonization under the conquest policy the Federal Government is mindlessly pushing.”

Ultimatum, Threats and Impending Conflict

When it seemed that the federal government had quelled the controversy with the suspension of the RUGA Settlement project, a Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) at a news conference in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, threatened the government with a 30-day ultimatum to resume implementing the project, alleging that those against it and the entire Southern side of the country in “connivance” with some leaders from their region, had conspired to weaken the North.

Speaking through one Abdul-Azeez Suleiman, the group which had two years ago at the Kaduna Declaration, given an ultimatum to Igbo residing in the North to vacate the region, this time, said that at the expiration of the ultimatum, if the government failed to “completely stop this raging madness within 30 days beginning from today, Wednesday July 3, 2019”, and restart the RUGA project, that they would have “no option than to consider resorting to our decisive line of action.”

Reacting to the ultimatum and threat by the CNG, the Igbo socio-cultural group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, through its President-General, Chief Nnia Nwodo, said, “This irresponsible, unlawful and provocative outburst reminds me of the northern youths’ notice to quit the North to southerners two years ago.”

Describing RUGA as an Islamisation and a Fulanisation policy, Nwodo said that Ohanaeze would resist it, adding, “The threat to evict law-abiding Nigerians from their places of abode in northern Nigeria is treasonable and obviously like the gun-trotting herdsmen will go unnoticed by our federally-controlled law enforcement agencies.” He called on all Igbo to be ready to defend themselves.

Adding his voice to the increasing opposition to RUGA, Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka said, the scheme will set Nigeria on fire.

The Rivers State Government has expressly said it will not to participate in the project, conceived to find a lasting solution to the perennial problem of farmers-herders clashes.

At a recent launch of United Nations’ Solutions 17 SDG Programme, Soyinka berated the federal government for the idea, which he said could cause Nigeria to explode.
He said, “Ruga is going to be an explosion if not handled with care. But why do we not take our policies from good models? This is not the way people and countries deal with issues of cattle.

“I travel everywhere. It has to be handled in a way that is logical, comprehensible to the environment. When a cattle walks up to the window of my house in Abeokuta, a house which is located in a residential area, then there’s a problem.

“When cattle go to Ijebu Ode and eat up their plant seedlings and so on and you expect people to be quiet?”
According to him, the handling of the herdsmen issue by President Muhammadu Buhari could have cost him his re-election.

He said, “President Buhari deserved to have lost the last election for the lackadaisical attitude he took to the issue of cattle rearing in the country.

“People have been killed in hundreds just because of the failure of leadership at a critical time. And the cattle herders have been given a sense of impunity. They kill without any compunction; they drive away the farmers who have been contributing to the food solutions in the country; the cattle eat their crops and then you come up with Ruga.

“I think that there is going to be trouble in this country if this Ruga thing is not handled imaginatively and with humanity as priority. Any country where cattle take priority over human life is definitely at an elementary stage.”