By Onyema Omenuwa
Let me state without equivocation that the controversy and debate, which the Federal Government-proposed Ruga policy has generated will not abate so soon. I’m not a pessimist but not with the sheer intransigence being exhibited by Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to foist the policy on the country, willy-nilly. Buhari is from the Fulani ethnic group, which the Ruga agenda is designed to benefit. You may argue that there is nothing wrong with an ethnic group being favoured for a governmental programme; yes but not when such a programme is laden with very scary implications for the rest of the country. As a result, everyone, including those folks from the south that are usually given to political correctness, is kicking against Ruga; except of course the government and the north, where the Fulani hold sway as determiners of political direction.
It’s significant that for once, all the federating states in the southern part of the country and their indigenes have risen in unison against a government policy, shunning hypocrisy. Benue State has even aligned with these southern counterparts, notwithstanding that the state itself is situated along the middle belt axis, where its sister-states have joined the north to literally beckon to Ruga. For education, Benue State is a living witness to what Ruga could mean when stripped of official covering. In recent times, no other state has borne the brunt of horrendous killings by Fulani herdsmen as did some Benue State communities. Those farming communities did nothing wrong to warrant such carnage, except their resistance to forcible occupation of their farmlands by the nomadic herdsmen and their herds of cattle.
I have heard that Ruga (or Rugga) is a Fulani word for (human) settlement, yet the same word is being bandied about as an acronym for Rural Grazing Area. However, whatever it means is immaterial; what really matters are the realities the policy is packed with, which can upset both the cultural and demographic make-up of any community where it is allowed. The Federal Government has continued to downplay this reality. In fact, it has only just stopped short of guaranteeing that the policy will permanently put an end to incessant killings of indigenes of local communities, where Fulani herdsmen take their cattle for grazing. Senior Special Assistant to Buhari on Media explained: “‘Ruga Settlement’ that seeks to settle migrant pastoral families simply means rural settlement in which animal farmers, not just cattle herders, will be settled in an organised place with provision of necessary and adequate basic amenities such as schools, hospitals, road networks, vet clinics, markets and manufacturing entities that will process and add value to meats and animal products. Beneficiaries will include all persons in animal husbandry, not only Fulani herders.” He would further explain that “the federal government is planning this in order to curb open grazing of animals that continue to pose security threats to farmers and herders.”
Note that incessant killings of indigenous people on their farmlands by Fulani herdsmen is being referenced here as “security threats” to, wait a minute, even the invaders of those farmlands! It’s shocking that the Federal Government holds this rather misleading view on the killings. To insist that they occur on both sides during clashes between farmers and pastoralists, in spite of the victims’ gory tales, which normally attract even international media coverage, shows the Federal Government’s unmasked bias in favour of the Fulani and cruel insensitivity towards the plight of the indigenous people.
The terrible truth is that herdsmen would literally invade farming communities with their cattle. And because cows, being what they are, do not differentiate grass from crops, the farmers’ cultivated crops become feed for them. Any attempt by the farmers to safeguard their farmlands is usually visited with overwhelming terror. Entire communities are known to have been razed by Fulani herdsmen, with hundreds of inhabitants killed in a manner that evokes imagery of a slaughterhouse. Ask Agatu people of Benue State. Ask also Nimbo people of Enugu State. Ask even the people of farming communities in the middle belt areas of Taraba, Nasarawa and Plateau States. In fact, ask the people of any state the Fulani have been to with their cattle.
Herdsmen execute these blood-chilling acts because the Federal Government allows them to bear unlicensed sophisticated weapons. I mean, you see them wielding AK47 riffles and the like. That is yet another evidence of Fulani favouritism, considering that no other ethnic group exercises such freedom in Nigeria. Indeed, the belief that the Fulani are so privileged finds credence in the fact that the atrocities they commit go without arrest, much less prosecution and punishment. All these add to the fear of Ruga.
If atrocities of the magnitude executed by itinerant Fulani herdsmen can go on under the watch of government and its security agencies, the imagination is justifiable that host communities to the proposed Ruga would be at their killers’ mercy, should the programme come to be. The truth is that the Fulani traditional way of doing their business – open grazing, is unfriendly to crop farming. Yet they forbid hearing any suggestion that it should be reformed. Buhari himself makes a case for such, by opining that grazing routes should be maintained across Nigeria. There is no civilised or aspiring civilised where that is allowed. Reacting to Ruga, the Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka would wonder: “Why is it that we fail to take our model from successful performers?”
The Federal Government has explained what Ruga is. But the communities, which are designated to host Ruga know better and are not convinced. In fact, the explanation still does not address the fear element. Curiously, it’s not as if Fulani herdsmen are a new phenomenon in Nigeria. But that was the stick wielding Fulani who would herd his cattle away from crops. That was prior to Buhari’s emergence as President. Yes, until Buhari assumed office in 2015, there was never a profiling of them as callous killers who should be given some safe distance. So what has changed? Why the prevalent suspicion and fear of them? As observed earlier, blame Buhari. His unmistakable body language casts the Fulani in the mold of a special breed or an untouchable cold-blooded class of human beings. What has then happened therefore is that an average Fulani, being conscious of this Buhari-induced elevated status, basks in a sense of entitlement that knows no bounds, even when he is staging mayhem, they justify it because there is a ‘guardian angel’ watching over them.
Flowing from this, leaders of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) a Fulanicentric advocacy group, can explain away, without incurring any legal consequence, killings carried out by its members. In a supposedly lawful country! Other Fulani fringe groups will be competing to outdo one another in issuing threats and ultimatums to the rest of the country, if their wishes are not granted by government.
If you recall that Garba Shehu’s clarification was compelled by the instant rejection of the policy by particularly people of southern Nigeria, then you can’t but conclude that the later inclusion of “animal farmers,” as potential beneficiaries of Ruga, was an afterthought. However, once aroused, suspicion doesn’t go away by mere explanation. Certainly not when there are hardly any other people, apart from the Fulani, who are as nomadic in nature as to want to leave their ancestral homes to permanently take up abode in a Ruga. The suspicion has taken form, that once Ruga is allowed, nothing will guarantee that grazing of cattle will be restricted therein, with farmlands safe from cow invasion.
That suspicion has been further fueled, not the least by government’s handling of Ruga controversy. States of southern Nigeria have rejected the programme while their northern counterparts have expressed willingness and readiness for it. Yet the Federal Government announced that it was suspending the programme, citing the attendant controversy. If it is recalled that the same Federal Government had said that Ruga would only be established in the states that welcome it, the hidden motive behind it would be laid bare. And that is that the states of mostly southern Nigeria are the targets. The suspension has again lent credence to the conspiracy theory of expansionism by the Fulani, with its concomitant Islamisation. Otherwise, why not roll out the programme in those willing states of the north? So there won’t be Ruga without the southern states’ buy-in?
Garba Shehu’s diplomacy notwithstanding, we now know Ruga for what it is. With Ruga the Federal Government would establish Fulani settlements in every state south of Nigeria, if it can have its way. Once such settlements are in place, anyone can make a projection as to what will naturally follow. If you can’t, ask the indigenous people of Jos North Local Government of Plateau State to educate you. Ask also Hon. Jonathan Asake, former House of Reps member and former Senior Special Assistant to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, an indigene of Zango Kataf Local Government Area in southern Kaduna. Their experience conveys vividly the expansionist potential inherent in Ruga, where the settlers would in no time begin to agitate for an emirate, being Muslims. Of course, their population growth would justify this and the constitutional provision would guarantee them right to have a place of worship. So towns would gradually metamorphose from Ruga settlements and the populations therein would also begin to have a say in the political direction of the host states.
Ordinarily every Nigerian should have the freedom to migrate to any part of the country they wish to and set up a home, without arousing the least suspicion of domination in the indigenous inhabitants or of deprivation of their ancestral lands. Sure, that would the case, if the Federal Government had not by its very acts or omissions portrayed the people of a particular ethnic group as a premium class. Nothing offends a citizen’s sensibilities more than the consciousness that in their own country they are relegated to the status of second class citizens. They will kick against, frustrate and sabotage any programme that seeks to benefit the favoured class.
Whenever he leaves office, Buhari will be leaving a country more divided than he met it. He will be leaving a country whose latent fault lines have been given boost by his bigoted policies. Indeed, in the face of Ruga, all we can hear from indigenes of the southern states who, interestingly, campaigned and voted for Buhari, despite being warned of his unbridled tendency to enthrone favouritism and sow discord, are muffled voices of regret. It is now clear that he was a bad choice ab-initio. But the damage has been done.
Omenuwa is a lawyer and commentator on national issues