In the past few months we have seen a multiplication of bloody clashes and tensions between Fulani herdsmen and farmers from various parts of the country. These parts include the South South, South East, South West and the Middle Belt/North Central.
One of the bloodiest clashes is the one that happened recently in the town of Agatu in Benue State, where hundreds of people were reportedly killed and thousands displaced from their homes. But the violence is not restricted to that place.
A kingdom in Delta State lost its monarch when he was kidnapped and murdered by suspected herdsmen. In the South West the same fate almost met Olu Falae, a traditional ruler and politician of Yoruba stock. The story is not much different in the South East, as the people of Nsukka and other areas have claimed that their farmlands have been attacked, their youth killed or maimed and their women raped.
All this has led to a huge outcry and accusations that President Buhari , who is not just a Fulani man, but reportedly one of the Grand Patrons of the Fulani cattle breeders association is biased towards them – that, that was the reason for the silence of the Federal Government in recent times in light of the killings of locals by suspected Fulani herdsmen.
Perhapse to dispell those insinuations, President Buhari, through his minister for agriculture Audu Ogbe, has announced that Federal Government has mapped out grazing areas where the Fulani herdsmen would be restricted to.
Nigerians have been told that in 24 months no cows will be seen roaming about in any part of the country.
That announcement has been widely welcomed, but if not handled well the implementation could backfire and lead to greater crises.
This is because the Fulani herdsmen are held with great suspicion by many in other parts of the country, rightly or wrongly. A lot of people believe that the whole crises is fuelled by an attempt by the Fulani to take over the country and with time, appoint traditional rulers of their own in every zone.
The herdsmen are even accused of forming a whole new ethnic group in Plateau State for the same purpose. If amid such speculation, the ownership papers of grazing land is handed over to the herdsmen when the government finally launches the grazing lands project, it will create a lot of controversy in the land.
That is why the ownership of the grazing areas must remain in the hands of the Federal Government – the same way military barracks in the country are owned by the Federal Government.
Not adhering to this may open President Muhammadu Buhari to political risks as it would create a perception that the president is furthering territory-grabbing by his ethnic group at the expense of national interest.
The Federal ownership of grazing lands will serve as additional protection for the Fulani herdsmen. Research has shown that the presence of Federally owned barracks all over the country has protected guests of local communities during times of inter-ethnic tensions.
For instance, the Hausa community in various parts of the country have been known to seek and find adequate refuge in Federal barracks during times of ethnic tension. That has sometimes been more helpful than having to swarm the motor parks and then still face risks on their way out of the troubled area.
Of course the same level of protection from harm given in the barracks should be provided for the Fulani herdsmen in the Federal owned grazing areas. That way, the agelong tension between the Fulani herdsmen and locals can be brought to an end, and the Fulani herdsmen can face their business of cattle rearing without being accused of attempting to occupy and take over the lands of other people for ethnic purposes.
NB: The only way the herdsmen may own grazing land in a way that will be acceptable to the local populations is if they employ the strategy of ranching. That way they buy the land with their own money; and it must be emphasized that the Fulani herdsman has every right to buy landed property from any part of the country, just like the Igbos and every other ethnic groups who buy land from outside their indigenous zones.
This approach may even be better than the grazing lands approach, because it will completely isolate President Buhari from any accusations of preferential treatment towards his ethnic group and it will open the business of the herdsmen to greater commercial potential.
According to government officials, the herdsmen are still very reluctant to abandon their nomadic culture. but so were the cowboys of the United Staes before they fully embraced ranching, and today they are the better for it.