Rethinking the Ruga policy

July 5, 2019
138 Views

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo must be chuckling to himself in quiet satisfaction. The wily Ota farmer had recently come up with the thesis of an ongoing attempt at the ‘Fulanization’ of Nigeria and ‘Islamization’ of West Africa, which many analysts had readily dismissed as mischievous and self-serving. His theory was perceived in many quarters as borne out of intense dislike for the President Muhammadu Buhari administration than his ever so often professed love for Nigeria. Obasanjo’s no holds barred criticisms had contributed significantly to the downfall or demystification of virtually all those who had ruled the country after him either as military Head of State between 1975 and 1979 or elected civilian President from 1999 to 2007.

When about two years into Buhari’s first term, Obasanjo trained his trademark missive artillery on the austere General from Daura, the self righteous mystique of the Owu warrior failed him. Even though there was much that was disappointing and disenchanting about the Buhari presidency that had raised so much expectation of change, a not insignificant number of Nigerians felt Obasanjo had overreached himself. It was widely believed that the motive of the man who had been extraordinarily lucky to rule the country for a combined period of 12 years was not the good of Nigeria but a desire to be seen as the best leader ever in the country’s history. Thus, his attempt to rally a third force against both the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was a pitiable flop. His volte face and subsequent support for Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s election as President in the 2019 polls failed. Buhari was reelected. The self-proclaimed watchman over the country had at last been demystified.

It was the bitterness of this experience, many felt, that fuelled Obasanjo’s ‘Fulanization’ and ‘Islamization’ postulation just to discredit the Buhari administration. But then, Obasanjo’s flailing theory was given an unexpected shot in the arm by the announcement of the Federal Government’s Ruga settlement scheme, which generated widespread outrage until President Buhari’s wise and timely suspension of the rather bizarre enterprise. According to an assortment of Federal Government officials, the Ruga settlement scheme was conceived to create reserved communities where herders will live, grow and tend their cattle, produce milk and undertake other activities associated with the cattle business without having to move around in search of grazing land for their cows.

This is ostensibly to find a lasting solution to the incessant clashes between nomadic herdsmen and sedentary farming communities. Yet, the policy would create legally designated communities in all states of the country for the benefit of cattle herders starting with a pilot scheme of 12 states. Since the cattle business is currently dominated by the Fulani ethnic group, those opposed to the Ruga settlement scheme naturally see it as nothing but a disguised attempt at Fulani expansionism and thus a confirmation of Obasanjo’s allegation of a ‘Fulanization’ agenda. This is, of course, far- fetched. On close examination, it appears to me that the Ruga settlement proposal does not differ fundamentally from the idea of ranching, which many argue is the way to go.

Unfortunately, the President Muhammadu Buhari administration has through some of its actions including key appointments and its seeming lethargy for a long time to the violent excesses of herdsmen in large swathes of the country created the impression of being biased towards the Fulani. This perception has been reinforced by the fact that Buhari himself is a Fulani man. The public distrust of the government and its motives is what has rubbed off so negatively on the Ruga settlement scheme no matter what may be its indisputable merits.

First, the term Ruga is itself a Fulani word and unsuitable for a national ranching policy. Second, the policy was conceived and its legal framework drawn up in secrecy, which further aroused suspicions of ethno-regional groups already agitated by perceived Fulani imperialist inclinations. A national dialogue giving opportunity for the input of all stakeholders before the adoption and unveiling of the policy would certainly have enabled better confidence building and understanding of the policy. Third, the Ruga policy and the intense opposition to it is partly a function of the crisis of federalism in Nigeria. There is no reason why it should be a federal government project. The state governments who legally control all the land within their jurisdiction should have been left alone to enact ranching laws if they so desire as a state like Benue has done. That way the locals in each state, which want to go into the ranching business, can easily do so without the scheme being interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a mechanism of consolidating Fulani domination.

The Federal Government spokespersons who explained details of the Ruga scheme before its suspension, said the settlements would be provided with schools, health facilities, water and power supply for its residents. There would also be a security outfit, the agro rangers established to protect lives and property in the cattle colonies. It certainly did not occur to those who conceptualized this idea that it would appear to many as a variant of apartheid whereby a select group of Nigerians would have a privileged existence in a settlement where all the amenities for civilized existence are provided while majority of Nigerians across the country are subject to the vagaries of poverty, hunger, homelessness, avoidable disease and pervasive insecurity.

Yes, the government can by all means give those in the cattle business the necessary financial support to ensure the establishment, sustenance and viability of their businesses just as is being done as regards those involved in rice, cassava, yams, tomatoes and other small and medium scale businesses in the overall interest of the national economy. But this certainly does not require a nationalized ranching policy under the control of the central government in a supposed federation like Nigeria.

The government must go back to the drawing board to engage all stakeholders nationwide in order to rethink, redesign, re-designate and refine the Ruga policy. The unnecessarily antagonistic and hostile attitude of government spokesmen like Shehu Garba to the critics of the policy is unhelpful. The point is to patiently and painstakingly explain its rationale and merits to all Nigerians, eliminate its limitations, and make it more nationally acceptable. The reformed policy must respect the tenets of federalism, constitutionalism and respect for the equal dignity and rights of all ethno-cultural groups in the country.

As presently conceived, the Ruga policy seems to assume that herdsmen must necessarily move their goods from the north southward in search of grazing land and water given the severe desertification and other environmental challenges in the region. But this is entirely mythical. There is absolutely no reason why the Northern states cannot take advantage of the revolutionary advances in science and technology to turn the vast arid land mass of the region to lush, fertile and productive land. Rather than create the impression of being eternally and helplessly dependent on the resources of the south – oil revenue and vegetation for its cattle for instance – the North can exploit modern science and technology to become not just self-reliant in agriculture but to also make the south dependent on it in its areas of strength.

In the same way, nothing stops states in the south from also going into the cattle business by setting up modern, model ranches in their states as eminent human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) has suggested. In a recent most enlightening television interview, Mr. Falana sheds light on this issue and I will quote him at length in conclusion. His words: “Ranching is not a new development in Nigeria; it is not a new phenomenon. The first ranch in Nigeria was established in Cross River State at Obudu in 1951 by the British. It was later taken over by the Eastern Regional Government. The Awolowo regime had a ranch in Akunnu, now Ondo State. The Ahmadu Bello regime had a ranch in Mokwa, Niger State. Under the Gowon regime, the Audu Bako regime in Kano had the best ranches in the country. But what happened was that during the long years of military rule, all the ranches in the country collapsed. That was the beginning of people taking cattle from one part of the country to another. Those who say that we have been doing it from time immemorial are talking rubbish. It is not our history.”

Mr Falana continued: “In fact in the South West, the Obafemi Awolowo regime introduced a species of cow imported from Argentina. So we must solve the problem and it can only be solved scientifically. And we must learn from what is going on in Africa – Botswana, Mozambique, Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia – have the best ranches in the continent. In fact Botswana has a population of 1.2 million people. The cattle population is 2.8 million. That is the largest exporter of meat in Africa and the largest producer of meat. So you don’t need to take cattle round. You produce meat and distribute the meat. We must go modern. There is no sentiment about it. For example, the South- West consumes ten thousand herds of cattle every day. You need to have a ranch. One of the state governments at the very least must invest in ranching to take care of meat production”.

PMB must be commended for suspending the Ruga scheme. It gives an opportunity to re-think the policy altogether and re-introduce it in a more popularly acceptable manner in the national interest.

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