By Chidi Amuta
In every direction, both the stealthy implementation of the notorious RUGA cattle scheme and its untidy suspension are negatives for the Buhari presidency. It is sad that the primary priority of a newly elected government without a cabinet was not the humans who voted in the last election but some ill-conceived scheme for cattle and their handlers. The very conception of the scheme itself is a sad official admission of the widespread suspicion of uncanny motives by the president and his prime devotees. That the administration and its high priests could proceed with the implementation of a scheme replete with wildly unclear undertones was a display of insensitivity to the popular will by a government that insists on its democratic label. Welcome as the official abandonment of RUGA maybe, therefore, it has exposed the leadership challenges of the Buhari administration in many ways. By its wider implications, the entire RUGA misadventure is a copious comment on the linkage between leadership and national security at this moment in our history.
Yet, we are dealing with merely one symptom of a growing legacy of divisiveness both within the administration and in the wider national society. In the ensuing policy stampede around RUGA, for instance, the presidency acquired two curious voices. The main wing unequally confirmed that government was embarking on the controversial establishment of something called RUGA cattle colonies in ‘willing’ states across the country. The fringe voice, speaking from the Vice President’s office, perhaps out of a political survival instinct, said it was not party to the RUGA cattle colonies but instead was championing a different livestock investment scheme. One arm of the presidency was playing politics with a national danger while the other opted for bureaucratic doublespeak. When the political cocoon was busted, it took shelter under the Vice President’s leaky bureaucratic umbrella.
Yet because of the inclination of division that has been established from the very top the fears, anger and hate rhetoric generated by the Fulani cattle palaver has refused to go away but instead assumed a life of its own. A group of so called northern youth has dared the president with an ultimatum to return to RUGA or else…Some of their other demands are unprintable but reminiscent of an earlier time when more elderly “youthful” miscreants from the same precincts issued a ‘quit notice’ to fellow citizens to flee parts of the country. Counter ultimatums have since been issued by contending geo-ethnic groups of hotheads, thereby increasing the political temperature of an already insecure and rowdy polity.
From the geographical footprints, incendiary tone and latent fury of the contending threats, the anarchy that we perceived at the height of the RUGA gamble is still taking aim. It will be a sad day when contending geo-ethnic youth of our land begin to confront each other in the open because of the current embracing failure of leadership in the land in the face of grave national security threats. In all such situations, the distance between incendiary rhetoric, threats and counter threats through ultimatums, incensed open protests and bloody official reprisals and clampdowns can be surprisingly short.
For the avoidance of doubt, RUGA represents a mischievous political weaponization of both cattle and the Fulani who maintain a historic monopoly of cattle rearing. Therefore, whatever its conceptual good intentions, the so-called RUGA resettlement scheme was wrong in conception, suspect in intention, retrogressive in vision and dangerous in timing.
Cattle rearing has always been seen nationally as a virtual monopoly of the Fulani. It has gone on for as long as most Nigerians remember without the negative perceptions that herdsmen and the Fulani have acquired in recent times. Of late, however, that ethnic group has acquired a sordid notoriety because of the criminal acts of a few migrant herdsmen who have freely engaged in kidnapping, armed robbery, rape and arson. National security has come under severe stress as herdsmen prowl through farmlands with hungry herds unleashing waves of violence and destruction.
It ought to worry this administration that the literal weaponization of the Fulani herdsman happens to coincide with the tenure of Mr. Buhari as president. Today, the nation most of us knew as a land of peaceful coexistence and harmonious interface of diverse nationalities is now a distant place. Instead, we now live in a place ruled by fear, a country replete with suspicion, bitterness, mutual antagonism and latent hate. Nearly every major nationality in our country now connotes a negative association in the imagination of fellow citizens. The enveloping insecurity makes this place even more frightening.
Unfortunately, the Fulani have come to be associated with violence, criminality and fanatical sectarianism. It was not always like this. The fear attendant on this negative association is deepened by earlier government revelation that a good number of the bandits and other criminals terrorizing the nation may be foreigners from neighboring sahelian and Saharan countries. In this atmosphere of fear and trepidation, the bonds that hold our nation together have come under severe stress.
For this reason alone, the challenge of the Fulani and RUGA controversy is first that of national leadership. Every government action ought to be a carefully measured step in the direction of national harmony and reintegration. Any conscious government effort or scheme that can be perceived as remotely divisive should have no place in this polity now. In this regard then, something like the RUGA settlement scheme was wrong-headed and therefore dead on arrival.
I would insist that the Fulani as an ethnic group should not be collectively profiled as criminals or merchants of violence and sectarian expansionism. That would be unfair on our part. Ironically, however, the stealthy arrogance and apparent insensitivity of the implementation of the RUGA scheme is a blatant disservice to the Fulani themselves. It in fact amounts to an official profiling of the Fulani by isolating them as beneficiaries of a policy of selective massaging and patronage. This would actually endanger them and make the Fulani a perpetual public enemy. They could become targets of vicious attack and cleansing in parts of the country where the RUGA settlements are unwelcome. That enmity is likely to outlast the Buhari administration and could become the seed of violent conflict as the Fulani try to protect themselves and their cattle from hostile host communities.
In spite of bowing to wiser counsel on RUGA, it still ought to concern President Buhari that even his best intentions are tainted by suspicions of unsavory motives. Incidentally, widespread suspicions of the president gravitate around religion and sectionalism. Ironically, the president has remained indifferent to these suspicions and increasing perceptions of him as a sectional and divisive leader. Tragically, there does not seem to be a conscious effort to communicate the intentions and policies of this president to an increasingly suspicious and cynical national audience. In our present situation, neither rabid partisanship nor arrogant posturing from the armpit of power will serve the communication needs of responsible leadership.
It is worrisome that the implementation of the RUGA scheme was smuggled in within a grey zone of transition between two presidential terms. The present time in Nigeria is a grey zone in which there are no ministers and the president is running the country literally as a sole administrator. Any active programme pushed into place at this hour is prone to grave suspicion and cannot stand the test of minimal accountability.
The RUGA scheme as a deliberate government programme, which targets the Fulani or any other group for selective appeasement, was clearly discriminatory and inherently unconstitutional. It did not matter whether states were volunteering land for the scheme or were being blackmailed to do so. Land in Nigeria under the Land Use law remains state property subject to the authority of individual state governors. Any unauthorized occupation of such land by individuals, groups or even the Federal Government remains illegal.
Moreover, the so-called RUGA settlements scheme involved the expenditure of public funds for the benefit of practitioners of a trade dominated mostly by one ethno nationality. The Internet was awash with scans of contract award letters ostensibly originating from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture at a time when there was no Minister in place. No one is certain if that scheme and its budget support were ever canvassed at the National Assembly before the funds were appropriated and contracts awarded for its implementation.
Beyond the issues of due process, legality and fidelity to responsible governance, there was always an overriding one of equity in a democracy. The standard expectation of every citizen in a republican democracy is that they will be treated as equal to other citizens. Even if there is no absolute equity in the real world, the sovereign must not behave in a manner that faintly suggests that the instruments of state are being used to uplift one section of the polity over others.
A situation such as the RUGA settlements which were designed to provide for settlers such amenities like housing, schools, places of worship, water and electricity which are not readily available to citizens in their host communities is not only discriminatory but also unfair to other citizens. The only justification for this entitlement is that the beneficiaries are herdsmen who would relate with settler farmers in a hostile and violent manner if they were not so comfortably settled.
The concurrent right of the farmers and other occupations to these amenities was never minimally addressed by the implementing federal authorities. By this logic, then, nothing stopped petty traders; crop farmers and fishermen who choose to operate away from their home states from demanding the same cushy treatment from the federal government! We were heading towards a fragmented nation of settlements and colonies instead of an inclusive and diverse society that our founding fathers envisaged.
From the sketchy information available on the failed scheme, there was nothing in the RUGA scheme that aimed at improving cattle management and production. The cattle that nomads roam the nation with are all privately owned. What is the federal government’s business in an industry that is traditionally private?
Under the aborted programme, enclaves and reserves were to be demarcated in participating states and protected by federal fiat as grazing and residential lands for migrant herdsmen maybe in perpetuity. While the precise status and size of these ‘colonies’ was still hazy or shrouded in the usual ‘official secret’, I fear that a sheer failure of language may have deepened the conceptual and strategic fogginess in the design of this backward policy.
There was more worry about the legal and constitutional status of the proposed RUGA colonies. How would these colonies relate to state and local governments in which they are located? Was the Buhari government trying to create a fourth tier of government in Nigeria? As ‘colonies’ by federal fiat, would they have been imbued with the authority conferred legitimacy and imparted sovereignty of the federal government, which is the ultimate guarantor of our prevailing national order?
There was even greater security mayhem ahead in the event that this RUGA ‘colonial’ construct was rammed down our throats. As itinerant herdsmen, the cattle herders have of recent assumed a very militant posture, armed with all manner of military grade weapons. Emboldened by federal might and the authority of the new colonies, they were likely to amass more fearsome arsenals to expand their colonies ostensibly for greater grazing grounds. Since the boundaries of the so-called ‘colonies’ were not likely to be physically delineated, the ‘cattle colonists’ are likely to live in perpetual conflictual relationship with their host communities.
Fast forward to15-20 years from now and project on the plight of these RUGA ‘colonies’! The long term sociological and security consequences would have been more dire and frightening. They would have quickly degenerated into reserves of squalor, violent crime, poverty, fundamentalist rascality and even armed insurgency. With our eyes wide open, we would have created in the rural areas of consenting states islands of licensed poverty and legalized banditry. Anyone who is familiar with what has become of the Indian Reserves in the United States where the government locked away the Red Indians and forgot them would be frightened at the prospect of these cattle colonies.
Clearly then, the aborted nationwide establishment of the RUGA settlements had no bearing on improvements in livestock farming or national security. The internal security challenge of criminal herdsmen is a straightforward one of apprehending and punishing criminality which our laws have clear and copious provisions on. The agricultural production challenge is one of modernization of livestock farming through increased investment in private ranches with modern methods and facilities in the places where cattle are traditionally bred.