There is no doubt that one topic which has been ruling the media space this past one week is the RUGA issue. RUGA, according to the Federal Government of Nigeria, is the plan to settle migrant pastoral families in such a way that animal farmers, not just cattle herders, will be settled in an organized place with the provision of adequate basic amenities like schools, hospitals, roads, vet clinics, markets and manufacturing entities that will process and add value to meat and other animal products. The beneficiaries are expected to include all those in animal husbandry, rather than only Fulani herders.
According to Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, the plan is to curb open grazing of animals that continue to threaten the security of farmers and herders.
The FG believes this plan will offer employment, access credit to, as well as offer security to pastoral families and curtail cattle rustling.
Amid the widespread misgivings that trailed the government’s plans, the presidential aide denied plans to seize state lands, colonize territories or impose Ruga on any part of the federation, insisting that the Federal Government had made it clear time and again that the programme was voluntary.
So far, twelve states have applied to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, making lands available for the take-off of the scheme in their states.
Notably, however, many state governments have not signified interest in the scheme and among them are the five states of the SouthEast Zone. Speaking on the issue recently, the chairman of the South East Governors' Forum, Gov Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State, said no part of the South East would be yield to the FG for the project.
He rather suggested a kind of exchange programme between the herders and the South East people via exchange grass for herdsmen's meat.
Under this proposed deal, the herdsmen are expected to embrace anti-open grazing by returning to the ranches in the North and do their business on trade-by-barter basis of bringing down their cows to the South to sell and thereafter buy grass from the South to feed their cows in the north.
What he is saying in effect is that the FG should rebuild the ranches in the North and mop up herdsmen from the streets, while many farmers here can be engaged in the grass business in what could be a win-win situation.
We agree with the resolution of the South East governors and the suggestions made by Gov Umahi, for a number of reasons. Chief among these reasons is that bringing the herdsmen to virtually live with the people who do not trust them could cause more harm than the FG is trying to avoid. The majority of Nigerians see the FG's proposal as akin to inviting the Fulanis to take over their land, especially when history is replete with how the Fulani took over the lands of their hosts in the past. This is not helped by the FG's plan to set up schools, hospitals and build roads in such settlements in addition to the provision of security.
Why go to such trouble to provide such amenities that have not been provided in many states of the federation? We know many federal roads across the states that have been in dilapidated conditions; yet the same FG that has turned a blind eye to them now wants to spend huge resources in making life comfortable for a group responsible for the deaths of many Nigerians. This is why many Nigerians are uncomfortable with the idea of RUGA; seeing it as a ploy by the FG to Islamize the country.
Also, the killing of members of host communities by the Fulanis is still fresh and on-going, with none of the killers ever brought to book. Are these the same people that the FG wants to force on host communities to live among them?
Again, why should the FG waste so much resources on a particular group of people who are doing their private business? What happens to people from other zones who are also involved in one business or the other? Will the FG also, for instance, provide free land to Igbo people involved in spare parts business in other parts of the country outside their own zone and provide them with same amenities?
Is it not enough to cause suspicion when the FG, after planning to use our money to establish a radio station for the Fulani and establish cattle colonies, now talk about RUGA? Are the Fulanis a special breed of Nigerians?
Would it not be better for the country if the energy, time and resources deployed in trying to make the Fulanis happy are rather deployed to providing general infrastructure to all Nigerians?
Ordinarily, the FG's proposal would have been easily accepted if the FG had been handling the issue of Fulani herdsmen's killing of innocent Nigerians impartially and with seriousness. Indeed, it is clear that if the FG had been fighting the recklessness of the Fulani herdsmen the way it is fighting Boko Haram, the killings would have been stopped.
But a situation where the herdsmen continue to have access to sophisticated weapons unchallenged, while the FG plans to withdraw the gun licenses of Nigerians, even when the security agencies have proved incapable of providing security, asking them to accommodate these same people is like an open invitation to anarchy.
We therefore commend the resolve of the South East governors and urge the FG not to push this agenda any further in order not to exacerbate an already tense situation. At best, the FG should promote the idea of ranching as is the practice in civilized climes. Going ahead with this proposal will be most insensitive of the Federal Government and will only worsen the fears of Nigerians that the FG has a hidden agenda; thus making the RUGA project look like one huge deception.