Former Vice-Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Professor Ango Abdullahi, is the leader of the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF). He speaks with MOSES ALAO on the contentious, but now suspended RUGA settlement policy of the Federal Government, the recent ultimatum issued to the government by the Coalition of Northern Groups, insecurity and others issues in the country.
FOLLOWING the suspension of the RUGA settlement policy for cattle rearers by the Federal Government, a group known as the Coalition of Northern Groups, issued a threat to the Federal Government to see to the implementation of the policy, while leading ethnic associations like the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere and others replied with counter-threats. The Northern Elders’ Forum, which you lead, has also come out to add its voice to the situation…
The summary of my position is that the issue is a very simple matter, that we have lived with ourselves for over three to four hundred years. But if Nigerians decide that they will politicise it the way they have politicised it now, so be it. If Nigerians decide to politicise the matter the way they have been going about it now, so be it.
You think whatever has been going on about the herdsmen issue and Nigerians’ reactions to it are all about politics?
It is politics; there is nothing except politics in the whole issue. The government is indecisive because of politics and people are playing politics with the issue. If this is the way they will go about playing with the issue, so be it.
For some time, there has been the problem of farmers clashing with herdsmen, which has resulted in loss of lives and high scale insecurity across the land. That can’t be politics; can it?
Look, I have told you that the herdsmen have been living side by side with farmers for over three to four hundred years before the British came here. Why is it now and not before that we are having this level of crisis? This thing has been going on. But people have politicised it and if they have decided that is the way it will be, so let it be.
But the Northern Elders’ Forum made an intervention…
The Northern Elders Forum tried and wrote a report on this issue. That was when the Benue State governor [Samuel Ortom] was trying to introduce a law, which he knew was not practicable. We persuaded him and tried to ask him to delay it so that we could give him an insight into it professionally. I chaired a committee on this; we prepared a report. But before I submitted the report, he had begun the implementation. Before we knew it, the state was on fire.
You see, all these attitudes are, unfortunately, fuelling the issues both at the national and state levels. Otherwise, I don’t see how a simple matter like this will be running out of hands. Unfortunately, if this is the way Nigeria wants to go, leaving things until they get out of hands, just like Boko Haram, when it started, it was a small thing but it was not taken care of. This is an issue that is involving Fulanis who are in millions and perhaps all over the country. But if the political leadership of the country is going to handle the matter with levity, let us wait and see.
You said this issue is a simple matter and that Fulani herdsmen and farmers had been living with other people for hundreds of years. Does that explain the plan to create RUGA settlements, especially if you consider what the national coordinator of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) and Aare Ona Kakanfo said about how Fulani took over Ilorin from Afonja, who extended a hand of friendship to them. What do you have to say to that?
That is very true. But that was during the Jihad. The Fulani were there and most of Ilorin people are Fulanis, only that they speak Yoruba. But they are Fulanis. Of course, we know all the history about Afonja and the Fulanis and Ilorin.
But the fear is that the RUGA settlement plan is a ploy to take over lands in Southern Nigeria…
(Laughs). You know, this is my profession. I was the Director of the Institute of Agriculture Research of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria for years before I became a Vice Chancellor. If there is any technical information about agriculture and livestock development, if you cannot go there to find solution, there is no place around the world that you can go to find solution. All the information about livestock development and how to handle this matter are available there. After all, only 35 per cent of the Nigerian territory is under cultivation now; only 35 per cent. And of this 35 per cent, if only a quarter is used properly, it can provide all the requirements of this country in terms of food production and export. But the problem is that the policies being pursued by government over the years are rarely policies that will promote agriculture and livestock development. Perhaps, this is the main point of this interview, I can assure you that until agriculture is developed in this country, I cannot see how poverty will leave this country and without eradicating poverty, there will not be peace in this country. There will never be.
I am really disappointed about the quality of political leadership in this country, particularly at the federal and to some extent, the state levels. All these sentimental expressions and so on about the herdsmen issue are newly created, because people have been living in peace for so long. But now, they have to find some elements that will continue to trigger controversies, tensions and so on around the country. It is very sad and as the leader of the Northern Elders’ Forum, I am very worried about this, very worried, because the whole thing has been politicised. The issue of Fulani and farmers have been overly politicised and until we move away from politicising it, there cannot be a solution. That is my message.
One gets your message, but now that the RUGA settlement has been suspended following the outcry against it, the Coalition of Northern Groups and some Miyetti Allah leaders have been threatening that the policy must be implemented and the Northern Elders’ Forum did make an intervention on the issue…
My position has always been that this is a failed government. I didn’t want this government to return to power, because it has been failing in virtually every policy including this one [the RUGA settlement policy].
Are you accusing the President Muhammadu Buhari government of failure because it suspended the RUGA policy, which generated controversy across the country?
Well, not at all. But they didn’t plan it well in the first place. I discussed this in the presence of the Vice-President with the Minister of Agriculture. He actually should have been the one to solve this problem even before anybody realises. He should have called a meeting of the National Council of Agriculture and all commissioners for agriculture in the country would have sat and discuss this kind of policy, because the Fulani herdsmen are not located in one place or in any state. It is a national and whatever solution you are looking for should be a national solution rather than this state solution where states will create laws. And these laws are illegal anyway.
When we were discussing and these boys talked about the Igbos, there were a lot of talks about Nigeria being one country and that people should be able to go and look for means of livelihood anywhere they wanted in the country. That was the story we got. But the Fulani cannot go around the country to seek a means for livelihood? This is what some people are saying and this can never be acceptable.
But don’t you see sense in the fear being expressed by Southerners that if a state in that region grants a land for Fulani settlement, one day, the state could be run over by Fulani herdsmen in the name of Jihad or under any other guise?
No. No. This is where people are getting it wrong. I don’t even see why a Fulani man should worry about getting a land in the South-West or South-East or anywhere; I don’t see the reason. That is what I am saying. This thing [RUGA policy] is a poor policy direction. All these things do not need to attract problems anywhere.
I accept that Nigerians will, forever, want to eat meat. How will they get it? I am not saying that they have to get the meat from the Fulani, but they have to eat meat. Is that not so? And are they going to create livestock in the air or in the ground whether it is by Fulani or somebody else? You see, this is what we are saying. Our people have politicised this thing to the extent that they are not even ready to discuss purely rational, reasonable and technical matters. The crisis, it is not even a crisis, is a very simple matter. Let me give you the dimensions. The first dimension is technical; the second dimension is legal. The third dimension is sociological. But all these are easy to handle. The fourth dimension is political and this is what is making it difficult for the other dimensions to be treated well.
But the Coalition of Northern Groups issued a threat on the situation and your Forum appeared to back the coalition…
I directed that a statement be issued, warning that people should restrain themselves and give time for discussions and understanding about the issues and that people in positions of responsibility at the federal and state levels should also really look into all the matters. You see, small things can trigger problems. When you see videos where Fulanis are being harassed and being driven out of certain sections of this country, what do you think the reactions will be? It is like when all these boys organised and went to Kano market and said Igbo boys should leave the market. How would it feel? Would that be the time to remind us that this is one Nigeria? Would that be the time to say that Nigerians are free to live anywhere and search for means of livelihood?
But what happens in instances when the pursuit of means of livelihood by Fulanis has led to the destruction of the means of livelihood of others? That cannot be said of Igbo traders or others…?
The basic issue is that if there is an infringement of the law, sanctions should follow. This has been the relationship between farmers and livestock owners throughout history in this country. Where they infringe, damage crops, estimates are made and they are supposed to pay. This is what has been going on for centuries. What I see really is that this matter is politics now and we should allow politics to resolve it.
Now that northern groups have issued a threat and the Ohanaeze Ndigbo President, Chief John Nwodo, has urged Igbo people to be ready to defend themselves while other ethnic nationalities have also been talking tough, are you confident that politics will be able to resolve this matter?
Politics can lead it anywhere. Look, the Fulanis can defend themselves more than anyone else in this country. More than anyone else in this country, the Fulani man can always defend himself. Go and read the diary of Lord Lugard, who created this country. Go and read what he said about the Fulanis. In fact, without our efforts to restrain the Fulanis, things would not have been easy for many communities. No community can defend itself against the Fulanis if they want to fight. It is known sociologically and historically; nobody can fight them if they want to fight. They are in the millions in West Africa and they can always mobilise themselves to defend their people anywhere in West Africa.
Does this position give credence to claims that some of the attacks by suspected Fulani herdsmen were being carried out by Fulani men from outside the country, since you said that the Fulani herdsmen have been living side by side with other tribes in Nigeria for hundreds of years?
No. What we need to do is to look at our laws. There is the free movement of people in the ECOWAS area. By law, people can move from one border to another border. So, this is another issue for political leaders to look at. Right now, we are worried about security in the Sahelian and West African region; there is terrorism crisis across these areas, from Libya to Mauritania. Recently, you saw what happened in Mali.
So, the political leadership has to sit up and see what ways to bring this matter to a close. Of course, we have every space for us to solve this problem. Nigeria does not lack the space for us to deal with this matter.