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• Gov, police, herdsmen talk tough over new law
From MURPHY GANAGANA, Jos
For residents of Benue State, its mixed feelings as a law, which appears an antidote to the mindless bloodletting in clashes between farmers and Fulani herdsmen took effect on Wednesday, November 1. The Anti-Open Grazing bill passed by the state House of Assembly and assented to a few months ago by Governor Samuel Ortom, prohibits open grazing of livestock in the state.
Among other penalties, it prescribes a five-year jail term upon conviction, for anyone who engages in open grazing, and two years of imprisonment for the owner of any cattle which inflicts injury on a person. It also provides monetary compensation to victims whose farms or property are damaged by cattle, just as section 20 of the law stipulates penalties for cattle rustling.
However, uneasy calm had trailed its passage into law, amid claims, counter claims and subtle threats, as the state government constituted several committees at various levels to ensure its implementation as from Wednesday. Suspense, tension and apprehension, however, pervade the air as the law took effect.
Barely 24 hours to the D-day, a group of residents under the aegis of Strict Movement Against Ravages in Tiv-land (SMART-LAND), staged a One million-man march on Makurdi, the state capital, to protest the alleged threat of invasion by the leadership of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore (MAKH) over implementation of the anti-grazing law. Besides the Tiv, members of other ethnic nationalities including the Yoruba, Igbo, Idoma and Igede communities were involved in the march.
But victims and witnesses over the years, to horrific scenes of invasion by Fulani herdsmen especially in Tiv and Agatu communities in the state momentarily held their breath. There were ominous signs that their hope for reprieve from the menace of cattle herders was stuck in a delicate balance and their victory drums had to tarry a while to sound.
This followed reports that Fulani herdsmen had mobilized massively to invade communities in Benue State. First to raise the alarm was Governor Ortom, who had also alleged threat to his life by the Fulani shortly after he assented to the anti-open grazing law.
Last weekend, a coalition of umbrella socio-cultural groups of three ethnic nationalities in Benue State, the Mdzough U Tiv, Idoma National Forum and the Omi Ny Igede, solicited help from the Emir of Lafia, Alhaji Mustapha Agwai, to halt the alleged plot by herdsmen to invade the state from all flanks. “We believe the plan is to make the (anti-grazing) law unenforceable and create anarchy within Benue State”, leader of the delegation and president of Mdzough U Tiv, Chief Edward Ujege, alleged.
Saturday Sun however learnt that members of the delegation returned home disappointed. Rather than giving them hope, the monarch expressed his helplessness. Agwai was reported to have pointedly told them the issue of clashes between farmers and herdsmen was beyond the control of a traditional ruler.
To be sure, it was a mission unaccomplished, which triggered a cloud of uncertainty. The cloud darkened a few days later when the leadership of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore (MAKH), the umbrella union of cattle herders in the country raised the red flag in Abuja, the nation’s capital.
Its national president, Abdullahi Bello Bodejo, said herdsmen would resist implementation of the anti-grazing law in Benue State which he declared, was unacceptable to them. “The governor thought he could use threat and blackmail to intimidate us, but that had failed woefully. He was committing illegality by trying to deny us our means of livelihood, hence his call for our arrest to cover his veiled hatred for the Fulani people”, he said at a press conference, his nostrils belching fire.
The Benue State governor is, however, not willing to shift grounds, despite the alleged threat to his life. A few months ago when members of the National Council of Tiv Youths marched on the Government House, Makurdi, over alleged inflammatory utterances by the leadership of Fulani herdsmen against the Tiv, he spoke of his resolve not to be intimidated by threats, as the anti-grazing law was enacted due to constant attacks on farmers in the state by suspected Fulani herdsmen. The law, he said, had come to stay and would be implemented at full throttle from November 1.
“Just this morning, one Fulani called my wife and asked her to warn me that I am joking with them, but my response when my wife told me this was that, I am not joking, this law has come to stay. I challenge anyone who has a superior solution to the senseless killings of our people other than anti-open grazing law to bring it forward. Before the passage of the bill by the House of Assembly, due process was followed, every nationality living in the state, the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani and others – was invited for a public hearing. Whoever chooses to live in Benue must obey the law of the land; there is no grazing in Benue. I was elected to protect the lives and property of every resident of the state, not to preside over dead people”, Ortom asserted.
Interestingly, while the herdsmen kicked over the anti-grazing law, the Muslim community in Benue State backed its implementation. Sheik Ibrahim Aliyu, leader of the Muslim community, said on Wednesday, June 14, that those opposing the law were ignorant of its content and intent. The law, he believes, was not targeted at a particular ethnic group, faith or sect. He said Muslims who witnessed the mayhem unleashed by armed herdsmen on innocent citizens of the state stood firmly by the governor on the anti-grazing law.
But Garus Gololo, coordinator of the Benue State chapter of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, hit hard on the Muslim leader. He said Sheik Aliyu’s sense of reasoning had been beclouded by his appointment as chairman of the state Muslim Pilgrims Board. “I find this funny coming from Sheik Aliyu, because I can tell you he doesn’t even know what a ranch is. I think his views must have been clouded by his appointment as the chairman of the Muslim Pilgrims Board in the state. But I still respect his views, of which everyone is entitled to hold irrespective of one’s level of understanding of a subject matter”, he told Saturday Sun on Tuesday.
He dismissed Governor Ortom’s claim of threat to his life as false, contending that no herdsman is privileged to have the governor’s mobile phone number or that of his wife to put across a call threatening his life. “In a word, it’s false. MACBAN members do not have the direct line of his Excellency or the First Lady of the state. Also, anyone with access to her number, can call her and claim to be a Fulani”, he posited.
In an interview with Saturday Sun conducted via electronic mail, Gololo warned that crisis would erupt in Benue State should there be an attempt to chase out herdsmen. He was, however, quick to add that the warning did not imply a looming bloodbath. “There will be crisis if the state government deploys its might against helpless herdsmen in trying to implement the law…Definitely we’re ready to face the penalties of going against the law”, he said.
“Our members are already relocating, and if ranches are not put in place to cater for us, then we’ll fully relocate. But as I said, we’re already relocating out of the state, little by little based on reports that security agencies will be used to chase Fulani out of the state. The reports were attributed to the Special Adviser on security to the governor, Colonel Jando (rtd). And to avert crisis, as peace-loving people, we’ll have no choice but to relocate”, he added.
Bashir Makama, Commissioner of Police in charge of the state police command says he is well prepared, though there were no indices of an impending danger on Tuesday when our correspondent contacted him on telephone. “The police have always been prepared, but so far, there are no indices of looming trouble; presently, we are not envisaging crises. But talking about implementation of the anti-grazing law, once there is a law, it is meant to be obeyed, and there are penalties for disobeying a law. Once you disobey, the penalties would be applied”, he noted.
While Makama would not want to be drawn into issues on preparations for implementation of the law, the Benue State government said it had put in place measures to avert crises arising from enforcement of the anti-grazing law. Terver Akase, Chief Press Secretary to the governor, said cattle would no longer be moved in Benue by foot as from Wednesday.
“We are prepared to prevent any crises. The government has given needed support to security agencies to forestall a breakdown of law and order. We are going to rely on the conventional security apparatus of the nation; we are not going to rely on unconventional means. We have drawn the attention of the security agencies on threats by the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore group to invade Benue”, he hinted. Akase dismissed claims that the law was aimed at chasing the Fulani from the state. What happens in the days ahead would determine the fate of the law and fear-gripped residents of the state.