From Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
In this interview, Benue State Commissioner for Justice and state Attorney General, Mike Gusa explains why the state government had to opt for an outright ban on open grazing. He also described the open rejection of the law by the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore as criminal.
Why did the Benue state government opt for an outright ban on open grazing in the state given the unsavory reactions from Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore over the new law?
First and foremost I want to commend the people of Benue state for the passage of the law because the issue of farmers/herdsmen clashes has been one of the major challenges confronting our state over the years. Within that period thousands of innocent lives and property were lost to the crisis due to persistent conflicts occasioned by cattle destroying farmlands across the state.
When Governor Ortom came on board he started thinking of how to end crisis so that we can move the state from where we met it. So in his wisdom he sponsored the bill as an executive one to the State House of Assembly. It also came to the State Executive Council where members made their contributions. The governor did stop there; it also went to members of the State Security Council for the inputs of members. All major stakeholders also had their say. And at the State Assembly they conducted public hearings across the three senatorial districts of the state. And stakeholders and interest groups all had their say. Basically the law is intended to bring peace between crop farmers and pastoralists so that there could be restrictions among the parties in order to ensure peaceful coexistence. The law basically says if you are a herder you restrict you herds and as a farmer, ensure you don’t stray outside to rustle anybody’s cattle.
The law is not saying cattle breeders should leave Benue, certainly not; it is intended to ensure that we all live together in peace without breaching the peace and rights of each other.
But shortly after the law was assented to by the governor, the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore came out with a statement vowing to resist it and also claimed ownership of part of the state. How would you react to the outburst?
I don’t think they are guided by history in their claim. Some of us were born and brought up here. History had it that our great, great grand fathers lived here in Benue. And so when you read the history books, you’ll go back to 1804 when Usman Dan’Fodio brought his jihad here, they could not penetrate the Benue valley, our grandparents resisted them and that was why they could not establish an emirate here.
So here in Benue they did not do that. So nobody can come today to make spurious claims. I want to state emphatically that Miyatti Allah is a group that does not mean well for Benue state and indeed the country. Because you can see that every other group have supported the new law because it holds the key to permanently ending the lingering conflicts between farmers and herdsmen that have claimed thousands of lives and properties in the state. And so, if you are someone that loves Benue state, I don’t think you would protest or take the position that Miyetti Allah has taken. I don’t think they mean well for Benue state, the Middle Belt or Nigeria as a whole. They want to create problems and I want to say due process was followed in passing the law because the State Houses of Assembly, if you go by the provisions of the constitution, particularly section 4(7) of the 1999 Constitution as amended, you will see clearly that one of the duties of the State Assembly is to make laws for good governance and peace to prevail. And so, if the Benue State House of Assembly followed due process and passed this bill into law and has been assented to by the governor of the state, it is now left for the law enforcement agencies to ensure that this law is implemented. And whoever causes disturbance or incited the public based on the provisions of this law, is a criminal and should be treated as such.
But did government take into cognisance the issue of grazing route vis- a -vis the fact that the herders are not the kind of people that stay in one place to rear their cattle?
All we are saying is that Benue is an agrarian state and majority of our people here are crop farmers. And the fact that these cattle feed on these crops apart from the grass that they eat, you cannot continue to allow them to wallow about destroying people’s farms because you are a herder or you own livestock. You have to live and let the other person also live. So, we cannot talk about grazing routes in this circumstance because the grazing routes are not even there, most of these so called routes have been taken over by government establishments like hospitals, schools and even roads and bridges. Do you now go and demolish these establishments because you want to open grazing routes? And basically, when you talk about grazing routes, it means you have no restrictions. But here in Benue state we are saying that both the crop farmers and the herders have to live together. We are saying that if you own livestock, you have to ranch them. And so, I don’t think there is any problem with that.
Did the state government take into cognisance the issue of the implementation of the law because it is becoming obvious that there might be resistance from these pastoralists?
Yes, our government is a government that encourages due process and the rule of law. And in everything that we do, we take into cognisance the provisions of the law. And so, now that the bill has been passed into law and has been assented to by the governor, it is now left for the conventional security agents to ensure that the provisions of this law are observed. Apart from that, the law has provided for a special task force that will see to the implementation of the law. And the governor in his wisdom has given a window period of between now and November of this year so that steps would be taken to put the structures in place.
Ordinarily, any law takes effect from the day it is assented to and now, even though the law has been assented to, the governor has given this window period because this is a new law and we know that there will be some kinds of adjustments and realignments here and there. So, this window period should take care of that. And between now and then, the special task force will be set up and there is going to be a security network that starts from the village, to the kindred, to the ward, to the local government and then to the state. This network is to provide information to the security agencies for purposes of enforcing the provisions of the law. Also, between now and then, it is now open to anybody who is interested to apply to the state for permit to ranch his cattle.
In setting up this special task force, who and who is going to be part of the team?
Like I said earlier, the governor is someone that encourages the rule of law and due process. This task force is going to be all-embracing. It is going to include both the herders and the crop farmers so that they will know what is going to happen and that is the only way information can now flow freely from government and the farmers (crop farmers and herders) at the grassroots level. Just like we are doing now, the governor has directed that there should be this sensitisation and enlightenment campaign so that everybody will be aware of his rights as well as his liabilities under this law. So, between now and November, we are very sure that everybody would have been conversant with the provisions of the law.
How will the government help the herders to know that the provisions of the constitution that says a ‘Nigerian has the right to settle in any part of the country and do his business’ is not in conflict with this new law, since that is the herders’ strongest point?
The enlightenment has been on and we have been doing radio programmes and the governor himself had been on the radio where he spoke extensively on this law. And those of us who are his aides have also been talking about the law. I think everybody should know that the issue of restriction of movement which they (Miyetti Allah) are claiming is their fundamental right; the constitution is talking of restriction of movement of human being and not animals.
The Anti Open Grazing Law is not restricting the movement of people. The law is restricting the movement of these animals that destroy crops and which lead to conflicts between the herders and the farmers that has resulted to the destruction of lives and properties in the state. So, there is nothing about conflict with the constitution here. The law is saying that this is your business and means of livelihood as a herder but you must live together in Benue state with the crop farmers without allowing that business of yours to infringe on the fundamental human rights of others.
The law says you can cohabit with Mr. B but don’t allow your cattle to destroy Mr. B’s source of livelihood. So, the law is not in any way in breach of the provision of the constitution. The law is not restricting anybody’s movement; rather, the law is protecting your fundamental rights because you have the right to live, you have the right to own property and if these livestock are destroying your property, which is a breach of your fundamental rights. The law is not in any way saying anybody should leave Benue state. The law is saying there should be peace and this can only be achieved by somebody who has the interest of his people at heart like Governor Ortom because he wants to move Benue from where he met it. He wants to create peace in Benue. He doesn’t want to leave Benue the way he met it. And for you to have any development in the state you must have peace, you must protect lives and property in the state. And that is exactly what the governor is doing.
So, are there arrangements on ground to carve out where these ranches will be located?
You know, rearing cattle or breeding livestock is another means of farming. It is a business of its own. And so, if you have, it is left for you to now approach government for permit to ranch your livestock. And you know government is the custodian of all lands. So, when you apply, government will now carve out a portion of land for you which by the provisions of this law, is supposed to be for one year but renewable at the end of 12 months.