Just minutes after meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari and service chiefs on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali, caused a stir when he commented on the countrys killer herdsmen crisis.
The minister's spokesman, Tukur Gusau, reported that he called on states who have implemented anti-open grazing laws to suspend them because they're causing more harm than good.
The minister is quoted as saying, "There is need to employ other channels with the affected states to reduce tension by suspending the implementation of the anti-open grazing law while also negotiating safe routes for the herders."
Ever since herdsmen were blamed for the death of 73 people in attacks launched in Guma and Logo local government areas of Benue state in the opening days of January 2018, hundreds of people have been killed in similar attacks with Taraba and Benue bearing most of the brunt.
Incidentally, these two states have implemented anti-open grazing laws to avoid what has been termed as a battle for resources between farmers and herdsmen. This 'battle' typically involves herdsmen trespassing on farmlands with their cattle who most usually wreck havoc on the land, leading to the provocation of local farming communities.
With a shortage of options on how to curtail the problem of having both sides clash, states like Benue, Taraba and Ekiti have resorted to making laws that ban cattle herders from initiating that first stage of conflict which is trespassing onto farmlands. If herders are banned from openly grazing which most usually leads to trespassing, there is little reason to clash with local communities for that specific reason.
Dan-Ali's new comment is unfortunate because this is not the first time he's tacitly blamed the victim and tried to discredit the anti-open grazing laws.
In January, also after a security meeting with all service chiefs and intelligence agencies presided over by President Buhari, the minister, more or less, insinuated that killer herdsmen were justified in their actions. He said the killings issue originated from the implementation of anti-open grazing laws and the blockade of grazing routes used by the herdsmen.
He said, "Look at this issue (killings in Benue and Taraba). What is the remote causes of this farmers' crisis? Since the nation's independence, we know there used to be a route which the cattle rearers take because they are all over the nation. You go to Bayelsa, Ogun, you will see them. If those routes are blocked, what do you expect will happen?
"These people are Nigerians. It is just like one going to block shoreline, does that make sense to you? These are the remote causes of the crisis. But the immediate cause is the grazing law.
"These people are Nigerians and we must learn to live together with each other. Communities and other people must learn how to accept foreigners within their enclave. Finish!"
It's noteworthy to point out that the herdsmen crisis is not a one-sided affair. There have also been times when Fulani communities have been attacked by local militias, notably in Taraba and Adamawa, leading to the loss of dozens of lives. This is because the initial conflict between cattle herders and farming communities have escalated into taking on an ethnic and religious tilt and morphing into a whole bigger problem.
Dan-Ali will happily point to this fact as a basis for his 'objective' assessment of the situation, but blaming anti-open grazing laws as the cause of tension for those killings is problematic for one reason: he's terribly wrong.
Ekiti State governor, Ayodele Fayose, was the first to implement an anti-open grazing law after two residents of the state were killed by roaming herdsmen in 2016.
In November 2017, Benue state governor, Samuel Ortom, defied public threats from Fulani socio-cultural group, Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, and signed the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law.
In January 2018, amid a series of high-profile killings by suspected herdsmen in Benue and warnings issued by cattle breeders in his state, Taraba governor, Darius Ishaku, also sbanned open grazing in the state.
These anti-open grazing laws typically urge cattle owners to get their own ranches to cater to their herds to stop stomping over farmlands within their borders.
While Dan-Ali keeps making repeated claims that the killings are a direct consequence of the laws, the opposite is clearly the case and all he needs to do to develop a more informed position is to look at the statistics.
According to a 2015 Global Terrorism Index report, "Fulani militants" were responsible for the death of 1,229 people in 2014, making them the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world at the time. This was two years before the first anti-open grazing law was implemented in Ekiti state.
A noteworthy betrayal of Dan-Ali's position is the fact that other states with no anti-open grazing laws have also witnessed the carnage attributed to herdsmen. One of those states is Nasarawa whose governor, Umaru Tanko Al-Makura, has publicly opposed the implementation of anti-open grazing laws. During an interview in March 2018, he said Nasarawa has a resolution mechanism which involves committees across four levels that have been effective in avoiding the escalation of conflicts. Despite his much-vaunted alternative and public stance against the anti-open grazing law, herdsmen-related killings still happened in his state.
If this is indicative of anything, it's that the problem is not the laws, at least not to the degree the minister is desperate to make it appear. The problem is that a set of people that should be amenable to a legally-enforced law are unwilling to yield to it and are being tacitly backed by an institution that should know better.
This is even more problematic because the position of the Minister of Defence is assumed to be the position of the president by default and it doesn't help that the president has himself made several disappointing and unconvincing statements about the crisis without making his position known on what the solution should be other than to accommodate these killers with open arms.
While the affected states have mandated herders to restrict their cattle rearing to ranches, the federal government has been hellbent on implementing cattle colonies to ease the burden. That plan appears to have been jettisoned now after it was met with stony resistance from a substantial amount of state governments who were unwilling to volunteer hectares of their land to implement it.
More than cattle ranches and cattle colonies, securing lives and properties is one of the mandates of the federal government and this government has appeared to be incapable of significantly quelling these killings that have been consistently going on for months now.
While the Minister of Defence has also made announcements on the government's security plans to tame the crisis, it is distressing that he has been known more for tacitly making excuses for the killings. It is unacceptable when the minister makes the same sort of statements that are consistently made as threats by the leadership of Miyetti Allah groups who have been blamed for significantly fueling the attacks on innocent communities.
For any conclusive solution to the herders/farmers conflict to be achieved, it is important that both parties are kept away from each other. A properly implemented anti-open grazing law does this as it keeps herders in ranches or colonies and well away from trespassing on lands and sparking conflict.
If the federal government is serious about ending the crisis, it should commit fully to making the transition from decades-old nomadic rearing to widely-accepted ranching a smooth affair.
The Minister of Defence, meanwhile, should do his job and secure lives and properties of Nigerians. He's not the Minister of Defence for killer herdsmen, he's the Minister of Defence for Nigerians.
It's about time he comes to that realisation and stops making excuses for killers that make him look bad at his job.