The National Secretary, Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore Fulani Socio-Cultural Association, Saleh Alhassan, speaks to GODFREY GEORGE about the seizure of cows by the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, the 2023 elections and other issues affecting the ethnic group
There has been a serious backlash following your comment that no Fulani man would support the presidential standard bearer of the Labour Party, Mr Peter Obi, because, according to you, he represents ‘Biafra’. How did you receive this development?
I think this is a democratic space. Every group and individual has a right to his or her opinion. I also think that the so-called Fulani professionals or whatever they are called read the statement out of context. They should have, as is our tradition as Fulani, called me to find out what I really meant by what I said to (Sunday) PUNCH if they were really members of the Fulani community. I see them as hired goons and I don’t want to join issues with those people.
I think my position was read out of context. If you look at the trend of the leading aspirants – take Peter Obi, for instance, who is from the South-East, his supporters are predominantly from the South-East. If you go to his social media supporters, they were hitherto the promoters of the Indigenous People of Biafra. All the Nnamdi Kanu supporters have switched to supporting Peter Obi. So, what do you make of that? So, it is not something that is hidden. It is all over. I am not being tribalistic or profiling a candidate. Every candidate has a support base. The support base of Rabiu Kwankwaso is basically from Kano, and the All Progressives Congress’ candidate, Bola Tinubu, will draw most of his supporters from the South-West expectedly, knowing the nature of Nigeria’s policy. I think we should be conscious of the utterances and type of campaigns some of the supporters of these aspirants are doing. Some of these presidential aspirants might end up being leaders of rebellions because of the way their supporters are behaving. The Independent National Electoral Commission has a lot of work to do.
There are a lot of issues around the identities of members of your association, following allegations of them being the masterminds of killings, kidnapping and criminal activities around the country. What can you say about this?
I represent an organisation of Fulani pastoralists and I can only speak on behalf of members of my organisation. Miyetti Allah has membership, and the membership does not include every Fulani man. We have Fulani who are herders and others that are not. I speak strictly for members of my organisation who have suffered injustices in the country recently. They have been stereotyped as criminals and are constantly being killed. Their means of livelihood have been destroyed in the eastern part of the country where there are activities of Biafran agitators. About a week or so, we all saw where they shot cattle and even the herders just because they were perceived as Fulani. Any other person who has an opinion can air it. As far as the pastoralists that I represent are concerned, we are looking for justice in this country.
Would you say that the polity has been fair on Fulani pastoralists and members of your organisation following the ban on open grazing?
Not at all. We have suffered a lot of injustices. We have been targeted by desperate governors that have failed in delivering the dividend of democracy. Look at the Owo massacre. Now, they have caught the culprits and they are not Fulani. Don’t you think the Fulani community deserves an apology and compensation and those who were innocently molested, killed, and their properties destroyed on mere allegations which have turned out to be wrong? I think we need to put it in context. As pastoralists, we are only going to support presidential candidates who are ready to listen to our problems and address them. It is within the context of what we have been facing in the country. We will not support candidates who are opposed to our economic interests and we will ask our members not to vote for them. It is as simple as that, and it is within our democratic rights to do that.
Grazing has never been a secret since time immemorial. There is nothing like secret grazing. Grazing has always been open. So, when they say ‘anti-open grazing,’ what do they mean? It is a nebulous concept as far as we are concerned. Do you graze inside your house? Grazing has to be in the open field. So, what we are saying is whichever system of livestock development, we are ready. All we are saying is that a place should be provided for us to feed our cattle. It is as simple as that. Even in the developed countries where we have these so-called ranches, they are a large expanse of land of grazing fields that have common facilities.
How do you perceive the anti-open grazing law?
It is meant to destroy the economy of the pastoralists because the wicked capitalists we have are the problem we have and they are mostly from the North. They want to control the dairy and beef business. Until they destroy the smallholder herders, they will not stop in their attempt to hijack that business. Unfortunately, they are to contend with these smallholder herders. This is our economic livelihood. We have to find a middle ground. As far as we are concerned, we don’t believe in anything anti-open grazing. Look at the issue of Benue State where they have the anti-open grazing law. All they do is confiscate the livestock of our members within the border communities of Benue and Taraba states. The only success Ortom came to announce is that he has seized cattle and arrested herders. What about the criminals around the state? What has been done? It is an attempt to destroy that economy, and we see it as a well-planned conspiracy to destroy the Fulani pastoralists by making sure their economic base holds no grounds, rendering them hopeless, manipulating them, and making them open to dislocations. We will continue to fight for the rights of pastoralists no matter who is in power or who the President is.
Ortom, while inaugurating a state security outfit, mentioned that he had seized hundreds of cows and arrested over 400 herders. How did you receive this news?
We are not surprised at all. They have been operating. It is not something new. Ortom is probably running from his shadow. Those volunteers he created are the people who will guide him when he leaves office as a governor. These volunteers have been seizing our cattle in Taraba and Nasarawa border communities, killing innocent herders. There is nothing new. Anytime the end of the month draws close, Ortom will find one thing or the other to throw to the public to give excuses for not paying salaries and pensions, and the failure to account for the security votes he has been collecting. Nobody takes Ortom seriously within the political cycle. Can’t you see how he jumps to Rivers State every week as if he is a student of Governor Nyesom Wike? I am sure Benue citizens are regretting having him as their governor. What we have told him over and over is that his antics and activities cannot reduce the Fulani nation because he is an insignificant minority. When he finishes all his wickedness, we will still exist and wax stronger in this country.
Are there arrangements to retrieve some of those seized cows from the Benue State government and secure the release of the arrested herders?
We have our team of lawyers that have been trying to secure the release of some of the innocent herders being incarcerated in Benue. The issue about these cattle, because of the high level of poverty in Benue state, they have found a new economy which is the criminal enterprise of seizing cattle and selling off more than 80 per cent of them. We have prepared our papers and have filed a case already against the governor both locally and internationally to seek justice and compensation. Part of our demands is that the President should compensate the herders for all the cows we have lost in Benue. This is because nobody is talking about Ortom because he has lost it completely. We know that justice will catch up with him (Ortom). That his nebulous agenda will fail. Those that deceive him to carry that agenda have left him to dance naked. I pray that his party loses the election in the state so he doesn’t have any cover so that the looting he has allegedly done in the state will be exposed so that they will send him to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission before the international criminal cases he will face in Hague.
Speaking of insecurity in the country, there is an allegation against members of your organisation are the masterminds of the killings, kidnapping for ransom, land grabbing and general criminality. What is your take on this?
Can’t you see the inconsistencies in these allegations? One cannot be herding cattle and still be carrying out all these nefarious activities. Criminals are criminals and they should be treated as such. There is no way a criminal will have time to be herding cattle because cattle herding is a serious business. Are the so-called unknown gunmen in the South-East, who are criminals, Fulani herders? How about all the ritualists killing in the South-West? Are they pastoralist Fulani? There are a lot of criminal gangs operating under different names. It is deliberate profiling of the Fulani nation. If it is not islamisation today, they will say it is ‘fulanisation’ tomorrow. It is a failed attempt. They want to profile us with the hope to destroy our economy. Their target is our economy. Despite all the profiling they are doing, security guards in most houses are Fulani men. If they don’t trust them, why take them in as their security guards? They want to take away our independence and self-esteem and freedom. They want to subject us to manipulation and cultural dislocations. I think that the agenda is deeper than that. They felt they couldn’t penetrate the Fulani nation because they are independent economically so they want to destroy the economy so they can have a way to destroy their culture and their values. The security agencies cannot claim not to know the security situations in the country.
If you look at the situation in the North-West, the banditry we have there is different from the ones we have down South. All of these have their local peculiarities rooted in injustices and failure of government. If we are serious, all these things can be addressed. Our members are not kidnappers; they do not rustle cattle. The security agencies know these criminals, and I believe they are going after them. Giving them a tribal or ethnic name is part of the ground conspiracy of the profiling that I have talked about before. As far as our members are concerned, they are peace-loving herders doing their businesses across the country, providing the country with animal protein and milk under difficult circumstances.
How about the allegations of encroachment of farmland by herders in the South-West and South-East?
Forget those people, it is just propaganda. After they kill innocent persons they use those kinds of news to cover it. What land is there in the South-East for herders to grab? In the North, where there is land, where have herders grabbed any land? Herders are just opportunistic users of land resources; they don’t grab any land anywhere, not only in Nigeria. All those are blatant lies. If they are trying to do that to cover up their criminal activities carried out on our people, we are documenting everything and I know the world is watching them.
Ranching has been pronounced by some of these governors as an alternative to open grazing. Have you had a discussion with the governments in these states on how this is going to operate moving forward?
You have to take into cognisance the Land Use Act we have in the country. All land is vested in the hands of state governors, and the ranching one is talking about is capital-intensive. These herders are smallholders and they cannot afford to do ranches. So, those saying we should ranch should give us the ranches, we are ready to ranch. Create the ranches, we would rent and pay. But none of them is interested in that. What we think is going to work is the National Livestock Transformation Plan which is a policy that will take a long time to develop the entire livestock system and its value chain. There is ranching, grazing routes, development of livestock feeds and modernisation of the livestock grids. It is all-encompassing. It can only be driven by the Federal Government, supported by the states that are custodians of the land. So, we cannot leave it out to the states. I heard one of the presidential aspirants saying grazing is a concurrent issue and the states will deal with it. This means automatically that these governors will jettison the livestock transformation plan if they become the President. So, we must look at it holistically and also address other factors leading to this crisis. There are climate change issues, an increase in population, migration issues, and conflict within our neighbouring countries are some of the factors that increase this pressure on land. We need to manage the land resources. If there is proper management of the land resources, all these conflicts around it will be reduced. So, there is nothing spectacular about this. It is a developmental challenge. Do you hear about the farmer-herder crisis again? Has it just disappeared? The whole thing is largely political. This is why you are also not hearing of IPOB again because they feel they now have a political platform. The whole thing is being politicised.
Has any candidate come to dialogue with Miyetti Allah?
We are studying the manifestoes of all the leading aspirants, and we are looking at their policies in agriculture and how they intend to address them. The fundamental question is that the Fulani question must be addressed and it all borders around the land and water resources that are central to our economic activities. There is nothing difficult in addressing these challenges. We will advise our members not to be carried away by all these inducements because we have greater challenges.