In response to last week’s In Touch, the scribe of the herdsmen sent me a text message. Sale Bayari wrote in a conciliating tone. He also had a request. He wanted me to contact the Edo State government so that the herdsmen could secure 25 hectares of land for ranches. He thought I hailed from Edo State. I am Itsekiri from Delta State.
My first reaction was that he has abandoned his esoteric thesis about Nigerian cattle being not suited to sedentary life. Two, we can now start a conversation about how to get the herdsmen into the 21st century. I had a phone conversation with him and a civil one. In spite of the rhetoric that has inflamed conversation about this matter, I thought this is an opportunity for leadership.
The next day, the amiable governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, travelled to the Southeast with an olive branch. With the off-the-cuff orator and Imo State Governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha with him, Governor Shettima interacted with stakeholders in the Southeast. He is the head of the Northern Governors Forum. He helped distinguish the Fulani herdsmen and interlopers. He met with the Southeast leaders in the aftermath of the butchery of citizens of Enugu State. According to reports, it was a warm meeting, with affecting speeches and sense of harmony.
Less than a week later, some elders of the South issued a statement rejecting a grazing bill. The meeting signposted men like Alex Ekwueme and Edwin Clark who abraded the dialogue. They came to fight. In my television show on TVC on Saturday morning, a caller who lives outside the country waded in and ruled out the possibility of giving “our lands” to strangers.
I understand the rage and the imperative of vengeance. I saw the gore and pain in searing pictures. The herdsmen of slaughter, or whoever they were, were barbarians. No one should wish anyone their company, and it is not possible to wean them from jail if they are caught. And they should be caught, if our law enforcement agencies rise up to this epic challenge.
Yet, it is a great time to translate the anger to opportunity. The fact that the herdsmen are now at peace with the concept of ranches should stir our spirits. It can promote not only peace but also understanding. It will bring not only harmony but also prosperity. It may be our modern-day model for unity, potentially the best in our history. It is where commerce meets community.
Some have raised the question of land sovereignty in the call for ranches. Some have said no one should give their lands to Fulani herdsmen. It is the land of their fathers. It is the epaulette of personal and family pride. They would rather leave it in its primeval lushness than violate it with the paw and groan of a foreign cow. It is the place where the community finds solace. It bristles with history, its decades or ages of struggles, sacrifice and raconteurs of glory. In the land, they worshipped, they conquered; families were born and raised in prosperity and joy. To give the land away is to hand the soul of the family over to the enemy.
Such sentiments are important. Oscar Wilde noted that humans are not rational beings, but sentimental. But a lofty sentiment beckons: the sentiment of coexistence. I don’t think the Fulani herdsmen want the lands for free. No one should ask anyone to handover lands of such great family heritage to prosper others.
The impression that has helped to fire resentment is the feeling that state governments will take away lands from the right owners and give them to the herdsmen. That is against the very principle of sovereignty, justice and fairness. If you want my land, you must first ask my consent. No government has brandished ideas of land seizure.
First, we must understand the advantages. The lands that will be handed over after consent of the owners will do one great thing: stop the herdsmen as wanderers. They become ranchers. It will be a great cultural shift.
Two, it will mean that whoever owns the ranch will be known to the law. It is like any business. It will be registered. The staff will be known not only to the neighbours but also the law. Three, the farms and locals will be immune to the encroachment of strange men and their animals. They can no longer hop on locals with arms or clubs, rape women and kill those who resist.
This will ensure security, which is the first quality of coexistence. But with this removal of unease, prosperity can follow. Just as it happens in the developed societies, parking plants can be established. That is an opportunity for a new and flourishing time. A parking plant will encourage employment of a variety of skills. Such personnel as transporters who ferry the meat, veterinarians who ensure the health of the meat, health workers of different sorts, examining the water, the environment, the quality of feed, etc. There will be engineers, technicians, salesmen, suppliers of parts and animal needs, etc.
The parking plant will employ also many hands, from slaughtering to cleaning to packaging to transporting. This will encourage other businesses because the staff will have to establish families, worship, shop and have health care. A wild and barren expanse of land can grow as we have seen in the United States into a ranch town. The police will have to expand and have stations there and the government presences that a growing and potentially vibrant community attracts.
The larger advantage is that it will be a great experiment of coexistence. Whether in the rural parts of Oyo, or in the rural retreats of Delta or somewhere outside Enugu, it will force us to learn to understand one another.
The problem is not so much that we want beef. It is at what cost? We cannot continue in this atmosphere of adversity. We have to confront the issue about being neighbours. There is too much misunderstanding in this country.
As Mahatma Ghandi once said, the enemy is not hate. It is fear. We are afraid to live with one another. Once we rise above fear, we break barriers. I am not envisaging El-dorado. I am only proposing a template for better understanding. Cyprian Ekwensi wrote in his Burning Grass, a tale about Mai Sunsaye, a Fulani herdsman and how a foreign girl tore the family apart. It was a story of romance and he wandered about in search of the love of family and the peace that eluded jealous brothers. They eventually find peace and union. It is a tale of compassion and harmony.
We can make that true. We need only to try.