‘Ruga policy is a bad idea’
Chairman of the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN) in Bayelsa State, Mr Ezekiel Ogbianko examines the issues inherent in the fear and outrage created by the controversial Ruga settlement scheme by the Federal Government, which has now been suspended. The interview is conducted by EBIOWEI LAWAL.
Have the activities of herdsmen posed any problem for farmers in the state?
I cannot say there have been challenges for farmers in Bayelsa because herders are very few here. And the few herders we have in the state have personal land that they use to rear their cattle and sheep. So, we have not had any reason to clash with them in the state.
Recently, the Federal Government came up with the RUGA Cattle Settlement policy, though it has been suspended. Don’t you think that if such policy is implemented, it will create room for infiltration of more herders to the detriment of the security of the state?
For me, before the Federal Government contemplates introducing such policy, there should be a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between land owners, government and the herders. In such MoU, it should be clearly stated that the land is given out on the basis of lease. I say this because we have had cases where these herders moved into people’s lands in the name of cattle raring and after a period of time, they turned around to claim the lands. In some cases, they have turned people’s lands into their community. This is responsible for the many herders/farmers clashes across Nigeria. To me, the Ruga policy is a bad idea.
Is it possible for land owners and herders to live in peace and harmony if the herders are ready to comply with the norms and tradition of land owners?
It is possible if there is a legal agreement between the herders and the land owners while the government will act as the witness to such an agreement. Like I said earlier, the agreement should clearly state that the land is given out on the basis of lease and not sale. I say so because if you bring buying the land over into the matter, there will be crisis in the future. However, we cannot neglect cattle herders because we are all Nigerians.
But there is apprehension that if they are allowed to come into Bayelsa, issues of kidnapping and other heinous crimes can escalate in the state. Do you believe such MoU will not stand the test of time?
From what I know, the movement of herders didn’t start in Nigeria today. During the Shehu Shagari administration in Nigeria in the Second Republic, herdsmen were allowed to move freely and we didn’t experience the kind of killings we are witnessing today. I wish to say that the herdsmen killing people today are working for the interest of desperate politicians. During the time of Shagari, when politicians played genuine politics, I didn’t hear herdsmen killing and kidnapping people. The current situation is a tactic politicians employ to intimidate their political opponents. That is why Boko Haram is successful in Nigeria. But now that the government is identifying and flushing them out, they have changed strategy and transformed into herdsmen. If they have not transformed into herdsmen, I don’t see any reason why a herder will go about with an AK47 riffle in the name of raring cattle. Those herdsmen killing and kidnapping people are Boko Haram members that have transformed into herdsmen.
With the fear you have expressed, don’t you think it was good that Nigerians protested against the Ruga policy? If the Federal Government comes up with another strategy to subtly introduce the scheme, what should Nigerians do?
If they want to introduce something similar to Ruga, Nigerians should demand for a comprehensive database of all herdsmen operating in Nigeria. We should know them to their families because most of the herdsmen perpetrating the heinous crimes are not from Nigeria. With a comprehensive database, the Federal Government should forget about giving herdsmen access to every part of Nigeria. We must have their database and know their locations all the time, otherwise, any attempt to introduce such a policy will create problems for Nigerians in the near future. The truth is, if you know me to my father and I know you too, it will be difficult for people to a commit crime because you know that if you do, you will be tracked down.
Then, do you think there is any database for the few herdsmen we have in Bayelsa at the moment?
We don’t have a database yet, but all the herdsmen in Bayelsa were brought in by Bayelsans, who are involved in the business of cattle rearing. So, I expect that those that brought them know them to their families. For now, we have not had any reason to be afraid of them.
With the menace of herders so pervasive across the country, how is the business of rice farming faring in Bayelsa?
The Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN) in Bayelsa is a non-governmental organization (NGO) and we can say that rice farming in the country has improved in the last few years. Though the state government has neglected rice farming, the association is working seriously to meet up the demand of rice supply to consumers. Last year, we cultivated 366 hectares of rice farm in Ondewari community but the devastating flood that ravaged some parts of the state washed everything away. Right now, we are harvesting a 100-hectare rice farm in Basangbene community. This is the little effort the association is making to boost rice production in the state, even though the state government has refused to support us.
If RIFAN is an NGO doing all these by itself, why do you need the government’s support to succeed?
The government can provide soft loans to support rice farmers. For Bayelsa, the land is very good for rice farming because we are below sea level. But you know that an individual in rice farming cannot use cutlasses to clear a 100-hectare land that is proposed for farming. To clear a land as massive as that, you need the services of excavators to achieve that. And hiring or purchasing such equipment requires a huge sum of money. So, if the government provides soft loans and create the enabling environment, rice farmers can succeed. And as you also know, the machines needed to process and bag rice is expensive, so we need loans to support our efforts.