We are under siege —Ondo farmers lament

Hakeem Gbadamosi, in this piece, reports that farmers across Ondo State are groaning under the burden of losing their livelihood to invasion by herdsmen and are calling on stakeholders to arrest the situation to curb looming food insecurity.

From the northern senatorial district, to the central and southern regions of Ondo State, the story is the same and there is hardly a community that is not affected or is not complaining about the alleged nefarious activities of some Fulani herdsmen whose activities and those of their cattle pose serious threat to security in the state.

From Isua-Akoko to Ayede Ogbese, from Owo to Akure, Imafon in Akure North to Ore, Okitipupa and Omotosho, the situation is not different; stories abound about varying degrees of farmland destruction, rape, killing and maiming. Indeed, a day will not pass without a report of one farm being invaded in a part of the state.

As a result of this, the Sunshine state that is reputed to be one of the major breadbaskets of the SouthWest region is said to be facing a looming crisis of food insecurity as farmers continue to allege that they have been driven away from their farms by armed herders and bandits, making food shortage to be imminent.

If the report by farmers is considered, it is not surprising that the state government declared open grazing as illegal while it becomes an offence for any herdsman to operate in the Ondo state forest reserves without registering with the state government. Though this generated some controversies, the state governor, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu, seems determined to flush illegal occupants out of the state’s forest reserves to save farmers from bankruptcy and death.

Allegations abound that aside grazing and destroying farmlands, armed Fulani herdsmen have been using Ondo state forest as a haven to carry out all forms of nefarious activities, including intra and inter-state kidnappings and robberies while ransoms were paid in this forest.

However, the allegation of driving farmers away from their farms has become a mantra that farming communities recite on a daily basis and farmers are asserting that this has started affecting them and will soon start affecting the economy of the state in general.

Narrating the ordeal of farmers in the state, Ondo State Agricultural Commodities Association (OSACA), the umbrella body for farmers and agricultural commodity producers through its head, Mr Gbenga Obaweya, said the situation in the state in the last one year is as if farmers have been under siege.

According to him, “it is just like when a siege was laid to the city of Samaria as recorded in the Bible where everything became expensive and scarce and people were killing and eating their children. We have really had it very bad in the last one year. Apart from crops and things being eaten up by cattle, even seeds of yam that were supposed to be planted were eaten by cattle and the herdsmen even proved to us that they also had to feed themselves as they also helped themselves to our plantains and yams.

“They harvest, boil and roast yams right there on the farms. People have been raped, kidnapped and killed. People are afraid to go to the farm. That’s the simple truth. Even areas that we thought were relatively safe before because they were not hotspots, they have now become places we dread, we have really been under siege. I don’t know a better word to use. If there’s one I knew that’s even more precise I would have used it. We’ve been under siege. We’ve been crying out to government and we’ve been saying government should take hard lines stand once and for all,” he said.

Speaking on the level of destruction in the last one year and how it affects farmers in the state, Obaweya said, “There is hardly a practicing farmer in Ondo State that has not been affected one way or the other. We have all had our encounters but not of the same proportion. If I’m going to estimate, I can’t estimate less than 1,500 farmers, it can’t be less. Hardly will you meet a farmer that has not had one incident or the other. Some are serial victims. One of us has been a victim of not less than 12 times in the past two years.

“We are talking of hectres of maize, beans and his imported oil palm seedlings he got from France destroyed by these herdsmen and their cows. Speaking on the total amount lost by famers in the state in the last one year, it’s nothing less than a billion naira,” he said, predicting famine in the land if the situation continues unattended to by the state and federal governments.

“When you frustrate a man serially and when a man does not have anything he’s living for, then we should expect the unimaginable to be done by such a man and people are getting to that level gradually around us because they are already frustrated. There will be famine and then violence which will be followed by war. I can assure you that there will be war soon if something is not done. It’s not a threat, it’s a natural thing because it’s already moving that way,” he said.

Obaweya recalled that in the past Fulani herders and farmers and the people of the communities in the state were the best of friends and wondered over the new development that has suddenly brought the skirmishes. According to him, this has led to series of meeting with the leadership of the Miyetti Allah in the state and the meetings which were at the instance of the farmers were organised to identify the reason behind destruction of farms and killings.

He, however, added that after every meeting, the destruction usually takes a new dimension. “I don’t know the number of meetings we’ve held with Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, the government and security agencies. Even the chairman of Miyetti Allah in the state seems overwhelmed because he said that many of the herders perpetrating these atrocities are not known to them: that they cannot account for them most of these people are foreigners that came from outside the country. We’ve tried, we’ve interacted with Miyetti Allah in Ondo state but they looked overwhelmed to us and many times when we hold parleys, they will promise that they will do this and that, but we’ve realized that they are just buying time so that tension will go down,” he stated.

However, the establishment of the Amotekun, Security Network has given hope to the farmers. “There is a ray of hope with Amotekun that has been working hard, we must be fair. Based on the personnel they have, they’ve been working hard. Unlike before when you apprehend a herdsman and his cow, it is at your cost that you will transport the herdsman and the cows to the police station and with a phone call, your money is gone and your efforts too, because they will be released. But with Amotekun, once you can catch a cow or a herder, until they pay fat compensation, they’ll not be released. But if you can’t catch them, there’s little they can do. But once you can apprehend even the cows, the owners will surface and you will get some measure of compensation.

“It’s not like before where a farmer would be given just N10,000. We’ve heard of compensation between N500,000 and N1 million. Even in helping us to pursue offenders into the bush. Not so many people are courageous enough to chase a Fulani man into the bush. When you put a distress call across and they get it and they have personnel on the ground, they will come and go after them. Amotekun has actually offered a lot of help, but they need to increase the number of their personnel and they need to be armed if they are going to be more effective, so far, the Amotekun commander in Ondo State has really tried,” he said.

Also speaking on the issue, a farmer from Ipe-Akoko in the Akoko South East Local Government Area of the state, Evans Shado, said he has been a serial victim of the Fulani herdsmen, saying his farms have been destroyed more than 12 times since 2016 till date, adding that the incessant attacks and destruction of his farms has turned him into a pauper who finds it difficult to feed his family and send his three undergraduate children to school.

Shado, who is the vice chairman of OSACA said his problem with herdsmen started in 2016. “I received a call that my farm at Ipe-Akoko had been invaded and destroyed by the herdsmen and their cows. I rushed down there and saw everything gone; they destroyed my 10 hectares oil palm field. The same thing was done to my maize farm in and it was razed in 2018. In 2019, the association I belong to had a rice farm at Uso in Owo Local Government Area. I was the supervisor. We took a loan of about N100 million from the Federal Government. When it was time to harvest, these Fulani intruders came to destroy everything.

“We reported to government officials, including the SSA to the governor on Security, Alhaji Dojumo and the chairman of Miyetti Allah in the state, Alhaji Bello. The cows were arrested but they were later released while two of the herders who were apprehended are still in remand. The case is still ongoing since 2019. We don’t even know whether they are still in prison. With everything destroyed, the bank has been on our neck for us to pay back the loan. We took insurance people, CBN and everybody there to see things for themselves but they’re still threatening us to pay back. But if such had happened in the North, I’m sure that it won’t take such line. They would have reimbursed the farmer to go back to the field.

“In 2020, some of us went back to the farm again after borrowing more than N3 million and I farmed six hectares of rice. I was expecting millions of naira from the job I did. When it was time to harvest these people came again, they destroyed and devastated everything. We reported the case to Amotekun, they came and helped us. They apprehended some of them but it was only a meagre amount that was given to our group because we’re so many. They gave us N1 million. How will that amount assist us on a farm we had spent millions of naira on?’ Shado queried.

According to him, as if this was not enough, the herdsmen invaded his farm on the first day of the year 2021, destroying the whole farm. Shado, in tears, declared to Nigerian Tribune: ‘I’m now’ a terrorist because last year, I went to the SSA and I told him I wanted to be a terrorist because it’s terrorists and bandits that are respected in this country. They give more recognition to terrorist than innocent and law abiding citizens. They’ve destroyed our source of livelihood and this nation. I have three children in the university, where do they want me to get money to educate my children who will be looking at me that I call myself a farmer and they are suffering while others are enjoying.

“So, in this nation, we are at war. It’s no longer peace, it is revolution. Revolution is spontaneous and I know it’ll start one day. I’m a pastor but this time around, it’s only prayers of brethren that are sustaining me and I can do and undo. If you talk, you will die, if you don’t talk, you will die. They have killed me,” the depressed farmer stated.

An 80 year old farmer in Ogbese, Akure North Local Government Area of the state, Madam Lydia Afelumo, said the incessant destruction of farmlands has led to astronomical rise in the prices of agricultural produce which is the main source of income of the people in the community. She said “The herdsmen have left many families in pitiable situations as their source of livelihood, which is their farmlands, has been totally destroyed and the government has failed to address this.” She added that her farms has been destroyed more than four times and farmers have ceased reporting to the traditional head as they cannot speak the truth because the herdsmen have bought their conscience.

“The unfortunate thing is that the herdsmen alleged that they reached an agreement with their host communities which allowed them to operate in any community as they like. When you confront them, they tell you that they have settled the leaders of the community,” she lamented, adding that the herdsmen, apart from destroying farmlands, also engage in kidnapping, raping and killing in the area.

She said most of the kidnapping and attacks on the Owo highway are perpetrated by herdsmen, adding that people hardly go to farm for fear of being killed by the bandits and called on the state governor not to reverse his decision in regulating the movement and activities of herdsmen in the state and herdsmen who cannot afford to register with the state government should be sent out of the state.

Proferring a solution to the problem, the OSACA chairman said the only solution to the incessant clashes between herders and farmers on the destruction of farms is for “the President to make a pronouncement that all open grazing should cease for now. Possibly, all itinerant herders should return to their bases.”

He further warned traditional rulers in the region to stop allocating lands to herdsmen as this gives them unhindered access to every part of the community.

However, a community head in Ogbese, Amos Falodun said “the herdsmen forcefully occupied their settlement in our communities without the traditional ruler’s consent, yet they were allowed to stay even after forcefully occupying our land and the only way they pay us back for our magnanimity was destroying our farms, raping and killing our people.”

Obaweya, however, stressed the need to promote “indigenous cattle rearing, stating that, “we want to go back to our traditional local breeds and we want our people to raise cows in the proper way, properly ranched in their own farm. Some universities are doing it, some individuals are doing it and we want it to become popular. Individuals can own three, four, five cows; you don’t have to have 2000.”

The Commander of the Amotekun Corps in the state, Chief Adetunji Adeleye, also said the only way out of the problem and clashes is for government to regulate the movement and activities of herdsmen. Adeleye noted that the clash between herders and farmers has reduced to some extent since the order of the state governor.

Madam Afelumo, on her own part, said the proposal for a bill for the rearing and grazing of livestock in the state by the state executive must not be swept under the carpet, adding that the bill will help to put an end to destruction of farms by herders and their cows.

The octogenarian farmer described the bill as a step towards the implementation of the state governor’s orders to herders who are illegally occupying government forest reserves without proper registration. She also called for the introduction of ranches and grazing areas to prevent the destruction of farm crops and property occasioned by open grazing while the herdsmen should not be allowed to bear guns.

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