Nigeria: Special Report – Farmers-Herders Conflict: After Many Deaths, Ondo Residents, Officials Seek Relief Under Anti-Open Grazing Law

Officials say incidents of farmers-herders violence have reduced in Ondo since the implementation of the anti-open grazing law began.

Dayo Abiye-Festus, 48, had had enough when a herd of cattle encroached on his plantain farm in Ajowa, Akoko North West Local Government Area of Ondo State. He chased away the nomadic intruders.

But two days later, they returned. They killed the farmer and destroyed the farm. The lifeless body of Mr Ibiye-Festus was found with machete cuts on the morning of February 5.

The farm is about seven kilometres away from Ajowa town, situated at the edge of an expansive cashew plantation. According to Olubode, a vigilante who guided the PREMIUM TIMES crew through the forest to the area, there had been several altercations between the herders and Mr Abiye-Festus, stemming from his refusal to allow cattle to graze his farm.

Mr Abiye-Festus’s nephew, Idris Aloma, who also farms in the area, narrates how he was murdered.

“Three days before that incident of his death, he was in the farm when those herders came with their cows and started destroying the farm, so he drove them away. But the following day, he told me he would not be going to the farm because he was tired.

“He left for the farm the second day early in the morning, but at about 11 a.m. his wife returned home crying that her husband had been killed,” Mr Aloma said.

He said soldiers later arrested a Fulani herder at the farm but nothing had been heard on the matter since and the herders had continued grazing farms in the area.

Mr Abiye-Festus is survived by his 70 years old mother, two wives and seven children. The mother, Janet Festus, lives beside her late son’s uncompleted building where his remains lie in a grave covered with brown tiles.

Mrs Festus lamented the gruesome murder of her son. She wants the government to support the family he left behind and help complete the house he built halfway before he was killed.

Mr Abiye-Festus’s wife, Omonike, who first saw his corpse, also corroborated the account of Mr Aloma.

The Festus family’s tragic experience is commonplace across farming communities in Ondo State. But officials say such incidents have reduced since the state began implementing its anti-open grazing law in September.

Understanding the Ondo farmers/herders conflict

Conflicts between herders and farmers in Nigeria have become the most potent threat to security in Nigeria, arguably killing more people than the long-running, bloody Boko Haram insurgency. Research shows that in the first half of 2018, about 1,300 people died in skirmishes between farmers and herders across the country.

According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), Nigeria has lost no fewer than 8,343 persons to the conflict since 2005.

According to the ACLED report, Benue State witnessed the most violent attacks, closely followed by Plateau, Kaduna, Taraba and Nasarawa in that order.

The report, which covered 2005 to mid-2021, put the number of killings in Benue at 2,539 from 303 attacks, while Plateau, Kaduna, Taraba and Nasarawa lost 2,138, 1,188, 755, and 521 lives in 279, 160, 111 and 93 attacks respectively.

Although Ondo is not prominent in the ACLED report, the attack on the farm of a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Olu Falae, in September 2015, highlighted the herders’ incursions into farmlands in the state.

After several failed efforts to ward off the herders who were repeatedly grazing his farm, he was kidnapped and his workers attacked with machetes. Although he was freed after a ransom was paid, the raid was repeated in April 2016, where one of his farm guards was murdered.

The Ondo farmers association said no fewer than 30 persons have lost their lives since 2015 in clashes between herders and farmers. This figure includes a Fulani herder who was allegedly killed by angry villagers in a reprisal attack in Ilara Mokin in 2016. Many more managed to survive attacks with varying degrees of injuries. The figure also did not account for those killed by kidnappers or other related criminal attacks.

Triggers of Clashes

In Ondo State, the common trigger of the farmer-herder conflict is the destruction of crops by cattle. This is also arising from the fact that as the population continues to grow, many herders have seen their former grazing areas increasingly put to farming, making their search for grazing land more challenging.

Both parties had lived side by side over the years and managed their differences. The outrage in recent times arose over the destruction of farmlands. Further incensing farmers is the fact that it is done with impunity and by armed herders.

Unlike in Benue, Adamawa and Taraba where there had been reports of farmers’ violent response; in Ondo, farmers have largely refrained from seeking revenge. The deterrence for the farmers is the fact that herders are more destructive in reprisals and sedentary farmers do not want to risk the destruction of their communities by herders in the aftermath of an attack on the herders.

In Nigeria, the situation is largely blamed on the continuous aridity of the north, coupled with the activities of terror groups in the northeast and neighbouring West African countries.

According to The Crisis Group, high population growth, Boko Haram insurgency and cattle rustling have forced herders in the north to migrate toward the Middle Belt in search of pasture and water. Their movement has

inflamed competition over land resources already heightened by increasing climate change and led to more frequent disputes between herders and farmers.

President Muhammadu Buhari believes that the problems were due primarily to the encroachment by farmers into grazing routes. The president gave a directive in June this year to the Attorney-General of the Federation to dig out the federal gazette for the establishment of the grazing routes with a view to reclaiming them.

Southern governors have resisted this move by the federal government, describing it as a shadow chasing. The Ondo State governor, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, in particular, is against the revival of the grazing routes, describing the idea as obsolete in the face of current realities and developments in economics, technology and population increases.

The theory that most of the violence is perpetrated by foreigners of Fulani extraction, popularly known among the farmers as Bororos, has made the crisis intractable. Herders who have settled down in communities for many

decades often claim innocence when there are farm destructions, blaming it on the Bororos who cross the borders without restrictions and travel down south usually armed with lethal weapons. Farmers said these nomads often flee to new areas after carrying out their destructive acts, making it difficult to identify and apprehend them.

In the same vein, herders resident in the communities complain that they were often blamed for the destruction of farmlands, even when they were not involved. The problem of responsibility has been difficult to solve since the culprits are always on the move.

Jugbere Farmers Flee Forest After Murder of Three

Jugbere, an expansive farm settlement in Owo Local Government Area of Ondo State, is well known for its cocoa and plantain production. However, the farmers also produce food crops such as yams, rice, cassava and maize. But the huge investments of the state government in farming activities have been largely hampered by the activities of herders.

Farmers reported that on the night of Saturday, February 13, suspected herders attacked Jugbere with automatic rifles, killing three farmers. Two days earlier, a clash between herders and operatives of the Ondo State Security Network (Amotekun) had led to the death of two members of the Ago Sanusi community, also in Owo. The herders had ambushed the operatives. A farmer, identified as Lanre, and a member of a vigilante group were killed in the attack.

Following the attack, Jugbere, home to over 200 farmers and their families, was deserted as many fled to other farm settlements for fear of their lives.

PREMIUM TIMES visited the agricultural settlement located about 16km from Owo town with an access road scarcely motorable. Only articulated trucks and motorbikes ply the bad road.

The commercial biker, Usman Yusuf, who took the PREMIUM TIMES team to the community, said residents pay between N2000 and N3000 to reach the village from Owo town. According to him, conveying farm produce to markets even cost more.

One of the leaders of the Jugbere farm settlement, Doktor Ogunbodede, said the state government’s forest reserve, where many farmers are located, have been taken over by the herders, who had continued to pillage their farms.

“No one has been able to go back to the farm since the incident occurred,” he lamented as he spoke to PREMIUM TIMES in Yoruba. “They have all run away from the farm because their lives are in danger.”

Mr Ogunbodede said no one has come to their aid, despite the strategic importance of the farm settlement.

Another farmer at the farmstead, Olagbemide Abayomi, recalled how he was attacked by the herders with a machete and almost lost his thumb. Mr Abayomi said he was lucky to escape with the injury.

“I am a farmer at the forest reserve. But I have left the place due to the attacks by Fulani herders,” he said in Pidgin English in November. “Everybody ran away from the forest after they killed three persons near my farm. They also attacked me.”

“The problem between me and them was because they were bringing in their cattle to graze my banana plantation. I challenged the herders as they were cutting the plantain leaves for their cattle. That was what caused the quarrel. Then they started making trouble. They met me on the farm where I was sleeping and attacked me with a machete.

“They are still disturbing in the area and even last month the herders also came and attacked a farmer, inflicting machete cuts on his head.”

For him, survival has become even dire, as he could no longer produce his regular crops of plantain, yam and maize. He now moves around looking for a job as a farmhand to feed his wife and three children.

Government’s Efforts

The Senior Special Assistant to the Ondo State Governor on Agriculture, Akin Olotu, confirmed the dire situation at Jugbere. He said talks were ongoing with security agencies for effective deployment to the area to protect the farmers.

“We are still working on it because we don’t want to jeopardise anybody’s life. We need to beef up the security there and work on the road so they can move speedily while on the road,” he said.

“We are working with one of the GSM facilitators to erect their mast there so that security operatives can communicate and call for reinforcements when they need such. We have identified communication as key in ensuring the safety of lives and property there. And we are working on it,” he said.

He said farmers-herders clashes have reduced tremendously in the state, saying most of the herders have moved far away from the towns, allowing the farmers to carry out their farming activities unhindered. He said the feat was made possible through the efforts of the state governor and the Amotekun.

Ondo’s anti-open grazing law

A few months after the commencement of the enforcement of Ondo State’s anti-open grazing law, cows are still moving around in rural and agrarian communities, as witnessed by PREMIUM TIMES reporter in the course of this investigation.

According to the governor of the state, the law was designed to stem the trend of bloody attacks by herders and allow both farmers and herders the freedom to engage in their vocations without breaches.

The law prescribes penalties for herders grazing their cattle outside designated areas, providing that herders should procure ranches through the state government in designated areas.

“No person shall cause any livestock belonging to him or under his control to graze on any land in which the governor has not designated for such purposes and in which he has not fully obtained the required permit,” the law states.

The bill also prohibits cattle rustling and any such act done by arms is punishable by life imprisonment.

The governor is empowered to designate land by an order to be known as “general ranch” in each local government area in respect of which livestock may be permitted to graze.

The bill also provides that intending ranchers would procure a ‘ranching permit’ from the Ondo State Livestock and Ranch Administration and Control Committee, based on the approval of the governor.

“Any livestock found not duly registered in the above stated manner shall be considered to be a wild or wandering animal and therefore liable to arrest by law enforcement agencies, confiscated by the government and put up for sale at a public auction,” the law provides.

Violators of the law risk three years’ imprisonment and fines not exceeding N100,000, even as livestock owners would be required to pay in full for damage done by their livestock to farms after due evaluation by the livestock and ranch administration agency.

However, farmers have said herders are reluctant to move their cattle to the ranches. Investigations confirmed that instead of establishing ranches, they have moved their cattle farther into the forest where the arm of the law may not reach them.

Efforts, however, have been made by the government to sensitise the herders’ communities on the benefits of ranching through several meetings, workshops and demonstrations. But there is little to show if they have embraced the new idea.

Herders Resistance

Early in October, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), an association of cattle breeders in the country, while reacting to the passage of the law in Ondo and other Southwest states, vowed to challenge the law in the courts.

“I think such laws are not meant to engender peace in our nation because they are hateful, politically motivated and satanic,” the group’s National Secretary, Selah Alhassan, had told Sunday Punch.

“We don’t see anything good in such laws. While they are at it, God will not allow them to succeed, because these herders are innocent. They are also victims of insurgencies. I see the government playing politics with all these things, and the politics is not working for them. It is a process, not a one-man stream.”

The Chairman of the group in Ondo State, Garuba Bello, told PREMIUM TIMES that the law was enacted without proper consultation with his group.

Farmers Count losses

A former Vice President of the Ondo State Agricultural Commodities Association (OSACA), Evans Sado, narrated how his 10-hectare palm oil farm located at Igbe Akoko, in Akoko North West Local Government Area, was destroyed by herders in 2016.

The situation was the same in 2018 when he thought the herders would allow him to regrow the palm field.

He also said in 2019, his association developed a rice farm in Uso, in Owo Local Government Area of the state courtesy of a N10 million grant from the Central Bank of Nigeria.

“When the farm was ready for harvest, the intruders came in and destroyed the farm,” said Mr Sado. “The bank is still demanding the repayment of the loan.”

The farmer said he took another N3 million loan to revive the farm, cultivating a six-hectare rice farm in 2020. But herders came in just when it was ripening and grazed it. In January 2021, his entire cassava was invaded

and the herders allegedly uprooted the tubers for their cows to feed on.

Yinka Olabiran, a rice farmer, recalled how in 2019, his rice farm, cultivated with a loan from the bank of agriculture, was destroyed by herders.

“We took Civil Defence to the area and when they learnt that the herders were armed with AK47, they returned saying they could not curtail them,” said Mr Olabiran.

Another farmer, Michael Adebayo, was frustrated out of farming and had to return to teaching after his 18-hectare cassava farm was destroyed in Ayede Ogbese village of Ondo State.

Current Situation

Abayomi Monilare is the Chairman of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria in Ondo State. He said herders had withdrawn into the forest reserves where they could evade arrest by Amotekun but were still attacking farms intermittently.

“We encourage our farmers to engage in cluster farming so that they can form themselves into groups and when going to farm, make sure you don’t go alone,” said Mr Monilare.

“When you see these people, don’t talk to them. It is better you save your life and so that you can farm another day. Whenever they are caught, we usually get the Amotekun people to come to our aid and they have been doing that.”

He lamented that there is no commensurate payment of compensation when herders were held to account.

“Because, if you tell the Fulani herdsmen when they are caught to come and pay compensation, in a farm where you spent N100,000, they will tell you they don’t have more than N10,000 or N5,000,” he said.

“Sometimes when they are arrested by the police, you will hear somebody calling from Abuja telling the police officers to let them go. So these are some of the problems we are facing.”

Police, Amotekun: Two Sides of a Coin

The police spokesperson in Ondo State, Funmilayo Odunlami-Omisanya, told PREMIUM TIMES that things were better and nothing unusual had happened in recent times.

*”Lately, we do not have clashes between herders and farmers in Ondo State, the government has been able to sort things out between them,” she said in November.

“Even the herders and the farmers have been able to reach a compromise; so we rarely hear of cases between farmers and herders clashes in the state.”

When told that farmers at Jugbere had been displaced due to the occupation of herders in the forest reserve, Mrs Odunlami-Ommisanya said she was not sure there was anything like that in the state for now.

“The government has stepped in and they have been able to resolve it,” she said.

She also denied that the police release suspects after interventions by highly placed persons, as alleged by the farmers’ association.

“I beg to disagree,” she said. “Sometimes it is the farmers and the herders who reach an agreement; even before they get to the police they would have sorted it themselves.

*”Their leaders will meet and resolve it, and sometimes compensations are paid after agreements are reached. No one reported to the police or arrested by the police is treated with kid gloves,” she said.

The Director-General of the Amotekun Corps, Odetunji Adeleye, also spoke to PREMIUM TIMES. He said although there were still a few skirmishes, efforts made by the state government and the security network have greatly reduced the conflict between herders and farmers.

He said at its inception, the corps was receiving over 500 petitions monthly, but now there are only five to 10 petitions monthly.

Mr Adeleye said the agency was able to achieve this through enlightenment campaigns on the rights and responsibilities of both the farmers and the herders and through the enforcement of the anti-open grazing law.

He said compensations have been paid not only to the farmers but to the government as well in line with the provisions of the law.

“Yes, you know that there is no perfect society,” Mr Adeleye said when confronted with the question of the occurrences of attacks on farms by the herders in spite of the achievements made.

“We are talking of comparative analysis. A situation where you have over 500 now coming down to one or two, I think we are making some positive impacts.”

On the fatalities recorded from attacks, Mr Adeleye said there had been no killings in recent times. “The state has been relatively peaceful,” he said.

Finding A Lasting Solution

Mr Olotu, the Ondo governor’s aide on agriculture, said his principal is committed to implementing the government’s policy on ranching.

“The final solution to the problem is an improvement on livestock husbandry,” he said.

In addition to that, he said, the state is keying into the National Animal Identification Scheme being introduced and officials were meeting with MACBAN to ensure its smooth inauguration.

Also, the Ondo State Government has introduced the field lot system where the ranchers can grow feeds for their livestock by growing high nutrient grasses within short periods and feeding them in a designated lot or ranch.

According to Mr Olotu, herders and other interested individuals will have the opportunity to adopt modern husbandry techniques in rearing cattle. This in turn would ensure high productivity and the development of the dairy industry.

He also said herders would now learn a more sedentary lifestyle where their children can be educated and can access medical facilities among others.

The farmers’ association is not averse to the programme of the state government in providing ranches and the field lot system. It is however insisting that the government should not provide funds for the herders if it will not do the same for farmers who had invested their private funds into farms destroyed by the herders.

“If they want to do field lot, the herdsmen should be able to fund their business, it is a private business, we do not support government putting money into it,” Mr Monilare said. “Otherwise, they should also give money to the farmers so that they can also use such to develop their farms.”

However, Mr Olotu said funds would not only be used to fund the livestock development, but also the food production sector. This, he said, is the fairest thing to do in pursuit of peace.

Mr Bello, the herders’ leader, would not comment on whether the Miyetti Allah is comfortable with the programmes of the state government.

Efforts to get him to respond to the allegations and complaints of farmers were also resisted. He said his organisation was still discussing with the state government on the various proposals and until the discussions were concluded, no word should be expected from Miyetti Allah in the state.

Support for this story was provided by the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) under its ‘Strengthening the Delivery of Peace and Security (SDPS) project’.


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