The Ondo State Agricultural Commodities Association (OSACA) is the umbrella body for farmers and agricultural commodity producers in the state. The chairman of the association, Mr Gbenga Obawoya, in this interview by HAKEEM GBADAMOSI, speaks on the havoc being wreaked on farms and farmers in the state, among other issues.
How have the activities of herdsmen affected farmers in Ondo State?
The situation in the last one year is as if we have been under siege. It is just like siege was laid on 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 had it very bad in the last one year. Crops and even seeds were eaten up by cattle. The herdsmen also help themselves to our plantains and yams. They harvest, boil and roast yams right on our farms. People have been raped, kidnapped and killed. People are afraid to go to farm. That is the truth. Even areas that we thought were relatively safe have become places where we now dread. For some of us that reside in town and have our farms far away, we have small homesteads over there where we spend the night when we need to be in the farm. A good number of people are now afraid to spend the night in their farms. You know productivity and yields will drop and there have been lots of problems.
There are other dimensions to the problems, including setting farms on fire, either deliberately or inadvertently by these herdsmen. Some of these fire incidents are due to smoking of Indian hemp or hunting of wild animals. And sometimes, it is deliberate wickedness on the part of the herders, setting people’s farms on fire. They even harvest honey from hives that bee keepers keep in the bush. So, we have really been under siege. I don’t know a better expression to use. We have been crying out to the government, saying they should take a hard-line stance on the matter once and for all. The state governor has demonstrated the readiness to confront the problem head-on through his actions. But we need a lot more to be done. When a pronouncement was made a few weeks ago, we came out to identify with Governor Akeredolu that farmers in the state appreciated what he had done, but we also made it clear that this type of pronouncement had been made before and there was no enforcement. The situation even became worse. This time, we want enforcement to be done and it should be backed up with legislation.
For four years now, we have been holding summits where we have been calling on security agencies to stem the tide before it gets out of hand. Over the years, security agents have told us that there is no law that can be used to stop these things we are crying about. But we were glad when we heard some days ago that the state government was sponsoring a bill in the House Assembly. We, farmers under OSACA, had drafted a bill which we presented to the eighth House of Assembly and when we reminded them, they told us that there was a new House of Assembly in place and we needed to present the bill again, which we have done. We presented the bill to this ninth House of Assembly. We would be glad if these things see the light of the day and we can have laws that security agents can enforce, laws that can give farmers and the general public confidence to be able to resist these people because part of what we hear at police stations is that in ECOWAS, there is free movement of people and goods and nobody can say they cannot move to wherever they want to move to. But if we have laws in place that ban open grazing, then that solves the problem. So, we are looking forward to it. We have really had it very bad in the last one year.
How many farms are affected and what is the cost of the destruction caused by the herders?
There is hardly a farmer in Ondo State that has not been affected one way or the other. We have all had encounters with the herdsmen but not on the same proportion. There are estimated 1,500 of us, farmers. There is hardly any farmer that you will meet that will not have one incident or the other to recount. Some are serial victims. One of us has been victim about 12 times in the past two years. We are talking of hectares of maize, beans and imported oil palm seedlings from France destroyed by these herdsmen and their cows. The total amount lost by famers in the state in the last one year is nothing less than a billion naira.
What do you think is likely to happen if the situation continues?
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 is not a threat; it is a natural thing because it is already coming to that. When you frustrate a man serially and when a man does not have anything he is 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.
Aside from destroying your farms, how many of your members have been kidnapped by these herdsmen and ransom paid to secure their release?
I know two farmers who had been kidnapped by herdsmen. One was kidnapped alongside 18 other people on the Akure-Uso Highway. Another one was kidnapped on his farm in the Ipe-Akoko axis of the state. A ransom of N126,000 was paid to secure his release. Kidnapping is just a mild aspect of what is really going on. The worst aspect of it is killing. Late last year, we discovered some dead bodies in Ogbese. Farmers were tied and thrown into the river. At times, we see dead bodies, particularly of people from Benue State, in the farms. Farmers are killed more than they are kidnapped.
Why do you think the herdsmen carry out the killings?
We cannot say precisely why they are killing but in my opinion, they probably want to grab people’s lands. The need land and they don’t like being rebuked while destroying people’s farms. They are prepared to behead you if you try to confront them. They are just too violent. They are just not the type that can stay around us. Honestly, to say that we are under siege is an understatement. The South West is currently being colonised. We, Yorubas, are inside a coffin, a nailed coffin, only that we are yet to be lowered. There is the case of a particular farmer from Ogbese. His wife was raped and she took ill two days after. She died a few days later. The incident is fresh. It happened in January this year. It is not hearsay. The other day, a security operative that covers agriculture was saying that we should give details of how the woman was raped and we told her that we were tired of filing reports. Even people are tired of reporting these things. People are in despair. That is why I said that very soon, there would be war if we are not careful. A week or so ago, people resolved to start to physically push Fulani herdsmen and their cows out of their territory with arms and once these people resist, there will be violence and it will escalate.
Is there any plan by your association to dialogue with the leadership of the herders, the Miyetti Allah, over the situation?
In the last five years, I can’t recall the number of meetings we have held with the 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 were not known to him. He said he could not account for them and really, most of these people are foreigners that came from outside the country because the president said they are our brothers and there is free movement across the borders. They are so bold and brazen. They will ask you what you expect their cows to eat if you try to stop them from entering your farm. We have tried. We have interacted with Miyetti Allah in Ondo State but they looked overwhelmed to us and many times when we hold parleys, they promise that they would do this and that but we have realised that they are just buying time and hoping that tension would go down.
Has there been any difference with the advent of Amotekun?
I think the coming of Amotekun has brought about a ray of hope. We seem to have moved a little bit away from the precipice that we were on before. Amotekun has actually offered hope.
Amotekun has been working hard, we must be fair. The situation used to be that when you apprehended a herdsman and his cows, at your own expense, you would transport him and the cows to the police station but with just a phone call, your effort became a waste because they would be released. But with Amotekun, once you catch a cow or a herder, until they compensation is paid, they will not be released. But if you can’t get hold of a transgressing herdsman, there is little they can do. Once you can apprehend even the cows, the owners will surface and then you will get some measure of compensation. It is not like before where a farmer would be given just N10,000. We have heard of compensations of between N500,000 and N1 million being paid. Not so many people are courageous enough to face the Fulani herdsmen but when you put a distress call across, they deploy their personnel to 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 quite effective. So far, Amotekun in Ondo State has really tried.
Is there any help from other security agencies like the police, SSS and NSCDC?
Well, the civil defence has an arm called agro-rangers. Before Amotekun came, they were offering a little help. So, civil defence, yes, but the police, no. The DSS is just about information gathering. That is all they do. DSS only uses us to gather security reports; they are not helping us in any way. Any time we threatened to take action against the effrontery of the herders, we would be summoned by the DSS and their director would appeal to us and say they did not want war. They are not saying we shouldn’t protect ourselves but they are also not telling the herders to stop destroying our farms. It is as if they are tying our hands behind our backs for us to be slapped without retaliating.
For soldiers, we don’t have much contact with them even though we there have been accusations that soldiers are good backers of the herders because we heard that top officers in the barracks own many of these cows.
What do you think is the solution to this problem?
The solution is that the president should make a pronouncement that open grazing should cease; that all itinerant herders should return to their bases. Those who are based in places other than the North should settle as farmers settle and acquire land for their personal farms, not colonies. The acquired land must be fenced physically or electronically. The electronic fence will prevent the animals from straying into the farm. That is what the government must do. The Federal Government knows what can solve this problem but they are not willing to go the whole hog. They are now giving conditions that if you know that you want peace, make sure that you give us land. You must make sure you provide facilities there, for a private business. Is that being done for pig, poultry and other categories of farmers? Are herdsmen a special class of farmers? Aren’t they raising animals the way other people are raising animals? Why their animals feed for free, others pay through their noses to feed their animals.
But there are allegations that those in power are keeping quiet because these cows are owned by them.
Possibly, yes. I have also discovered that one of the strategies of these herders is that when they get to a foreign place, they approach the symbol of authority which, in most cases, is the traditional ruler, and in paying obeisance to him, they bring a gift of one or two cows. And they will tell the king not to worry about rearing the animals; that they will be raised for him at no cost. Indirectly, the Oba now has cows with them. And when they are confronted, they will say but the king’s cow is here and the king’s cow is a Greek gift to protect 5,000 cows. So, it is part of the strategy that they use. It is a trap that has been used for many of our people in authority, especially our traditional rulers, as a leverage to do whatever they want.
But there are local herders that have been with us for years. They and their cattle do not give us problems. They don’t destroy people’s things. You find the cows even in neighbourhoods and people know the owners. And if the cows destroy anything, the owner will be contacted and he will not bring out a gun or a dagger to attack the complainants. You can report them to the landlords association or to the police or to the traditional head because they are not faceless persons. So, we have not been having those problems with our people.
What would be your advice to traditional rulers across the South West?
They shouldn’t fall into that trap again. They should reject these cow gifts. They should be kind enough at this time of high tension not to give land out to these people for now because we are at war. Whether it is declared or not, we are already at war. There is a lot of hatred and bitterness because you don’t mean well for us. You want to kill us, destroy our economy and cause bodily harm to us. You have made yourself our enemy, even though we don’t want to be your enemy. So, we are at war and in times of war, you suspend natural laws. They shouldn’t sell or release land at this time and they should not accept gifts of cows. And to the general public, we renew our call as a body that people should do without beef and all cow-related products, including hide and skin for now, in protest against what is being done to us. People have actually been eating blood-stained cows because they were raised on the blood and sweat of some innocent people. In the South West, we are promoting indigenous cattle rearing. We want to go back to our 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. We want it to become popular. Individuals can own three, four, five cows; you don’t have to have 2,000.
Are there no traditional ways of driving away these criminal herdsmen?
There are lots of ways but this can’t be discussed on the pages of newspapers.
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