Three years after it came into effect, there are still disagreements over the Benue State Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, Daily Trust reports.
While the state government says it is satisfied with the successes so far achieved, some pastoralists have decried what they term “stringent measures” in the document, and are calling for same to be reviewed.
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The implementation of the anti-open grazing law came into effect on November 1, 2017, amidst mixed opinions from different quarters in the country.
The law provides for an enforcement agency to be known as Livestock Special Task Force and it is vested with powers to effect arrest of offenders.
Also, Sections 21-22 of the law dealing with the release of impounded livestock states that “Any livestock found grazing, wandering, herding in an area not designated as a ranch shall be impounded by the livestock department in the Ministry of Agriculture or any other person authorised by the department in that behalf.
“The department or any other person so authorised may release the livestock impounded to the owner or manager upon showing good cause and after paying the prescribed fine and expenses as may be determined by the department.”
To this end, the livestock guards had since January 2018 implemented their assigned task.
However, herders on the hand have been complaining that the law did not consider vital issues and that livestock guards were using the opportunity to exploit them.
A scrutiny of the Benue grazing law showed that Section (4) prohibits open rearing or breeding of animals as it frowns at the movement of livestock on foot.
Livestock, in the estimation of the law, shall only be transported by means of automobile or locomotives from one destination to another in the state through rail wagon, truck or pick-up wagons.
The law said, “Anyone who trespasses this section of the law shall be guilty of an offence punishable by one year imprisonment or a fine of N500, 000 or both (for a first time offender) or three years imprisonment of N1million or both for second time offenders.”
Findings showed that this is where the problem lies as hundreds of herders from far north heading to the southern part of Nigeria in search of greener pasture for their animals have to pass through Benue State. Many of them have been intercepted in the process and accused of violating the law considering that there are no designated cattle routes.
Daily Trust reports that the gradual desert encroachment and years of Boko Haram and other conflicts in the north-eastern states of Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Taraba, Gombe and Bauchi states have forced many nomads to be moving southwards during the dry season.
The development had led to violent clashes between nomadic Fulani herdsman and local farmers especially in Benue State.
While the herders continue to accuse farmers of killing their cattle, the farmers say the animals are destroying their crops.
Partly, the Benue State government said the anti-grazing law would resolve the problem because it would require everyone to keep their livestock on ranches.
But the Fulani herdsmen still believe that the whole idea was unfairly crafted to obstruct their nomadic way of life.
A long, tortuous journey for herders
As the state marks three years since the law came into effect, findings show that many defaulting cattle herders have been arrested from various locations in the state. Some have been prosecuted, with their cattle confiscated and fines paid as stipulated in the law as a condition for the release of their animals.
Governor Samuel Ortom reportedly disclosed during an event marking the third year anniversary of the anti-open grazing law that over 400 herdsmen had so far been arrested for flouting the law.
In his speech, titled, ‘Successes of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, 2017,’ Ortom said that 261 persons out of the over 400 that were arrested have been prosecuted and convicted accordingly.
The governor, who was represented by the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in the state, Michael Gusa, maintained that despite the opposition to the law and the resultant loss of lives and property, it had recorded milestones.
He added that the rapidity and number of attacks on communities by suspected herdsmen had also reduced in the last two years as compared to 2016 and 2017, stressing that the efficacy of the law has been tested in the courts of law with amazing results.
“From November 1, 2017, to October 27, 2020, more than 400 herdsmen have been arrested for violating the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, 2017. Out of this number, 261 persons have been convicted, 21 have been discharged and 36 cases are still pending, while investigation is ongoing in other cases. Most of the convicts were able to pay fines and were released while many who could not were sent to jail, ranging from six months to two years.
‘7,629 cows, 210 sheep impounded’
Governor Ortom further revealed that a total of 7,629 cows and 210 sheep, as well as other livestock, have been impounded within the time under review. According to him, the law also witnessed the arrest, arraignment, and conviction of five cattle rustlers, who confessed to the crime in an open court.
However, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) while presenting its paper at the occasion, acknowledged the right of the Benue State Government to enact laws that will enhance peace, security and the economic development of the state, but emphasised the need for a review of the law to accommodate its members’ interests.
The national secretary of the association, Baba Othman Ngelzama, said there was the need to review some aspects of the law to entrench justice and equity for its members who are indigenous to the state and those who seasonally pass through in search of pasture in other parts of the country.
Ngelzama urged the state government to take another look on the terms and conditions for ranches to be acquired, even as he appealed that ranching areas for use by herders be provided before clamping down on violators.
“One major area that calls for consideration is the implementation of the law before the establishment of ranches, or provision of land for those who want to establish one. This has made it difficult for our members to comply with the law prohibiting open grazing as they do not have anywhere to take their herds to.
“We, therefore, wish to call on the Benue State Government to review the terms and conditions for ranches and be more flexible. And ownership should be made more permanent to accommodate those indigenous pastoralists whose forefathers were born and brought up in Benue.
“We appeal to the state government to check the excesses of livestock guards and bar them from arbitrary fines, which is far and above those stipulated by the law and under the purview of constituted law courts to guard against impunity and high handedness in dealing with defaulters of the law.
“Seeing the intense interest of the governor in moving the state forward, we are drawing his attention to making Benue the leader in large scale fodder production in the country, which will bring billions of naira to the state’s internally generated revenue,” he said.
He added that considering the nature of the Benue valley, if harnessed very well, it would be a centre for large-scale livestock value chain and dairy production that can create employment opportunities for the teeming unemployed youths in the state.
Ortom mulls stiffer options
During his recent outings, Ortom had indicated his administration’s commitment to review the law, but was particular in the area of jerking up the fines so that violators would be deterred by the amount.
The commander of the Livestock Guards Special Task Force, Linus Zaki, told our correspondent in an interview earlier this year that the number of herders his men had so far arrested and handed to the police for prosecution stood at 336, adding that some of them were usually granted bail at the police station while others were charged to court.
The secretary of the MACBAN in the state, Ibrahim Galma, said over 3,000 cattle belonging to their members had been confiscated since the implementation of the law. He also alleged that the defaulting herders were subjected to illegal fees in the office of the livestock guards after due payment of fines in line with the law had been made to the Ministry of Agriculture.
“We pay more illegal fees to the office of the livestock guards than the legally fee proscribed by the law, which we pay as fine to the Ministry of Agriculture for release of our seized animals since the implementation of the grazing law,’’ he alleged.
He said the association was not worried about the fine paid to the ministry of agriculture because it is legal as enshrined in the grazing law document but wondered why their members are being exploited by those asked to enforce the law.
He estimated that over 400 herders had so far been arrested since the law came into effect, pointing out that of the number; more than 67 had been convicted by the court while over 30 were awaiting trial.
He said those convicted usually the stipulated fines and immediately released while others who couldn’t pay were kept in custody pending payment of their fines.
“Some of our ‘boys’ are in the Makurdi Custodial Centre unable to pay their fines while others are awaiting trial. About seven of them who spent a year in custody were recently released,” he narrated.
When contacted, the commander of the livestock guards debunked the allegation of illegal fees charged by his office as alleged by the MACBAN secretary.
Zaki said defaulters of the anti-open grazing law usually paid the stipulated fines to the Ministry of Agriculture and return to his office with receipts for the release of their confiscated animals.
“I don’t collect money here. The defaulters only bring their payment receipts from the Ministry of Agriculture, then we release their animals to them,” he said.
The issue of ranching should be resolved
Galma also said they were worried because both the state and federal governments were not paying attention to their concerns, especially that they were yet to understand what ranching really entailed.
He said no herder in Benue had yet shown any interest to acquire lands for ranching because they were yet to properly understand the procedure and would require sensitisation on how the entire process works.
“For instance, I am a graduate; I have herds of cattle but I don’t know how to establish a ranch. The state government earlier promised to establish a pilot ranching in the state for us to take a clue, but the idea has not materialised yet,” he said.
Beyond grazing and law
A legal practitioner in Benue State who spoke to one of our correspondents, said there are other factors responsible for the crisis in the state beyond the farmer and herder issue.
“People would continue to attribute the seasonal conflict in Benue State to misunderstanding between farmers and herders and the truth is that there is the political dimension to it,” he said.
“You will discover that most of the confrontations occur whenever politics season is approaching. Some politicians use the farmer-herder conflict to make political statements in other to attract sympathy from the electorate.
“Of course those in power would continue to blow their trumpet that the grazing law has solved their problems but wait and see, once the election is around the corner, you will see some issues coming up.
“I support the grazing law but the government should implement it holistically. The issue of providing grazing reserve should be given the desired attention because if we continue to play, one day we would all not afford beef or milk because the cows would not be seen anywhere,” he said.