A full war is going on in Agatu in Benue state as the villagers fight to defend their lands from Fulani herdsman. The herdsmen are taking over their lands and burning down their houses and killing their young men.
“The Fulani herdsmen usually invade the village at night when we are sleeping. They come in their numbers shooting and killing people and burning down our houses” said Mrs Egwu, who now takes care of hundreds of women who have suddenly become widows.
The attacks are not just random. There is a full war ongoing. The boys of Agatu have formed their own army to defend the town and battle lines have been drawn. The Fulani herdsmen are on the other side shooting while the Agatu Boys are on their side defending their village. But they are outnumbered and our-armed. The Herdsmen carry AK 47s and other sophisticated weapons. The Agatu men have mostly their Dane guns to defend their land.
Many people have been displaced. Their houses have been burnt. They sleep in the open or under the trees.
“Yesterday, the Fulani Herdsmen were almost overpowering our boys. They ran out of bullets. I had to go round the village looking for bullets for them to sustain the fight or else our village would have been overrun” said Mr Egwu, a leader in the Agatu community.
He explains that some villages have already been taken over by the Fulani Herdsman who are now settled in those communities.
“We will not allow them to take over Agatu. It is our community and we will not allow strangers to take over our land. Where will we go to if we allow them to take over our community? The only place we know is this land. It is our ancestral lands, so why should we leave it for the Fulanis” said Mr. Egwu.
Egwu says that they have unsuccessfully tried to draw the government’s attention to what is happening in Agatu. The Government has instead been trying cover up the ongoing massacre and displacement of thousands of people in the state.
“We have had several meetings with the governor on what is happening. They kept on promising that they will do something about it. But they have not done anything so far. That is why we have now resorted to self defense. We cannot just allow ourselves to be killed and driven out of our lands.”
However, in the long run, the men and women of Agatu may suffer the fate of the communities around them if the government does not come to their aid soon. The Fulani herdsmen are better armed and adept at guerilla warfare. They attack, run away and then attack again with each attack more brutal than the former.
“When they attack the first time, they kill so many people and then go and hide waiting for us to come and pick and bury our dead. As soon as they see you enter the village to come bury the dead which they have piled up, they attack again, killing many more people”
Benue is called the food basket of the nation. So the Agatu war will have repercussions across the country as they are driven off their farming lands. Our investigations show many farmers in Agatu and surrounding communities have not been able to carry out any harvests, in some cases for as long as three years. The fear of being attacked in the farm has driven them off their farmlands.
Many villages have also been turned to grazing lands by the herdsmen that have taken over whole communities. Cattles are now eating away foodstuff meant for humans. The cows are growing fat while the farmers are hungry and homeless.
Investigations show that the herdsmen have powerful backers some at the seat of government. Most Fulani herdsmen do not own the cows which they herd. The cows are owned by politically connected “big men in big cities” who give the cows to these herdsmen to Sheppard. To protect the cows against rustlers, they give the herdsmen sophisticated weapons which are now being used to protect the cows but also corner grazing fields in the fertile lands of the middle belt.
The herdsmen are being driven to the fertile middle belt because their original grazing grounds in the North are drying up. The United Nations’ Environmental Programme (UNEP) has disclosed that Lake Chad, which used to provide vast grazing fields and water for Fulani herdsmen, has shrunk to about twentieth of its size in the last 30 years.
This shrinking of Lake Chad has forced many Fulani Herdsmen from even the neighbouring countries of Chad and Niger into Northern Nigeria and then onwards into other parts of Nigeria looking for greener pastures for their cattle and their family, leading to the bloody clashes trailing their migration pathway.
So far, previous governments and even the Buhari government have not been able to articulate a clear strategy to resolve the issue on hand. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, recently said that the incessant clashes between farmers and cattle herdsmen would be brought to an end in the next two years.
“We will grow grass in the South to feed the cattle in the North, just as Saudi Arabia did,” he said. He disclosed that the government is importing “grass” from Brazil, to create thousands of hectares of grazing land for the cows.
But many think the minister is engaging in wishful thinking. There is no guarantee that imported Brazilian grass will grow in Nigeria. Also how do you keep the Fulani herdsmen taking over people’s land while they wait for the grazing fields to grow? The other question is how sustainable are such grazing fields?
As a solution, critics have suggested that the government revive the 11 River Basin Development Authorities (RBDA) set up in 1976 to help all year round agriculture by harnessing the country’s abundant water resources.
The RBDAs include; Upper Benue Basin, the Lake Chad Basin, Benin-Owena Basin, Sokoto-Rima Basin, Sokoto; Hadejia-Jema’are Basin, Kano; Maiduguri; the , Yola; the Lower Benue Basin, Makurdi and the Cross River Basin, Calabar. Others are; Oshun-Ogun Basin, Abeokuta. Anambra-Imo Basin, Owerri; the Niger Basin, Ilorin; and Niger Delta Basin, Port Harcourt. All the 11 RDBAs are currently moribund.
Reviving them would provide all round irrigation across the country, provide sustainable grazing and farming land in the original habitats of the herdsmen and their cattle and make it unnecessary for them to embark on the migration that has led to the bloody clashes and massacre across the country.
But for now, the people of Agatu are mourning hundreds of their dead, and have been driven off their lands and are desperately looking on to the government for salvation.