Last year, 2022, holds terrifying memories for farmers in Rimba, a remote community in Abaji Area Council of the FCT, due to the incessant destruction of crops by cattle. In addition, Police efforts to charge a herder to court for the attempted murder of a farmer were frustrated by backdoor settlement, Sinafi Omanga of The ICIR reports.
On the afternoon of October 23 last year, 23 years old farmer Kefas Luka visited his farm about three kilometres away from his home. With their herder in sight, he found a herd of cattle grazing on his budding millet farm.
Luka did not anticipate the brutal episode that followed.
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“I wanted to record the Fulani herdsman with my phone to use as evidence. Only for him to bring out a long cutlass and cut the hand I was using to hold the phone,” Kefas said, teary-eyed.
“It was not the first time they were destroying our crops, and whenever we report, their people and the police don’t take any action”, he added.
Several months after the incident, Kefas is still receiving treatment at the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Gwagwalada; his full recovery is not in sight yet.
Wrapped with a bandage, his wound still oozed pus, “The doctor said I still have four surgeries to undergo. Every day, I go to the hospital for checkups, but sometimes I feel like I have lost my hand”, he groaned.
At least 30 farmers in Rimba who are mainly Gbagyi told The ICIR that their farms were either looted or grazed by herders. Some of them said the herders put their cattle to pasture in the farmland with impunity.
The consistent destruction of crops by the cattle whose herders the community described as mainly Fulani is festering resentment and leading to hunger.
Though located in the FCT, Rimba has struggled with infrastructural deprivations such as clean water, mobile network, hospital, electricity and access roads.
The persistent face-offs between herdsmen and Rimba farmers over the destruction of crops are hardly reported to the police but rather handled informally through village chiefs, findings by The ICIR revealed.
However, the October incident with Luka was reported to the police, Bagudu Usman was identified as the primary suspect.
“We reported the matter because it was very serious” according to Pius, Luka’s elder brother, who had reported the matter at the Abaji Police Area Command, Abuja.
After investigation, Police declared Usman’s offence as “an attempted murder” which would be transferred from the Abaji Area Command to Force Headquarters, Abuja.
But, in what appeared to be a big surprise, Usman, the accused, was released from police custody after spending three weeks at the command’s detention, Pius explained.
Shedding light on why Usman was released, the Area Commander of Abaji Police Area Command, who was mandated by the FCT Police spokesperson, Josephine Adeh to speak on the matter, referred to the Administration of the Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015.
“By law, the police cannot detain a suspect for more than 48 hours, but because it was a case that bordered on life, we obtained an affidavit from the court to retain him in detention for almost a month.
“But the victim’s family members and village chiefs came here and bailed the suspect. I was surprised”, said Abiodun Makanjoula, the Abaji Police Area Commander.
When The ICIR visited Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Abaji Branch, to speak with Usman, the branch chairman, Abdullahi Musa, said the suspect is not from around there, he was hired by a cattle owner, Isa Alih to herd over four hundred cows.
MACBAN, an advocacy group centred on advancing the interest of Fulani pastoralists in Nigeria, said since Usman was released from Police custody, he has “disappeared” from the community.
“He is not from here, and we don’t know his whereabouts since the police released him from custody”, the group told The ICIR.
However, a resident in Rimba, Godwin, disagreed with MACBAN’s position on the whereabouts and identity of Usman.
“That is what they usually do. If anything happens between Fulani and Gbagyi farmers, they will say the suspect is a foreigner.
“It is not the first time. When we report cases to any chief within the palace or police, the case will die a natural death”, he said.
Efforts by The ICIR to speak with Usman were not successful; the police declined to disclose information about his whereabouts.
“We don’t disclose such information, but I can assure you that we know how to get him if the need arises”, the Abaji Area Police Commander said.
Between footing hospital bill and getting justice
After police arrested Usman, sources in the community said Luka’s family and kinsmen became very concerned about raising money for his treatment.
The search for money took them back to Ali Isah, the cattle owner who hired Usman and MACBAN for money to pay Luka’s hospital bill.
However, once MACBAN offered money to assist in paying the hospital bill, the Police said “Rimba people who had sought intervention from the Police chickened out”.
“We needed them to come so that we would transfer the case to the headquarters where the suspect would be charged to court, but instead, they wanted to bail him. I was surprised,” Makanjoula told The ICIR in an interview at his office.
He argued further that Luka and his kinsmen “repeatedly” declined police invitations since the suspect secured bail.
“It is a case of a father bailing a suspect who tried to kill his son”, the police official stated.
Yunana, another of Luka’s brothers, said, “He (Luka) needed medical treatment more than anything else”. He confirmed that the family collected a sum of N300,000 from MACBAN to pay the hospital bill.
“We just want them (MACBAN) to support us with the treatment. My brother’s hand needs to heal, and the doctor said we would spend a lot of money to get the hand back”, he stated.
A source at the Abaji Police Area Command who pleaded anonymity said, “from what I know about these people in Abaji, I am not sure they will come back again for this case. The money they collected from the Fulani people has buried this matter”.
Police is handicapped – Lawyer
An Abuja-based lawyer, Paul Eshimomoh, during an interview at his chamber, said “a case of an attempted homicide like the one between the herdsman and farmer is a crime against the state and should be prosecuted by the police”.
He noted that the criminal trespass by the herdsman on the farm was an offence that could be settled out of court or compounded by the victim’s family. Still, the attempt by the herdsman to kill the farmer was “non-compoundable or a capital offence”.
“Non-compoundable is a legal term that means an offence that cannot be compromised by mere settlement because the nature of the offence is grave and criminal. Such offence carries a maximum penalty like life imprisonment”, Eshimomoh explained.
“The police is right to conclude that the action by the herdsman was an attempted murder or attempted homicide because cutting off somebody’s hand with a cutlass cannot be described as mere assault. It goes beyond that”, he said.
However, he explained that without the cooperation of the victim or witnesses, there is little the police can do to ensure justice is served.
He said, “Notwithstanding the settlement, the police can prosecute the case and allow justice to take its course, but there are limitations on the part of the police.
“If the victim or the family fails to cooperate with the police then you cannot blame them. For the police to successfully prosecute a case, they need witnesses in court. So I think the police are handicapped in this case”.
Oshimomoh blamed poverty for the inability of the victim to get the justice that could have served as a deterrent to other bellicose herdsmen.
“It is poverty, these people are poor and ignorant of the law.”, he said.
While Rimba faces severe hunger and fear of a bloody escalation, Nigeria has lost no fewer than 8,343 persons to farmers-herders conflict since 2005, according to findings published by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, ACLED in August 2021 and reported by Premium Times.
Pointing to an empty barn, a 59-year-old farmer Yakubu Dogara said, “there is no single grain in that barn and no money to buy food”.
Dogara said fortune was smiling on him until 2020, when his millet and cassava crops were destroyed by herdsmen and have continued unabated since then.
“We don’t have food to eat this year, but we won’t take revenge for what they did to us.”
“Actually, no one knows what the future holds for us in this community if this destruction does not stop”, he said, resigned to fate.
A mother of four, Comfort Gabriel cuts in“throughout this town, every family has one or two things to say about herders’ destruction.”
“I am not sure if any household is spared of this problem”, she interjected.
She recalled a time when her husband tried to stop a herdsman from destroying crops on their farmland but got injured in the process.
“… they cut his hand with their cutlass. In fact, the scar is still very visible in his hands,” she narrated.
“They destroyed crops right before our eyes, and in the night when we were sleeping, they descended from the mountains and destroyed our crops.”
“I always tell them, God is watching”.
The ICIR could not independently verify the injury as claimed because her husband was not present during the time of the visit.
Gabriel said she once contemplated leaving the village for the city to do menial jobs due to the danger posed by herdsmen. But the high cost of living in the city has held her back.
“How much will they pay that will be enough to take care of me and my children”, she asked rhetorically.
In March 2022, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation unveiled a report which announced that about 14.4 million people, including 385,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in 21 states, including the FCT, were already in a food crisis.
Nigeria’s hunger has been attributed majorly to insecurity ravaging different parts of the country, especially herder-farmer clashes and banditry.
Meanwhile, beyond hunger caused by the crisis over land resources, children in Rimba are rapidly dropping out of school due to the inability of their parents to pay school fees.
The ICIR spotted school-age children playing in the village square on a Tuesday morning when schools in Abuja were taking their first-term examinations.
Almost all parents who granted The ICIR interview said they could no longer afford to give their children a decent meal, let alone pay school fees.
UNESCO in 2022 places out-of-school children in Nigeria at 20 million. Insecurity is a contributor to this burden.
Climate change, grazing routes and alleged poisoning of cows
The Gbagyi Rimba farmers lay traditional claim to the farms they cultivate, but the Fulani pastoralists view the farms differently.
One of the farmers, Godwin said the herdsmen have repeatedly described their farms as “our roads” implying grazing routes.
“I don’t know if the government carved out our farms as roads (grazing routes) for herdsmen and their cattle. We are begging the government to look into this matter”, he pleaded.
Meanwhile, Musa, The MACBAN chairman in Abaji told The ICIR that herding cattle has become difficult because “the grazing routes” have been cultivated by farmers”, leaving no space for cows to graze.
He explained that to mitigate the crisis, they “settle” by compensating farmers whose farms were destroyed by cattle if reported and proven.
He, however, said there were rumours that the farmers intend to use a chemical “monkey food” said to be deadly to cattle on their crops. This, he said, will only escalate the issue.
A cattle breeder Isa Alih told The ICIR he lost ten cows to such poison last year. The farmers, however, denied the claim.
Alih, the employer of Usman, who macheted the farmer Luka, commended the community chiefs for intervening whenever there was a crisis between herdsmen and farmers.
“I won’t report cases to the police but to the traditional chiefs,” he said.
Interestingly, Rimba farmers are disillusioned with going to traditional chiefs aside their own to settle rifts with herders. Surrounded by other tribes such as Egbira, Bassa Ganagana and Fulani/Hausa, the feeling of marginalisation is rife.
Dogara, the farmer who spoke earlier on the lack of food, said the community’s problem was aggravated by the absence of a government-recognised Rimba chief who could speak for them.
He noted that the community has been without a tribal chief and representation at the council since 2019, when Daniel Tukura, the then-chief, died.
Dogara explained that the community needed the approval of Ona of Abaji and the Chairman of the FCT council of chiefs, Adamu Baba Yunusa, to crown a new chief.
“We have submitted a name to the Palace, and we are waiting for them to call so that we will crown our king”, Dogara stated.
Another elder in the village, Micah Kure added that “at least, if we have our chief, we will gather before him with our problems which he will report to the government for necessary actions.”
Meanwhile, the Chairman of Abaji Area Council, Umaru Abdullahi Abubakar, said apart from Rimba village, there had been a series of mutual aggression between herders (Fulani) and farmers (Gbagyi) in other parts of Abaji.
Speaking on behalf of the Chairman in an interview at the council’s security committee office, his Senior Special Assistant on Security Matters, Alhassan Lima said the “council has dealt with more dangerous issues than the one happening in Rimba”.
He alleged that Gbagyi farmers had killed four Fulani herdsmen in a village called Gasakpa in Gawu ward of Abaji. It took concerted efforts by the Council and Police to restore peace and avoid reprisal attacks.
However, the police did not confirm the killing nor say if the suspects were arrested and prosecuted.
“The case of herder-farmers clashes in Abaji is 50/50”, the Abaji police boss Makanjuola said.
“Most times, the herders and farmers simply take these cases to traditional chiefs instead of reporting to the police”, he added.
The police also noted that due to the absence of telecommunications networks and police stations in remote communities, most incidents are buried without the attention of law enforcement agencies.
Moreso, independent findings by The ICIR revealed an increasing distrust between the herders and farmers, with each community convinced that there is a plan to dispose the other source of livelihood.
‘Lack of political will responsible’
In his observation, Abuja-based legal practitioner, Paul Eshimomoh, said poverty and lack of education make justice inaccesible for many rural dwellers.
“But beyond that, the government needs to have the political will to sort out these herder-farmer clashes across the country. It is so painful that it is even happening in the FCT.”
Giving an instance, Eshimomoh said “the FCT traffic law prohibits grazing of cows, sheep or goats on the express roads but today herdsmen have taken over. Sometimes, vehicles have to queue up and allow the cows to pass even on airport road.
“I believe it is the duty of the government to make sure the laws of this country are complied with irrespective of tribe and class”, he said.
While the debate on grazing routes and reserves continues to rage in Nigeria, many reports suggest climate change is contributing factor to the farmers-herders crisis.
Sinafi Omanga is a journalist with The ICIR. His Twitter handle is @OmangaSinafi and Email: [email protected]
They will always say the suspect is a foreigner.