With the suspension last week of the ‘Ruga Settlements’ scheme “because it is not consistent with the NEC and FG approved National Livestock Transformation plan…”, the controversy around it ought to have ended. Sadly, it has only further opened our national fault lines. It should worry President Muhammadu Buhari that those now pushing the ‘Ruga Settlements’ agenda are not government officials but rather Miyetti Allah, Northern Elders Forum and some old men who congregate under the guise of ‘Northern Youth’. By making enemies of people who are asking questions from a government that cannot come up with coherent policies, they are giving ‘Ruga Settlement’ a sectional slant.

In one of the ‘Arewa’ online platforms where the issue generated a serious conversation, a commentator argued that the opposition to ‘Ruga Settlement’ stems from bad politics fuelled largely by the enemies of President Buhari in the southern part of the country. “I lived in ‘Yoruba Quarters’, Jikwoyi, an outskirts settlement in Abuja FCT. We have more Yorubas than any other tribe living in that huge area and I take pride in its identity, if not for anything but, for easy address. We all understand the benefits derived from having it so named. You also find similar appellations like Anguwar Tivi, A/Nupawa, A/Kanawa as well as Tudun Wada, which incidentally does not grant Mallam Wada the first settler the prerogative to appropriate the land…”, he wrote.

The point missed here is that these are settlements which evolved as a result of human interactions over several decades as people moved around, not by a government policy. And you have those settlements in Shagamu, Agege and several places in the south too. The reasons why many seem apprehensive about the ‘Ruga Settlements’ policy are three. One, if there is anything the North has in abundance, it is land. In fact, the total land mass of ten states in the south (Lagos, Anambra, Imo, Ebonyi, Abia, Ekiti, Akwa Ibom, Enugu, Osun and Bayelsa) is far less than that of Niger State which alone sits on a land mass of 76,363 square kilometres. So, the question then arises as to why anybody would suggest using officialdom to acquire lands from unwilling states for ‘Ruga Settlements’.

Two, I watched the intervention by one analyst, Mr Katch Ononuju, on Channels Television’s ‘Sunrise’ programme on his encounter with herdsmen who could only speak French which suggested that they were from Mali and several other people have had such experiences. Besides, many of us are quite aware that majority of the security men who we glibly refer to as ‘northerners’ are actually from Niger Republic. Given how porous our borders are, those are the people we may end up building ‘Ruga Settlements’ for. Three, and this goes to the heart of the matter, in the light of recent history, the idea of ‘Ruga Settlements’ moderated by the federal government would be a recipe for future trouble. Nothing speaks to this than the landmark case finally decided by the Supreme Court on 10th June, 1991.

In that case, ‘Garuba Abioye and others (Plaintiffs) versus Sa’adu Yakubu and others (Defendants)’, the issues in determination were two: Whether customary land owners are entitled to a declaration of title against their customary tenants and Whether the Land Use Act 1978 had abolished the rights of customary owners vis-à-vis their customary tenants. Led by the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Bello, other Supreme Court Justices on the panel were: Andrews Otutu Obaseki, Adolphus Godwin Karibi-Whyte, Saidu Kawu, Salihu Modibbo Alfa Belgore, Phillip Patrick Nnaemeka-Agu and Olajide Olanrewaju Olatawura.

The dispute arose from a Fulani settlement called ‘Gaa Oke’ in Basanyin village in Ifelodun local government area of Kwara State that had by then been in existence for about 60 years. One day, the Fulani inhabitants decided to erect on the land three huge signboards depicting a different name and suggesting that the settlement belonged to them. The aggrieved villagers approached the state high court, seeking declaratory orders that the land was still their own and that the Fulani residents were mere tenants for purposes of grazing and farming. They further sought an order that the ‘offensive’ signboards be removed and the defendants be perpetually refrained from erecting any such structures in future. In their counter-claim, the Fulani residents said the land customarily belonged to them and sought that their abode be known as ‘Gaa Irapa’.

At the end of trial, the state high court ruled in favour of the Fulani occupants. However, the villagers appealed and the Court of Appeal set the judgement aside. That was the judgement affirmed by the Supreme Court.

On the distinction between holder and occupier as defined by the Land Use Act, Karibi-Whyte explained: “The essential distinction which could be made between a ‘holder’ and an ‘occupier’ as defined, is that whereas the former is a person entitled in law to a right of occupancy, the latter is not a person so entitled. The legal effect of the distinction is that an ‘occupier’ is any person that is lawfully occupying land under customary law who would at the commencement of the Land Use Act be entitled to a customary right of occupancy. Hence, the fact that the ‘occupier’ is in possession, and the ‘holder’ is not, does not alter the true legal status of the parties”.

The most interesting aside to this case was the ethnic affiliations of those who delivered the judgement: Then CJN Bello as well as Belgore and Kawu were Fulani men in a panel of seven Supreme Court Justices. Two of them (Belgore and Kawu) were also Kwarans. Yet they were unanimous with others in ruling against their kinsmen in defence of the law. The issue now is, were the federal government to use a policy instrument to establish ‘Ruga Settlements’ in the states, it could confer on those communities a sort of legitimacy that may alter the law as it is in Nigeria today, especially in a milieu where some people are already suggesting amending the Land Use Act. That would be dangerous.

A study conducted by two professors at the University of Oxford on the causes of wars that occurred between 1816 and the early 21st century revealed that majority of them were principally about land. According to John Bruce and Karol Boudreaux, in their contribution for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), land “is the object of competition in a number of potentially overlapping ways: as an economic asset, as a connection with identity and social legitimacy, and as political territory.” Across Nigeria today, there is hardly any section where there are no intermittent skirmishes and killings over land. That is why the idea of ‘Ruga Settlements’ with official imprimatur is a tricky issue.

That some people in our country are bent on manufacturing, manipulating and magnifying our differences for parochial gains is not in doubt. That has always been the tactics of choice for most of our politicians. But when, rightly or wrongly, a leader is perceived as promoting identity politics in a plural society such as ours, there is a problem which is then compounded when it is about land.

Until we settle the question of citizenship and identity, those in charge of our affairs will do well to consider these as high risk factors in conceptualising any policy. As things stand in Nigeria today, if our national identity clashes with other identity formations, whether it is ethnicity, gender or religion, our Nigerianess does not stand a chance. Therefore, while it is possible that the promoters of the ‘Ruga Settlements’ idea might have been driven by national interest, they have also underestimated how the question of citizenship and identity could be implicated in their ‘noble’ venture, especially given the underhand manner in which the implementation was being done.

In his three previous bids for presidency until he finally won in 2015, the main grouse that most people, especially in the southern part of the country, held against Buhari was that he would not be fair in managing Nigerian diversity. After four years in office, the nation is now so divided along ethno-religious lines that it is difficult to build consensus around important things that matter for our socio-economic progress. President Buhari must accept responsibility for that state of affairs, even when there may be other forces at play as I explained in my last week piece, https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2019/07/04/the-problem-with-ruga-settlement/?amp.

The sensitivity of the land question is politically aggravated when it comes mixed with identity politics. The political confusion that sacked the economy of Zimbabwe and eventually toppled Mr Robert Mugabe is traceable to the contentious land contests between indigenous land owners and settler white land holders. Within Nigeria itself, inter communal crises in the places that have remained security flash points is the result of disputes over land. For the federal government to consciously orchestrate and multiply the theatres of such crises as a result of official action is to sow seeds of discord in a nation with existing clear fault lines. What makes the RUGA gambit even more dangerous is the combination of ethnicity and faith which it connotes.

While we must address the problems associated with animal husbandry, nomadism, ecology and social integration in our country, the authorities must also understand that implementing a ‘Ruga Settlements’ scheme under an atmosphere of ethno-religious suspicion is a recipe for disaster. In this perilous circumstance, President Buhari’s clear and urgent leadership challenge is to rise to a higher statesmanship by acting above kinship and sect in the service of the nation.

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