Some Benue State elders are reported to have opened talks with Miyetti Allah leaders on how to end recurrent clashes between farmers and herders in the state. We think this is the best thing to have happened in that area in recent history. Conflicts are a fact of life and dialogue helps in no small measure to resolve them.
Seeking to restore peace to the troubled state, the Benue elders and Miyetti Allah leaders are said to be working out a compromise to foster harmonious coexistence and have resolved to reach out to their members on issues raised at the preliminary talks. Although Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom whose administration enacted the anti-open grazing law underlying the crisis was reportedly not a part of the initiative, those at the dialogue table included a former Benue State governor, some retired military officers, retired senior civil servants and notable politicians, while Miyetti Allah leadership held the fort on the herders’ side.
More than a hundred have died this year alone in clashes that frequently erupted between farmers and herders in the middle-belt state. Ortom’s administration enacted the Benue State Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law 2017, saying between February 2013 and May 2017, the state recorded no fewer than 46 attacks by suspected herdsmen and 1,541 deaths. An exclusive report by The Nation newspaper last week cited sources saying the truce talks were initiated to coincide with the third anniversary of this law. Speaking on the preliminary stage of the initiative, a source at one of the meetings was quoted saying: “It was a confidence-building session and the two parties have decided not to make any disclosure until some agreements are reached. They have been talking. The affected Benue leaders opted to meet with the Fulani herders under the auspices of Miyetti Allah, without the involvement of Governor Ortom. They said they did not want the ongoing talks to become beclouded by politics. But issues agreed upon will eventually be tabled before Governor Ortom.”
Specific terms the Benue elders are reportedly pushing include that there should be no more attacks on farmers by herders, that citizens/farmers in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps be allowed to return home, that herders comply with relevant state laws and pay for crops destroyed or damaged, and that leaders on both sides should always amicably discuss emergent issues. For their part, the Miyetti Allah leadership demanded an amendment of the anti-open grazing law to protect what they called herders’ fundamental rights as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution and related international conventions, that herders should have the right to take care of their flocks within the ambit of the law, that farmers who attack herders be made to face the wrath of the law too, that Benue laws should reflect cattle routes outlined in the laws of Northern Nigeria, and that alleged excesses of Benue Livestock Guards along the Benue-Nasarawa axis be curbed.
There is obviously a yawning divide to be bridged in the exploratory talks, and it makes sense to wonder how far they can go. But we urge that no effort be spared in the quest for communal peace. Both sides must be willing to concede ground while being frank in their discourse. It is no time to rigidly play the hard ball. This call particularly applies to Governor Ortom who last week raised the red flag against purported plans by President Muhammadu Buhari’s government to review the Land Use Act as a ploy to grab land for grazing routes, saying such shenanigans would be stiffly resisted by Benue and would only result in chaos and lawlessness. Propositions at the nascent peace negotiations are yet coming for his consideration.
Without undermining enshrined statutes like the Land Use Act, room should be made for reaching mutual understanding as could promote societal harmony in Benue. Actually, we suggest that the peace negotiators find a way of looking beyond the President and the governor in drilling for their goal. Challenges will always arise, and mutual understanding must become a culture in tackling those challenges.