Chief Edward Ujege is the president-general of the three socio-cultural groups in Benue State, Mdzough U Tiv, Ochetoha K Idoma and Om’Ngede. He speaks with John Charles on the suspended Ruga settlement and the Tiv/Jukun crisis
What is your reaction to the decision of the Federal Government to suspend the Ruga settlement project after much criticism?
I wish the Federal Government is sincere with the suspension of Ruga project but I don’t believe that it has been suspended. It may be a ploy to come out with another thing aiming at the same goal. You know they started with cattle route, cattle colony, and later Ruga settlement. They will come back in another form with the same concept.
Why has Benue State been at the forefront of the opposition to the project?
We have a law in which the whole of Benue State sat down to fashion out, which is in consonant with the world’s best practice. It is ranching; and we came up with the Prohibition of Open Grazing Law 2017. The House of Assembly has the authority to make law for the people. But the Federal Government refused to recognise that law. It will be unfortunate if the FG, which ought to obey and uphold the constitution, will now turn round to violate that constitution.
But the proponents of the Ruga settlement say it is similar to ranching. How do you react to this?
That is not possible. It can’t be similar. Ruga settlement is forceful acquisition of land from the owners while ranching is a private business concept where you apply for land, get the land and manage the place.
What dangers do Ruga settlements, cattle colony and others portend to the state?
One of the dangers is that they want to take over our land. But we will resist. They want to become landowners where they will want to install their emirs and establish their religion. The same thing they did in Southern Zaria, Zango Kataf, Kaduna State. They would usually come in as visitors and before you know it, they would take over the land. So, for us, we will continue to maintain our identity and way of life.
Is your group still going to court to challenge Ruga project?
We have gone to court to challenge the Federal Government over the violation of our law and killing and maiming of our people. So we are claiming N72tn as damages from the FG and Miyetti Allah for the havoc they have wreaked in Benue. Our group Mdzough U Tiv, is suing the FG.
Benue people do not look for problem; it is the Federal Government and Miyetti Allah that want to make sure we don’t exist. The constitution stipulates the rights of individuals to own property.
As part of our demands in the case already in court, we raised the issue that there is no single project of Federal Government in Benue State in the past four years. The only major project is the Ruga settlement they wanted to do. All our roads are bad; they cannot maintain them. Last Monday, many people were killed on Otukpo/Aliade/Makurdi Road. This is because of poor condition of the road. No dam; electricity is not there. There is just nothing about the presence of the Federal Government in the state.
Does your action not show that the Benue people do not want Fulani in the state?
It is not like that; if you go to Europe, South Africa and Egypt, you will not see cows roaming the streets. They ranch the animals. Go to London, you won’t see cows on the road. That is civilization, but here, we are still living in the Stone Age. There is nothing like ethnic hatred there; it is the policy of government, which we are saying should be emulated in Nigeria.
What the anti-open grazing law is saying is that if you want to ranch your animals, you apply for the land and it will be processed and given to you. Has anyone applied and was not granted?
What is wrong in the demand by the Fulani in Benue that they should be allowed to own land since they were born there?
Are you saying because you are born in a place, you can take my land? Can you go to my village, Ugaavan, and claim any land because you are a citizen? It is not done. People own land either by inheritance or through application to the state government. We are not sending anybody away from Benue. As a citizen, we accept you; but you must abide by the laws of acquiring land.
Even in my village, I acquired land and processed properly to build a school. Some people still dragged me before the court despite my C of O.
How do you think these constant clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers can be addressed frontally?
It is very simple. What the Federal Government needs to do is to obey the anti-open grazing law. Let them visit other states and discuss the way forward with them and come up with what is suitable for the states. But here in Benue, the way forward is the anti-open grazing law.
If I were part of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, I would advise him to focus on issues that would better the lives of Nigerians. He should focus on the economy and encourage home-made goods instead of this Miyetti Allah agenda.
What are your thoughts on the prolonged Tiv/Jukun crisis?
Indeed, the crisis is very embarrassing to people like us. The Tiv and Jukun are in the same area. Should there be any disagreement, it should be amicably resolved. The two ethnic groups have lived together for many years. There should be understanding. Every Tiv man there should learn to live well with his Jukun neighbour. Also, the Jukun should appreciate that these people (Tiv) are their brothers.