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On May 11, 2021, Nigeria’s Southern Governors Forum resolved to ban open grazing of cattle in all of its 17 states in an attempt to stop the decades-long crisis involving farmers and nomadic herders often clashing over limited access to water and land. A week after the governors’ decision, Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River defected from the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to the All Progressives Congress (APC).
In the following weeks, it became crystal clear that Ayade had other priorities other than the governors’ resolution. Therefore, when the former lecturer recently said he wouldn’t be signing into law a bill that the State House of Assembly is proposing to ban open grazing, with ranching as an alternative, it was not surprising to many, even though his reasons were.
We know Governor Ben Ayade is interested in being [the] president or vice-president of this country…
According to the governor, enforcing such a ban is “insensitive” and “a deliberate invitation to war”.
“How would you as a nation declare illegitimate a legitimate trade of the people, the nomadic herdsmen. Even though [the] southern governors have made it very clear that all southern governors must pass the anti-open grazing law, Cross River has not; I have not, because I cannot ask my herdsmen brothers – whether of northern or southern extraction – to shut down their trade and stay confined to a place whether they have the pasture or not,” he said.
How ‘accommodating’ can Cross River be?
Interestingly, Ayade is on the same page with the Nigerian presidency, which had criticised the move as a show of power by the governors. In pitching his tent with Abuja, Ayade is “being overly political as against his position as the chief security officer of the state”, says public affairs analyst Kennedy Nsan.
“There is already a feeling of fear as a result of the pervasive insecurity in the land, so it is expected that the governor will act in the interest of Cross Riverians; instead, he is acting in the interest of the Fulani oligarchy,” Nsan tells The Africa Report from Cross River.
Jo Esse, a leader of the PDP in Cross River, also thinks the governor’s statement – that Fulanis are his brothers – is a clear indication that this is about him (and) not about Cross Riverians, though not everyone sees it that way.
Cross River State Commissioner for Agriculture, Ntufam Okon Owuna, tells The Africa Report that the governor’s position on the matter is supreme, with no room for further comments.
Another political appointee of the governor, Kingsley Ikpeme, gives insight into why Ayade chose not to follow in the footsteps of his colleagues in Southern Nigeria. “The strategy is to find a lasting solution to the protracted crisis,” says Ikpeme, who leads the efforts of the Cross River State government to develop the state capital, Calabar.
“It projects Cross River State as a liberal, accommodating and peaceful state [and] the state expects that the Fulani herdsmen reciprocate this kind gesture by being law-abiding and bearing in mind that both the herdsmen and the farmers are all in business to make a profit,” he says.
In avoiding ‘war’, Ayade might have called for war
Across Nigeria, headlines are rife about incessant clashes between farmers in local communities and nomadic herdsmen whose cattle often damage crops, including those on former grazing routes.
Cross River is not among the many states in Nigeria where clashes are frequent, but they do occur, including in Obudu local government area, where the governor hails from, and across the northern district. It is little wonder then that Mike Udam, a commercial farmer in the state, sees the governor’s decision as one made by those who “stay in […] beautiful offices [but] when [the decision is brought] to the village, cannot be implemented.”
“As I talk to you now, Northern Cross River is tense, but nobody is willing to say anything,” he says. “If you come to the rural areas where the herdsmen stay, in the contemporary Nigerian society as it is today, it is a very difficult one. This is a business that must be regulated, and the best option open now is ranching.”
Udam also believes that the governor’s decision will mean more harm than good and might hurt his (Ayade’s) support among the people because “there is already an existing disenchantment in the hearts of people about the issue of herders”.
Governor Ayade had every single reason to speak and act for Cross Riverians [but] what he has done is political suicide.
Although some other groups have argued that an outright ban on open grazing will hurt the business of nomadic herders, the herdsmen are considering the idea, though timing is a big issue.
Gidado Siddiki, southeast leader of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), the association of herdsmen in the country, argues that although the “suggestions for an improved and more modern mode of livestock keeping could be well [received], [an intermediate] course needs to be quickly negotiated in the interim”.
‘Political suicide’ while in bed with Abuja?
Although Ayade is not the only governor yet to enact a law banning open grazing, he is only the second one – after Imo Governor Hope Uzodinma – to have come out openly to oppose the move. What else do they have in common? Both governors are from the APC and find themselves in positions where they are struggling to keep the ruling party alive in regions where the PDP’s foothold is a lot more formidable.
Since he ventured into politics in 2011, when he ran for the senatorial election under the PDP and won, Ayade’s goodwill among Cross River residents has continued to blossom – until now, it seems.
By “pandering towards certain political interests” against the wishes of the people, Ayade has also angered the electorates in the state”, analyst Nsan says.
“If the governor refuses, it is a total disservice to the people of Cross River,” PDP leader Esse tells The Africa Report, arguing that “Governor Ayade had every single reason to speak and act for Cross Riverians [but] what he has done is political suicide”.
He also says: “We know Governor Ben Ayade is interested in being […] president or vice-president of this country, but when you prefer to pursue your personal political interests and ambition over the will of the people you are governing, how then do you think the people in the country will fare under your leadership?”
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