Like most coastal areas in the Niger Delta, the major source of livelihood for the people of Bayelsa State is fishing and farming, mostly done at the subsistence level.
With proceeds from oil, largely exploited right in their backyards, rarely reaching them, the farmers, mostly women, toil by the day in their farms and go fishing in the night to make ends meet.
They bear the burden of tilling the ground with crude and ancient tools, mainly hoes and cutlasses, heavy as it is, with equanimity, hopeful that at the end of the farming season, they would be able to reap the fruits of their labour.
But in many parts of Bayelsa, the natural dictate of reaping the good that you sow has become a daydream, if not a nightmare.
Routinely, nomads from Nigeria’s arctic, desperately in search of pastures for their livestock, perhaps unwittingly, walking side by side their cows encroach these farms, causing tears and sorrow in their wake.
From Gbarantoru, Tombia, Agudama and Bumoundi to Akaibiri, Bumoundi-Gbene and Ikibiri, the story has been the same- destruction, despoliation and ruination.
All the aforementioned towns are located in Ekpetiama, a kingdom in Yenagoa Local Government Area of Bayelsa State which has been badly hit by the unenviable phenomenon.
Unfortunately, it would appear that the issue has not drawn the required attention from the government as well as the security agencies for them to wade in and stop the imminent confrontation, especially when push eventually comes to shove.
Though protests, peaceful ones, have been carried by the farmers to notify the authorities, those who have largely been involved in trying to broker peace between the farmers and the herdsmen are mainly non-governmental organisations.
In this regard, worthy of note is the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria (ERA/FOEN), which has serially done several field trips to many of the affected communities and attempting to ensure that clashes are averted.
But the efforts of the not-for-profit group aside, not much has been done, save for a handful of lawmakers who recently made a feeble attempt to compel the authorities to act before the issue escalates.
To be fair, the lawmakers in Bayelsa recently adopted a motion raised by the member representing Ogbia Constituency 1, Mitema Obordor, resolving to control the movement of animals in the state.
The motion sought to “prohibit stray animals and grazing of cattle from one location to another through farmlands, thereby causing damage, health hazards, obstruction of vehicles and human traffic.” But it ended at that: just motion without action.
Many of the affected farmers in the communities, narrated tales of woes in their encounters with the herdsmen, including the destruction of their farmlands and being beaten up by them.
But the suspected culprits, though not denying that there have been several incidents of harm done to the farmers’ source of livelihoods, said those who perpetrated the destruction were not members of their groups, insisting that the nomads operate in cells.
Sele Tuosaigha, one of the farmers from Tombia community, in Yenagoa, said her crops have been destroyed several times.
“These cattle have come again and again to eat up the young plants and destroy my farm. It was the same thing I experienced last year, now they have come again.
“We don’t even have any other work to earn salary. The State Governor has been urging us to farm, even President (Muhammadu) Buhari is saying the same thing. Now we are farming and these men are bringing malu (cows) to come and destroy our farms.
“What have the authorities done to prevent the cattle from coming to destroy our crops and farm? Didn’t they see them when they were entering the state? We are not civil servants, nor are we working in any other paid job except farming. So, if we are denied of our farming, how are we going to survive?” She queried, not expecting any response.
She continues,” Our children’s education too depends on our efforts in the farm, so our children will surely be affected by this destruction. Please take this matter seriously otherwise …”
James Olaere is another farmer who has been badly affected by the menace. He posits that with the way things are going, it would only be a matter of time before hostilities would set in.
’’Farming is my source of livelihood”, he begins. “Just two days ago when the herdsmen led their cattle to this place, they scattered the entire farm; ate and uprooted the crops that were already doing well.
“This is where I get my ‘salary’, I won’t accept these invaders near my farm anymore. From today, they should leave this environment,” he fumes.
In Agudama, Eustacy Zige, who led journalists to her farm, wept profusely for her loss, explaining that with the destruction, next year would even be more difficult to survive hunger.
“I have been very ill for some time now”, she says. “But due to the harsh economic situation and hunger, I decided to force myself back to the farm. Now see what has become my lot, the cattle have uprooted my crops, eaten the tender ones and destroyed my farm.
“I was making efforts to escape from hunger, but what am I going to do now?’’ She asked rhetorically.
The stories of doom are pervasive. From Ibomo Odigi, who said she was glad that the floods had receded, only to be met with herdsmen trouble to Binaere Anthony who said she had been beaten up several times, the protesting women said the situation was becoming hopeless.
“We need government to tell them to leave; go away from our land. From today we don’t want to see cattle in Ekpetiama environment. The herdsmen should carry their malu and leave before they destroy all of us. We are ready to die on this matter; they should relocate from our environment,” the angry farmer fumed.
On the violence wrought by some of the suspects, Mrs Anthony narrates her ordeal. “I was tilling my farm and a herd of cattle just came and walked through. They rushed into my farm.
“Pointing to one of the herdsmen, he continues, “I quickly told that one (Abubakar Usman) and pleaded with him to call his cows to order. He said there was nothing he could do.
“It was then I ran out of patience and grabbed him. He beat me as I grabbed him and I retaliated by beating him too. So, we started fighting until my sister came to my rescue and we raised the alarm for assistance. They even went ahead to shoot guns that day,” she alleges.
“They chased us and we ran for dear lives because we didn’t want to die. Yet, they chased us in our own land, these herdsmen. Apart from their guns and machetes, they were more than us in number, we were only four women and that was why we ran,” she adds.
Many farmers in the affected areas, including the Chairman of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), the umbrella body of youths of Ijaw descent in the area, spoke in the same vein.
Keneth Paul, the IYC Chairman, Ekpetiama kingdom, said that but for the efforts of the local authorities in the area, the problem would have escalated by now.
“The herdsmen are armed with guns and ammunition tied to their cow as they roam about. It is not as if I cannot mobilise youths to engage the herdsmen, but that would result into violence.
“As it is now, we are calling on government to come and chase them away from our environment because they are not helping us. They should leave our environment and let our mothers farm and get food for us to eat,” he said.
But leader of one of the groups of herdsmen operating in the axis, Abubakar Usman, denied using guns, saying the cutlasses they carry around are for clearing obstacles each time they get stuck in the bush.
“People around this area know our group, we don’t spoil crops. Maybe by mistake one or two cows can enter into a farm and destroy crops. If it happens that way, the women should call me and I will go and take a look at what is destroyed,” he said.
He argued that the groups which usually cause destruction are those whose herds are too large to control.
“To control such large herds of cattle is not easy; sometimes they veer into farms and when such happens you can’t avoid crops being damaged.
“If I approach the other group with large herd and tell them not to remain here they would interpret it to mean that I am chasing them away so that only my cattle should eat the grass within this area,” he said.
He added, “They won’t listen to me because I am not a chief, chairman or landlord; so they won’t obey me even if I tell them to leave the environment.”
The Chairman of Ekpetiama Security Committee, Mr. Imomotimi Dakolo, who also addressed the affected women, sought the immediate relocation of the herdsmen.
“Farming is a major occupation here and we cannot allow our women to be denied practicing their traditional occupation. We can’t even afford to give the herdsmen any area within our environment to stay or lease because the tendency for the cattle to go out of control and spoil other people’s farms is there. To avoid that, they should go.
“We appeal to government to do the needful. We hear the National Assembly is working on a Bill to get somewhere for them to go and settle; they should go to that place,” he said.
“As you can see, they are armed. Government should come and tell them to leave our environment. If we want to do it ourselves, definitely it will involve exchange of gunfire and we do not want to encourage that here,” he noted.
Also Speaking, His Royal Majesty King Bubaraye Dakolo, Agada IV, Ibenanaowei of Ekpetiama kingdom, who visited some of the farms himself, called for peace and patience while the issue was being resolved.
While appealing to the protesters, the monarch stated that since the destruction of crops and farmlands started, last year’s and this have been the most hit.
“It is actually appalling and we are indeed a greater victim than any other group as far as this issue is concerned. Year after year as far as I can remember, it gets worse.
“These cattle rearers don’t seem to know what our staples are. So the cattle eat up cassava perhaps because they think these are just wild plants that are supposed to be eaten by cows.
“Locals are not happy and they complained and almost resulted into fighting. We are of the view that given the experiences in Benue State, Ebonyi State and other places, we shouldn’t leave this matter to one or two farmers to handle.
“We have to wake the world to realities of possible clashes that could result if government does not do what is supposed to be done. Everybody needs to wake up and do his work.
“Even the State House of Assembly needs to do something and that means the state governor himself should step in. We don’t want to wake up one morning to the reality that because someone’s cow was attacked by a lady or young man killed a cow, a community is burnt down.
“Because normally the reaction is that, oh you killed our cattle; so we kill you all and we burn you down and so on and so forth. We don’t want such an experience,” he said.
It’s not the first time community leaders NGOs would seek to intervene to avert bloodshed.
In June of this year, advocacy groups, Nigeria Reconciliation and Stability Project of the British Council and the Bayelsa State Peace and Conflict Management Alliance, mediated in the conflict between Fulani herdsmen and farmers in the state.
Leader of the group, Mrs. Elizabeth Egbe, told journalists after a meeting with farmers and victims of the attacks in Yenagoa, that there was the need to end the frequent attacks on farmers.
“There is tension already in some communities in Biogbolo, Yenuzie-Epie, Okutukutu and Epie in Yenagoa Local Government Area of the state, where some farmers were attacked by the herdsmen.
“We are here to find out the root of the matter and way forward for the betterment of our people and Nigerians. Some of the attacked farmers are here with us.
“We have had a meeting with the security agencies to tackle the issue in the state. So, we are urging the government to provide a grazing field for the Fulani herdsmen in the state – a place, where they can settle rather than moving from one bush to another.”
Coordinator of ERA/FoEN in Bayelsa, Mr. Morris Alagoa, told THISDAY that unless the authorities step in promptly to prevent further provocation, it will soon get to the point where violence would be an option.
He said the use of dangerous weapons by the herders and the likely retaliation by the women and youths of the affected communities could snowball into loss of lives.
He urged representatives of Bayelsa State at the National Assembly to work closely with the state and local governments with a view to ensuring the interest of the farmers are effectively protected.
He added that more enlightenment and advocacy should be carried out to prevent violent conflict and to ensure there is fairness in settling the issue and advised communities to continue to exercise restraint.
The Bayelsa State government, through the state Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr. Jonathan Obuebite, told THISDAY that the government was handling the matter with all the care that it deserves as it remains ‘very sensitive’.
It noted that the Governor, Mr. Seriake Dickson, had already met with all the security agencies and directed that appropriate action should be taken to ensure that the issue does not escalate.