INVESTIGATION: How violence between herders, farmers injured many, destroyed homes, displaced scores in Oyo

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A week after clashes between Yoruba community and their Fulani neighbours over grazing rights and land ownership forced him to flee his village, Shuaibu Tirimisiyu and his family are still taking refuge in an almost empty room in Akesan, a village in Oyo town, completely dependent on hand-outs from sympathisers.

When asked what he and the 15 members of his family have been surviving on since they became displaced, he replied, “whatever is donated to us,” as his children played in the passage of the decrepit house.

Mr Tirimisiyu and other Yoruba families had travelled almost 50 kilometres from the three villages – Agbegun, Oniyanrin and Monde – that make up their community to find protection in Akesan following fear of retaliatory attacks from their Fulani neighbours, they claim.

Some members of the Fulani community, however, denied that they were planning to attack the Yoruba community explaining that those who fled were hiding from the law, after they raided the Fulani community, setting their houses on fire.

Alfa Rahman, an Islamic leader in the Yoruba community, who fled to Jabata in Oyo town, lamented that the crisis in the community has rendered him unproductive.

“I go every day to farm and I am the Imam for the Yoruba community there, but I can’t go to the farm for now,” said Mr Rahman, who also told PREMIUM TIMES that he was the main target of the Fulani.

But the Yoruba farmers and their families are not the only people bearing the brunt of the clashes. Though their Fulani neighbours can now graze their cattle unchallenged, most of them are forced to sleep outside under trees after their houses were burnt in the fracas.

Trouble Over Land

For ages, the Fulani and the Yoruba have lived together in Agbegun, Oniyanrin and Monde villages in Afijio Local Government Area. They have, however, endured a frosty relationship, typical in Nigerian communities shared by herders and farmers due, largely, to disagreement over grazing rights and land ownership.

PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation revealed that the Fulani had settled in the community since, at least, 1996. At that time, they did not claim land ownership. Mr Tirimisiyu told PREMIUM TIMES that the Fulani were originally paying rent to his father before he died. He said due to the rent they were collecting from the Fulani settlers, his family endured endless disagreements with the Fulani, mostly caused by the destruction of farms by cattle.

But their endurance soon ran out and the Yoruba asked the Fulani to leave.

Land Dispute Within The Yoruba

Meanwhile, among the Yoruba, there was a dispute over the true owners of the land.

Three families – the Tirimisiyu, the Lahan and the Onimi of Imini – lay claim to the land. In 2017, the customary court at Imini ruled in favour of the Tirimisiyu family.

With the judgement, the family told the Fulani occupants to vacate the land they occupy. But unknown to them, the monarch of the Onimi family, John Mobolaji, who died in 2016, had already sold the land to the Fulani.

The Fulani refused to vacate the land.

“Ask them,” began Aliyu Usman, a Fulani leader, “if they took us to court. We were not a party to the case at the court; so, we were not ordered to leave the land.”

PREMIUM TIMES confirmed that indeed, the Fulani were not a party to the case at the customary court. The case was between Mr Tirimisiyu’s family and the Lahan family.

“Yes, but the court says the land belongs us,” argued Mr Rahman.

Frustrated by the refusal of the Fulani to vacate the land, the Yoruba approached a lawyer, asking him to help them drive a process of executing the customary court judgement. The Yoruba told PREMIUM TIMES that apart from the customary court ruling, they also got an Ibadan high court judgement ordering the Fulani (to leave) after they approached the lawyer.

Our investigation, however, revealed that the claim was not true.

Their lawyer, Salawudeen Adeoye, said there was no high court judgement as the case was never instituted there. He said after he was approached for help last year, he only complained to the deputy registrar at the court in Ibadan, Oyo State police commissioner and the police officer in charge of legal matters in Ibadan.

He said having approached the police and the deputy registrar of the high court, in November 2018, he placed notices that read: “possession taken by the high court” on the buildings.

Yet the Fulani stood their ground. They said they have a document proving they purchased the land they occupy and some more areas, almost the size of each of the villages, from the Onimini, whose right to the property other Yoruba families, dispute.

PREMIUM TIMES saw a 2016 document containing land sale agreement between the Fulani and the Onimini.

Mr Usman who showed us the document insisted the land now belongs to the Fulani.

“They say Fulani cannot buy and have land here. Are Fulani not human beings?” he asked rhetorically.

Resort to self-help

At Monde, where the disputed land is situated, the Fulani community has been razed to the ground. PREMIUM TIMES can authoritatively report that the attack on the Fulani was carried out by their Yoruba neighbours.

On January 15, when the Fulani were not in their homes, leaving only two members including a teenager, Sodiq, behind, some Yoruba men under the guise of surveying the land, burnt the houses in the Fulani community. While Sodiq fled, his brother was not too lucky. He was cut with a machete in the neck by the attackers.

In separate interviews, Mr Tirimisyu and Mr Rahman told PREMIUM TIMES some members of their (Yoruba) families merely “removed the roofs’ of the Fulani homes as a step to forcing them to vacate “our land.”

“It was without my knowledge,” said Mr Adeoye, the lawyer to the Yoruba, as he lamented the violent resort to self-help. He disclosed he had warned his clients against resorting to self-help pending the determination of an appeal of the earlier judgement on the land at the customary court of appeal in Ibadan.

Sodiq, who fled the attack, informed his kinsmen of the attack. The Fulani reported the incident to the police. But before the police’s arrival, the Fulani had mobilised more people, waylaid and attacked the returning Yoruba men.

Mr Usman denied the Yoruba were attacked. But some of his kinsmen who participated in the retaliatory attack, as well as a police source confirmed that the Yoruba were attacked.

When the police arrived, they arrested the Yoruba men who attacked the Fulani community and took them to Ibadan, the Oyo State capital. Those who escaped with injuries were also later arrested while receiving treatment in a private clinic in nearby Ilora town.

The spokesperson of the police in Oyo State, Adekunle Ajisebutu, told PREMIUM TIMES that those arrested would be prosecuted.

He said at least one person was arrested while receiving treatment in the hospital.

Mr Ajisebutu said: all the suspects are “allowed access to medical treatment in detention.”

But regardless of the police intervention, the Fulani clan are threatening more violence against the Yoruba, a situation which has forced the latter to flee from their homes.

Again, Mr Usman denied this. He said those who fled were merely scared of being picked up by the police.

But, many of his kinsmen told PREMIUM TIMES the community was now out of bound to their Yoruba neighbours, with clear threats of violence.

Labourers from Benin Republic, like Baba Fasila and Ishola, who live in the community, also told this newspaper the Yoruba families had fled for fear of being attacked by the Fulani, who according to the labourers, are on guard, looking for Yoruba families.

“They know; they must not come back,” Sodiq, the teenager, said, holding a machete as he conducted us around the assets destroyed by the Yoruba.

All the homes of the Yoruba families visited by PREMIUM TIMES were under lock. As of last Saturday, the lawyer to the Yoruba, Mr Adeoye, confirmed the families were still not able to return to their homes and farms.

Spinoff Of Dry Season

Dry seasons present a harsh spinoff: scarcity of resources required for farming and cattle husbandry. The impacts of the scarcity are most severe in the country’s semi-arid North.

This pushes Fulani herdsmen towards the Middle Belt and further south, where farmers already confront the challenge of reduction in the land available for cultivation due to housing and industrial expansion.

It has also resulted in intense competition between farmers and herdsmen, which is increasingly causing bloody clashes in rural communities.

“Our problem is the dry season,” said Mr Usman. “During the wet season, we don’t face any problem because water and pasture are available.”

Several farmers told PREMIUM TIMES that the tension between them and Fulani herdsmen grows every dry season.

“They destroyed my cassava farm and even a Fulani could enter the farm to uproot cassava and peel for cattle to feed,” said a farmer, Lukman Odunerin at Akodudu village in Atiba Local Government Area of Oyo State.

In response, some of the farmers who asked not to be mentioned admitted to PREMIUM TIMES that they sometimes poison water bodies to kill cows, to prevent their crop from being eaten and their farms trampled upon.

It is conflicts like these that caused the Yoruba indigenes of Agbagun, Monde and Oniyanrin to demand the Fulani vacate their land.

The Fulani herders who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES did not deny that their cattle destroy farms. They say it is inevitable. They, however, said they are prepared to pay compensation to the farmers whose farms are destroyed.

“We can’t live together without fighting,” said Mr Usman. “We told them (Yoruba) when cows destroy a farm, they should report to us and we’ll compensate but they should not kill our cows in retaliation.”

Last year, in a memo, a former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC); Attahiru Jega, a former Minister of External Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari; and other scholars, posited that nomadic pastoralism is unsustainable in Nigeria. They, instead, canvassed a progressive transformation of pastoralism into settled forms of animal husbandry such as grazing reserves and ranches.

But, even where the Fulani want to buy land for restricted pastoralism, they say they are usually denied property rights. The refusal to sell land to herders is rooted in the history of tension and distrust shared by the Fulani and several communities in Nigeria’s Southern and North Central regions.

However, Segun Balogun, a programme officer for the Yoruba Academy, a research institute of the Afenifere Renewal Group, said several Fulani families are already settled in the Southwest with defined property rights.

“Several of them are settled and able to produce milk and cheese, impossible to do without being settled,” said Mr Balogun.

But he explained that it might be difficult for new nomadic Fulani families coming to the region to be sold land to, because of the recent escalation of clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers in the North-central.

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