By Professor Okello Oculi
A neo-comic news item telecast by the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Network News showed two elderly American businessmen – wrapped in locally woven Tiv blankets and caps on their heads – signing agreements which gave them lease titles over a million acres of land. They pledged to invest one billion American dollars in farming and agro-processing business. The two white businessmen were watched by top Benue State officials dressed in European-type suits.
Previous pictures from villages in Benue State had depicted groups of mournful and desolate men and women lamenting a series of mud huts and large brick houses allegedly destroyed and gutted down by gun-toting ‘’Fulani herdsmen’’. Interviewed victims also reported that livestock had grazed over unripe crops; while harvests stored in granaries were either looted or set on fire.
The scene was reminiscent of groups of European immigrants storming lands of Shona and Ndebele communities in pre-colonial Zimbabwe. With the power of maxim guns they killed people and drove them out of farmlands; seized livestock to share among themselves. As in Kenya, white men went out to hunt and shoot down Gikuyu people as a sport. In both countries, British colonial administrators and courts trapped those made landless and in desperate and brutal need for food for feeding their families into becoming slave labourers for the new European land robbers. While critics have seen ‘’Fulani herdsmen’’ as tools in a plot to Islamise Nigeria, they may well be agents of sinister multinational agro-business on a land-grabbing drive.
In his novel, A Grain of Wheat, the brilliant novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo, mocks the claim by European land-grabbers in Kenya that their success in farming vast plantations was due to the special smell they had for the soil, crops, flowers and livestock grazing over ranches. Ngugi insists that it was the muscles and sweat of African labourers paid no wages, but allowed to subsist on food crops they grew on little plots of land on edges of the ‘’masters’’ plantation and ranch. Attempts to escape to urban areas were punishable with imprisonment and physical torture, including whips with rhino-skin lashes.
The incident in Benue State fits into a plan headed by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, to promote land-grabbing by huge European, American, Japanese and Brazilian multinational corporations that control global agro-businesses. Their slogan has so far been the promise to ‘’turn agriculture into a business’’; a claim which ignores a colonial legacy in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroun and Uganda where officials had forced households to grow groundnuts, cocoa, coffee, and cotton for sale but resolutely denied them investments for local agro-industrial processing and value-addition – including funds earned by official marketing boards. Leaders of peasant farmers had noticed the link between ‘’cash crops’’ and international export/import businesses.
The current global pandemic of violence fed by flight by youths from deepening rural impoverishment into urban slums, have forced the Kofi-Annan agro-business group to, at a recent conference at Nairobi, proclaim that ‘’peasant farmers’’ must be the anchor of ‘’farming as a business’’. The realisation that poverty generated by the greed of multinationals is a vast pool of fuel for the kind of violence in which individuals are willing to voluntarily blow themselves up in suicide bombs, may have caused this ‘’mind change’’.
There may also be the realisation that African elites who travel in Roll Royce jeeps to inspect their farms will not plod on muddy tracks and rustle through leaves of maize crops. With over 600 million unemployed youths roaming urban areas in Africa, it is highly provocative and inflammable to drive their rural families into ‘’internally displaced camps’’. In Africa’s record, university graduates sprouted rebels and ‘’terrorists’’ from Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe to today’s elusive leaders of Boko Haram and Al Shabaab.
Multinational agro-business corporate leaders may well have pushed President Barrack Obama’s diplomacy into engineering terrorist attacks against land-owning rural communities in Central African Republic, South Sudan, North-east Nigeria, northern and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Paradoxically, this diplomacy of driving rural communities out of land either rich in fertile soils or hosting valuable industrial minerals, have gone side by side with intense hostility to Robert Mugabe’s policy of driving white farmers out of land they stole with blazing guns over a century ago. Mugabe’s mission should not become Nigeria’s horizon.
Professor Oculi is, among many other academic and civil society engagements, the Executive Director of Africa Vision 525 Initiative