All photos: Nathaniel Bivan
When Mr. Retson Tedheke left the creeks of the Niger-Delta for Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, he had no idea he was going to become a large scale farmer. But in 2017, he, along with several others, and eventually, an entire community, formed an association, a cooperative that enables them work a huge chunk of land simply by putting their heads together. But how did all these happen? Daily Trust Saturday reports.
Before 2017, when tractors had not rolled on 2,500 hectares of land and changed its fortunes, Ga’ate community, under Kokona Local Government Area of Nasarawa State was just another village without a road or modernised farming above subsistence level. Surrounded by several others like itself, the future seemed bleak. But today, about 17 settlements, seven of which are Fulani living in a Rural Grazing Area known as Ruga, consisting mainly of Ga’ate , Mante, Kuramai , Andu, Sabon Gida, Garku, Ungwan Mayo, Gidan Auta, Yelwa and Mai Taba, are part of a thriving organisation called Nigeria Farmers Group and Cooperative Society (NFGCS).
How change came
Seated on a sofa in a freshly painted living room with gleaming tiles and pictures of President Muhammadu Buhari, several chiefs and the sarki (king) of Ga’ate himself, Sarki Ibrahim Labaran talked glowingly about how his community’s fortune has changed. “There, right there,” he pointed, “is the picture of Retson, the initiator of this change, now holding the chieftaincy title of ‘Sarkin Yaki, Ga’ate ’” which means Ga’ate’s king of war.
In 2017, Sarki Labaran, who is Hausa, was alarmed to learn that a new signpost signaling the presence of strangers doing business in his community had been planted. “Is there a phone number on it?” he inquired, after being informed. Yes, he was told. Little did he know that that phone call would be the beginning of a new relationship that would impact his homeland.
Soon, a group headed by Mr. Retson Tedheke, a former Niger-Delta militant, came to his palace, their mouths filled with apologies and hands baring peace offerings. “If you collect our gifts, we know you have welcomed and accepted us,” they said, and told him their mission.
They wanted to farm in Ga’ate, and one of them, Henry, had offered a hundred hectares of his land within the community. They explained further. “We don’t intend to buy land, but to lease.”
Immediately, suspicion arose from the sarki’s quarters. Some of his people alleged that the visitors were out to dupe the settlement and take their land. But Labaran was looking at the future and saw the prospects. It was an opportunity to bring growth to his community. So, he shut out all opposition and gave the would-be farmers his blessings. This was how it all began.
By 2018, the following year, the group returned. The land they cultivated was not sufficient, they said, and needed more. Impressed, the sarki ensured they got two thousand hectares more.
Presently, Adamu Baba Ga’ate , brother and secretary to the sarki , is Land Officer of NFGCS. His work is to ensure things go well on the farm, particularly amongst workers and also in Ga’ate’s relationship with other villages around who are Fulani. Squatting on a rug a few feet away from the sarki , he eagerly offered: “In 2017, we started by farming only maize. Then in 2018, we farmed yam, rice, beans, soya beans and several more. By 2019, we started refining our rice.”With a wave of his hand, he added that the palace’s new look was all “Retson’s doing,” and Sarki Labaran enthusiastically agreed.
Who is Retson Tedheke?
Mr. Retson Tedheke was born in Jos to an Urhobo father, Omagbaro Tedheke, and an Ikwerre mother from Rivers State. He studied Business Administration at the Kaduna State Polytechnic, Zaria. Married to an Anambra State woman, they settled in Akure, Ondo State, before moving to Abuja in 2016 where he led a march against the National Assembly. But this was after he lived life as a full-fledged militant in the Niger-Delta, where he originally comes from.
Daily Trust Saturday visited Tedheke, 45, at the NFGCS farm’s Rice Depot, kilometres away from the village’s residential area. The journey into the settlement involved a ride down a wide, dusty road, past farmlands on both sides, past a small school built by the cooperative, the ranch, shack-like offices, police post, storehouses, and finally the depot where a clinic is under construction and people are hard at work.
Dressed in shirt and shorts, Tedheke hurried back from work and sat behind a large desk in an office made of thatch and zinc. His tone is friendly, his voice loud and authoritative, a reminder of his days as a militant.
“I was actually forced into the creek because of the financial meltdown in 2007 and 2008,” he began. In those years during the subprime mortgage crises in the United States housing sector, which led to the global financial crises, he lost close to N400m as a stockbroker. That was when it dawned on him that going to the creeks was the only way out and he was ready to die there.
“I was fed up with life. You can’t lose people’s money, your money, stock traders’ money, and your savings, to the tune of N400m and not be suicidal in a country like Nigeria. So, when I went to the creek, I went there with the mindset to make money or I die,” he revealed.
That was how Tedheke set up his refinery in the Warri, Otegheli creek. He was about 33-years-old at the time. He was angry and had a practical plan: to make illegal cash by bursting oil pipelines, then get “boys” from the creek, arm them and give them work to do. He could then transport locally refined diesel by sea without confrontation.
“So, that was how I moved from running a successful trading business to being engulfed in the Niger Delta crises,” he said. “We believed that we must partake in the oil business, and if the government wouldn’t support us, we would support ourselves. It was that mindset, as an Urhobo man, that I took into the creek to earn a living.”
But in 2013, Tedheke, who had refused amnesty under the late President Yar’adua era, realized that the system could work against him at any time. He could be shot and his children would not have a father anymore. He knew he was destroying the lives of others for his own benefit. So, exactly what drove him to the Niger Delta creeks was what brought him out after five years.
“You cannot keep buying guns and bullets for people in the creeks to burst pipelines and destroy the system and expect to get something in return. If you want your country to work for you, you have to work for your country. When I started preaching the message of nationalism and love for our country and try to make things better, my colleagues became suspicious. They felt I had made enough money and wanted to run. So I became a target.”
Their suspicions were not unfounded. Tedheke and his colleagues were bursting pipelines and stealing tankers of diesel worth five or six million naira . They then refined it, paid the truck owner, transport the diesel to the creeks and then as far as Suleja in Niger State. Through all these, the people he needed to pay were those who drove the trucks.
The longer Tedheke stayed in the creek, the more dangerous it became. So, he left in the cover of night. “I told them I was going to get something in Warri. So, carrying nothing, I took a boat in the night, left and never returned.”
Over the years, Tedheke built what he described as a town in the creek. He spent about N30m to set up a community, one practically involved in bunkering, pipeline vandalism and much more.
“I left the creeks when the country was fed up with the Jonathan regime,” Tedheke said. He started talking about the challenges in the Niger Delta and the need for the country to have a new beginning. As a result of this activism, he was arrested for questioning once in October 2014 and taken to Maitama Police Station from Akure.
“They said they wanted to do some investigations because they were suspicious of me and my petition in the creek. I was there for five days before I was released with a warning.”
After that experience, Tedheke moved strongly into activism and started speaking about the social injustice within the system. After President Buhari won the elections of 2015, his activism continued to the point where they mobilized against the National Assembly in Abuja.
By this time, Tedheke had a small team of activists. When they realised how difficult it was to mobilise a large number of people and that what they were up to could not change much, they decided to follow the president’s advice and start a farm. So, they started looking out for land they could use. Fortunately, a member had some land in Nasarawa, they took it on lease and that was how the entire vision of working a farm began. This was how, with a membership strength of about 30 people, they named their organisation Nigeria Farmers Group and Cooperative Society.
“We approached Kia Kia Bit Limited, a peer-to-peer lending platform where they don’t ask for collateral. In a week, we got a loan of N1.5m. We moved the first bulldozers in, and the rest as it is said, is history,” he narrated.
Today, NFGCS has over 10,000 members across the country. They employ over 300 local people during the farming season and over 500 at harvest time.
“I’m building a community of Nigerians who are not interested in religion, ethnicity, and tribalism. For the record, it is better to be a farmer than a militant. Because the difference is that, as a farmer you create, you nurture, you take care of nature, and you feed people. Your interest is in the wellbeing of people. But as a militant, you destroy, you condemn. Violence can never be peaceful as a militant. When the thought came up, it was easy for me to make a decision to cross over from militancy to being a farmer. We call ourselves farmrades. Comrades and farmers, so it’s a combination of activism and nationalism,” Tedheke said.
Not very long ago, Tedheke was made a member of the traditional council in Ga’ate . He said: “The sincerity of purpose of ideas met a community willing to accept strangers whom they did not know from anywhere. So, that combination led to the title. We are building a bond, and its unwritten rule is that Nigeria is for all of us and that for us to become effective as a nation, we must contribute our quota.”
The farm’s growth
Tedheke explained that when the cooperative came to Ga’ate, it was a forest. Now, they have successfully built a rice mill and produced about a thousand bags in a month. Based on their projection, by November 2019 their output will be up to 25,000 bags, and 100,000 bags within the first quarter of 2020.
“In 2020, we are going to be very aggressive about this. We are going to be a cooperative company that will be able to deliver 50,000 bags of rice into the Nigerian market every month. We train our staff in English, mathematics and in computing.
“Right here, we are building a mini health care centre that can take care of about 300 to 500 people. We are creating an integrated community where the fear of the Fulanis does not exist. Because there are several Fulani communities around here and no Fulani herdsman has been a problem for us. In fact, our ranch is a hundred per cent managed by the Fulanis. The community is a community of Igans, Madas, Urhobo, Edo people, Igbos and Benin. We are here to prove that this country can work if religion is in the back corner, while ethnicity is in the back burner,” he said.
The farmland in Ga’ate is 2500 hectares, and less than 10 percent of it is owned by the cooperative. The rest is community land and Tedheke emphasized that what they do is all about community integration.
NFGCS began with maize but realizing early that Nigeria is an import-dependent country, expanded to farming soybeans, cowpea, ginger, turmeric, melon seed, yam and several more. Now, they process what they produce.
“We currently have 60 tons of rice processing capacity per day. We already have machines on ground to process groundnut oil and soya bean oil. We are already building factories to make feed mill. Before the end of this year, we are going to start processing yam flour,” he said.
Tedheke pointed out that if there is no synergic relationship between the federal and local government, development will be a mirage. “Every single kobo that has been invested in this project has come from crowdfunding and loans from organizations like Kia Kia. The federal, state and local government have not contributed or supported this project financially. But the federal government has provided us with machines at subsidized rates. So, the federal government warehouse in Keffi has been open to this cooperative,” he said.
The Nigeria Farmers Group and Cooperative Society provides employment for not only locals but for National Youth Service Corps Members (NYSC). Ruth Obende Oziofo, an indigene of Edo State, has been working on the farm for three months. A graduate of Purchasing and Supply, she keeps records at the warehouse just close to the ranch.
One of the most interesting places at the Ga’ate cooperative farm is the ranch where cows, goats and poultry are reared. Mr. Ogbeide Peter, who is from Edo State and NFGCS’s Farm Manager, explained that they thrive in using local methods to construct what they need. A typical example is the yam barn where a standard building was built with mats hanging from its upper walls to serve as insulators. Because yam has not been harvested yet, chaff from crops are kept there.
“Agriculture is a long value chain and chaff is essential for feeding the cattle during the dry season. Each bag of chaff costs about N2,500. In this way, we create jobs for those who can source for these and sell to us,” Peter explained.
In animal husbandry, foreign turkeys that weigh between 10kg and 15kg are reared. Presently, other rooms have been prepared for broilers and layers.
Away from the poultry, Peter pointed to the cows grazing within an enclosed environment. He explained that this is the typical way Fulani herdsmen rare cows. “You can call it a RUGA if you like. It’s a template of the way they do it. Inside the RUGA, there can be a poultry section because after you thresh the maize for the cattle, some of the smooth ones are eaten by the birds because the cattle don’t eat it.
What NFGCS has done as a cooperative is to plant the Ruzi Premium Grass which, according to Peter, can last for 60 years if properly managed. “We don’t allow cattle to go in and graze because they might kill it. All we need do is water it during the dry season so they can always have fresh grass to eat. We use the haymaker, fabricated locally to preserve the grass and feed the cattle in batches. We, however, allow cows that are not feeding well, or those that have health challenges, to graze from the Ruzi.”
Peter stressed that ranching should be adapted and taught in schools so people can graduate as cow rearers. He believes a curriculum can be created based on how the Fulanis have been rearing cattle since before Nigeria existed. “With a curriculum, our people can study it in their own way. This is what the cowboys and red Indians do in the United States, but unfortunately, we like to copy instead of doing it our own way,” he said.
Cows in the ranch include the Sokoto Gudali known for having very high milk production. The ranchers target cow fattening and milk production. There are also two bulls from Switzerland called the Friesian bulls known for their large size. The plan is to get the two different breeds to mate.
Peter pointed out that their plan in the near future is to use the concentrated waste from cows to generate electricity. “We are already working in that direction and a company has approached us. This is pure organic manure needed for crops. When we started in 2017, we spent about N5m to buy organic manure for the first maize we planted,” he revealed.
But how is the entire farm secured from armed robbers or thieves? Peter said apart from the Fulani and vigilantes who are part of the security structure, three policemen are stationed at the farm’s police post.
One of the managers at the ranch is Aminu Mohammed, a Fulani man from Ga’ate . He also joined the Nigerian Farmers and Cooperative Group from the very beginning. “We started from scratch and have learned a lot in terms of education and the relationship between farmers and herders. We fully understand the issues between farmers and herders. The herder simply wants to provide food for his cows and the farmer wants to take care of his farm and protect it from being encroached upon,” he said, adding that the cooperative has been a blessing.
Ga’ate and its neighbouring communities have benefitted a lot from the NFGCS. Anna Bulus from Mante community came to the farm a while back and sought for a job. Today, she ekes out a living weeding grasses , and as a result, has enrolled her two children in school. Hers is just one story out of many. By evening, the dusty road from the farms and the rice mills are filled with locals returning from a hard day’s work. Some are very young, some much older. Together, the people of Ga’ate and other neighbouring communities have put heads together and welcomed a business concept that works for all parties concerned.