Death and the Invisible Herdsmen


Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.

-       Frederick Douglass

I have followed the raging debate on the widespread atrocities attributed to Fulani herdsmen across the country with meticulous attention. From the two-part narrative of Olusegun Adeniyi which ended penultimate week, to the rabidly partisan intervention of Shaka Momodu in his Thisday column of about the same time; the general consensus seemed to be that the country is presently confronted with a major challenge which must be quickly resolved before it further compounds the already precarious security situation in the land.

The major bone of contention revolved around the real identity of the alleged Fulani marauders and their motives. Where do they hail from? Are they foreigners as claimed by some? What could be the real motives behind the gruesome killings attributed them? Why would the pastoral Fulani, who had lived peacefully with their neighbours for generations all over the country, suddenly resort to the brutal slaughter of their erstwhile benefactors? How did they come by the deadly arms in their possession? What about the role of ecology in their migration pattern?  

In any other nation except Nigeria, the answers to these would have provided the first clues essential for finding a lasting solutions to the puzzle of the seemingly invisible herdsmen, who, if most of the unhelpful narrative is to be believed, have acquired the same attributes as ghosts. They jump on their victims at random, and, after slaughtering them, simply vanish into thin air, along with their cattle. 

The main distinction between the security challenge posed by the menace of the alleged Fulani herdsmen, as against others, such as the insurgency in the Northeast and the spate of kidnappings across the land, is that it fits snugly into the stale narrative long propagated by lazy political journeymen especially among the ranks of the vanquished members of the PDP from across the Niger.

The strategy is as old as Nigeria itself. I grew up accustomed to various accounts of how the so-called Hausa-Fulani Oligarchy stunted the growth of our great nation when they procrastinated over our independence from the British. If the five majors that snuffed life out of the First Republic are also to be believed, the preponderance of the same oligarchy in the body polity was why they struck.  The rest, as they say, is now history.

Much later, as a teenager in secondary school, I was inundated with the widely spread fable in the mainstream media which suggested that a mysterious and faceless group infamously called the Kaduna Mafia, were the principal culprits behind all our national foibles. They allegedly encouraged the much hated quota-system – the moral equivalent of “affirmative action” in the United States-; corruption and the enthronement of mediocracy in the federal bureaucracy.

Even much later, with the demise of the Second Republic and another opportunity to enthrone genuine democracy in the nation, the narrative in the blame-game for national failings changed, somewhat. This time, it was the same military celebrated in some quarters for terminating the First Republic, which emerged as the subject of intense abuse from the mainstream media.

The principal difference, of course, was that by this this time, the successive military regimes that emerged were led by Generals of northern origin. They succeeded the Northern Oligarchy, and Kaduna Mafia as the harbingers of corruption and incompetent leadership. It never mattered that the governments they led were drawn from representatives from all the nation’s geo-political zones. Again, the rest, as it is often said, is now history.

It took the administrations of Olusegun Obasanjo and a certain Dr. Goodluck Jonathan for Nigerians to realize that corrupt, or incompetent leadership, is not the peculiar preserve of any ethnic group, region, or religion in the country. I have gone to this length only to stress an important point.

Since independence, Nigerians, have serially proved incapable of drawing useful lessons from their political history as we struggle to come to terms with our contemporary challenges. In the attempt to malign other ethnic groups for political profit, we miss out on the golden opportunity to solve genuine national problems particularly the hydra-headed challenges of insecurity, corruption and incompetent leadership.

When we ignore glaring facts in preference to primordial sentiments in the attempts to solve our problems, we not only muddle-up the subject matter, we also constrict the space for intelligent interrogation of issues as they arise. The net import, of course, is that we lose the opportunity to permanently heal our wounds. The frequent re-occurrence of national challenges we thought had been sufficiently dealt with in the past attests to this.  

Like I wrote earlier, a few commentators like Segun Adeniyi have enriched the debate on the atrocities allegedly attributed to the herdsmen because they touched on all bases including the ecological factors that have undoubtedly contributed to the heightened migration of the herdsmen. Sadly, however, other commentators were less graceful.

They pandered, as usual, to the old prejudices that have frustrated our attempts at national unity and cohesion. Some even saw the issue as another opportunity to embarrass the President who is also Fulani and did not hide the fact in their commentaries.

Like they did with the Boko Haram insurgency in its infancy, others saw it as a purely northern problem before reality dawned on them. Even now, they cannot see the presence of the Fulani herdsmen in their south as sufficient notice of the fast advancing Sahara desert. They also reject all suggestions put on the table including the idea of reactivating the near extinct grazing reserves.

They have proffered no solution to the issue beyond the highly impractical suggestion that the nomadic Fulani should be restricted to cattle ranches like they do in America. With such rigid views, borne more out of selfish impulse rather than any logical examination of facts and where they lead us, mistakes are bound to be made.

The first casualty in my view is often the solutions to the myriad of problems afflicting us as a nation. Due to the short-sighted folly of our urbane elite, who should know better, we serially allowed criminals to escape justice due exactly to the sort of group mentality I wholeheartedly reject in this discourse.

Make no mistake about this: there are, indeed, criminals among the Fulani herdsmen just like there are among all the other tribes in Nigeria. But to hold a particular ethnic group responsible for the crimes of the few among them is, in itself, a greater injustice. It also makes the herculean task of fishing out the particular criminals even harder.

Obviously, the status-quo is also a major challenge to our security enforcement agencies. Their failure to apprehend the perpetrators of the crimes plays into the hands of the anarchists in our midst including those in the political realm who are yet to swallow the bitter pill of defeat in last year’s general election.  

Related to that is the inevitable recourse to conspiracy theories. With so many dead bodies, and no virtually no reported arrests made of the herders or their cattle, some will continue to doubt the identity of the alleged killers in a manner that their victims hardly deserve. That is why all hands must be on deck to the real unmask criminals by denying them the sanctuary ethnic, regional or religious platform in the manner we routinely do by muddling up issues.