A person who sells eggs should not start a fight in the market. African proverb.
In the last one week alone, the ambigious and amorphous killing machine under the popular label of Fulani herdsmen has reportedly killed many people and destroyed villages in many parts of the country. Going by media reports, Fulani herdsmen are fast spreading to the south, attacking innocent villagers at will. There is hardly any mention of casualties on the part of these herders-turned-killers, and if there are arrests from the ranks of these apparently distinctly-identifiable killers, they are not made to public. Fulani organization spokesmen routinely distance their people from these spreading attacks, with little effect. The nation is being led down a very dangerous path, unless some urgent and decisive measures are taken. There is a danger that broad opinion is being polarized between those who see a sinister motive and official indifference behind these killings, and those who refuse to accept the broad label of Fulani herdsmen being slapped on groups that kill and destroy villages.
What is needed at this stage is not to succumb to hysteria either way. Obviously there are killings going on in many parts of the country that appear to fit into a pattern, and victims will not be consoled by arguments over identity of perpetrators. Large and heavily armed gangs lurking in forests or around villages may pose a challenge to police and other security agents, but they must be flushed out and dealt with.
Next, we need to work towards some broad understanding of the nature of this threat. The amorphous label of Fulani herdsmen needs to be critically scrutinized against all known parameters, including common sense. The objectives of the attackers, if they have any, needs to be understood. Their grievances, if they exist, need to be identified. The sociological and economic contexts of existence of Fulani herdsmen need to be appreciated in a setting isolated from stereotyping and hysteria. The massive changes imposed on lifestyles of herders by ecology, economy, politics and security in Nigeria in the last four decades need to be understood. The point of all these enquiries will not be to make excuses for behavior of Fulani herdsmen, if indeed they are responsible for these attacks. It is to isolate what can be done now to arrest a problem that has frightening implications for national unity and security, as well as adopt strategies and policies that will mitigate the danger and eliminate the problem in the long run.
There is an urgent need to put this problem on the table and understand its nature and dimensions. It is also important to appreciate certain realities even as the nation attempts to make sense of a looming crisis. One of these is that Fulani will continue to herd cattle to all places where their livelihood is assured, and, as they have done for centuries, they are bound to come into conflicts with farmers and communities. There is no magic wand the nation can wave that will reform and domesticate animal husbandry in the next few months, and only the worst threats and disasters will stop Fulani from herding their cattle across the entire length and breadth of Nigeria. Secondly, many communities will now relate with Fulani herdsmen from suspicious and hostile perspectives, no thanks to the politicization and negative publicity they have been exposed to. Thirdly, the magnitude of the failure of basic policing, community cohesion and influence of local traditional structures in Nigeria in the last few decades, as well as widespread access to firearms among citizens should caution against tendencies to assume that Fulani herdsmen are the sole source of many of the problems in local communities that have suffered from conflicts.
Northern governors, Fulani organizations and security agencies should, as a matter of urgency, tap into expert and relevant knowledge on this relatively new phenomenon. There will be benefits from starting with rather basic questions. For instance, if these attackers are Fulani herders, where are their cattle? What do they gain by fighting communities on whose goodwill they absolutely depend on to survive? Are these genuine herders, or hoards of Fulani whose herds have been stolen in an industrial-scale pillage by organized crime or other communities in the last few years? Is there an emerging spicie of Fulani that is armed and experienced in crimes of cattle rustling, armed robbery, kidnappings and sustained attacks on villages and communities? Are there genuine grounds for believing the theory that foreign Fulani are involved in violent attacks on communities in many parts of the middle belt, south west, south south and south east? If there are, what are their motivations?
Beyond asking difficult questions, there is a major responsibility for northern leaders and the federal government to adopt emergency and long-term solutions to problems relating to animal husbandry. Many Fulani will rather live in local, secure environments than risk hostility in distant communities. There is no state in the north where, with political will, substantial grazing reserves and routes cannot be created in the next few months. These need to be accorded the highest priority in the context of national security and obligation of political leadership to core northern interests.
At the national level, answers will need to be sought for possible links between a fragmenting insurgency, armed bands seemingly fighting communities with no visible goals other than to trigger larger ethnic conflicts, and the manner armed groups succeed in infiltrating Nigerian communities. Conflicts between herdsmen and local communities should not divert attention from endemic conflicts between and within communities, and the tendency for these conflicts to assume more intense and destructive violence should be a major source of concern.
There will be opportunistic attempts to link President Buhari’s person with the appearance of bold Fulani herdsmen who fight and kill locals in communities far from their traditional locations. There will also be attempts to pitch local communities against every Fulani, to rupture age-old bonds of goodwill and co-habitation and trigger large-scale expulsion of Fulani herdsmen from many parts of Nigeria. President Buhari has already given marching orders for this phenomenon to be arrested. Governors and other leaders and security agencies should agree on strategies which lower tensions and improve relations between Fulani and local communities. Security and intelligence services should be more diligent in arresting and exposing the people who operate behind the franchise of Fulani herdsmen.
The rising, if justified indignation over the exploits of herdsmen is a major threat to national security. Left to the sorry state of the institutions of state responsible for maintenance of basic security, law and order, the nation will be confronted with a serious and complex problem that will compound our multiple security challenges. In addition to decisive action by all governments, leaders of opinion should also exercise responsible restraint. There is nothing inherent in the Fulani that makes them immune to temptations to take up arms to defend themselves, or to commit crimes.
Fulani who commit crimes are not above the law, and security intelligence should address the pressing imperative of demystifying the mask behind the generic band of killers labelled Fulani herdsmen. Defending Fulani herdsmen from being unjustly branded is also an obligation, if peace and justice remain key national values. Those with responsibility today should rise to the challenge to find solutions to the livelihood and lifestyle of the law-abiding Fulani herdsman, because clearly, his lot is being made worse by the perception that being Fulani herdsman alone is a security threat to other Nigerians. Those communities which are hurt have a right to be protected, to know their attackers and why they are being attacked. The stakes are too high for ambiguities to be tolerated.