“President Goodluck Jonathan refused to accept that marauders had carried off the nation’s daughters; President Muhammadu Buhari and his government –including the Inspector-General of Police -in near identical denial, appear to believe that killer herdsmen who strike again and again at will from one corner of the nation to another, are merely hot tempered citizens whose scraps occasionally degenerate into ‘communal clashes’,”
– Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, The PUNCH, Thursday, January 11, 2018
If 2017 ended on an awry and tormenting note for most Nigerians, with runaway inflation, growing insecurity of lives and massive fuel queues, the New Year commenced with horrifying challenges, symptomised by the ongoing atrocious killings of innocent men and women in Benue, Nasarawa, Taraba and other states by Fulani herdsmen. Beginning from the first day of 2018, terrifying scenes of babies, pregnant women and defenceless men casually and gleefully hacked to death by herdsmen began to assault the sensibility of Nigerians, and indeed of the civilised world. Each passing day throws up growing and gruelling census of murdered civilians, among them citizens commuting between one state and another.
A poorly policed and ineffectively governed state yields now and then to orgies of bloodbath triggered by the most trivial of disputes. Even at that, the scale, pathos and ripples of the recent mass murders in Benue underline them as one of the cruelest, most rending and hugely tragic in our post-colonial history. Galling, as Soyinka, rendered in the opening quote suggests, is the fact that matters were made worse by official lethargy and nonchalance, reminiscent of the way former President Goodluck Jonathan, in a shocking fit of denial, ruled out the possibility of the mass abduction of schoolgirls from Chibok.
A poet and essayist of global forte, Soyinka may be employing, by this comparison, a symbolism that speaks of a continuum, a similitude in the unedifying chapter of leadership amnesia and underperformance of the Jonathan and Buhari administrations, political rhetoric of change notwithstanding. Soyinka’s analogy can be mined for insights into official oblivion and negligence. Jonathan sidestepped Boko Haram by a mental map which constructed it as a remote tragedy devouring the land of his political opponents; Buhari, titular head and patron of the dreaded Miyeti Allah, have been accused of downplaying interethnic conflicts, which began as violent skirmishes but have now morphed into a national tragedy. Hence, as some public intellectuals have remarked, atrocity killings, in which several human communities are razed down and villages wiped off the map, because a handful of cows are stolen, may yet become the electoral albatross of Buhari and the All Progressives Congress, in the same way as the cold shouldering of Boko Haram became the terminal political cross of Jonathan.
To be fair, the state apparatus, after snoozing for a while, has since rallied to deploy the police in substantial capacity, buoyed up by military contingents to halt the bloodletting. Even the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, has since apologised and retracted his widely deplored description of the attacks as a “communal clash”. But how apt and edifying it would have been if the flurry of latter-day activities had been undertaken, either pre-emptively, before the mass killings, and in response to information the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, claimed to have supplied, or at a minimum, in the immediate aftermath of the mass murders.
That is not the only problem. For most of the time, and until very recently, Buhari has tended to distance himself by thunderous silences from the successive victimisation and killings, by herdsmen of the people of Benue, Southern Kaduna and other states. This telling reticence has been compounded in the last few days by his failure to visit the afflicted communities, even when their anguished cries of despair and desperation reverberated across the globe.
Indisputably, the minorities have, to all intents and purposes, been treated as second class citizens, bystanders in a political game controlled by the major ethnic groups. That trend was of course punctuated by the rise of militancy and heightened nuisance value in the Niger Delta, which produced the Jonathan presidency. Bearing most of the brunt are the communities in the Middle Belt region, which despite being the acclaimed food basket of the nation have only a few national appointments to show for the many years of relegation and negation. Needless to add that successive political office holders from that part of the country have colluded in the subjugation of their people, as updated in the non-committal statement of the Minister for Agriculture, Mr. Audu Ogbeh, and the very sad attempt of a Second Republic minister, Mr. Paul Unongo, to divert the issues by accusing former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of being the sponsor of Miyeti Allah.
Obviously, and at the risk of being accused of smuggling in restructuring into the ongoing discourse, it is difficult to see how the travails of the Middle Belt people will end outside of a restructured federation, in which such minorities are free to decide where they wish to belong. To illustrate the point, consider the awkwardness of a situation where all the measures taken by the Benue State Governor to protect his people proved unavailing, because of the lack of a state-based law enforcement agency, that may be expeditiously deployed as the atrocity killings proceeded apace. So, we must look beyond the specificities of the current mindless killings to consider issues of the architecture and structures of governance, which make it so easy for reprisals to develop into full scale wars of vengeance claiming lives and property.
Apart from structural issues and the infirmity of political purpose, repetitive political tremors, such as are still unfolding in the Middle Belt should warn us that time is running out on the enduring challenge of building a capable state with a credible law enforcement that can fulfil the minimal social contract of guaranteeing national security. Divested of political nuances, the uprisings of Fulani herdsmen are a law and order problem, which decisive and proactive law enforcement could have contained. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, only to upgrade the skills level, weaponry, logistics and intelligence gathering capability of law enforcement to operate in a social terrain that is fast becoming a tinder box of actual and potential explosions.
Any holistic attempt to grapple with the current and likely scenarios must be asking such questions as why it has become so disturbingly easy for aggrieved herdsmen and others to deploy light weapons and live ammunition in the attempt to settle scores. There is nothing new in the suggestion that the Fulani herdsmen wreak havoc because of their ability to connect with their kinsmen across Nigeria’s borders, since it is well-known that there are over a dozen ethnic sub-groups across West Africa which go by the name Fulani. What is important is to block the transit routes and to administer sanctions to offenders, and perpetrators of atrocity killings, as the scales of justice demand.
Finally, the way to go, as has been widely canvassed, is the development of ranches and the outlawing of open grazing, as is the practice, not just in the developed world, but also in several African countries.
Ayo Olukotun (firstname.lastname@example.org)