”The warnings pile up, the distress signals have turned into a prolonged howl of despair and rage. The answer is not to be found in pietistic appeals to victims to avoid ‘hate language’ and divisive attributions. The sustained, killing monologue of the herdsmen is what is at issue. It must be curbed, decisively and without further evasiveness…Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka on killings.
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In July 2017, the governor of Benue, Samuel Ortom gave Nigerians a chilling account of how 1,878 lives were lost to the lingering clashes between farmers and herdsmen in the state, between 2013 and 2016 alone.
Mr. Ortom, who said this (according to a report on Premium Times) while receiving Edward Kallon, UN Resident Coordinator, who led a UN delegation on a courtesy visit to his office, said the killings cut across all the 12 local governments in the state.
Quoting a report from a research conducted by the State Emergency Management Agency and Benue Planning Commission, in collaboration with NGOs, he said that 750 persons were ”seriously wounded while 200 others were still missing.”
The embattled governor also noted that 99,427 households were affected, while property worth billions of naira were destroyed.
He was quoted by the report as saying that, “A 2014 survey, conducted by the Benue Bureau for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, found out that the destruction by herdsmen exceeded N95 billion in 10 local governments in that year alone.”
Another report, this time by the Benue State Emergency Management Agency, SEMA, says about 80,000 Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, are present, across four camps located in Guma and Logo local government areas of the state.
Guma and Logo were the local governments affected most by the latest gruesome murder of over 50 people by suspected herdsmen. Scores more have lost their lives in such skirmishes in Nassarawa and Plateau states.
An anti-open grazing law to curb the perceived excesses of the herders came into effect in the state last November which many attribute to the real cause of the latest carnage. The governor had reportedly alleged that the herdsmen, who were not comfortable with the legislation had threatened to ‘react’. A cry for help to the presidency and security operatives to avert the carnage reportedly made Mr. Ortom was ignored.
The law was the state’s response to repeated attacks against its residents, including a February 2016 massacre of over 500 villagers in Agatu.
I am sure the Benue governor will have to take another look at some of his submissions in the wake of the recent killings by marauding bands of armed-to-the-teeth Fulani herdsmen that have taken over large swathes of his territory.
In the face of these bloodletting is the disturbing aloofness of President Muhammadu Buhari to stem the tide. Even though an unwilling Inspector General of Police, Idris Ibrahim was eventually given marching orders to relocate to the state to handle the situation and a terse statement was issued by the presidency on the crisis, many are yet to applaud Mr. Buhari for addressing the disturbing trend decisively.
Many are appalled that it took the president less than a day to condemn the July 4 suicide bombing that rocked Saudi Arabia but took ‘forever’ before a presidential statement condemning the carnage in Benue to come. Many have humorously alluded to te fact that cows are more valuable than human lives.
This is perhaps not the best time to be a Nigerian president from the ethnic Fulani tribe which perhaps explains why the president appears to have been boxed into a not too comfy corner. Or how do you react when members of your tribe are being accused of criminality in a situation where you have to be a father to all and wield the big stick irrespective of whose ox is gored?
Many cannot seem to comprehend why the president would deploy troops to Zamfara to curtail the activities of cattle rustlers and then choose to send largely ill-equipped policemen to engage bloodthirsty armed herdsmen, who signatures, wherever they invade, are mangled human parts, broken limbs, bloodied corpses of women and children and massive destruction.
Disconcertingly, the eerie silence of the president (apart from weak public statements) is being interpreted in diverse ways.
One, the situation if not well handled, could fuel further ethnic conflict in a polity already ruptured by mutual suspicion.
The Ekiti State governor, Ayo Fayose alluded to ethnic cleansing as a reason for the killings in one of his vituperations though that is certainly not the case. It is pure criminality. The president’s silence is also seen as a sign of bias by his traducers while others still view it as a weakness of the security architecture of the nation which has not been able to tackle the menace for many years.
The gory pictures of the carnage that besieged our consciousness courtesy of the social media in recent days call for a deep introspection of what drives us as a nation. It reveals a greater evil that if not well managed by the president has the much more disturbing ability to rupture the already fragile unity that binds us a nation.
For me though, in the heat of the blood-chilling pictures, some pertinent questions beg for answers.
How did we get to this sorry pass? How on earth did the Fulani herder, who in the past was relatively known for peace and harmlessness in communities where they sojourned with their cattle suddenly become fiendish and subjects of terror in the same communities where they were once allowed to move unimpeded? Is there a conspiracy of silence among the ruling class no one is willing to unveil much like, ‘the voice of Jacob but the hand of Esau’?
I remember as a young ‘corper’ serving in a rural community in the capital city how I mingled with Fulani herders and had a good laugh with a few.
Even as a reporter in one of the dailies, in the course of writing investigative reports, I travelled to a few Fulani enclaves in Jos and Abuja and was warmly received by the Fulani and offered water and the notable delicacy, fura. I remember beautiful Amina, a vibrant Fulani damsel I was enthralled with while serving in Gwargwada on the outskirts of FCT and who I actually nursed getting married to! What went wrong?
Of course, the struggle to have access to land by both the herders and the farmers has been fingered as the principal cause but were these challenges not handled with wisdom in the past. Why has it now degenerated to incessant orgies and unbridled violence?
I feel for Mr. President, really I do. However, it is time he wields the big stick by ensuring that the situation is addressed and as quickly as possible. And in addressing the challenge, he must be willing to go all the way to entrench justice no matter who is indicted or from which tribe or ethnic cleavage such come from. If his ethnic tribe is indicted in the killings, he must do the needful to bring them to justice. If indeed, it is the local communities that are indicted in the killing of herdsmen, then the same axe of justice must descend. No one is above the law, no matter what tribe they belong!
Ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo had to take some harsh decisions when the militant Oodua Peoples Congress, OPC, members of his ethnic stock held the nation by the jugular and he even had to take tougher nay controversial steps when he deployed troops to parts of the middle belt populated by Christians like him. We all know the story of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, when they tackled one of their own, ex-president Goodluck Jonathan and how the usually taciturn Jonathan came down hard on them. Only former president Umaru Yar’adua appears to have been spared taking such harsh decisions against his own tribe.
Even the embattled Mr. Buhari has had to take military steps against his region which has been overrun by rampaging Boko Haram since he came into power. A leader has a burden that transcends ethnic considerations hence the need to take these actions. A plus for Mr. President, however, is the fact that he has overcome the seeming reverie by reportedly sending units of mobile police and troops to Benue as a first step. But is that enough?
The title of this piece is indicative. Historically, there existed the practice of having a patient clench a bullet in his or her teeth as a way of coping with the extreme pain of a surgical procedure without anaesthetic. In other words, the phrase could mean the ability to accept unpleasant consequences, take decisive actions, despite one’s assumed beliefs and stance. On this repeated killings, it is perhaps time for the president to ‘bite the bullet’: metaphorically of course.
I want to align with some of the suggestions preferred by a respected columnist and senior colleague, Timawus Mathias who suggested in a recent piece, the designation of cattle stock routes on 20/30 metres off the shoulders of state and federal highways across states as a veritable first step to solve the crisis. Other possible solutions include the designation and scouting of gazetted stock routes across states, designation and provision of protected grazing reserves, conducting annual of inoculation and data processing activities for regulated cattle breeding and assistance to herders, strategic publicity that ensures effortless community compliance of accepted government policies and continuous engagement of stakeholders in peacebuilding efforts.
The suggestion of ranching, which is private initiative and cattle colonies, which is government initiative are good ideas but must be accepted and approved by the affected states after due consultation. As it is, even though every Nigerian is entitled to live and move in any part of the nation constitutionally, this right is only strengthened by good community relations between the host communities and ‘visitors.’
At the centre of all these initiatives to resolve the crisis, the father of the nation, Mr. President must be seen actively channelling resources and energy to ensure that peace returns between the herdsmen and the farmers, who both deserve equal treatment under the Nigerian state. Nigerians are waiting.
Mr. Omoniyi is the former editor of the online news platform of Aljazirah Newspapers.