Amid a multitude of inquiries, which previous governments lacked the political will to implement, only a sincere commitment by President Muhammadu Buhari to ending the impunity of the marauders through effective law enforcement and realistic legislation would make a difference. Vincent Obia writes

Every now and again the bloody spectacle flares up even with greater intensity. The predictability and scale of the carnage wrecked on indigenous communities by the herdsmen depict them like a spectre always returning to haunt the locals. The sheer success of their murderous operations tend to demonstrate an unwavering force of complicity between the assailants and those paid by the state to keep society safe from such terrorist atrocities. But President Muhammadu Buhari has stepped in with a promise to end the vicious trend. Buhari must device sincere law enforcement strategies and legislations to end the futile bloodletting.

The president has ordered an investigation into the clashes between herdsmen and indigenes of communities in Benue State. This followed the incident about a fortnight ago, when Fulani herdsmen, backed by mercenary fighters, invaded several communities in Agatu Local Government Area of the state, killing more than 300 natives.

“We will conduct an investigation to know exactly what happened; the only way to bring an end to the violence once and for all is to look beyond one incident and ascertain exactly what factors are behind the conflicts,” Buhari said in a statement signed by his special assistant on media and publicity, Garba Shehu. “Once the investigations are concluded, we will act immediately to address the root of the problem.”

There is a multitude of unimplemented reports on the fratricidal struggles between herders and indigenous peoples of the Middle Belt, particularly, in Plateau State, which has witnessed the bloodiest skirmishes. Five commissions and panels investigated and submitted reports on the ethno-religious crisis in Plateau State between 1994 and 2010, but none of the recommendations has been applied to the tragedy that has claimed thousands of lives in the past four decades.

They are the Justice Aribiton Fiberesima Commission of Inquiry into the April 12, 1994 clash in Jos Metropolis, Justice Niki Tobi Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Civil Disturbances in Jos and its Environs in September 2001, Prince Bola Ajibola Commission of Inquiry into the November 2008 crisis, General Emmanuel Abisoye Panel of Inquiry of 2009, and the Solomon Lar Presidential Administrative Panel in 2010.

Buhari’s inquest into the Benue killings would not be particularly interesting if the president had not shown himself as a passionate defender of Fulani interests. Himself a cattle breeder, the president is reported to be the Life Patron of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, the pan-Fulani herders’ union. In a well-known – though, widely criticised – incident on October 13, 2000, Buhari had led a powerful team of his kinsmen to the then Oyo State Governor Lam Adesina to protest the alleged killing of Fulani cattle rearers. The allegation turned out to be a false alarm, and Buhari was roundly condemned for engaging in blind ethnic patriotism not befitting a former Head of State.

Buhari must rise above all emotional pressures and take a dispassionate view of the crisis involving Fulani pastoralists and indigenous communities in Benue State. The president must device appropriate and workable strategies to end the crisis, not only in Benue State, but also throughout the Middle Belt and other parts of Nigeria where clashes between Fulani herders and natives have become a regular occurrence.

Suggestions have been made for the banning of the current conflict-prone system of moving animals from place to place in search of food and water, and its replacement with the establishment of ranches, where animals would be fed with hay and other modern feeds. This suggestion does not seem to have found favour with Buhari. He told a delegation from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in January that a plan to map out grazing areas would soon be presented to the Nigerian Governors Forum as a temporary solution, until cattle owners are persuaded to adopt other means of rearing their cattle.

But Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, was quoted as saying penultimate Thursday in Abuja that the federal government was planning to send a bill to the National Assembly for a law that would prohibit herdsmen from allowing their cattle to roam and graze in communities and farmlands. Noting that many of the violent herdsmen were from the neighbouring countries, Ogbeh said “massive hectares of grasses for the consumption of cattle,” imported from Brazil were being grown, some of which would be ready in three months.

There is no doubt that the archaic pastoralist system urgently needs changing if Nigeria is to overcome the frequent clashes between herdsmen and indigenous populations, which have laid waste to many communities. The setting up of ranches remains the most feasible option.

All in all, the murderous invasion of communities by herdsmen, like it happened in Agatu, is a mainly security issue. Those in charge of security in areas where these things happen should be held to account for the lapses that allow hundreds of people to be slaughtered in cold blood. The Nigerian government must be alive to its primary responsibility of protecting the citizens against attack and danger.
But then, certain happenings since the Agatu massacre seem to send the wrong signals to the citizens about the government’s commitment to their security.

As the whole world watched and waited to see how passionately interested the president was in addressing the Agatu killings, the latest in a protracted menace of massacres by Fulani herdsmen, leaders of the latter came out with comments that seemed like an open claim and rationalisation of the carnage. At a meeting on March 3 in Makurdi, organised by Police Inspector General Solomon Arase, spokesman of the Fulani community in Benue State, Ado Boderi, alleged that it was the killing of about 10, 000 cattle belonging to his members by the people of Agatu that sparked the bloody crisis.

The meeting, which was presided over by the IGP, had in attendance officials of the Benue State government, chiefs and major stakeholders of Agatu, and Fulani leaders from both Benue and Nasarawa states.

It is hard to understand how the alleged killing or theft of cows can justify the taking of human lives, and on such a massive scale. Sadly, such indirect rationalisations have almost always followed killings, like the one in Agatu, by cattle rearers, with the security agencies seeming virtually helpless.

As if to compound the situation, the Benue State Commissioner of Police, Paul Yakadi, disclosed some days after the massacre in Agatu Local Government Area that Fulani herdsmen, armed with sophisticated weapons, and their cows had occupied the deserted parts of the council area, where the carnage took place. This style of occupation, which seems to follow a similar pattern as previous invasions by herdsmen, has fuelled allegations that the original intention of the marauders that sacked Agatu communities was to grab their rich agricultural land for grazing. Clearly, there are many reasons to doubt the federal government’s commitment to a permanent solution to the bloody confrontations between cattle breeders and local communities. Only a sincere and passionate implementation of popular solutions to the problem can remove the doubts.