Herdsmen, Gunmen and Madmen

SIMON KOLAWOLE LIVE, Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com, sms: 0805 500 1961

My earliest memories of the “Bororo” — that is what we call the Fulani nomads — are not pleasant at all. It was in the late 1970s. The community had provided a large grazing area for them on the outskirts of town. There is a river, called Oyi, which courses through my village, so the surroundings offer green pasture virtually all year round. Indeed, the Bororo became part of our community. Or so we thought. Villagers bought calves from them under a special arrangement: the baby cows would remain in their care and we would pay for the nurturing until they were big enough to be sold. It was a very good investment. Or so we thought.

My grandmother bought one for me. On Saturdays (the “open day” as declared by the herdsmen), she would take me to their camp to see my “baby”. I would touch it playfully, timidly. Thereafter, we would enter the huts, take some complimentary cow cheese (“wara”) and head home. But I got back from school one day and met my grandmother in a bad mood. What happened? The herdsmen had disappeared without a trace! They disappeared with all the cattle, including my precious little “baby”! They had duped a whole village! Those who invested their life savings in the livestock were left crying and cursing. It reads like “Ali and the Angel” or “Tea without Sugar”, doesn’t it?

The Bororo could never endear themselves to the community again. The trust was all gone. No-one would give them grazing land again. But worse things were to come. Nobody could stop them from wreaking havoc on the farms. In an annual ritual, these nomads would herd their cattle into people’s farms, from one village to the other, and destroy their plants, crops and everything therein. If you challenged them, they would aggressively attack you with their poisoned knives and arrows, even though they were at fault. Once in a while, there would be fatalities. We also had hunters who often fought back with their dane guns. I was a little boy then, but the memories linger.

Clearly, the destruction of farms, leading to confrontation with pastoralists and occasional killings, has been with us for decades, long before President Muhammadu Buhari came to power. Although it was more common in the north, it was a national malaise. The criminality has gone unchecked by virtually every government. Little wonder then that in the last few years, the story has taken another turn. We are no longer discussing the herdsmen in the vocabulary of knives, machetes and dane guns. We are now seeing AK47s hanging dangerously on their backs. We could soon be discussing improvised explosive devices. And that is why we should all be worried.

Of course, I am aware of the narrative out there that the increasing wave of dastardly attacks should be blamed on Buhari — who himself is Fulani. I read somewhere that it is part of the Fulani agenda to conquer the rest of Nigeria and wipe out non-Muslims, using herdsmen. Conspiracy theories are two for a kobo in Nigeria. But the president’s silence has worsened the perception problem and strengthened the conspiracy theory, even if some of us know it cannot true. It is more disturbing that Buhari needed to issue an order to the IG to do his job. Protection of lives and property is the only job of the police. Why didn’t the police act all along?

The question that I am really struggling to deal with is: why the surge in mass killings by “gunmen”? In July 2015, 30 persons were killed by “gunmen” in Kokeya and Chigama villages, both in Birnin-Magaji LGA, Zamfara state. In February this year, “gunmen” invaded 10 villages in Agatu, Benue state, and killed an estimated 300 people, including women and children. In March, “gunmen” killed nine persons in Fanteka village in Daraga district of Maru LGA, Zamfara state. And most recently, “gunmen” killed nine persons in Nimbo community, Enugu state. The emerging pattern should alert us to the fact that something sinister is going on.

I would suggest that, first, we should stop branding these killers as “Fulani” herdsmen. It creates a mental picture of an ethnic conflict — instead of the pure criminality that it is. By giving it an ethnic coloration, we would end up politicising such a major security challenge like we did with Boko Haram. One major failing of our politicians between 2011 and 2015 was the way they framed Boko Haram. The PDP, with eyes on 2015 elections, portrayed the insurgency as a creation of the “Muslim north” against President Goodluck Jonathan. The APC, also with eyes on 2015, said Jonathan and PDP were behind Boko Haram. They kept playing politics while Boko Haram kept killing.

I would also suggest that we begin to ask deeper questions. Are these criminals really mere herdsmen? We need to be sure. When Boko Haram started, we thought they were mere religious zealots. We underestimated them. They would later mutate into an Al-Qaeda franchise. Only God knows how many lives have been lost since then. Only God knows the irreparable damage they have done to Nigeria and Nigerians. That is what happens when we don’t do a proper, dispassionate and intelligent handling of a social phenomenon. We all suffer the consequences. We must never go this route again. We must establish the identity and motives of these “herdsmen”.

If they are truly herdsmen, we must seek to understand the upsurge in their aggression and their newfound thirst for blood. Why are they carrying AK47? Is it to protect themselves against cattle rustlers? Is it out of desperation to protect their livelihood at the expense of farmers and host communities? Where are they getting the arms from? Their ethnic affiliation is irrelevant in this matter: criminals are criminals and should be so treated. Nobody should try to justify this murderous behaviour. Can you imagine the national carnage if everybody starts carrying AK47 to protect himself against the herders? That’s why we must stop the madness now.

If they are not herdsmen, could they be Boko Haram in disguise? I have read a lot of commentaries suggesting that we have entered into the post-Boko Haram phase. If it is true, then Boko Haram could become child’s play. Statistics already suggest that these “gunmen” have killed more Nigerians in 2016 than Boko Haram. And while Boko Haram carried out most of its attacks in Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Kano, the “gunmen” or “herdsmen” could easily move all over the country to strike. The security agencies must thoroughly investigate what is going on and act resolutely so that we do not repeat the Boko Haram mistake.

Finally, I would plead with Nigerians again and again that we should not politicise this unfolding threat to our lives and property. This is not the time to play up APC and PDP cards. This is not the time to say how bad Jonathan was or how good Buhari is. Let us learn from the Boko Haram mistake when we stupidly chose politics above security. We must learn to confront a national challenge with a national consensus, with one mind and one voice in one accord. The politicisation of Boko Haram hurt us immeasurably. It is so fresh in our minds that we normally shouldn’t need any reminder as we face yet another threat to our survival as individuals and as communities.

This is the time for people of goodwill to come out against this bloodletting. I have seen spirited attempts to explain away the killings with tenuous arguments. I don’t know when we are going to learn our lessons. We made similar arguments about Boko Haram, about their lack of employment, about their “original” innocence — until they brought Nigeria to its knees. Our house was on fire and we were busy arguing about the source and colour of the fire rather than trying to put it out. Whatever the cause of these mindless killings by the herdsmen, the solution is all that matters now. But, first, we must stop the bleeding. Decisively.

“This is not the time to play up APC and PDP cards. This is not the time to say how bad Jonathan was or how good Buhari is. Let us learn from the Boko Haram mistake when we stupidly chose politics above security”

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On Friday, April 29, TheCable.ng clocked two. I was genuinely overwhelmed by the congratulatory messages. The idea of a professional online newspaper first crossed my mind in 2006, but I was discouraged by the commercial constraints. It’s been a challenging two years for TheCable, with hits and misses, but we’ve been kept going by readers, well-wishers and advertisers who believe in our vision. It is a unique market where professional standards are ridiculously low. The stereotype is that online journalism is about scandals, blackmail and extortion. Nevertheless, we’re moving on to higher grounds. As Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, my boss, would say, “Keep walking!” Gracias!​

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