Beyond Nomadic Terror

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Guest Columnist

By Chidi Amuta

A mobile version of the growing national terror culture has wandered onto centre stage. Itinerant herdsmen that have been part of our ancient cattle rearing and transport culture have actively joined the competition for pre-eminence in violence with Boko Haram, Niger Delta militants, sundry gunmen, transactional kidnappers and the rest. The supposed herdsmen are killing people on an industrial scale, burning people’s houses in their route communities, razing whole communities and spreading hate and instability even in places that had hosted them for decades.

President Muhammadu Buhari, initially reticent about naming the scourge, has finally done the obvious and necessary, more than six months behind sensible expectation. He has directed the security establishment to do what they are established and paid to do: rein in the marauding herdsmen and sundry mobile terror squads, find and arrest culprits and prosecute those responsible for so much death, devastation and growing insecurity. While we wait for the outcome of this presidential directive, we need to expand our understanding of why suddenly traditional escorts of meat cattle have become bearers of death and destruction across the nation.

To simply content ourselves with referring to these mindless butchers as ‘herdsmen’ is to taint an ancient and legitimate occupation with a bad name. Furthermore, to limit their ethnic source to ‘Fulani’ is again to assign this criminal brigandage an ethnic badge and use that badge to profile one of Nigeria’s proud nationalities. Both approaches are manifestations of the lazy and simplistic Nigerian approach to discourse and governance. Simply put, these murderers are not made so because they are either Fulani or happen to be engaged in cattle herding.

Those who are familiar with the beginnings of the Darfur crisis in Sudan would understand the role played by the Janjaweed militia, a mobile killer squad in the escalation of the Sudanese crisis. These squads were armed and mobilised by powerful political interests to carry out relentless attacks on settlements of non-Arab Sudanese in the Darfur province. These raids and attacks were at first sporadic until they became systematic. The raids had common characteristics with the unfolding herdsmen scourge here: they were carried out by squads that seemed well armed and carefully trained. They killed people in large numbers, razed whole villages and never stopped to hold territory. Like all terrorists, they were only content in the chilling aftermath of their onslaught. Most important from a national security point of view, the Sudanese security forces knew and aided these operations!

There are other disturbing security-related chatters in the Nigerian situation. Somehow, the militarisation of the herdsmen has coincided with the routing of Boko Haram by the Nigerian military in the North-east. Also this militarisation, most will admit, was not always a feature of the herdsmen culture in the country. Is there then a possibility that Boko Haram may have infiltrated and is arming and using selected groups of herdsmen to penetrate and strike Nigeria at unexpected vulnerable points? The other day, the Guards Brigade in Abuja arrested a truck load of well armed herdsmen. Arms that have sometimes been recovered from or been deployed by the militant herdsmen include AK-47s, and high impact pistols. In a few cases, unconfirmed reports indicate the deployment of Rocket Propelled Grenades in demolishing houses in communities in places like Agatu in Benue State.  The choice of target communities does not quite seem so random and should concern our security experts. Why attack communities in places where the likelihood of bloody reprisals is high (the South-east?) and could spark off genocidal waves? Are these herdsmen reading a map of the country in their exploits for some reason?

More disturbing, there is a gruesome intentionality about some of the recent attacks, an indication that these supposed herdsmen set out with a more pointed definition of mission objectives than the mere escort of livestock would warrant. There are more questions: who and what defines their mission objectives? Who pays for the sophisticated weapons they bear and use? Who trains them in the use of assault rifles and possibly Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers?

The quest for solutions must be comprehensive and go beyond the mere arrest of a few criminals. On the face of it, there is criminality, which needs to be apprehended and severely punished through the appropriate machineries of law enforcement and the judicial process. There is also national security, which needs to apply greater analytical intelligence to understand the changed nature of the behaviour of our herdsmen.

We need to trace the source of their arms, their contacts, sponsors, their money trail and unlock their cell phones to decipher who they call, who they email etc. This dimension is made imperative by our experience with Boko Haram. Under the nose of our security establishment, a vicious army of terrorists was raised. They trained huge numbers in camps on weapon handling and IED making, acquired dangerous weapons, vehicles and developed an intricate logistical capacity. They even affiliated with Al Qaeda and now ISIS. We are yet to get over that tragic and shameful security failure.

But by far the more demanding task is to seriously seek ways of solving permanently the sociological, cultural and economic issues at stake in the whole national phenomenon of nomadic cattle rearing. Nigeria is not the only country that has had to confront this problem. The state of Israel inherited a similar situation with Bedouin desert Arabs when Israel was established. These groups had settlements and migrated from one location to the other with their livestock. They were an insular culture onto themselves and sought to keep the territories where they settled or through which they migrated their livestock. But their pattern of livelihood did not guarantee them full citizenship rights in education, property ownership, modernisation and even optimum agricultural productivity. They also tended to disturb the peace in clashes with the new settlers and even the authorities.

Israel dealt with the matter as a challenge of modernisation of agricultural production and the spread of the benefits of citizenship to all irrespective of pre-existing ethnic or cultural peculiarities. The government applied a combination of settlement modernisation and integration, affirmative action in education, agricultural credit and modernisation of animal farming techniques. There were programmes of deliberate empowerment of the Bedouin communities to a point where they have become hardly distinguishable in terms of standards of life and enlightenment from the rest of Israeli society. They still have their cultural identity but as full Israeli citizens. The rest is history.

Against this background, then, some of the solutions that Nigerian authorities have conceived are either lazy or downright foolish. To delineate grazing zones or national pasture land by legislation is a lazy stunt replete with future conflicts. To seek to re-decorate the existing ancient culture of migratory grazing as a government public relations gambit is foolish and even fraudulent. On the contrary, we need to interrogate a culture that condemns a segment of our citizenry to earning a living only by escorting cattle on foot from the hills of Adamawa to the rain forests of Ondo, Abia, Rivers or Imo.

We need to rise above a tradition that insists that these Nigerians can only realise their potentials as citizens in perpetual homelessness. The nomadic Fulani have no address, no homes they can call their own, no property rights, no sense of place and owned space. Strictly speaking, these citizens are always on the move and therefore have no enforceable citizenship rights or binding obligations. And the federal government has over the years consecrated this homelessness into a credo by introducing nomadic education, building nomadic schools and instituting other silly palliatives that have stigmatised the Fulani and brought the nation to the present sorry pass.

For the avoidance of doubt, there is no relationship between productive cattle farming and the ancient nomadism we are encouraging. In fact, the nomadic phase in human history belongs to a very early stage in the development of human civilisation and society.  Most societies have since left that behind. Even Nigeria has largely turned its back on antiquated cultures but only clings to some aspects when it is politically convenient. Those who are in the process of legislating in favour of a continuation of nomadic cattle rearing in Abuja are clutching sophisticated smart phones, drive state of the art cars and live in homes with touch screen TVs and Hollywood type gadgetry. But they conveniently want to consign millions of our countrymen into a pre-Medieval mode of agricultural production that imprisons them in congenital poverty.

Nomadism and the violence it is breeding in Nigeria have nothing to do with cattle farming. Otherwise the nations with the largest cattle inventory and which produce most of the world’s meat stock would have the most nomads. According FAO figures of world cattle inventory, the top six countries are Brazil (212 million), India (190 million), China (114 million), United States (90 million), Ethiopia (54 million) and Argentina (51 million). Nigeria has only 20 million heads of mostly disease riddled, emaciated cattle and ranks 14th in the global inventory, accounting for a miserable 1.36% of the global number. Has anyone heard of Indian, Chinese or American nomads killing people and burning houses?

Our challenge is therefore one of modernisation of cattle production as a sub set of our overall agricultural production strategy. Happily, President Buhari has relentlessly harped on agriculture as focal to his change agenda. Let us then insist that within the next 24 months, it will become criminal to be found roaming Nigeria with cattle. In return, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) should dedicate funds to encourage settled cattle farming through the establishment of ranches and large-scale cattle farms. The northern states should in fact compete as to who achieves 100% settled cattle farming fastest in return for a federal grant.  I guess the settled cattle farms should boast of modern amenities and would create massive employment opportunities both for former herdsmen and an army of other Nigerians.

• Dr. Amuta is Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd., Lagos