Federalism and the Fulani Crisis

DIALOGUE WITH NIGERIA BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN, Email: akin.osuntokun@thisdaylive.com

“Shortly after the Ijare junction, the driver felt the wagon’s tires ruptured and decided to pack the car with the hope of changing the tires. It was like a film. In a jiffy, motley crowd of armed men in military uniform came out of the bush. Ahead of us, five of them came out of the bush; another two came from the rear. My daughter screamed: ‘Mummy, daddy, what’s going on’. They marched us through into the bush, firing into the sky. They hit me on my chest, hit my daughter on her head, blood oozed. At this time, it was better to kill me. I shouted at one of the armed men. His response was hell. He went straight for my private part, tore my dress with his gun. The others ripped my dresses. I was left with my undies. My husband and my daughter started crying. Two of them dug their teeth into my breasts. While attending a secondary school in Adamawa, I had lived with some Fulani, so I understand a few Fulani words. I started pleading, at least for my daughter. To my shock, at gun point, they removed the dress of my little girl, one of them carried her on his head as my baby struggled, shouting ‘Daddy, mummy, what’s going on. Help me… I could not help myself. We were marched for nine hours. I was half naked. My daughter was totally naked.

“I cannot describe the agony of six days in captivity in this little piece. I cannot talk about how they asked my husband to choose between myself being raped or that his daughter is raped. My husband broke down in uncontrollable tears. One of them hit him saying ‘Yoruba bastard, you dey cry. Idiot.’ They now gave him the option that he should be raped by one homosexual among them. My husband is a devout Muslim. He told them homosexual and rape of any kind was against Islam. They hit him with the butt of AK 47: ‘What do you know about Islam?’ If you fail to choose, they would rape my daughter, rape my husband and rape me. I made myself the sacrificial lamb. I was not allowed to put on any additional cloth on my body for 24 hours. The rain fell once. I became the relic and a sexual museum for the armed men.

“We were not released until after six days. Now, I do not think we were released to freedom after paying a whopping eigth million naira. We had to walk the same zik-zag journey back to the main road, our eyes blindfolded. During the negotiation to pay, they said the money was not for them alone that they had to settle “those who send us.

“Crime is not restricted to Fulani people alone. We have Yoruba criminals. I can’t imagine Yoruba thieves going to Sokoto or Maiduguri to kidnap Fulani people and keep them in their own bushes. It gives me mental torture that this is happening and some fools are even trying to justify or look for excuses. I pity Yoruba people, oh, I pity you. I pity my people. Once again, there cannot be anything more comforting than my husband who saw what I went through but has been able to encourage me and even encouraged me to write this little piece after months of agony and sociological imbalance. Good night Nigerians. Fifth columnist, loss of election, Yoruba APC should be ashamed.”

If ever there is a specially packaged precursor to provoke and fuel inter-ethnic angst and hatred, the typical narrative of horror excerpted above would rank very high on the ladder. It is no justification for the subsequent tragic visitation of horrendous bloody retribution on our neighbour down South-east (climaxing in the civil war) but at least you could find a shred of excuse in the balance of terror momentum initiated by the actions and near collective identity of the January 1966 coup makers in Nigeria. In Rwanda, you can similarly plot a plausible trajectory from the volatile backdrop of apartheid racial hostility and the bombing of the plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana (the ethnic Hutu Rwanda President) to the genocide consequently wreaked on the Tutsis by the Hutu militia. I am by no means minimising the genocidal carnage that the Middle Belt states of Nigeria have suffered at the hands of a similarly profiled group of aggressors but at least an alibi can be tendered in the so called herders-farmers conflict gone awry and wild; and the predisposition of territorial neighbors to conflict and tension.

Fast forward to here and now where we found ourselves pondering what could have warranted the sustained random and widespread dehumanisation of the Yoruba right in the sanctuary of their regional homestead by a rogue Fulani militia. It is all the more galling against the background of the plausible interpretation of the APC alliance as a conspiracy of the Fulani political elite and the erstwhile dominant faction of the Yoruba political establishment. It is a conspiracy that has been long in coming and has been persistently mooted by the conservative wing of the Northern political elite as the unerring formula for the political stability of Nigeria-strong enough to keep the rest of Nigeria in perpetual political subjugation. So the question to ask the Yoruba faction of the APC right now is (to put it in a pepper soup joint vocab) how market? Could it possibly be the handiwork of fifth columnists and agent provocateurs? The improbability of the latter suggestion resides in the passive and indifferent attitude of the APC constituted federal government to the persistence of the malady.

In light of the typical instructive recount by this victim, it almost borders on escapism and self-denial not to personalise the provocation which has gone beyond mere kidnapping for ransom to the realms of calculated dehumanisation, degradation and malice. Compounded violence of this nature is usually the stuff of retributive or retaliatory exchange between enemies sworn to unto death do us apart confrontation. Where is the rationale or method to the madness of tearing down the dress of a cowering defenseless woman, repeatedly gang raping her, tearing off the dress of a nine year old girl and still get paid the eight million naira ransom?

And there is the pregnant question-of how would this region on region visitation have played out were the roles reversed? Negatively reinforcing this trend is the signaling (wittingly or inadvertent) from a fellow Fulani at the pinnacle of political power in Nigeria summed up in the admonition by President Muhammadu Buhari that the victim population should learn to accommodate their fellow countrymen. How anyone hopes to foster a sense and spirit of nationhood from these circumstances let alone provide a national rampart for overcoming the subversive threat of the socio-economic challenges confronting Nigeria beats the imagination. How do you procure a successful Nigeria with the currency of the increasing alienation of the overwhelming majority of Nigerians?

If, indeed, there are no ulterior motive or pernicious ethnic agenda to the serial divisive aggravations Nigeria has experienced since 2015, now is the time to urgently rediscover our path back to ‘true federalism’. It has become a platitude to argue that the prevailing status quo is no longer tenable and that the only sense it makes going forward is the untenable option of civilian or military dictatorship; and that unless we quickly revert to the irreducible minimum of federalism this country is fated to the doom of unbridled anarchy. It is in the recognition of Nigeria’s conspicuous cultural diversity and the kind of uniqueness posed by the Fulani culture (particularly the nomadic subset) that federalism recommended itself as the foundational constitutional prescription for Nigeria.

By cultural orientation, the values and temperament of the nomadic Fulani diverge from the territorial ownership ideal of most Nigerian communities. The nomad is sociologically at odds with those whose socio-economic existence is predicated on bounded communal and individual territorial delimitation. For the nomad, the open savannah peripatetic motion and movement predisposition is of the essence and consequently shares little or no concern and sentiment of community based social and political stability-whereas the worst case scenario for settler communities is social upheaval and displacement. There is also the variance in the premium placed on physical safety. In addition to orientation towards the Islamic inclination of fatalism, the nomad lives with the daily danger of routine and regular exposure to life threatening recurrences.

So far, the attempt to grapple with the problem posed by the Fulani crisis has suffered from the dysfunction of Nigeria’s pseudo federalism-imposing the overreach of centralized solution to local and localized challenges that properly reside within the domain of the second tier of government (regional/state relative political autonomy). This lapse has been deepened by the pandering and seeming ethnic solidarity of the president at the expense of neutral and objective response. The crisis is further complicated by the admixture of the Fulani diaspora with their Nigerian counterparts. This foreign component most likely accounts for the unspeakable savagery of the attacks devoid of empathy and sympathy that those of Nigerian origins might conceivably harbor for the innocent victims.

Let me conclude with the following excerpt from a Yoruba threat and trend analysis and an indication of how deep mutual antipathy has become among the peoples of Nigeria. “We face an existential threat from the Fulani. But that threat may translate to unexpected opportunity. They have embarked on a journey of unexpected consequences. But we are known to coalesce only when threat knocks. Management of success may not be our forte but management of resistance and survival under acute threat is the energy we are known to process in reserve mastered from ancestral times. Yoruba leadership is not constructed from deliberate planning and foresight. It is a projective, but hierarchical structured thing. Leaders emerge from threats to our commonwealth and disappear after our survival. This will be no exception. I may also add that when the present APC Yoruba come under intense heat, very soon I want to believe, they will come back and fight with more fury than expected. We are a nation of exceptional spread. Local and diaspora. We are a people of tremendous strength. Spiritual, mental and physical.”