The Herdsman’s Narrative

Okey Ikechukwu


He was an urbane looking man of moderate build and calm demeanor. A strong personality, no doubt, with calm eyes and a totally unassuming aspect. His somber simplicity, firm but unobtrusive presence and the slightly mischievous glint in his eyes were among the first things I noticed. I was shocked to discover not only that he was an older man, but that I put his biological age close to 20 years below what it actually was. This man was over 70 years of age and I just could not make out how. He turned out to be “a herdsman” with a story about his plight, the plight of “his” people. Well educated and well-travelled in the terrain of power through the public service in Nigeria, he explained that it was futile for him or “his” people to say he is a big man in Abuja, or even on the moon, if he did not have visible herds and heads of cattle to his name “at home.” Frankly, I had no idea what he was talking about at this point!

I did not know this man until two weeks ago when we met at an event in one of the Transcorps Hilton conference rooms and got talking. Then he brought up the article “As the North Goes Under”, which appeared on this page April 17, 20919, saying he wanted us to discuss some matters arising therefrom. He knew me and had followed my writings over the years, he said, and was prepared to wait until the lunch break for us to talk about this particular piece of writing. When we finally came down to it, he began by saying that he was at once relieved and worried after reading the article. He felt relief because it brought out much that his brothers and sisters in the north choose to turn a blind eye to. He was worried because (1) the problem of the North had actually become more intractable than he was prepared to admit and (2) there is an overlooked context to the entire so-called Fulani criminality.

Then he asked without warning: “How do you measure the wealth, social standing and overall profile of an Igbo man in your traditional society?” Not quite sure what this was about, I explained that a man’s bans of yam, the welfare of his household his character, etc., defined his standing in the traditional Igbo society. He smiled. Then, scrolling on his phone until he got a map of Nigeria which he enlarged for greater image definition, he pointed out the areas where cattle rustling had thrived in the North for decades. He also said that these crimes were usually on a small scale, along with all manner of petty thievery. It increased until it became a major source of concern to most of the communities. Then, from nowhere, over 150 heads of cattle could sometimes be “rustled” in one day. This, he said, created serious problems of poverty and loss of social status in communities that were hitherto peaceful.

Whereas I could understand the element of impoverishment of the cattle owners, I needed him to link this with some imaginary loss of social status. He did that easily, by asking me what would be the status of an Igbo man in the traditional Igbo society who suddenly lost all the yams in his barn, including the seed yam for the next planting season. When he was asked why the matter of plain cattle robbery could not be reported to the police and dealt with like any other act of social deviance, he said that “his people” rarely made reports because of their location in the bush and forests. He also said that the few who tried to do so, like some village heads whose herders came home empty handed to report ill fortune, were not always taken too seriously by the police. Thus the initial self-arming of herders was a simple response to the demand for self-preservation.

It is fair to say that his explanations could be understood from the standpoint of a cultural situation gone bad. But it did not address the question of whether this means of livelihood was the best for any people in the 21st century. It also did not say anything about the fate and fortunes of the young men deployed to rear cattle by an elite that may be in Abuja, abroad, or simply at home in the village living a pleasant feudal life.

When I asked: “what explains the growing criminality all over the place, most of which is perpetrated by persons alleged to be Fulani herdsmen?” He replied: “There is no forest in Bauchi, Jos, or most other parts of the North where there had not always been some form of herdsmen who lived harmoniously with the people of the town.” He then said that a progressive decay of values, in addition to the challenges of grazing and an impatient youth generation, led to minor skirmishes with some locals. Cases of trespass, petty robbery and even occasional rape crept into what had hitherto been centuries of give and take relationship. But it was also a relationship not moderated in any way by the state apparatus for law and order, so disagreements were also settled outside of that state framework.

The result is that when violations of their old rules of engagement increased in number and frequency, especially in the absence of accompanying mitigations, nerves were frayed and relationships deteriorated precipitously. That made some locals to occasionally take matters into their hands and deal with known youths who were known for thievery or molestation of people. This led to cases of outright killings in a few cases. Then came retaliations. Then, all of a sudden, hitherto brotherly neighbours became each other’s killers and undertakers. Progressively, retaliations for minor infractions turned into full-scale intergroup hostilities. In the end, the penalty for killing one person turned into the wiping out of an entire villages, instead of dealing with the specific issues on the table at the moment.

The herdsman went on to dwell on the triumph of opportunistic criminality all over the country. While agreeing that some of the itinerant and roundly roguish herdsmen are of Fulani extraction, he submitted that it was only recently that the otherwise harmless and law abiding Fulani some of us had always known from childhood, and who was only an occasional only public nuisance, became the subject of discussions about national security. The current trend of uncontrolled movement of cattle all over the place, as against the well-controlled cattle movement of yore where cattle never strayed into farms, fenced or not, was traceable to factors other than the fact of being Fulani.

It was only in recent years that the good old herdsman of old Nigeria became something of a menace, even to well-trained military personnel. He now has high calibre military assault arms and ammunition. Even by our herdsman narrative, it is clear that the herdsman, if we can still call him one, has moved from the simple project of self-protection against cattle rustlers to full-scale projects of questionable legality. The result is that many people, Fulani or not, who rob, kidnap, burgle house, rape, and kill both weak and strong, raze homes, villages and communities in the name of personal survival. His trail is now littered with death, disorder and social decay.

Robbery, kidnapping and sundry criminality thrived more in the South and the South generally, than in the North before the last five years. We know that many criminals who commit these crimes are not Fulani. We also know that “Fulani” is not synonymous with “criminal” by any stretch of the imagination. What is perhaps staring us in the face is the fact that the ordinary motorcycle rider, vulcaniser and also herdsman has hit upon the lucrative business of unlawful behavior. Armed criminality has become the new gold mine, as well as the short cut to all manner of material comfort – including cash that could instantly change your social ranking based on the number of heads of cattle you own.

It is Nigeria, not just southerners of northerners, who are in the line of fire everywhere. The maimed are everywhere. So are the violated. The insecurity knows no boundaries of ethnic roots or geographical divide. So it is not just about the Fulani. It is about crime and criminality. It is also about the impotence of noisy ethnic militias that are good at threatening the Nigerian state, and other Nigerians, on the pages of newspapers; but which crawl under the table in abject terror when the real enemies of their people emerge. Where is OPC, IPOB, Arewa Youth, MASSOB, Egbesu Boys and co. in all of this? Failure of preemptive intelligence, crime control and crime fighting and counter intelligence are issues here.

While I agreed with the herdsman on the danger of giving ethnic or religious coloration to nationwide criminality, while it is true that we are all victims of the same malaise of weak and weakened national security, there is a preponderance of criminal activities associated with persons suspected to be Fulani. The only concession here is that criminals should not be defined in ethno-religious terms.


My attention was drawn to an unfortunate error of attribution in the article of April 17, 2019. Paragraph 12 of the said article should have read: “After a programme on transhumans organised by a former, very highly respected, National Security Adviser, I was at another stakeholder event convened in Abuja on the herdsmen and kidnapping menace now plaguing the nation; and particularly the North. At the later event, I listened with a mixture of dismay and consternation to the tales of a stakeholder who told us about his several meetings with kidnappers on various major routes and how they explained to him why nobody could ever come after them in the forest and hope to get out alive.”
The error is regretted. On