Ethnic Profiling as Nigeria’s Predicament


On January 9, 2021, operatives of Amotekun – the quasi-state police outfit of south-western Nigeria – went to Aiyete in Ibarapa LGA, Oyo state, on a mission to arrest suspected kidnappers based on “intelligence” from the local communities. At the end of the operation, Alhaji Usman Okebi and his two sons were killed and several houses burnt in Okebi settlement. There were reports of gunfire exchange. Now, I have tried to narrate this incident in the simplest form. However, what I have just written in one paragraph is very loaded. If I do not decode it, you may never understand the undercurrents and the implications. You would think it was a simple case of crime fighting.

Here we go. When the Aiyete incident was reported by the media, the pegs were noticeably different. A northern newspaper reported that “Amotekun has killed three Fulanis in Aiyete, Oyo state”. The Sarkin Fulani of Oyo state said: “Alhaji Usman has been living in that Fulani settlement for the past 45 years. He grew up there and I am surprised people said they were kidnappers.” But a southern newspaper reported that “Amotekun has combed the forests and killed three suspected kidnappers”. A local said: “The Amotekun corps burst the kidnappers’ cells today but the kidnappers resisted them. The kidnappers are Fulani.” Whom should we believe? Can you see our predicament?

In conflict situations, we usually take default positions, mostly in favour of our ethnic identities – no matter the facts. It is an emotional thing. Nothing is as simple as it appears. In the current Nigerian situation, if you are a typical northerner, you are likely to side with the Fulani herders. While you may readily blame certain crimes, such as drug-pushing and internet scams, on “southerners”, you would want kidnapping and rape attributed to “criminals” rather than “Fulani herders”. And if you are a typical southerner, you would want internet scams attributed to “criminals” and not “southerners” but want all kidnappings blamed on “Fulani herders”. Can you see our predicament?

Let me expand that. In the south, there is a deliberate narrative to pin all kidnappings and robberies on Fulani herders. In fact, it would appear no single southerner is involved in kidnapping. All kidnappers are Fulani herders. Or, to put it another way, kidnapping is only bad if it is done by Fulani herders. If it is by southerners, it is no news. Playing up the role of Fulani herders also helps the narrative that there is a Fulanisation and Islamisation agenda. In fact, there is a famous quote that Uthman Dan Fodio, the 19th century Islamic scholar and jihadi of the Fulani ethnic stock, said he would not rest until he had dipped the Quran in the Atlantic Ocean. Can you see our predicament?

Up north, of course, there is the tendency to be defensive over the activities of the herders. They are not kidnappers, many would say, but innocent pastoralists looking for pasture. They don’t carry guns. They don’t kidnap. They don’t rape. These are the regular defence lines. Gradually, some northerners are shifting ground and saying some of the herders may actually be criminals, but there is a new twist that they are not even Nigerians. Why then are we fighting each other over “foreigners”? Basically, we are dealing with ethnic profiling (which can lead to ethnic cleansing) and ethnic defensiveness (which can obfuscate the security issues). Can you see our predicament?

One popular proposal to curb the herders’ menace is to stop open grazing. I support this position. But my support wanes when the proponents say “with immediate effect”. Some states made laws to that effect. Unfortunately, you cannot stop open grazing immediately. The livestock will die. Just like humans, they need to eat and drink daily. If you stop open grazing “with immediate effect”, you are making a law that cannot be obeyed. And if you try to enforce it, there will be crisis. There will be pushbacks. The logical thing is to gradually transition to ranching. It will not happen overnight. Not even in one year. It will take time. It has to be planned. That is the intelligent way of doing things.

But there are issues with ranching as well, and I am not talking about the economic costs. The first is what I have already explained – the Fulanisation theory. While northerners predictably supported RUGA (the ranching initiative of the Buhari administration), southerners predictably said “God forbid”. Those are our default positions. The bigger problem, though, is the assumption that ranching can, or will, end kidnapping (and banditry). I’m sorry – these are two different things. There is the nuisance caused by cows and there is the criminality of kidnapping/banditry/rape. Ranching can tackle the cattle nuisance but only security can address the criminality. Let’s be clear about this.

If you ask me, I would say insecurity is the major driver of the current ethnic tensions in the land – but, sadly, things have been framed along sectional lines such that it has become practically impossible for us to have a meaningful conversation. The ethnic profiling – which, by the way, is not limited to only one side of the divide – has overshadowed the fact that the Nigerian security architecture is largely corrupt, inept and ill-equipped to cope with modern crimes. If our security ecosystem were professional, modern, proactive and apolitical, we would not be here arguing over the ethnic identities of criminals. We are certainly paying the price of this perennial inefficiency.

To be sure, we have been battling various manifestations of insecurity for decades. In the 1960s, our biggest issue was political violence as politicians tried to establish a hold on their domains in the post-colonial state. In 1970s, after the Civil War, armed robbery became our biggest challenge because of the influx of small arms. In the 1980s and 1990s, ethnic and religious conflicts provided the biggest challenge to the security forces, with frequent clashes and killings all over the country. The 2000s and 2010s witnessed the rise of violent religious extremism in the north and militancy in the south. That was the decade that birthed the devastating Boko Haram insurgency.

Today, we are dealing with our biggest security challenges ever. While political violence and armed robbery are still there, Boko Haram insurgency and terrorism as well as banditry and kidnapping have combined to expose the underbelly of the security architecture. The security agencies are overwhelmed – overwhelmed by chronic incompetence, overwhelmed by the fifth columnists in their ranks, overwhelmed by inadequate infrastructure, overwhelmed by the ethnic coloration of purely criminal activities. Political demagogues and ideologues are doing their best to set Nigeria on fire by politicising the insecurity and promoting ethnic cleansing. It gives them great joy.

Although, the current situation plays into the hands of ethnic champions who look for the slightest opportunity to milk our misfortunes and pursue their bitter balkanisation agenda, insecurity is not just in southern Nigeria. We are actually dealing with an aspect of state failure affecting hapless Nigerians – both north and south. I know for a fact that bandits, identified as Fulani, have been carrying out mass killing in Zamfara villages for years, dating back to not earlier than 2012. But it is Fulani killing Fulani, so it can’t be framed as Fulanisation, and it is, therefore, not sexy for the media. Yet, these are human beings like us being killed like rats. Politics has numbed our common humanity.

What is the solution? Insecurity in Nigeria is a multi-dimensional problem that can only be tackled with a multi-dimensional approach. The insecurity is the climax of many things that we have been discussing for years: poverty, unemployment and poor governance. We cannot address them “with immediate effect”. However, we must urgently secure lives. That is the irreducible minimum. We must concentrate on containing insecurity first while pursuing long-term measures. Those proposing state police should also know that some things cannot be implemented immediately: the constitution needs to change and police need to be trained and equipped. They need to be realistic.

Nigeria is clearly in a precarious predicament. We know insecurity affects everybody, but the only thing some people can see is “tribe and tongue”. We cannot solve our common problems by clinging to prejudices and biases – either through ethnic profiling or being defensive of our kith and kin. We need a middle road. We need solutions. Whether the kidnapping is in Sokoto or Saki, criminals are criminals and we need to drop our biases to confront the issues as dispassionately and as intelligently as possible. We need statesmen and women, problem solvers and peace builders, around the table. War mongers and ethnic champions should please give us a break.

Finally, while the Shasha killings – clearly a product of recent ethnic tensions in Oyo state – could have degenerated, we should be thankful that the real Nigerians still showed up. There were no reprisals in the north, which I can bet was the work of peace builders in the region. Reprisals are the easiest thing! Also, Premium Times, the online newspaper, reported how Yoruba protected Hausa and how Hausa protected Yoruba in the aftermath of the Shasha killings. I heard similar stories about the Nigerian Civil War. This is, indeed, who we are as Nigerians. It is only a few merchants of malice that are spreading hate. And they are doing it very well. That is exactly our predicament.



On Thursday, Mr Waziri Adio concluded his five-year, non-renewable tenure as the executive secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI). He helped re-position NEITI, adding policy work to its portfolio, producing analytical publications and organising dialogues. I particularly was educated by the regular analytical insights into extractive revenues. NEITI used to be known only for yearly audit reports – which were not even regular. Under his watch, backlogs were cleared and reports are now faster at a reduced cost. Nigeria also got the highest ranking in validation by EITI, the global body. Above all, he served his country very well and left with his integrity intact. We’ve been friends for over 30 years and I am ever so proud of him. Excellence.

Governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi state first sought to justify the bearing of arms by herders and quickly retreated, saying it was “a figure of speech” – as if we were all born yesterday. Governor Bello Mutawalle of Zamfara state also ran his mouth, saying not all bandits are criminals. He later retreated, saying he didn’t mean it that way. Whatever. The chief of them all should be Brig-Gen Bashir Magashi (rtd), the minister of defence, who asked defenceless people being attacked by bandits to stop “running from minor things like that”. He said: “Is it the responsibility of the military alone? We shouldn’t be cowards.” Is this the quality of thinking among Nigerian leaders? Disastrous.

Apparently, the appointment of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the DG of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – the first woman and first African in that position – did not go down well with the Swiss media. A number of them introduced her as “66-year-old Nigerian grandmother”. Linda Klare-Repnik of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, summarised it well: “If it had been a white man, the title would have been along the lines of ‘Harvard Economist, ex-World Bank Managing Director and ex-Minister of Finance’…” Well, we are also like that in Nigeria. The first thing we check is the ethnic and religious identities of appointees before we consider the résumé. Jaundiced.

The federal high court has scrapped all charges required to file cases on fundamental human rights. You are not likely to see that on the front page of newspapers, but it is a significant development. It is not enough for us to continue to demand a reform of the justice system. We must also seek to make things as simple as possible for the less privileged to engage with the system. Millions of people are shut out of getting justice because they do not have the means to seek redress in a court. Imagine how wonderful it would be if lawyers and journalists will work hand in hand, pro bono, to expose and combat the human rights abuses by the police and other government agencies. Progress.

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