Many Nigerians agree that the level of insecurity in the country compares with what typically obtains in a war situation. And war is an inclement bed for prosperity to rest. Similar to war circumstances, many Nigerians have lost the freedom to move undisturbed from one location to another. News of the dead, maimed, persons taken hostage as well as stories of narrow escapes from death also pervade the air daily. The fear of the unknown remains palpable. Highways appear lonely and deserted particularly very early in the mornings and late in the evenings. There is also an evident drop in the tempo of activities in many areas that usually bubbled with social life. Our village farmers have equally abandoned their farms out of fear of being attacked by either bandits or gun-wielding herdsmen. Parents no longer keep their eyes off their children even in sacred places because of the fear of kidnapping the latter. The law enforcement agents are looked at with suspicion as many of them have compromised their professional standing and acted criminally against the law and can no longer be trusted to act impartially. These days, and particularly on highways, one has to be convinced that the stop and check police officers are indeed genuine. Criminals in police uniform are commonplace while that technique is good at snaring and catching target prey.
In recent times, the Fulani herdsmen appear to top the list of considered culprits in this nasty and brutish order. This top position has also unfortunately earned the profiling of the average Fulani man as a potential murderer. While this is not true, what is correct nevertheless is that many Nigerians seems to have widely validated that position given the spate of evil occurrences implicating the Fulani herdsmen. A couple of years before now, it was the Niger Delta militants that were dreaded. Many believe that kidnapping and hostage-taking in Nigeria owe its history to the activities of those militants. In those days the Niger Delta boys were notorious for kidnapping foreigners. This pernicious skill was taken up by many other criminally minded young men and women. It did not take much time before kidnapping and hostage-taking became rife and used in Enugu, Delta, Lagos and many other parts of the country. Militancy in the Niger Delta was succeeded by Boko Haram insurgency which gained ground following the institutionalisation of sharia in some States in Northern Nigeria. Boko Haram launched its campaign more ferociously than what obtained with the Niger Delta militants. They killed, they maimed, kidnapped, they raped women and razed communities down.
Since the late 1990s, many of the farmers in my village no longer visit distant farms because of the nasty experiences that they have had with herders. It is also true that this is the case with many of the farmers in communities that surround mine and indeed in many parts of Nigeria. The implications on sector income and national food production is grave and felt by majority of Nigerians. Gun-wielding herdsmen destroyed their farms and crops with impunity. While a couple of these farmers made efforts to seek but got no reprieve from the police. Apart from the farms, movement in the highways has also become extremely dangerous. Three years ago my younger brother gave me an account of how all the occupants of the vehicle that was in front of his own were to his most enormous shock all kidnapped within minutes by men he described them as Fulani herdsmen. But are these criminals indeed the herdsmen as are often claimed?
From research on the evolution of the conflicts between pastoralists and farmers in Bauchi, Zamfara and Kaduna, it is easy to understand why most of these bandits, armed robbers, and kidnappers are called Fulani people. It is usually challenging for the uninitiated to make a distinction between a genuine pastoralist and a cattle rustler. The latter is typically a criminal who seeks to steal the cows of the legitimate herder forcefully. Many southerners lack the capacity to differentiate between these rustlers who though possess horrible criminal profile do also have outstanding physical profile similarities consistent with the average Fulani man. Therefore, it became convenient to brand all of them as belonging to the same stock. Growing up as a young rural village boy who had several encounters with herdsmen, it is easy to pass the average Fulani man as a good man. Our impression of them then was quite positive, and some of us would request for and received the so-called “fura du nunu”. The negatives then, as children would be that they were timid and uneducated. The pastoralists of that era never destroyed farmlands and crops. They never deliberately allowed their cows to eat up what the farmers cultivated. So at what point did we start having herdsmen behaving differently?
What has happened however was that the genuine cattle herder who was running from the rustler had to arm himself to ward them off. Likewise, the marauder rustler also naturally equipped himself to be able to execute his criminal intent. This situation resulted in virtually all itinerant shepherd from the northern parts of Nigeria arming themselves. But unregulated and uncontrolled possession will in most instances result in violent mayhem. While this jungle criminality with liberalised arms possession extended and encroached into the realms of ordinary people, the federal government showed substantial weakness in disarming them and even bringing those identified to be truly dangerous to book. The do-nothing position sold the impression that the president who himself is a Fulani man is not willing to call his people to order.
To a great extent, that impression seems well founded. The grave implication is today’s profiling of the average Fulani man as a security problem, which indeed is not valid. Many have warned against this racial profiling, which is similar to the events that led to hate speeches and consequent genocidal wars in Rwanda.
In any case, whether they are bandits, herdsmen involved in criminal activities or even armed robbers, the law prescribes ways of dealing with them in the interests of the society. Ordinarily, it should not make any difference if the political authorities have not handled this matter in such a way that many now feel that the president and his security apparatus are shielding these criminals of the Fulani stock. The believability of this line of argument is quite high for many reasons. First, the president is from the Fulani ethnic group. Secondly, he has significant interests in rearing and selling cows. Thirdly, many of the pastoralists accused of perpetrating these criminalities are also of the Fulani stock. And lastly, the president has not sufficiently demonstrated both the willingness and capacity to decisively deal with this brand of criminals associated with shepherding cattle. In the cases purportedly involving the herdsmen, there is a clear absence of the bravery and ferocity with which this administration dealt with Boko Haram and other criminal gangs upon inception in 2015.
We know that the rule of law has been dying slowly in this country. We also know that the rule of law is always and everytime the most important consideration for prosperity to thrive. But is it entirely dead now such that what is remaining is to have it buried? Nothing leads to protestations more than the feeling of unequal access to commonly-owned resources and privileges that should ordinarily cut across. Many Nigerians believe that the Fulani ethnic group seem to be privileged more than other ethnic groups at least to the extent that the criminal herdsmen are immune from prosecution and can, therefore, carry out their guerrilla activities with impunity. There is a story online of a particular university professor who was kidnapped by criminal herdsmen on the highway and later released upon payment of some ransom. Having been released and with a good idea of where he was held hostage by supposedly Fulani herdsmen, he decided to report the police and equally take them to the same location. On his arrival at the police station, he was stunned when the police told him that they do not entertain cases of Fulani herdsmen at their station and that he should proceed to another station.
With all the rumours of war and the drumbeats of war, an excellent question to ask is how far are we from war? To what extent is the apparent breakdown of law and order different from what obtains during the war? Bandits and terrorist brand of herdsmen indeed surround us. These men besiege us in the farms, in the roads, and at other places convenient for them to execute their criminal plots. Their cattle no longer represent the symbol of honest hard work and determination to weather the difficulties of the wilderness. They are now a sign of danger; a mask for deadly shepherds who are nothing more than the executioners of doom.
The president and his team with the police and army and indeed all law enforcement agents owe Nigerians the duty to rewrite these ugly scripts. Nigeria belongs to all of us. The government equally owes us the responsibility of protection of our lives and properties and recreate the right environment of peace for the prosperity of the citizens of Nigeria.