As kids, we experienced the Fulani people as a peace-loving group of nomadic pastoralists primarily concerned with their flock. In those days, no one feared them. Their beautiful wives and daughters were usually in their company as they shepherded their flock around our area. Their wives and females often adorned their necks and plated hair with colourful beads. They usually wore arty tattoo-like designs on their faces and hands while carrying artistically carved calabash on their heads. They were always willing to share raw cow milk with those who requested that. Although they always lived in the bush and the company of their cattle, they were always ready to exchange cursory compliments and harmless greetings each time we accosted them. And as they passed by with their flock, we would be singing,” Nama lee, Nama lee, ehi Nama….” Even when we studied a bit of history at the secondary school level, the Fulani people always struck us as heroic, particularly when our history teacher recounted with much respect the grand jihad of Uthman Dan Fodio. As Christians, without much knowledge of Islam and with little interaction with Muslims at the time, Uthman dan Fodio’s conquests largely inspired many of us from a political and military strategist perspective likened only to the Greek Alexander the great.
The beautiful impressions of the Fulani people shared by many several decades ago have now become substantially tainted. Most Nigerians now see, perceive, and profile the Fulani ethnic group as mainly hard-line criminals disguising with the flock and deceptively creating sleeper cells as military launch platforms in the forests in various parts of the country for the future landgrab aggression. It has become routine to disperse any crowd simply by announcing the potential arrival of deadly Fulani herders. The mention of their tribal names now inspires fear, blood, and crisis. Consequently, those beautiful images of the hitherto amenable and focused cattle herders are gone. In their place is the profile of an ethnic group of farmland destroyers, rapists, kidnappers, murderers, and any other inventible names from the pits of hell. It has also become quite convenient to attribute Fulani herders as culprits in many daunting criminal heists. And because of the mayhem perpetrated by these nomadic elements, virtually all the states in the southern part of the country have enacted laws prohibiting the open grazing of cattle.
The primary occupation of the Fulani people is raising livestock which they produce in commercial quantities. As entrepreneurs, the success of Fulani herders depends on the combination of access to cattle production facilities, the entrepreneurial environment for cattle rearing and the likelihood of occurrences of potentially threatening factors. Unfortunately, there has always been a historical contestation for grasslands and water between the herders and crop farmers, signalling relative scarcity of cattle-rearing resources. As a result, traditional herders naturally move to other areas outside their settlement area where there were low levels of conflict with crop farmers over encroachments in farmlands and where pasture and water are abundant for their cattle. The southern parts of the country always provided such opportunities because of their rich vegetation and foliage. Their movement also responds to fiscal burdens such as levies or government taxes in their natural operating environments. Thirdly, they move to other locations due to threatening climatic conditions such as unfavourable weather, droughts, and animal disease attacks. In essence, pastoralism also culturally defines the traditional Fulani people whose lives revolve around the needs of their cattle. And because of that way of life, they are historically planted across West Africa in Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Senegal, and Niger and engaged in unfettered trans-country movements.
By the sixteenth century, Fulani pastoralists had become well established in several northern parts of modern-day Nigeria, with flourishing cattle herding businesses and the attendant socio-economic life. As already mentioned, there were always organic disputes between them and crop farmers regarding resource use. Nevertheless, because of the regularity of its occurrence, over the centuries, there were mechanisms for resolving these traditional conflicts. As time passed, some members of the Fulani pastoralist community who became worse off by these disputes and the manner of their resolutions that did not favour them resorted to cattle rustling. The growing demand for cheap rustled cattle, including other ruminants, led to the speedy growth of this criminal trade among the Fulani people. Over the years, these criminals started teaming together into bands of rustlers to enhance their chances of successful robberies. That is indeed what laid the foundation for modern-day banditry.
Therefore, banditry among the Fulani ethnic group has been in existence for centuries. Reinforced by the trans-nationalism, members of the tribe from other countries, particularly those closer to countries in conflicts such as Mali, had easy access to dangerous weapons such as AK-47 and other munitions. Through a combination of their cultural pastoralism, our porous borders, and trans-nationalistic movement, it became easy for these Nigerian rustler-bandits to acquire these weapons for their trade. These rustler-turned-bandits later expanded their business beyond cattle rustling to levying and imposing fines on wealthy farmers and other members of the villages. They successfully enforced these levy impositions over the years using a combination of the kidnapping of the relatives of defaulting farmers and village heads or the outright killing of defaulters. And as the rustler bandits became ferocious, the authentic herders also began to acquire the same weapons to defend themselves from their pursuits by the former down from the country’s northern parts to the south.
But the Fulani herdsmen gained global notoriety as terrorists through accidental developments. Several factors combine to create that profile. The first is that both the authentic pastoralists and the cattle rustlers now wield AK-47 rifles, albeit for varied reasons. In comparison, while the former clutched the equipment for defence purposes, the latter did the same to attack and dispossess the former effectively. The latter also initiated and conducted the kidnapping, raping of women and other murderous activities, which unfortunately define the profile of modern-day nomadic Fulani herders. As the authentic herders made their way with their cattle down south and running from the menacing cattle rustlers, the bewildered Southerners that could not conveniently differentiate between them grouped them into the same category of criminals. Southern communities which neither could communicate with these illiterate but gun-wielding pastoralists visited them with a tremendous degree of hostility. The result was an avalanche of clashes with host communities, farmers, and the rest. The resonating echoes of pain and blood accentuated the profiling of Fulani herders as terrorists. In 2018, they became known as the third most dangerous terrorist group in the world.
A dangerous dimension that complicated the situation was the introduction of mercenaries into the conflicts between cattle rustlers and herders on the one hand and with crop farmers on the other. Those demographics who felt that they were weaker had to hire mercenaries to intervene on their behalf. Oppressed crop farmers and genuine pastoralists, and some villagers routinely engaged the services of mercenary gangsters to defend them. An offshoot of that development was the gradual creep into the country of foreign Fulani bandits, most of whom were already notorious criminals in their own countries. The involvement of mercenaries aggravated the situation and created a stream for the influx of deadly species of herders that further facilitated the spread of weapons within the groups. While they initially provided mercenary defence services, they later stayed back and established personal banditry and rustling business. These foreign mercenaries came from countries such as Mali, Guinea and even the Central African Republic. They further reinforced and enlarged the banditry space in Nigeria.
Having gained this tainted reputation, nomadic herders generally became like leprous fingers. The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, ordinarily a business association of those in the cattle rearing business, got infected by public profiling. Recently, there were calls for designating the group as a terrorist organization. But even within the Miyetti Allah ecosystem, dealing with the daunting reputational crisis of herders was unequivocally challenging. That noted, however, the public grouse seems to be that the Miyetti Allah organization has done extraordinarily little to separate the good herders from the bad ones and ensure that the latter are exposed and made to face the full wrath of the law. Much the same way the public expects the Nigerian president, who is also a Fulani man, to designate the criminal herders from his tribe as terrorists. President Muhammadu Buhari is also a cattle breeder and has never spoken ill of the criminal activities of the AK-47 wielding pastoralists who have been committing heinous crimes across the country. Many accused him of using the paraphernalia of the government to provide state cover for them. For instance, evidence abounds regarding how the Fulani herdsmen’s criminal brand is always set free by the police and security agents even when they are culpable in iniquitous crimes. While other citizens are not allowed to carry ammunition, these people freely go about armed with guns.
As they say, it always takes two to tango. Many criminal species of Fulani herders would never have succeeded without collaborating with equally criminal elements in the host communities they find themselves. While it is possible in instances where they have stayed in a location for quite a long time to conduct criminal operations without additional help, it is usually challenging to do the same without local informants in areas where they do not live permanently. Therefore, one of the significant errors in profiling the criminal species of the Fulani herdsmen is the omission of the other side of the evil collaboration between them and local informants who provide them with valuable intelligence for conducting their illicit activities. There are equally lots of evidence showing that criminal herders rarely operate alone without this local support.
Finally, there are many criminal-minded persons in virtually all ethnic groups in Nigeria and the world. The context and nature of crime often committed by diverse cultural groups may vary depending on many considerations. Fulani herders gained a strongly ignominious profile because of their nomadic lifestyle and the established cattle rustling behaviour associated with that occupation. Therefore, as they moved from one location to another, mayhem from rustlers trailed along with them and was reinforced by the complicity of local informants and host criminals. Thankfully, many state governments have now signed the anti-open grazing bills into law to discourage the transhumance of the criminal herders and the tears, blood, and misery they spread. This development provides the ethnic group with another opportunity to recover their vanishing traits of beauty and simplicity.