Before Fulani herdsmen become Buhari’s Boko Haram

By Prof. Niyi Akinnaso

President Muhammadu Buhari’s successful suppression of the Boko Haram insurgency is praiseworthy. Even more praiseworthy are the tactics and resources deployed to accomplish that goal. First, he moved the command post of the fight against Boko Haram from Abuja to Maiduguri, close to the theatre of war. Second, he built a coalition of neighbouring countries. Third, he sought the cooperation and technical assistance of American and European allies in the fight. Fourth, he deployed available human and material resources to the course. Today, at least near normalcy has returned to Borno and neighbouring states in the North-East.

Although the Boko Haram insurgency predated the tenure of former President Goodluck Jonathan, it escalated under his watch and it became his political albatross. It was later used as reason for the postponement of the presidential election in 2015. The Jonathan administration’s response to the rescue of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls would become the litmus test for his handling of the Boko Haram insurgency. The failure to act promptly and effectively was one of the reasons Jonathan lost the 2015 presidential election.

The incessant onslaught of Fulani herdsmen on local farmers across the country, especially in the Middle Belt and the states further South, is becoming a close analogy to Boko Haram in many ways. First, as in Jonathan’s case with Boko Haram, herdsmen-farmers clashes predated Buhari’s tenure but they escalated exponentially after he became President. Whether or not they were emboldened by the ascendancy of a Fulani man to the presidency remains is a different matter.

Second, like Jonathan’s initial sluggish response to Boko Haram, Buhari’s handling of the herdsmen-farmers clashes has been slow and slippery, bordering on neglect. It was not until Yoruba leaders unanimously condemned the kidnapping of Chief Olu Falae, following the plundering of his farm and called on Buhari to act that the Federal Government apparently woke up from its slumbers on the issue.

Third, within Nigeria today, herdsmen-farmers clashes have led to thousands of deaths and property damage worth billions of naira. In addition to killings, the herdsmen have maimed thousands more and raped their women and girls. Many have become Internally Displaced Persons, having been driven away from their farms and villages.

On the 2016-17 Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, Nigeria is the 10th most terrorised nation in the world, when four major factors are scored over a 10-year period (2006-2016), namely, (a) total number of terrorist incidents; (b) total number of fatalities caused by terrorism; (c) total number of injuries caused by terrorism; and (d) approximate level of total property damage from terrorist incidents.

Fulani herdsmen rank second to Boko Haram among the four terrorist groups in Nigeria. According to the Global Terrorism Database, herdsmen rank fourth among terrorist groups in the world in the scale and intensity of their attacks! The other two terrorist groups in Nigeria are armed robbers and kidnappers. Yet, while the police often go after armed robbers and kidnappers, although they could do much better, herdsmen-farmers clashes have received the least attention by the authorities. To many observers, it is like treating Fulani herdsmen as sacred cows. No wonder some victims of their plundering binge have nicknamed them as “Born to kill”.

It is not the case, of course, that Buhari has done nothing about herdsmen-farmers clashes. The problem is that whatever he has done so far hardly amounts to something worth reckoning. Beyond the botched attempts at creating grazing reserves, a policy which never worked in the past and which many state governors currently resist, nothing much has been done. There were talks about developing ranches but the plan never materialised. Occasionally, the police and, sometimes, the military are drafted to the scene of a clash, only to return to their barracks, often with no arrests. Even those arrested have yet to be brought to book. Not a single perpetrator has been punished, at least none to public knowledge.

Three key suggestions have been made repeatedly to curb the menace, namely, (a) to disarm the herdsmen of deadly weapons; (b) to encourage cattle owners to develop ranches as is the practice in civilised societies; and (c) to assist the ranch owners with the development of grazing field within their ranches as well as educate them on fodder production just as produce farmers are assisted with fertiliser.

Given the relative simplicity of these solutions, it is nothing short of an indictment on the Buhari administration that herdsmen-farmers clashes have been left to escalate to the present level, whereby one incident or the other is reported daily, each with a casualty and/or serious injuries and plundered farmlands or whole villages.

No sermon should be needed for this administration to realise that successful solutions to this menace would assist the government in its change agenda. First, it will stop wanton killings and reduce the possibility of large-scale ethnic conflict between Fulani herdsmen and farm owners in different parts of the country. Already, Fulani herdsmen’s plundering activities in Southern Kaduna, Benue, Cross River, Enugu, Plateau and many other states have engendered ethnic and religious interpretations. In a country where nearly everyone is on edge over basic survival, a little provocation could push them beyond the tipping point.

Second, given the focus on agriculture as the first-line sector in the diversification of the economy, it makes sense to curb the destruction of farmlands by cattle and the displacement of farmers by marauding bands of cattle herders. Food security is critical to the maintenance of fragile peace in a country facing a biting recession and escalating commodity prices.

Third, it also makes economic sense to eradicate herdsmen-farmers clashes in order to provide additional reason for foreign investors to patronise Nigeria, given the country’s negative ratings on many other indices. The spread and frequency of the clashes have to be controlled in order to make Nigeria attractive to such investors.

Buhari need not be reminded of the role of the Boko Haram insurgency in people’s perception of Jonathan as a leader and in the assessment of his performance in office. Already, in people’s perception, there are many areas of governance in which Buhari has been struggling to earn above a C grade. Given his ethnic and military backgrounds as well as cattle ownership, he is expected to understand the ethnic, religious, and political implications of herdsmen-farmers clashes for his performance rating.

This is a problem crying for solution. Further delay is neither necessary nor warranted. He should immediately transfer the skills with which he successfully suppressed the Boko Haram insurgency to the suppression, if not eradication, of herdsmen-farmers clashes.

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