By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
How would anyone expect that, in rural communities where cows are not deities, herds of cattle can march through and destroy farmlands and be spared? And how can anyone parade hundreds of cattle through a Nigeria filled with armed robbers and yet consider cattle rustling as such a crime which unfortunate local inhabitants must pay for with their blood? Human lives are worthless where every other thing is exorbitantly priced . You need not wonder, there is a death penalty for murder but mass murderers are rarely apprehended.
Some deaths are nightmarish. Olu Falae and his community were perhaps fortunate. Many seem committed to plumbing the depths of depravity. Cruelty in mass killings is steadily searching for the ultimate barbarism. Rwanda and the Holocaust were unspeakably horrible but Plateau state has since revealed something particularly gory. Janjaweed type midnight assaults that guarantee the total wiping out of whole villages. It’s exceptionally frightening because the victims can barely get out of sleep. Before they realize it is not a nightmare, they are mangled corpses. Death served in the dead of the night. Then everywhere is littered with bits and pieces of human flesh and everything is burnt. It has become the trade mark of a certain group, others are signing up. They are called reprisals. The perpetrators are conscious of their righteousness.
Then there are tales of retaliatory cannibalism. Kill, roast and eat. No mass graves, nothing left for an unlikely prosecution. A fiendish rivalry in that macabre enterprise. Rwanda may one day lose notoriety. There is no determined effort to make such horrific acts prohibitively expensive. Like a child toying with fire, the nation witnesses massacres happen again and again, and fiddles around with lame reconciliations. Culprits remain eternally at large. Herds of cattle are touched, humans are indiscriminately slaughtered. Reprisals. Feuds and disputes, thefts and damage to property are settled by massacres. The government finds not the fury to quench such depravity, Armageddon must be getting close. It is at least not as far fetched as our collective tepid moral outrage and near official indifference suggest.
Poor villagers are dispensable, disposable. Cheap lives. The nation only mourns when commercial airliners crash or big politicians die. I shudder at the thought whose possibility is now more palpable. A herd of cattle passes through my village and a fracas leaves herdsmen cursing and vengeful. I wake one morning and my village of Orodo and my ancestral linkages have been decimated, erased. But it could be worse. A weekend family trip could be punctuated with deathly shrills and booming guns and cracking skulls , one ordinary night. Avengers and their vampiric reprisals. And you don’t have to imagine Rwanda. Rwanda had a long build up. Tragedies of the Agatu variety can happen , comparatively, in a flash. There is something horribly disquieting about the sight of cattle herders, teenagers, hugging AK 47 rifles. But that which threatens apocalypse is the impunity flaunted. The inability of these horrendous evils to attract more than mere platitudes of condemnations. The abject impotence of a state that has failed to protect lives, to trouble mass murderers. After massacres, perpetrators don’t go to jail. Their emissaries attend reconciliatory meetings organized by bumbling politicians. Where is our sense of justice?
There is something that speaks of a yet brewing apocalypse in the pictures that came out of Agatu. The pictures of babies hacked to death in their ancestral homes. The picture of deep seated, blood sucking hate. It should be revolting. But it was not. Monumental evil can acquire banality through a terrible regularity. Massacres are now rampant, fairly routine. The middle belt is a seething volcano. That which will jar nerves and jolt senses is being awaited? Do the pictures therefore speak of violence yet to begin? Cattle rustling is criminal. It’s armed robbery. It must be stopped. Fulani Nomads have right to life and property. But it is unthinkable that the cattle herdsmen would consider massacre of hundreds of people as vengeance for cattle touched or poached. Hate is worse than madness.
The president lacks the credentials of an ethnic champion. I may be wrong. Vindictiveness and pettiness didn’t allow any objective scrutiny during the campaigns. Buhari , Fani Kayode had insinuated, once went to Oyo as an ethnic champion to protect the interest of Fulani herdsmen. It was swept into the bin where Fayose’s ‘diaper’ vomitus was discarded. Then came Agatu. Three hundred people were reported murdered in one night by cattle herdsmen. The public waited for Buhari’s severity. The government responded with a sickening lack of fury. Days after the massacre, days after the government promised action, ordinary people who scampered into the bushes for safety were yet to return.
These days nothing , including national tragedies, is spared political opportunism. Before Buhari’s response could be objectively assessed, the PDP jumped in and politicized the massacre. If the PDP is to be believed the murderous gang of herdsmen were sent in to liquidate Agatu, a PDP stronghold. Consequently, conscientious attempts to hold the government responsible for its perceived nonchalance to the Agatu horror were dismissed as PDP shenanigans. Cheap conscienceless politicking is a dangerous phenomenon. If the PDP is a drowning party, clutching at straws, what about our presidency? Where is the statesmanship? The Inspector General of Police doubts Agatu’s monstrosity. He thinks the casualty figures are exaggerated, contrived. When the police have failed woefully, they should speak mournfully. Speculation can be thoroughly insensitive . He is yet to apprehend the murderers, he should not grate sensibilities . But the police boss contributed yet another theory. The murderous herdsmen, he believes, aren’t Nigerians. He could be right. But again he is being speculative. Nigerians want facts from the police. If they aren’t Nigerians why then is the government so pacifist? Why are reconciliatory meetings the priority? The police should learn when to speak.
The president granted an interview to Al Jazeera. He loves the foreign press. The president has a reputation for bluntness and forthrightness and revels in it. But when he allows a bit of arrogance have a hold on him he comes across as insensitive and brash. He dismissed the talk about Biafra with such a contempt that left those of us who have stood firmly against the IPOB and their charlatanism dismayed. There is more to dignity than solemn gait and self satisfaction. Dignity entails charity and sensitivity. When he got to Agatu, he let me down totally. He forced on me the suspicion that, in spite of all his good attributes, ethnic jingoism was not after all beneath him. Did the PDP help him lose sense of the tragedy? If the president was emotional about the senseless killing of 300 Nigerians including babies in one night he didn’t show it. Rather, in saying that the problem between the cattle herdsmen and farmers was old and intractable, he lent banality to the evil. Was the president playing a different kind of politics? Was he unduly concerned with public perception of his performance on security? Or was he possessed by tribal sentiments?
Modern societies with governments exist so that vengeance is not exacted through blood feuds. When a conflict culminates in the killing of a human being, the loss of life relegates the issues in the conflict to the background. And until the matter of homicide or mass murder and the necessary penalties are effected, nothing else matters. Morality entails the prioritization of others ahead of self. Leadership entails much more than moral uprightness. A president must discharge any conflict of interest in such a manner that denies self and fosters national unity. Between the cattle herdsmen and the murdered souls in Agatu, the president should be visibly and vigorously on the side of the dead because the security of lives is his primary constitutional responsibility. And because he is Fulani, he must leave no doubts of bias in Agatu minds.
But when the president dabbled into grazing routes and right of way, I was left disheartened. The gross unspeakable inhumanity committed in Agatu should leave any president too apoplectic for such historical excursions. His grief should be visible. And if such a president’s position is complicated by past accusations of ethnic jingoism then he has an added moral responsibility to respond to the calamity with manifest equity. Any suggestions of ‘old problem’ and such like exposes such a leader to unhealthy suspicions and the society to needless schisms and tensions.
Grazing routes once existed. And Fulani cattle herdsmen plied their trade peacefully throughout the whole of the West African belt. Communities have enlarged. Land has become more scarce. Encroachments have become rampant. Desertification has complicated life for nomads. Political and ethnic tensions have gripped the land. Armed robbery and cattle rustling are now run by professional syndicates. Cattle herdsmen have acquired a reputation of wading through farms and destroying crops and livelihoods. Farmers settle disputes by dispossessing and sometimes killing herdsmen. Cattle herdsmen attend to disputes by visiting mayhem and liquidating whole villages. With a convoy of cattle, tears, sorrow and blood everywhere they go, realistically, the cattle herdsmen’s cross country nomadic days are numbered. So much violence has been sown, animosity and hatred has bloomed.
The era of grazing routes has passed. If the nomads attract violence everywhere they go, then the sensible thing to do is to confine them in grazing reserves. They say that will take time and money. But what other options really exist? The menace that cross country nomadic cattle rearing constitutes is tearing at the very soul of the nation. Violence always has the prospect of going out of control. Religious fuels are being poured into the cauldron. No sensible leader should watch this play out.
States that have a sizable population of herdsmen can create grazing reserves and extend modern agricultural techniques and practices to diary and meat farmers. States can elect not to have grazing reserves. Fears of Hausa-Fulani irredentism or expansionism must not be stoked by a federal government policy that mandates reserves in all states.
The government should know that Boko haram waits for opportunities to claim legitimacy. If it allows ethno religious chaos fester in the middle belt and boko haram intervenes on one side then the complexity of that insurgency will change dramatically. That insurgency must be denied every opportunity to pretend to be freedom fighting. Unrestricted cross country grazing should be prohibited.
But the immediate focus must be breaking impunity. The mass murderers must be apprehended and punished now.