By Bisi Lawrence
Pa Lot, a venerable pastor, parliamentarian and politician of the First Republic, spoke about the menace of the Fulani herdsmen in jocular terms, when I met him some decades ago in Jos. He was well into his 80s himself. He narrated how the herdsmen would arrive unannounced at a particular time of the year and would graze their cattle peacefully for a period of time, Then they would depart for greener pastures without any notice with only a part of the herd, leaving an appreciable number with only a few herdsmen in charge.
They would return later and head for their home base without any rancour as they parted with their erstwhile hosts. There was seldom any argument because the herds were usually limited to agreed areas for grazing, and the entire transaction was conducted on friendly terms.
But then came a time when it all turned sour. When the herdsmen left, some of the animals would break loose and destroy valuable crops. After some serious warnings were unheeded, the Tivs, who were the offended hosts, resorted to a severe measure of self-help.
They took to slaughtering the errant animals and disposing of them gainfully. The herdsmen, of course, were very angry when they returned and found their flocks depleted. They would demand an explanation from their hosts.
The Tivs blandly replied, “ Munci”, which means, “We’ve eaten them”. That did not go down well with the herdsmen and they sometimes attempted to create an incident about it, but the Tivs had a reputation built on bitter experience as devastating archers, totally unafraid and able to defend themselves. They in fact, mocked their former friends and slapped the derisive reply of “Munci “ as a nickname, on them. The animosity has not been healed, it would appear, by the passage of time. Rather, the herdsmen have spread their offensive operations to almost all parts of the country.
They then began to habitually conduct themselves with little regard for the territories they trampled under the hoofs of their cows. People who formerly ignored them as they passed through the land, began to resent their high-handedness and the damage they caused through their passage. Pa Lot, as matter of fact, hinted me as to why.
One makes the mistake of evaluating them by their ragged appearance, but they have always had powerful people behind them—people of means, prominent and influential figures in the society: businessmen, politicians, professionals and even top brass hats. It is even no secret that President Muhammadu Buhari is himself a cattle baron, having declared that much in the Code of Conduct exercise. He had earlier shown his close connection with the business when he rose on behalf of the Northern cattlemen in their confrontation with late Lam Adesina, who was then the Oyo State Governor. Of course, it is on record that Lam would not be intimidated.
It is with the confidence of the assured backing of their formidable patrons that the herdsmen presume that they can intimidate any neighbourhood in which they plant themselves. They obtain their sophisticated weaponry from these sources. It is from the position of power and influence that one of the sponsors was recently reported to have stated that nobody could stop him from grazing his cattle anywhere in this country. Such arrogance. And, of course, no one remonstrated with him as if he was speaking about his hereditary back yard.
The wealth of the cattle trade is a hidden one, but when you consider that a cow now costs about a hundred thousand naira—before the official hike in the cost of one litre of petrol—millions of naira are on the hoof around the countryside, and the owners know it. And they are the people involved, not the hapless Fulani who just heed their masters’ bidding. It is not those herdsmen who procured AK-47’s for themselves in order to graze some cattle. It is the wealthy owners. They are the ones to be tackled if we wish to put a stop to this dangerous situation.
The honourable Minister of Agriculture, and some funny like-minded friends of his, have been proposing ranches to be acquired by government on areas away from the normal native soil of the cattle merchants. I can vouch for the last man in the Southern states that no one will accept such a proposition. “One Nigeria”, and all that, has its limits. Apart from its physical unrealities, the amount of clashes that are bound to occur is limitless. The “ranchers” are bound to occupy—and the word is indeed “occupy”— the allotted areas with their customary arrogance. And the indigenes won’t stand for it especially now that the herdsmen have shown themselves to be capable of wanton mass murder.
The response of those responsible for the security of the nation as a whole, mostly the police, has either been lukewarm or off target. For instance, the Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Heineken Lokpobiri, said the problem faced by herdsmen was also faced in Cote d’Ivoire, stressing that it was not limited to Nigeria. I have news for the minister if he does not know that it had for decades been a problem in the United States of America before it was resolved.
That is the kind of comparison one may entertain for it may elicit how the problem was solved. But he also asserted that the herdsmen arrested were definitely not “conventional Nigerian” Fulani. I have more news for him, whatever he means by that classification: one does not have to be Nigerian to be Fulani, and a non-Fulani herdsman would be hard to find. What would he then be— a Tuareg?
Of course, they are criminals and terrorists who may be using the herdsmen for cover to achieve their despicable ends. In any case, their nationality matters little. Their nefarious activities are of grave danger to the existence of this country as a nation. They are, security wise, at par with Boko Haram. But even worse, they are covering a wider territory within the country, and the response will be country-wide. Hence the recall of the Bakassi Boys, the re-organization of the OPC, and the wake-up call to other sub-ethnic groups.
The eventual solution may be along the lines of the creation of cattle routes and resting points for the convenience of all concerned, as the North and South are locked in a symbiotic relationship of seller and buyer that must be sustained along the pace of our national development. This is expatiated upon in a 24-page proposal presented by the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, MCBAN recently to concerned authorities. It has all the ingredients of a practicable plan.
However, the issue of murderous gangs who break into communities and kill and pillage, is clearly an urgent matter for the police.