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Miyetti Allah: armed herdsmen, farmers and the struggle for contested space

By Rotimi Fasan

ON this first day of November, 2017, a bill sponsored by the Benue State House of Assembly prohibiting open grazing of cattle goes into operation. The state government has vowed not to back down on the promulgation of this bill in spite of opposition from the herdsmen targeted by it.

In giving life to this bill, Benue State will be the latest of several Nigerian states across the middle and southern belts of the country that would enact a law directed at the activities of Fulani pastoralists.

Armed Fulani-herdsmen

These are herdsmen who graze their cattle across the length and breadth of the country in an enactment of the ancient practice of searching for food for their animals. In specific terms, laws such as the one being proposed by Benue State are informed by the desperate need to stem the tide of mass killings and generalised violence against farmers of food and cash crops that have been attributed to pastoralists, namely Fulani herders of cattle who are now randomly equated to terror groups like Boko Haram as a consequence of their violent activities.

Many are the battles that have pitched cattle herders against farmers. These have gone on on a very low scale for many years, even decades now. It has, however, assumed very alarming and highly virulent scale in the last couple of years, particularly since the assumption into office of President Muhammadu Buhari.

But the umbrella association of the herders, the Miyetti Allah, has been very slow to embrace talks or laws that forbid open grazing of cattle. Neither has it warmed up to claims that its members have been responsible for the violence often put at their doorstep.

The herdsmen have tended to have the upper hand in the many battles in which they have been fingered in spite of being pastoralists of frequently unknown or impermanent address. The element of surprise that define their onslaught has worked in their favour much too frequently. The scale and tenor of the violence that characterise the attacks portray the herders as the aggressors. Their predation has been near national but often directed at non-Fulani members of society.

The pastoralists of yore are now persons of security concern. Suddenly, the image of the crude staff-wielding, innocent-looking, solitary Fulani herdsman or boy has been replaced by that of a smooth-operating, assault rifle-bearing mass serial murderer.

When did the transformation occur? Where did this come from? A result of our violence-prone society? A consequence of long years of military rule? The frequent cause of discord in the increasingly gory encounters is the invasion of farmlands by cattle herders who set upon the food and cash products of the farms they come upon to quench the hunger of their weary animals.

When accosted by the usually lone farmer and their family, the consequence is generally brutal. Indeed, the dimension of violence the encounters invite seem unconnected to the original cause of discord. The response appears to be all premeditated and driven by a mind governed by crime aforethought.

A farmer’s wife or daughter, or other female relation is raped and thereafter murdered, sometimes. Entire hamlets are sacked and their inhabitants, infants, children and nursing mothers, murdered almost to the last person, with the lone escapee-survivor left to tell the tale of destruction. This scale of violence by the Fulani is now linked to other acts of criminality also attributed to Fulani herdsmen: kidnapping for huge ransoms, armed robberies on major highways and ritual murders of unspeakable goriness. What have these to do with the herding of cattle? The precise manner in which the attacks are perpetrated have left many wondering if these so-called herdsmen are not militias in disguise or enjoy some form of professional support. There have indeed been talks of air support via helicopters and/or gunships provided the so-called herdsmen during attacks.

Abuja has been very slow to respond to reports of these attacks, fuelling talks of official complicity. The situation has nowhere been helped by the fact that the credibility of those who could have spoken to condemn the herdsmen attacks has been compromised. Aside being Fulani and owning large herds of cattle, President Buhari is/was himself a known patron of Miyetti Allah.

So is the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’adu Abubakar, either of whom has either been totally silent in face of the herdsmen attacks or mealy-mouthed about it all.

President Buhari was at the head of a powerful delegation of Miyetti Allah to Ibadan when Lam Adesina was governor. He was in the Oyo State capital to protest against what he called attacks against Fulani herders.

‘Why are your people killing my people?’ he reportedly asked the governor, brimming with suppressed anger in a tension-soaked atmosphere. One wonders what the president thinks now of the mayhem being perpetrated by his beloved people? It’s in the face of high-level failures like this that states are rightfully taking matters in their own hands.

While it is important that we celebrate our culture and preserve our way of life, some types of tradition are evidence of backwardness, a refusal to move with the times. Nothing says tradition has to be static or retrogressive.

While one may support the kind of open grazing favoured by Fulani herders on a low scale, provided it does not interrupt with other people’s ways of life, to insist on imposing a pastoralist lifestyle on sedentary farmers is an anomaly.

People should be open to new ideas but the lot of the black African sometimes seems to be to hold on blindly to retrogressive notions in the name of tradition or culture. Culture and tradition are always evolving for ill or good and it is our duty to identify such traditions as are life-enhancing and progressive.

There is no reason why the cattle Fulani should insist on herding cattle from one end of the country to another even when evidence shows that cattle so raised, produce as a result of their restless existence, far less milk and meat than those raised in ranches.

This is the basic knowledge that decades of ‘nomadic education’, a cardinal programme of the Jubril Aminu-led Ministry of Education of the 1980s, ought to have imparted. But many years after this apparently wasteful exercise, we still find Fulani pastoralists insisting on living their life the same way their ancestors lived in antiquity even when there are far better improved ways to exist now.

It speaks to our sense of backwardness that cows are randomly led unto major highways to disrupt free flow of vehicles in the name of grazing. It’s about time that our Fulani compatriots moved with the times especially now that the activities of probably a few among them frequently spell danger for society at large.


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