By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
“Wisdom we know is the knowledge of good and evil, not the strength to choose between the two — John Cheever(1912-1982), American novelist.
BY the time you read this, the raging controversy over the “quit notice” given to some Fulani by the Governor of Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN, would be reaching fever pitch. It will compete with raised voices over activities and exploits of Amotekun in parts of Oyo State.
The nation’s fever will rise a bit, but it will take a while to establish whether this is another serious ailment the country should worry about, or a disturbance that will take a few hot words and foraging a depleting store of responsible leadership to bring down. Either way, we are dealing with an increasingly familiar routine.
Leaders with responsibility are challenged by security threats over communities. Their options are extremely limited by law and local politics. They generally tend to choose the softest options, which, unfortunately tend to merely compound the threat in the long term even if they get applauded in the short term.
Other leaders with responsibility and powers under the law and real options that can address the threats tend to look away, feign ignorance over the problem and its solutions or deploy the weakest responses guaranteed to leave the threat intact or more emboldened.
Governor Akeredolu is stocking a fire. Even he cannot be sure that it will burn the problem away, but he will get applauded for following a beaten track instead of sitting on his hands. In the next few days, the governor will either dig in and justify his decisions to expel a Fulani community from a forest, ban night herding activities and presence of cattle on highways, or he will play the landlord who rescinds his quit notice on a troublesome tenant on condition that he behaves more appropriately in future.
The decorated lawyer in him knows that the law is of dubious quality as support for his decision to limit the activities of Fulani communities in Ondo State. As Chief Security Officer, he has the power and the duty to take steps to secure citizens. The same Constitution that gives him this power stops him from expelling any Nigerian from the state on any ground. He has powers to make laws that improve the safety and security of the citizens in Ondo State, but he has no powers to do this at the expense of the rights of other citizens to live and earn a living anywhere in the state.
Every citizen, indigene or Fulani, must conduct themselves within the law, and when they fail to do that, there are state institutions that should deal with this failure. This is where the governor’s problem lies, and it will be small comfort to remind him that all his colleagues suffer from this major handicap.
The politics of his decisions is only marginally less challenging than the legal context. Given the spreading demonisation of the Fulani, it will be a brave Ondo man or woman who will not support a firm hand in dealing with a small community which is identified as representing threats to their safety and security.
Nonetheless, the Fulani in the forests of Ondo will not walk away without a fight. They will challenge the stigmatisation and restrictions as unfair and punitive. They will insist that they are made to suffer for suspicions of being criminals only because they are Fulani, or for crimes committed by a small group that may or may not be Fulani. There will be voices raised in defence of the Fulani community, and the governor cannot entirely ignore some of these voices.
There will be people who will whisper that there are options in dealing with this Fulani community, not all of which need to be made available to a public that is already applauding this strong posture. The Fulani community could refuse to leave and insist that it has a right to live where it earns a living unless the law says otherwise. The governor will be left with the option of invoking relevant laws and marshaling enforcement mechanisms to enforce a quit order, but he has to brace up for more trouble.
Communities could chip in with threats and action that could inconvenience the Fulani community to leave, but this option will leave the governor at the mercy of a lot more trouble than he started with. Amotekun could be of some use here, but right now it is engaged in a damaging battle to launder its activities and image in Oyo State.
There are grounds for feeling some sympathy for both the governor and the Fulani he is asking to adjust. All governors realise how empty their titles of Chief Security Officers are. They have very little control and influence over the police or the military, and those who do are too removed from a population which looks up to governors for protection. Do-it-yourself security arrangements like Ametokun win political points, but they are severely hamstrung by legalities and local and national politics, such that their real values are outweighed by their limitations.
When citizens accuse Fulani communities of habouring kidnappers the first instinct is to believe them. Asking the Fulani to police themselves is not good enough for citizens. The Fulani themselves are victims of Fulani criminals, and to make them custodians of their own security by leaders who should also protect them is to ask for too much. Leaning hard on them looks good at home and bad outside. The only Chief Security Officer in Nigeria is President Muhammadu Buhari, but his police is limping on one leg and his military is fighting a dozen battles a day all over the country.
Northern communities are veterans at living with armed criminals, and they testify to the huge spaces which exist between the citizen and security and law and order agencies. It may be asking too much from a frightened and panicking nation to spare a minute to hear the Fulani’s story and sympathise with the plight of a community that is defined by the dispersed nature of its existence and the tragedy of sharing an identity with the nation’s latest popular criminal.
Still Nigerians need to hear that majority of Fulani are law-abiding citizens with centuries of knowledge about living with hosts. They, like most Nigerians, need other Nigerians as much as Nigeria needs them. The Fulani can be harassed and caged, but he cannot be eliminated from spaces in our lives which we must have to give us comfort.
There is a larger threat to Nigerians than the Fulani. This is a Nigerian State that allowed some Fulani to assume the level of threat they pose to all of us, and has failed to understand and deal with the threat. The threat which banditry and kidnapping represent are real and must be treated as a national threat. Fulani people must understand that they need to get directly involved in fighting this scourge, but the nation will not solve the problem by kicking the Fulani around all over the nation.
Those Fulani who demonstrate real desire to stay clear of criminality need to be encouraged, or the ranks of the criminal elements among them will swell. The issues of banditry must be seen as a national threat, the same way we should see the Boko Haram insurgency, the threat posed by irredentists such as IPOB, cultism, militancy and piracy and run-away corruption. Local initiatives in uniform or governors who behave like angry caretakers and landlords will not solve a problem that has a national dimension and deep roots in the weaknesses of the state to eliminate.
This is the time when governors should do justice to the expectations of the people who elected them by taking up President Buhari on improving responses to security threats and constitutional issues around addressing public safety institutions.