Hakeem Baba-Ahmad

February 3, 2021

Finding the soft underbelly

By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

In the time of war, the loudest patriots are also the greatest profiteersAugust Bebel, 1840-1913.

IT is possible, just possible, that people who are bent on causing real and sustainable havoc with the country’s fortune and future may have found its soft underbelly at last. This would be the weakest part of all the chains that hold the country together, the part you break and get results that are guaranteed to cause maximum damage. Starting a few weeks ago in Oyo and Ondo states, and now in parts of the Eastern states of the country, individuals and groups are treating Fulani herders, families and communities as fair game.

They are threatening and attacking Nigerians who by the nature of their livelihood are isolated and entirely at the mercy of host communities. The objectives of these very dangerous provocations appear to achieve ethnic cleansing on a huge scale and in the process, trigger crises that may hasten the achievement of patently political goals.

It is a game plan contemplated in many minds, but rarely put in place for a number of reasons. First, Nigerians still remember the horrors of 1966 and many other conflicts with distinctly ethnic foundations that took thousands of innocent lives.

There are  many scars (some deliberately kept septic) all over the nation that have  frequently been caused by failures to arrest bloodletting triggered by mismanagement of requirements of co-existence and pluralism. Second, the strength of our country lies on its fragile foundations represented by tens of millions of individuals, families and groups who have faith that other Nigerians will have places for them in distant communities and homes, and will let them live as equals under the law and welcome guests who add value to all concerned. The moment we begin to tinker with this foundation, there is no way the nation can survive.

Three, we are all aware that our politics has recently acquired a desperate edge which cuts deeply in order to make an impression. It is clear that our political process has bled so badly that leadership has lost its credibility, authority and even awe, and politicians have retreated and left the stage to fringes who make much political capital by undermining the foundations of the country to build small ethnic enclaves.

Now the Fulani herdsman appears to have provided a perfect cannon fodder for people searching for excuses and shortcuts to achieve political goals that have proved difficult to achieve through the political process. Local communities are legitimately worried that the Fulani, with or without cattle or an AK-47, represents a mobile, existential danger to them.

Many have been worked to frenzy with inflaming stories that the Fulani herdsman represents an Islamisation foot soldier; he is the pampered and protected kin of President Buhari who has licence to roam the country to destroy assets, kidnap people, rape women and fight away communities that challenge his audacity to think he can live where he wants; he harbours criminals so deeply that he is practically indistinguishable from the criminal; and the only solution to crimes in communities is to remove the Fulani and his cattle entirely from communities.

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Leaders now pander to these narratives at the cost of great political capital, and they look away as the puny barricades they erect to look like they mean business are trampled upon by small people with huge powers to tweak popular sentiments. Politicians have their eyes on bigger prizes from these dangerous games: spaces and assets to negotiate within the mainstream political process.

All too often, the reality seems to be drowned by hysteria and opportunism.The Fulani community has been afflicted by a terrible scourge in the form of many of its people taking to violent crimes. The roots of this recent phenomenon are both deep and recent. Climate change, population growth and urbanisation have reduced the land available for traditional herding.

Time-tested measures which allowed for relatively free movement of cattle were ignored and abused. Inept and visionless succession of leaders ignored the imperatives of ranching, rather that the unproductive, disruptive and now dangerous practice of herding cattle for thousands of kilometres.The Fulani had billions in assets, but no political capital except as an occasional voter who generally knows next-to-nothing about who best represents his interests.

The Fulani has quite possibly more history of accumulated grievances of exploitation against agents of the Nigerian State, including traditional rulers, than any group in Nigeria. In the last decade, the Fulani’s considerable asset began to be massively plundered, uprooting hundreds of thousands of people for whom life had little meaning without cattle. A Nigerian State which did not represent his interests looked away. The unsophisticated Fulani realised the power of the gun, the same instrument that pauperised and created millions overnight.

His community was torn wide open. A section chose to seek easy wealth through crimes like rustling, kidnapping and banditry. It lived dangerously and briefly, but while it lived, it wreaked havoc on neighbouring and distant communities, without fear or favour. The other section trudged on as it did for centuries, only this time it carried an additional liability of its criminal kith and kin. Everything that has been done wrong by the Fulani and about the Fulani is now coming to fruition in a tragedy that will take a lot more casualties.

But this is not an inevitability. We can draw a line where we are and reclaim lost ground. We can begin by accepting that there are Fulani criminals who must be contained, but reject the idea that all Fulani have forfeited the right to be treated as citizens with rights, including the rights to security and treatment under the law. We must accept the rights of all communities to be protected, including protection from Fulani criminals and homegrown criminals, but reject the idea that groups like IPOB, organisations like Amotekun and thugs like Igboho should be trusted with our security without becoming new sources of insecurity.

We must accept the reality that our politics and security are intimately connected, but reject the idea that we can routinely sacrifice group and national security for political advantages. We can accept the existence of differences among us, but reject the notion that we are unfit to share the same country because of our differences. It is entirely up to us, whether we choose to abdicate to an uncertain future, or retrieve our country ourselves and rebuild it.

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