By Benson Uche Egbuchiwe
It was 1999 and Chucky, the entertainment mogul of the ‘Havana shows’ fame, organized a party/picnic in Law School. He titled the picnic, and quite appropriately the “Pringles picnic’. Of course, legend had it that the title was inspired by what he did to convert the attention and to arouse the interest of the ladies to attend the picnic. He, Chuky, we heard, had expertly dispatched invitation cards to the girls accompanied by some packs of the crunchy snacks- Pringles.
With Chucky, the finest details of ‘effizy’ in shows must always be expected – to that effect and in compliment to that, he also chose a niche venue, he affectionately described the picnic venue to us then as the ‘center of Nigeria mathematically and geographically.’With his reputation preceding him in matters of show business from the University of Calabar, nobody amongst us could dispute with neither the title of the picnic nor with the auspicious address. We were just glad to be invited.
On the D-day, we trooped and climbed our way to the venue, to the top of the ‘mountain’- at the ‘geographical center of Nigeria’- away from the dryness and rustiness of law school premises -It was an eclectic gathering of students and some of our lecturers. There, the atmosphere was boisterous and electric, fuelled by a combination of the music serenading the air, the alcoholic beverages making the rounds, and the hype and privilege of being at the center of Nigeria’! We were just happy to be there; at Chucky’s Pringle’s party!
While we were shuffling, tittering, and drinking on this mountain top as if we owed the venue, out of nowhere, as if to complement this surreal and picturesque atmosphere that could compete with any of Picasso’s thematic paintings, herdsmen, and their herds of cattle enveloped the place, they just trudged in, and into our party’s space, with such calm and a sense of remote congeniality at this our event at the center of Nigeria’.
At first, the young herdsmen though did not offer any form of greetings nor encouraged any, yet there was some sense of friendliness with their presence and in their youthfulness that motivated me to reach out -after all, it was a picnic. Cautiously, I walked to them and gesticulated in mimic of an invitation to the eldest of them as I was sure, given their alien attire they couldn’t speak English.
I had cupped my hand in demonstration of drinking, jerking my head to and fro repeatedly as an invitation to them to come over and have a drink, while also holding up a bottle of stout, in support of my gesticulations.
When they saw me in my wild demonstrations, their faces were expressionless at first, but minutes later, I sensed the acceptance of my offer from the broad and uniformed smiles expressed across those aquiline facial lines in that sunny afternoon. Progressively, in more particular response to my sign entreaty, the leader started conversing with the other younger herders, in some slangy tongue, in what I now understand to be Fulfulde.
Immediately after the conversation, in what seemed like a natural pull of the force of our humanity; like a triumph of our humanity over artificial barriers of language, culture, and religion; in response to a sign language from a stranger with a cold bottle of drink and cigarette, they waltzed their way through their herds of cattle and the greenery towards me, while I cautiously and measuredly retreated towards the picnic venue, almost like a shepherd leading my flocks.
When they arrived, without the agency and aid of a language between us, I brought soft drinks for them; I knew better not to offer alcoholic beverages after the norms in the north that I had become aquatinted with.
As I distributed the drinks and uncorked them without introductions or explanation of what the occasion was, in one flash of our humanity yet again over the restraints of cultures, they guzzled down the drinks with such practiced dispatch that could only have been a response to the needs of their humanness: First, the need to quench the thirst occasioned by the sunny afternoon and Secondly and residually too, to the need to just be human and to associate.
At this time, our shared kinship of humanity was now established through my current offers and intricate hand signs, we were now relaxed and transfixed into the mood of the picnic.
I can’t remember offering any other thing more than drinks, because I cannot remember eating myself or if Chucky made arrangements for food but Pringles and drinks, but our unexpected guests cared less, as the younger herders just like any other child would react in that party frenzy; in that riotous fun-environment, let out muffled chuckles, intermittent giggles and exchanged sneering looks at those of us that were dancing.
In their observatory and through their prancing unblemished eyes, in that relaxed mood, they suddenly became children and not herdsmen, as they chuckled away and mimicked the dance steps of those dancing while the elderly ones chatted and, gurgled down the remainder of the soft cold drinks that people had abandoned for the other heavier and frothier alternatives.
After the drinks and expression of what I believed to be words of gratitude muttered to me, I asked for pictures of them, after all, it was a picnic, and they had participated for almost an hour and had added color to the picnic at the ‘geographical center of Nigeria.’
Truly, their presence was a complimentary background presented to the already scenic beauty of the forlorn green fields of the mountain top; patches of grazing cows chewing away peacefully with their young herders on one side, and on the other hand, student revelers, drinking, dancing, and smoking away in the same space and time in Nigeria.
Now, fast forward to 2021, 21 years after, under President Buhari’s government, what has become of these herdsmen? What transformed them into the feral murderous band they have become? What narrative has been fed to these nomads that have violently taken away their humanity in pursuit of their trade?
Exactly 21 years ago, in the attached subject pictures, you will see me posing with a shepherd’s stick and not their machine guns; you will also see me with real Fulani herdsmen, and not killers and murderers. And more importantly, you will see us alive together in pictures. Those were my experience with the Fulani herdsmen 21 years ago.
But now in 2021, under this government, these lively pictures of humanity at play could easily have been gory sights of human entrails and other body parts cut out and splashed, crushed skulls and rivers of law school students’ blood gushing down on that picturesque mountain top in place of these scenic pictures, and those shepherd sticks into Machine Guns and Ak 47 held atop the cadavers of the herdsmen preys.
The academic merit of the incidents of these herdsmen’s irksome vocations over other people’s proprietary rights, including their rights to defend their property and lives could detract from the theme of this piece: All I want to do here is, to draw our attention to what has changed in ’21 years’ in the thought processes of these herdsmen. Attempt to understand the narrative that has enabled the transformation of these herdsmen we were partying with 21 years ago?
To me, the transmutation of these people to what they have become can only be wrought by the serial dark sectarian narratives that have been reinforced and enabled by this rudderless government’s nepotistic policy proposals that have been picked up and interpreted by these ‘innocent herdsmen’s like a validation of their idle, dangerous and fallow religious fantasies.
This APC government, as I presciently remarked before they came into power, has reduced the most fundamental of the art of governance to Childs play; they have promoted and encouraged nepotism through their methods of appointments and skewed policies that are lacking both in intellectual depths and rigors of scrutiny. And the herdsmen transformation into feral monsters, the IPOB resurgence, the fallen Naira, and the recessed economy are just manifestations of this historic ineptitude in governance and nothing more. And they should be blamed squarely for these failures, to the exclusion of no other.
The excuse that the herdsmen onslaught had begun before the inception of this government, is at best, puerile and inane because by some eerie coincidence of events and circumstances, these herdsmen have become prominent, more brutal, brazen and dangerous in this government, and appropriately should be their legacy. And, I rightfully hold them responsible for thousands of Nigerians that have died by their inactions and their repulsing aloofness to the murderous activities of these transformed herdsmen.
However, there is residual and flailing hope of a better country through the lessons our Pringles party experience had offered; herdsmen are not innately violent or murderous. Something snapped somewhere and transformed them into the third most dangerous terrorist group in the world, and PMB and his men must genuinely trace it and fix them.
Benson Uche Egbuchiwe( BUE), a laywer writes from Abuja