By Olusegun Adeniyi.
From Olusegun Obasanjo to Goodluck Jonathan and now Muhammadu Buhari, ‘triumphalism’ by members of the ethnic group whose ‘son’ is in power has become the defining ethos of their relationship with other Nigerians. This display of arrogance of power—even without deriving any ‘benefit’ beyond the fact that the president speaks their language—not only causes problems for their man, but creates needless tension for our fragile nation. However, at no period in the past 21 years has our country descended to the level of inter-ethnic animosity in which it finds itself at the moment. What is fueling the current angst has been aptly described by Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, as a not-so-subtle attempt to impose on the nation ‘cattle imperialism’.
I agree with those who canvass that the media must resist being converted into pawns in this latest version of an old game. That is not to say that we should shirk our responsibility. In her preface to the journal, ‘Reporting Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria’ published in 2001 by the International Federation of Journalists, with support from the Commission of European Union, Bettina Peters wrote that “a multicultural world requires media which reflect the variety and richness of society without discrimination and which do not promote social division and conflict.” But she also added: “This does not mean journalists must remain silent. In some countries, the reality of ethnic conflict is denied as if silence could mask a problem or heal it.”
In the situation we are in today, ultimate responsibility rests with President Muhammadu Buhari. He should not continue to play into the hands of those who profit from manipulating our differences by the choices he makes (or refuses to make). Rather than apply the law to our serious security challenges, excuses are offered to rationalize criminality in a manner that has created ‘freedom fighters’ in different sections of the country. As I said, this is a familiar problem. Two months after Obasanjo came to power in 1999, I had cause to write a column titled ‘Kogbodoku President’ in response to what I considered the provocative disposition of a number of Yoruba leaders at the time.
‘Kogbodoku’ literally translates into ‘he must not die’. As I wrote on 16th July 1999, this “is the new name for our darling President Olusegun Obasanjo. The ‘christening’ must have been done by the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) with Dr. Frederick Fasheun and Justice Adewale Thompson presiding. ‘Any problem for Obasanjo would bring unmitigated chaos for Nigeria, so all those annoyed with him should go and purge themselves of their annoyance and join us to rally round him. The OPC will protect our own with every ounce of our strength. Obasanjo is our own any day,’ said Fasehun last Wednesday. He was merely echoing the words of Thompson who had earlier threatened that Yorubas would not take it lightly if anything happened to Obasanjo. What they would do if such happened, (God forbid) nobody knows but it is becoming a fad now for any attention-seeking Yoruba leader to make a threat on Obasanjo’s behalf.”
After highlighting several ways Yoruba leaders were provoking other ethnic nationalities, I then added: “The hypocrisy of it all is that these threats are coming from the same forces that fought Obasanjo dirty before other sections of the country elected him and now he has become their own… Now that Obasanjo is in Aso Rock, we have Thompson and Fasehun to tell us ‘it is our time’. Obasanjo’s mandate is national, at least it would have been if Yoruba people had voted for him, but it is sad that these same people would offend the sensibilities of other Nigerians with reckless statements that stand logic on its head…”
While he may have occasionally retreated to the Southwest for political survival, Obasanjo to a large extent kept Yoruba ethnic entrepreneurs at bay for most of his eight years in office. So, whatever may have been his other faults, Obasanjo was Pan-Nigerian in his distribution of opportunities and execution of the policy thrust of his administration. There were occasional ethno-religious clashes but to the extent that the man at the helm was not perceived as taking sides, challenges were managed. To demonstrate Obasanjo’s resolve at that time, the cover photograph of TELL magazine edition of 3rd September 2001 featuring a picture of an unclad Chief Ganiyu Adams (OPC leader and current Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland) chained in both legs and hands, is still circulating on WhatsApp.
When I noticed early in the administration of President Jonathan that noted Ijaw people were attempting to claim him for themselves, I also warned in a piece titled, ‘Their Son, Our President’ published in January 2012. The intervention followed a press statement by Chief Edwin Clark after a meeting of Niger Delta leaders where they alleged that the then ongoing nationwide protests against removal of fuel subsidy were targeted at removing President Jonathan from office. “The People of the South-south will not tolerate any untoward action or plan against our son, whose actions though seemingly painful in the interim, are geared towards repositioning this country for the ultimate good of all in the future,” Clark had warned on behalf of the group at a period Niger Delta militants were also making incendiary statements. Somehow, those provocative statements, which were allowed free reign at the time, ultimately worked against the second term aspiration of President Jonathan in 2015.
To be sure, the problem between herders and farmers in Nigeria predates the election of President Buhari. But the preachments for ‘accommodation’ from him following a gruesome massacre in Benue State (when he ought to advocate justice for victims) helped to inflame passions. So also the rationalisation by others that cattle could graze freely anywhere in the country or that herdsmen have a right to carry AK-47 while roaming about. With the impression created (and justifications made by public officials at different times) that lawless bands of herders (the majority of whom may not even be Nigerians) are not accountable for killing, kidnapping, raping and maiming rural dwellers in the north, it was not long before this impunity was carried to the south. That was the beginning of the problem in a nation where a combination of identity and politics has always been combustible.
As Reuben Abati pointed out in his piece on Tuesday, “when government fails to promote the values that bind us together, language, ethnicity and geography become tools of conflict”. That precisely is what we are facing, especially given the impression that some are above the law. For instance, I have been living in Abuja since 2007 and never have I experienced the current situation where motorists must compete with cows on the road on a daily basis, despite laws banning open grazing within the FCT. From Asokoro to Maitama, Wuse and Jabi, the common sight within the past six years is that of herds of cattle blocking major access roads. And we are asked to accept the situation as normal?
In an editorial on this ugly development four years ago in July 2017, THISDAY stated: “…the herdsmen have continued to operate without hindrance and with a sense of entitlement. Yet to allow them to persist in utter disregard for the law prohibiting cattle grazing within the precincts of the federal capital is to suggest to other citizens that the possibility exists that they too could do as they wished. That certainly will not augur well for the nation…If the authorities do not curb the brazen acts of these herdsmen who, in turning Abuja to their grazing field, act as though above the law, they are unwittingly sowing the seed of a serious crisis.”
A few weeks before that editorial, I had arrived home to meet a crowd of people, including policemen whose facility in butchering I later witnessed. A cow had strayed into the small shed built for the PHCN transformer beside my house and was electrocuted immediately. The young Fulani shepherd was running to help the cow before he was held back. I shudder to imagine what would have happened to us if the boy (who could not be more than 12 years old) had died. That is the sort of security problem created when Nigeria is turned into a grazing field.
Let’s be clear. This administration has not done a thing for the development of Fulani people. Even in terms of distribution of opportunities, only few Fulani are in government. Some of us can distinguish those who are genuinely Fulani from the ‘political Fulani’ so we know that these herders are also victims of the Nigerian malaise. By encouraging nomadism as a way of life for certain people, not only do we encourage a violation of the rights of land and property owners, we also devalue and deny those herders the full benefits of citizenship. Meanwhile, those who romanticize this culture send their own children abroad to school and when they want to marry, they don’t seek spouses in the forest; they go for educated people like themselves, including from other ethnic groups.
What transpired in the Soyinka case bears eloquent testimony to the fact that we are encouraging a culture that has no future. Instead, young nomads have become mere fodder. After the cows that invaded his compound had been ‘arrested’, the Nobel Laureate said he decided to go to the police to lodge a report. “On the way, we met a detachment, turned round, and together we returned to the scene of the crime. The police wanted to commence combing the bush for the fugitives but I stopped them – what was the point? Keep the cows, I advised, and the owner will show up. Of course, that owner eventually did,” said Soyinka. That owner, as the Ogun State Police Command spokesman, Abimbola Oyeyemi, would later reveal is “a gentleman by the name, Kazeem Sorinola, who is Yoruba. He put the cows in charge of a Fulani man.”
While that speaks volume, this is the time for responsible leadership in both Abuja and the states. But profiling in a diverse society such as ours can only perpetuate a poisonous social environment antithetical to peaceful co-existence. We have a law and order problem with herders. But because regime protection is considered more important than national security, criminal activities not in any way threatening to the government in power are treated with levity. This in turn has encouraged a resort to barbarism against innocent people who happen to speak the same language as herders. I understand that the man whose ‘aluwo’ (diabolic fatal blow) started the whole crisis in Ibadan’s Shasha market, is actually from Niger Republic!
That the current administration has done little to address the issue of perception is a critical point. It is not enough to threaten to deal with errant herders, it is necessary to actually prosecute and make examples of some to serve as deterrence. When we allow things to fester, people become emboldened, and the combination of different ethnicities, religions, and languages guarantees an explosion. We must urgently find a way to redefine cattle rearing. We should move beyond open grazing and grazing routes which will always spark conflict. We may need a transitional arrangement but rethinking animal husbandry is an urgent task. We also need to depoliticise this issue. Beyond the herder-farmer crisis, there is broader insecurity which also requires urgent solutions too.
In what has become a lucrative enterprise, bandits yesterday morning moved to Government Science College, Kagara in Niger State where they killed one student before abducting 27 others, three staff and 12 members of their families. “When you negotiate and pay ransom to criminals, they will use the money to purchase weapons”, said an exasperated Governor Sani Bello in apparent reference to the policy of appeasement that defines the approach to security in some northern states with the federal government looking the other way.
At the end of the day, we must come to terms with the different variants of criminality that threaten the unity of our country, destroy the future of our young citizens and put Nigeria in the ranks of nations striving to return to a primitive economy in a 21st-century world. On the last score, the abiding problem remains that we are striving to build a modern nation on the foundation of primordial tribal instincts.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com