BY ENIOLA BELLO
In January, two world leaders bowed out of office and received from their people, the goodbyes their leadership, or lack of it, deserved. While US President Donald Trump stole away like a thief in the night, without a decent farewell from his associates, the object of ridicule and scorn from many Americans, nay many more people around the world for his ignorance and meanness and insincerity and divisiveness and incompetence; German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as she handed over the party leadership after 18 years in office, received from her countrymen and women standing on their balconies, six minutes of applause for her simplicity and diligence and competence, and for making Germany the largest economy in Europe. Coming home, were President Muhammadu Buhari to bow out of office today, reactions across the country most probably would move from sighs of relief, to shouts of triumph, and to jumps of victory, and then to dances of happiness, indeed, to several joyful noises.
One can safely say that more and more Nigerians are fed up with President Buhari – his insularity and coldness and divisiveness and laziness and incompetence, and his inability, if not unwillingness, to arrest the general insecurity in the country, of which the most dangerous to national stability is the activities of terrorists in the name of herders. These people daily move from the north to the south, occupying forest reserves, destroying farmlands, burning down communities, kidnapping our people, raping our women and killing Nigerians.
Buhari’s handling of the herdsmen crisis has been less than salutary, unfortunately. The president and his aides have, in their utterances, actions and policy choices, created the impression that the herders’ livelihood is more important than that of the farmers and fishermen; or that the herders have unlimited right to do as they wished, including the right to be criminals, and that other Nigerians should live with it. Buhari and his aides, when not pleading for understanding for the herders’ atrocities, explain away their actions, or justify those actions, or blame the victims, and when all this fail, hide their benumbing inaction behind the veil of threatening rhetoric. For purposes of illustration, let’s recall a few examples.
One, when herdsmen killed 73 people in some communities in Guma and Logo local governments of Benue State early January 2018, Buhari was more concerned about the victims not retaliating than he was about bringing the killers to justice. The president pleaded with the victims to show understanding, the herders being their neighbours. Two, at a townhall meeting in Abuja in January 2019, Buhari had propounded a simple-minded solution to the incessant clashes between herders and farmers by amplifying the argument his defence minister at the time, Mansur Dan-Alli, had several months earlier made at another forum that the cattle routes of the First Republic in Nigeria of the 50s and 60s, should be reopened. Dan-Ali, following the killings in Benue, and later in Taraba, had urged some states to repeal their anti-grazing laws which he had claimed encouraged the blockade of grazing routes. In an insensate, yet riling, statement of justification for the Benue killings, Dan-Alli had said: “Since the nation’s independence, we know there used to be a route where cattle rearers take as they are all over the nation… If those routes are blocked, what do you expect will happen?”
Three, sometime in July 2018, Buhari’s publicist, Femi Adesina, had in a television interview, dismissed people’s attachment to their ancestral land. In a rhetorical riposte to his interviewer, Adesina had asked mockingly: “Ancestral attachment?”, then added, “You can only have ancestral attachment when you are alive. If you are talking about ancestral attachment, if you are dead, how does the attachment matter?” Four, only a few weeks ago, another presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, challenged Ondo State Governor Rotimi Akeredolu for asking illegal occupants of the state forest reserves, including herders, to register or vacate the place. Shehu, apparently more out of mischief than ignorance, conflated the right to property ownership with a citizen’s right to live and work in any part of the country. While Akeredolu’s directive was on the strength of the violation of the former, Shehu threw the armour of the latter in the herders’ defence, saying they had the constitutional right to live in any part of the country.
When every effort to push the re-opening of cattle routes failed and having been persuaded that ranching is the way of global best practices in animal husbandry, the administration has made futile efforts to arm twist state governors into ceding large parcels of land for that purpose. The administration’s policy initiatives from Cattle Colony, to Rural Grazing Area or RUGA for short, and then National Livestock Transformation Plan all failed to get the necessary buy-in from state governments and community leaders in the north central and southern part of the country. Every initiative of the administration, however well-meaning it may appear, has been viewed with suspicion and seen as no more than a land-grabbing scheme to settle a group of herders who have become notorious for applying the scorched earth policy on host communities, besides raping and kidnapping. There was a general hostility to these initiatives in the southern zones. Many could not understand the administration’s interests in forcing such initiatives on states when cattle rearing or dairy farming is private business that is no different from other such types of animal husbandry like poultry, fish and bee farming.
The utterances of the leadership of Miyetti Allah, an association claiming to be representing the herders’ interests, have not been particularly helpful. Miyetti leaders have been annoyingly haughty – they justify the herders’ atrocities, speak as if the Buhari administration exists solely to cater to their interests, act like they own Nigeria, with some even claiming that every parcel of land in the country belonged to the Fulani. It got to a point when many began to wonder if the administration and Miyetti Allah were not working together in what has been described as the Fulanisation agenda. The general expectation was that the administration would take urgent measures to stop the atrocities being committed across the country by the herders, particularly when Buhari even admitted that not a few of them came into Nigeria from neighbouring countries.
When the administration declared Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra), which had not been particularly notable for violence, a terrorist group in 2017, the general thinking was that the Fulani extremists, who were so hideously violent, more than deserved to be so classified. The administration, however, continued to give excuses for their atrocities even when the Global Terrorism Index 2020 stated that “Fulani extremists were responsible for 26 percent of terror-related deaths in Nigeria at 325 fatalities.” To put this in context, GTI put total deaths from terrorism in Nigeria in 2019, the period of coverage for the 2020 report, at 1,245 fatalities.
It is therefore not surprising, from the foregoing, that Buhari has many times been accused of having sympathy for the herders, atrocities and all. Indeed, those who have alleged that the president, in words and inaction, enables the Fulani extremists cannot be tagged uncharitable. Therefore, Femi Adesina’s disclosure, only last week, that the Federal Government had uncovered an “orchestrated smear campaign” against Buhari in the media was laughable. Adesina, in a statement, the contents of which he attributed to “impeccable security findings” wrote: “Part of the planned publication is to make unwary readers believe that the president has continually used the powers of his office to shield and protect an ethnic group against the crimes of murder, kidnappings, rape and banditry in the southern, middle belt and northern states.” Really?
Have these people not been in this country since the January 2018 Benue massacre when victims of the herders’ atrocities have been crying out for protection and justice in Benue, in Taraba, in Kaduna, in Plateau, in Niger, in Kogi, in Enugu, in Ebonyi, in Ekiti, in Ondo, in Oyo and in several other states? Has Buhari not been reading the newspapers, and watching on television, the allegations and accusations of his sympathy for the herders? What is there to smear in the image of a president whose management of the herders’ crisis has long been immersed in infamy? What can be impeccable in some security findings the facts of which have been in public domain in the last four years? Could those be the kind of security findings deployed to find those killer herdsmen who have made raping, kidnapping and murder their sport?
The fact is the herders’ atrocities have become an existential challenge to the different ethnic nationalities in the country. Buhari has so far displayed an incapacity, if not unwillingness, to bring a stop to the herders’ murderous activities. Reason why non-state actors, backed by their communities and the leadership of ethnic associations, have taken it upon themselves to push back by attacking Fulani settlements. This is generating cross-ethnic tension that, if not properly managed, could lead to violent instability the end of which nobody could predict. It is not enough for the president to wring his hands like Adesina wrote in his statement: “Those who are bent on stoking ethnic and religious unrest in the country remain deaf to reason, and impervious to reality. They are hell-bent on distorting reality, and Nigerians are urged to be wary of them.”
This administration, unfortunately, has mastered the art of blaming others for its own crimes. It is Buhari and his aides, with their incessant rationalisation of herders’ atrocities as detailed at the beginning of this column, that have ignited the fire of ethnic suspicions. It is the administration’s failure to nip religious extremism in the bud that is stoking the embers of religious unrest. It is the president that distorts reality with his head almost permanently buried in the past – blaming past administrations for present challenges; and seeking ancestral solutions to today’s problems. It is Buhari and his aides that Nigerians should be wary of as they neither see nor listen to the people’s cries for justice; they mock their critics, are bereft of empathy and warmth, and talk down on the people. They are concerned with only one reality – power without responsibility.
It is good for the president to express his displeasure with the elites. Buhari last weekend in Daura blamed the elites for not acknowledging his achievements particularly in infrastructure development since he came on board in 2015; he expressed displeasure at the constant harassment of his administration. How touching! It would be better, however, that the president looked at himself in the mirror. There is no doubt that the administration has done considerable work in road repairs and reconstruction; it is even doing more considerable work in revamping the railways. But then, what’s the good of a well-paved road that no one, except the suicidal, is ready to use for fear of being kidnapped, raped or killed? What’s the joy of a train ride that could easily be raided by armed men?
The fact is criminal herders are central to the general insecurity in the country and their activities not only impede the acknowledgement of the administration’s achievements in other areas, their atrocities deepen ethnic and religious tension capable of snowballing into a bigger crisis that could destabilise the country. Buhari would do well in the remaining two years of his tenure, if he cared about the judgment of history, to focus on clocking much more miles on intangible achievements, especially in matters of herdsmen’s crisis and the ensuing insecurity that’s negatively impacting the country’s stability.
“We do what we have to do as leaders”, says Prime Minister Harold Wilson in one of his weekly sessions with Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, a Netflix-original drama series on the life of the English monarch, “our job is to calm more crises than we create.” Could Buhari honestly claim his administration has calmed more crises than it has created on matters affecting herders and general insecurity in the country? Not with the choice he has made in the titanic contest between the two legendary wolves in us, feeding the black wolve with fear and hate, darkness and despair.