By Dan Agbese
You probably thought it could not get more unsettling. You were wrong.
Here is some evidence. Former head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, addressed a one-day forum organised by a group known as the Search for Common Ground on his farm October 30. In it, he released some grim statistics about the killings and maiming in clashes between Fulani herdsmen and peasant farmers in four states – Plateau, Nasarawa, Kaduna and Benue – in just one year. These figures are certain to chill your bones and make your eyes go rheumy for the present and the future of our country.
A gun-wielding herdsmen with AK-47 is roaming freely all over Nigeria maiming and killing people as well as destroying farmlands and crops
Here are the details he gave for 2016 only: 2,500 people killed; 62,000 people displaced; $13.7 billion lost to the clashes and 47 per cent of the internally-generated revenue in the affected states lost.
The problem with statistics is that when they are about human beings, you cannot put faces to them. Human beings are thus reduced to stark, impersonal numbers. The death of 2,500 Nigerians and the displacement of 62,000 others may do no more than give you a momentary jolt only for you to shrug it off. You are not likely to think of them as struggling Nigerians in our rural areas who were doing nothing criminal but pursuing their legitimate livelihood as peasant farmers who fed the nation.
The real shock is not that these killings, maiming and displacements go on with impunity but that the Federal Government seems to be doing Rip Van Winkle in the face of this critical national challenge. Abubakar rightly warned that these killings are spreading beyond the four states. They have already gone beyond the four states. He omitted killings in Taraba and parts of Adamawa states and, yes, Imo State. Perhaps, he does not have the figures for those places. His statistics could go chillingly higher if he adds Taraba and Adamawa to what he has.
I think it is wrong to describe these killings as clashes. A clash is a violent conflict between two groups of people and usually leaves casualties on both sides. From what I have read about these attacks and killings, the attackers suffer no casualties and there is no evidence that those attacked ever faced the attackers or that they had a chance to fight back. These attacks and killings are unprovoked and the attackers choose where and when to strike. They attack when their intended victims are most vulnerable. In several cases in Plateau State, for instance, the attackers came at night when the villagers were asleep and killed and sacked whole villages and disappeared before day break. They did the same thing several times in Agatu in Benue State. In no case was there any evidence that Agatu people provoked them or had a chance to engage them.
In December 2015, they attacked parts of Southern Kaduna. The vicar-general of the Catholic Diocese of Kafanchan, Rev Ibrahim Yakubu, said 880 people were killed; 53 villages destroyed, 1,422 houses burnt down and that 18 churches and one primary school were also torched.
It would be naïve to suggest that these killings are without rhyme or reason. Why are they concentered in the north-central geo-political zone? Why, as in the case in Southern Zaria, if the problem was between Fulani herdsmen and farmers in the area, did they burn down churches? I wonder if this was intended to give a false religious coloration to these murderous enterprises.
General Abubakar stressed that these killings were wake up calls to all “relevant stakeholders, state and Federal Government, legislatures, traditional rulers, civil society organisations, security agencies and communities to address these deadly conflicts.”
I hope his voice has been heard where it matters. I am glad though that the former head of state cares enough and is worried enough to underline the dangers they pose to the nation. These killings, in his own words, are “…threatening the fragile peace of the nation.” No country would tolerate these bands of killers or pretend they pose no threat to the nation.
I find it baffling that we have refused to find out who these Fulani herdsmen are and why they kill and destroy without the slightest provocation. I do not think it is a coincidence that they have concentrated their operations so far in the five states of Taraba, Plateau, Southern Kaduna, Nasarawa and Benue. Their choice of these theatres of their mayhem must be consistent with their dark objectives unknown to the rest of us. Are these the other ugly face of Boko Haram?
I may be naïve but I am unwilling to accept that the killers are Fulani herdsmen. The times might have changed but these simple rural folk seem unlikely to arm themselves with AK-47 and periodically engage in a killing spree and sending those with whom they have no previous or current quarrel to their early graves. I have always known that the Fulani herdsmen respect the fact that they are strangers in an area where they find a suitable grazing ground for their animals. I know they have always made efforts to be at peace with farmers.
So, what has changed? I have this nervous feeling that Fulani herdsmen are now a franchise. People kill and do other dirty jobs and find it easy to conveniently blame Fulani herdsmen for them. Fact is, we do not want to know the truth.
In my column for the Daily Trust after the attack in Southern Kaduna, I called them phantom Fulani herdsmen. I am not aware that any of these attackers have ever been arrested and charged with the heinous crimes of murder, arson and mayhem. Why is the Federal Government unwilling to wake up to what the situation portends for the country? Why are these men allowed to kill and destroy whole villages with impunity?
I suspect they must have faceless sponsors and godfathers whose aims and objectives they are carrying out to the letter. We will never know unless and until we know that these killers are not phantoms but fellow Nigerians who are terrorising fellow Nigerians in their homes for some sinister reasons.
Two states, Benue and Taraba, have enacted anti-open grazing laws. I have not read them except what I picked up from the newspapers. The Taraba law is being challenged in the court by the umbrella body of the herdsmen, Miyetti Allah. From the little I have read of this piece of legislation, the state governor, Darius Ishaku, wants the herdsmen to apply for and be allocated grazing land to which they must confine their animals. It seems a pretty sensible approach to the problem. The Northern Regional Government established ranches in various parts of the region to ensure that the herdsmen did not roam at will with the potential for conflicts with peasant farmers whose crops are destroyed by their cattle for which they receive no compensation.
Both Taraba and Benue states appear to have responded to the cattle Fulani challenge in their own way. But beyond that, we need an urgent national policy with the right muscle to ensure the herdsmen observe laws made for the common good. The herdsmen are businessmen and like all businessmen, they must be subject to the laws of the land. I find General Abubakar’s warning timely and to the point. We need not be persuaded to wake up now, because the thought of waking up tomorrow to a nightmare that could have been nipped in the bud must be abhorrent to all of us.
Mr. Agbese was a director in the defunct Newswatch Communication