From the recent “vacate-forest-reserves’’ order handed down to Fulani herdsmen by the Ondo State government to some communities across southern Nigeria giving them notice to quit, once again allegations of ethnicization of crimes in Nigeria have surfaced, resulting in hateful resentment and attacks on herder settlements by their host communities.
The media has been particularly accused of stoking ethnic tensions that are beginning to boil over in places like Igangan in Oyo State and Isikwuato in Abia State, where Fulani herder settlements have been sacked by elements from the host communities as a strategy aimed at combating heightened insecurity.
However, more than any other group [media] or groups of persons [non-Fulani Nigerians] that are most responsible for the ethnicization of criminal activities of killer Fulani herdsmen are the very group of persons complaining loudly about the criminal profiling of their ethnic group: Fulani political elite/intellectuals and the pan-Fulani socio-cultural group, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria [MACBAN].
In December 2016, a little over a year after he became the governor of Kaduna State in May 2015, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai revealed the identities of those carrying out killings in the southern part of his state to be Fulani herdsmen and their motive as revenge killings for similar treatment meted out to them by the indigenous community in the 2011 post-election violence that rocked the state. According to El-Rufai, “Fulani herdsmen from across Africa bring their cattle down towards Middle Belt and southern Nigeria. The moment the rain starts around March, April, they start moving them up to go back to their various communities and countries.
“Unfortunately, it was when they were moving up with their cattle across Southern Kaduna that the elections of 2011 took place and the crisis trapped some of them. Some of them were from Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Senegal. Fulanis are in 14 African countries and they traverse this country with the cattle. So many of these people were killed, cattle lost and they organised themselves and came back to revenge’.’
And his solution to the problem as the chief security officer of the state was not to mobilize security agencies to defend the people of Southern Kaduna against killer Fulani herdsmen by enforcing law and order across the troubled area, rather, El-Rufai chose the path of appeasement by using his shared Fulani ethnicity with the killers as a bargaining tool: “We took certain steps. We got a group of people that were going round trying to trace some of these people in Cameroon, Niger Republic and so on to tell them that there is a new governor who is Fulani like them and has no problem paying compensation for lives lost and he is begging them to stop killing.
“In most of the communities, once that appeal was made to them, they said they have forgiven. There are one or two that asked for monetary compensation. They said they have forgiven the death of human beings, but want compensation for cattle. We said no problem, and we paid some. As recently as two weeks ago, the team went to Niger Republic to attend one Fulani gathering that they hold every year with a message from me.”
In effect, Governor El-Rufai, a leading member of the political elite and intellectual community, actually set the tone for the ethnicization of the criminal activities of killer Fulani herdsmen. But because appeasement is usually interpreted by criminals as a sign of weakness, which actually emboldens, rather than restrains, them, killer Fulani herdsmen became unhinged and went on a killing spree, sacking farming communities and destroying farmlands to make way for unrestrained cattle grazing in central and southern Nigeria.
And when Nigerians were rattled by the massacre of over 70 people in a single attack in Benue State by killer Fulani herdsmen, the Federal Government of Nigeria, under the headship of President Muhammadu Buhari, an ethnic Fulani, came to the aid of the killers with a convenient alibi. The minister of defence at the time, Brig. Gen. Mansur Dan-Ali, a Fulani from the north-western state of Zamfara, while branding the killings as farmer-herders’ clashes, justified the carnage thus: “Whatever crisis that happened at any time, there has to be remote and immediate causes. What are the remote causes of this farmers-herders’ crisis? Since Independence, we know there used to be a route whereby these cattle rearers use.
“Cattle rearers are all over the nation, you go to Bayelsa, you see them, you go to Ogun, you see them. If those routes are blocked, what happens? These people are Nigerians, it’s just like you going to block river or shoreline, does that make sense to you? These are the remote causes. But what are the immediate causes? It is the grazing law. These people are Nigerians, we must learn to live together with each other, that is basic. Communities and other people must learn how to accept foreigners within their enclave, finish!”
By attributing the killings to the blockage of grazing routes and the anti-open grazing law of Benue State, Minister Mansur Dan-Ali effectively tied the murderous activities of killer Fulani herdsmen to the noble cultural occupation of cattle breeding of Nigeria’s Fulani people and hence appropriating the crimes of a few on behalf of the overwhelming majority.
Emboldened by government’s law and order enforcement inertia, killer Fulani herdsmen have become unhinged and in their enormous numbers have invaded Nigeria, coveting it as a thoroughfare of a very lucrative criminal franchise that makes no distinction between their Nigerian Fulani brethren and other Nigerians. Described by the Global Terrorism Index as the fourth most deadly armed group in the world, killer Fulani herdsmen have now become unhinged, operating from forests across the country.
They have laid siege on Nigerian villages, towns and major highways, relentlessly killing, maiming, raping, plundering, kidnapping and robbing unprotected and defenceless Nigerians. Wielding sophisticated weapons, killer Fulani herdsmen often invade people’s farmlands, chase away the farm owners before feeding their herds of cattle with the available food crops. Fulani home states like Zamfara, Katsina, Niger, Kaduna and Sokoto have come under serious attacks from killer herdsmen, where they rustle herds belonging to the Fulani cattle breeder, destroy farms, rob, kidnap and kill people in their homes in villages and towns.
The constituted authorities in these states have practically lost control of swaths of territories to heavily armed killer Fulani herdsmen who now impose levies and taxes on farmers before they can plant or harvest from their farmlands. In each of these cases, Miyetti Allah, when not tacitly claiming responsibility for the carnage in Benue or elsewhere, is fully involved in hostage negotiations with bandits on behalf of government, actions that have given a cover of legitimacy to the atrocities of killer herdsmen.
Despite the widespread atrocious activities of killer herdsmen, not all Fulani people are killers and, contrary to the allegation of criminal profiling of the Fulani ethnic group in Nigeria, Nigerians do not consider every Fulani person a criminal. The Ondo State government did not issue a statewide eviction order to Fulani farmers, traders, artisans, currency traders, civil servants, etcetera, living in towns and villages of the state. It only asked herdsmen occupying forest reserves to leave.
That the Ondo State government issued further directives outlawing night grazing and herding by underage children and outlined a new operational guideline to Fulani herders is an indication that the business of cattle breeding is not banned in the state but should be done in compliance with the laws of the state.
Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar III of Sokoto, in his reaction to the recent happenings in the country, expressed concerns about the fact that seven out 10 kidnappers arrested by security agencies in Nigeria in recent times were Fulani, just as he rightly stated that not all Fulani people were criminals.
While this high number of criminal elements represents a very low percentage of the population of the Fulani people of Nigeria, it nevertheless has given a serious image problem to the entire ethnic group as it will seem as though banditry is replacing cattle breeding as the cultural occupation of Nigeria’s Fulani.
It is this tendency, away from cattle breeding towards banditry, that should concern every Nigerian Fulani and less about the amplification of the profile of their criminal kinsmen. Too much ado about the ethnic profiling of criminal herdsmen is unhelpful and smacks of living in denial of an existential threat to Nigeria’s national security and stability.