If you were on a holiday to Nigeria from Mars last week, you would almost certainly cut short your stay to avoid what looked like a coming Armageddon.
Rotimi Akeredolu, the governor of Ondo, one of the six South-western states, had issued an ultimatum to herders, mostly of the Fulani tribe, to vacate the state’s forest reserves within one week. The folks are not rangers and have no business in forest reserves, much less turning them into grazing fields.
But that’s Greek. In Nigeria, where the law can often be a respecter of connections or identity, you’ll be a fool not to press your advantage. The unspoken feeling is that President Muhammadu Buhari, himself from the Hausa-Fulani stock and a big cattle ranch owner, is not just a club member but also patron saint of Miyetti Allah, the herders’ association which claims every blade of grass on fertile Nigerian land.
Governor Akeredolu said he received intelligence that some herders were about to unleash violence in the state and that recent reports of banditry, kidnapping and other criminal activities implicated Fulani herdsmen. They must expel their under-age members, he said, leave the reserves in seven days and be registered or else…
The governor did not say what he would do, because quite frankly, he knew he couldn’t do jack. Not just him. No Nigerian governor can call a shot or dodge a bullet to save their own lives.
Yet, Akeredolu had barely finished speaking when Miyetti Allah, enabled by a statement from the Presidency, vowed that herdsmen in Ondo forest reserves would not move an inch, and threatened fire for fire.
The spark flew southward, inflaming the already tense situation between herdsmen and communities in the Oke Ogun area of Oyo State. A certain Sunday Igboho led mobs to unleash violence in the area; killing, looting and burning – a revenge mission that transformed Igboho, a popular thug, into the overnight leader of the Salvation Army.
Who can blame Igboho, a thug who it would now appear from a number of insider accounts, has exploited loopholes in a failing system to create for himself a political kingdom and the image of a messiah? Who can blame Miyetti Allah for claiming that the only road to our collective redemption is paved by cattle dung?
Yet, Akeredolu’s ultimatum was an expression of impotent rage. There was nothing he could do. Both he and his Oyo State counterpart, Seyi Makinde, who asked the police to arrest Igboho, and Miyetti Allah which is behaving like the military wing of ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), and everyone involved in this shambolic cow-and-grass game, know that the only man who can do something about this situation is Buhari.
That may sound unfair or too much to ask of one man, but it’s a burden with a long history that Buhari knows more than anyone else.
Twenty-one years ago, this Oke Ogun where Igboho mobilised thugs on a revenge mission was the same place where Citizen Buhari, upon hearing of clashes there, led an Arewa group to Government House, Bodija, to demand from Governor Lam Adesina justice for Fulani cattle herders affected by the violence.
If justice was good enough for the Fulani cattle herders in Oke Ogun in Buhari’s former life, it should be good enough today for victims of Fulani-herder banditry in Ondo forest reserves or wherever such travesty may be found.
I don’t share the somewhat prevalent view that Buhari is an irredeemable tribalist, a predatory Fulani to the core. Sure, influential persons and opportunists around him are using tribe for advantage, encouraged and enabled by Buhari’s puzzling silence.
It’s, however, in the nature of politics, especially our kind of politics, that tribes or social groups that may think they enjoy a temporary advantage, would beat the rest of society over the head with their shared identity, once their man is in power. They naturally think it’s their turn to eat even when, in fact, the crumbs may never fall their way.
At times like that, the leader has a choice: indulge the tribe’s worst instincts and alienate the larger society; or inspire confidence and trust by reining them in not just by platitudes and claims of fairness to all, but also by being seen to be fair by all.
What is sauce for the Fulani cattle herder in Oke Ogun, should be sauce for the farmer in the Ondo forest reserve or the palm wine tapper in Ikeduru.
And Buhari knows this only too well, not just from standing up for the Oke Ogun Fulani cattle herder, but also from his role in the events that led to Nigeria’s civil war.
The soldiers who killed Nigeria’s first military head of state, General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, didn’t kill him because he committed any crime or was part of the plot that led to the violent and bloody overthrow of the First Republic.
They just thought that perhaps because the ringleaders of the mutiny were from his tribe, he wasn’t tough enough on them or keen to bring them to justice. They judged him guilty by identity.
In his second coming as civil head of state, President Olusegun Obasanjo, often derided as Nigeria’s Uber-nationalist, faced a similar problem. The Oduduwa People’s Congress which began as a Yoruba sociocultural interest group soon spun into a violent terror gang and the common assumption then was that the group had taken advantage of the fact that a Yoruba man was in power to terrorise the general public, especially the non-Yoruba in the South-west.
Obasanjo could have indulged them. But he didn’t. He unleashed what was generally considered a disproportionate show of force, issuing a shoot-on-sight order at a stage. He still believes, to this day, that it was the right thing because it was incumbent on him to rein the group in or risk a general breakdown of law and order.
That lesson was lost on President Goodluck Jonathan and he paid dearly for it. Niger Delta militants were the Fulani herdsmen of his day. Nigeria paid them billions of naira to look after oil pipelines, part of which they used in blowing up pipelines for more money and the rest in carousing on the 9th floor of Transcorp Hilton!
Buhari is behaving as if some Fulani herdsmen have him between the legs, making the cow a metaphor of all that is wrong with Nigeria, when in fact, pastoralism is just another business, like farming, banking or manufacturing.
I understand the pride of a remnant of herders for whom the herd is not just a means of transaction but a legacy, a way of life. But those who have politicised and weaponised the business know that these remnant herders are clinging to a dying past. Current pastoral practices in Nigeria are the journalistic equivalent of using movable metal type in printing, the sort of thing that Gutenberg did.
Neither data about world beef consumption nor figures about world cattle production puts Nigeria among the top 50. With a population of about 200 million, Nigeria’s meat consumption per capita is lower than those of smaller countries like Chad, Burkina Faso or Cameroon. Its average cattle milk yield of 500 kg per year is barely enough to feed a bunch of five-year-old-kids and ranks among the lowest in the world.
Why is cattle still such a great source of misery and divisiveness in Nigeria today?
The system, with proper planning and regulation, has to be opened to modern business practices, without government grabbing other people’s land in contravention of a half-a-century-old law against open grazing. Proposals to import preferential grass at the public’s expense don’t make sense either. Pastoralism needs a new, business-driven life.
The evidence of love for herdsmen is not to use them as cannon fodder in endless political warfare. Miyetti Allah’s opportunism must stop and Buhari should call the shambles for what it is. That is the only way he can have the moral backbone to tackle any other group that steps brazenly out of line.
Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview