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The Fulani Herdsmen Threat to Nigeria’s Fragile Unity



By Moses E. Ochonu



Friday, March 11, 2016.



Nomadic Fulani herdsmen have become a much-resented group across the country. The resentment has intensified as they have clashed with farming communities across the country. In the Middle Belt, however, it is no longer accurate to call the attitude resentment, just as it is no longer accurate to describe what is happening as a clash. It is a sustained massacre, and it has engendered an attitude that is approaching hatred — the kind of hatred that one reserves for someone who threatens one’s very existence.


Recently, hired mercenaries in the pay of Fulani herdsmen massacred 300 people in several Agatu villages, burned down homes, food barns, and churches, and displaced tens of thousands of Agatu people. Fulani herdsmen leaders in Makurdi then brazenly claimed the attack, describing it as payback for cattle theft. The massacre was a reprise of several such murderous invasions across different areas of the Middle Belt — in Plateau, Kaduna, Taraba, Nasarawa, Adamawa, and Benue States. The genocidal rampage of well-armed herdsmen has become a feature of life in the area in the last seven years.


Let me make some itemized observations about these killings, what they portend for this country, the issues at stake, and possible ameliorative reforms:



1.     There is a pattern to these massacres; they are not random, spontaneous acts. The pattern is predictable. The Fulani never deny the killings. Instead, they are ever ready with a familiar alibi: the indigenous people stole our cows and this was payback. By this bizarre logic, the theft of cows by a member of a host community is not only a death sentence; it is a death sentence for the thief and all of his kinsmen and women. It is a strange, murderous logic that equates the lives of cattle with those of human beings, including those of women, children, and the elderly. It also advances collective retributive punishment as a form of interethnic engagement. The herdsmen basically, and repeatedly, admit to and boast of razing down communities and engaging in massacres of defenseless people, including women and children. Yet they have never been held accountable. And their leaders who make these admissions are coddled, dignified, and invited to press conferences with high-ranking police officers and political leaders, where they are given a platform to justify their genocidal operations. Afterwards, they are allowed to freely walk away to plot the next massacre.


2.     The militia members are mostly foreigners. In the rare couple of instances when several of them were captured in some Middle Belt communities, they were discovered to be foreigners from neighboring countries, who had been conscripted by the Fulani herdsmen to commit these massacres. It is not a far-fetched hypothesis to surmise that only foreigners with no historical or mutual existential ties to the targeted Middle Belt peoples would be capable of unfeelingly committing the scorched earth atrocities that have been unfolding in the area, a tapestry of massacres documented in unspeakably grisly pictures of infants, pregnant women, and the elderly hacked or burned to death. The militias are basically armed, stand-by proxies of the Fulani herdsmen. They have no regard for Nigeria’s security agencies and their capabilities. They rape, murder, burn, and pillage at will.


3.     Every massacre is followed by two developments: the desertion of villages and towns by the surviving members of Middle Belt communities, and a subsequent occupation of these communities by herdsmen and their cattle — a forceful, de facto territorial takeover.


4.     It is wrong to call the massacres clashes. They are not clashes. They are invasions that result in the massacre of defenseless indigenous people in purportedly vengeful orgies of bloodletting. Clashes require two sets of combatants. In these massacres, there is only one heavily armed group of combatants, a militia armed and hired by the herdsmen, a militia that the leaders of the Fulani herdsmen boldly and proudly admit is doing their bidding.


5.     These massacres do not fit into the traditional, familiar mold of “farmer-herdsmen” clashes. No, what is happening in the Nigerian Middle Belt is not that. Clashes between farmers and headsmen are common in Africa. In Nigeria such clashes often pit Fulani herdsmen against largely non-Fulani farmers. Such clashes are even common in the Muslim-majority states of the Northwest. On a research visit to Jigawa state in 2009, I sat in on a mediation meeting between farmers and herdsmen in Dutse emirate. The District Head of Dutse presided over the meeting and later briefed me about the recalcitrant ways of the Fulani nomads who routinely violated rules the emirate made to stem conflicts between herdsmen and farmers. The herdsmen, he said, regularly let their cattle encroach on farmed lands and refuse to pay compensation to farmers whose crops are eaten up. Such clashes occur all over the country. But they rarely result in the loss of human life and tend to be amicably settled by traditional authorities through mediation, payment of compensation, and the institution of preventive measures to keep cattle away from farms. The aim of the herdsmen in these instances is never to kill off, displace, or take over territories for their cattle. At any rate, these crises involve roaming nomads who are seasonal migrants, so why should they want territory? Why should they want to seize territory for their cattle? What is happening in the Middle Belt is totally different. It is an organized, systematic and repeated invasion of communities with the obvious aim of displacing them from the land. These nomads are not the familiar seasonal nomads who migrate southward through Middle Belt communities during the dry season and northward during the rainy season. No, these new, unfamiliar nomads camp out in these communities all year, hence the desire to displace the locals so they do not have to obey farmland restrictions. What they are perpetrating in the Middle Belt is a forceful territorial takeover. We need to properly name the problem to stand any chance of solving it.


6.     This hunger for grazing territory — permanent grazing territory — is a zero-sum quest pursued at the expense of the area’s local farmers. It is intensifying as a result of two realities: Nigeria’s population is increasing rapidly, bringing more land into cultivation and habitation; and the arid Sahel region is expanding rapidly in correspondence to the southward expansion of the frontiers of the Sahara desert.


7.     Some people say that we should not couch the massacres in ethnic terms, that is, that we should not refer to them as Fulani herdsmen massacres. They also say we should not use the term indigene to describe local farmers who are being killed and displaced. This argument is not faithful to the sociological realities of the problem. The ethnic idiom is inevitable, since the herdsmen are Fulani by ethnicity. As for “indigenous,” that is a function of the Nigerian constitution, which defines citizenship in terms of ancestry and consanguinity rather than residency. The constitution confers rights of communal land ownership on indigenes, defined by these criteria, not on residents, whether such residents are temporary, migratory, or permanent sojourners. If we are going to reform this constitutional citizenship clause, let us do so holistically through a constitutional amendment instead of making an exception for the Fulani herdsmen or any other group.


8.     One of the causes of the problem is the unchallenged, open bearing of automatic firearms by Fulani nomads. Our laws forbid regular citizens to own or bear automatic weapons, but the Fulani openly carry them and presumably use them. Fulani herdsmen are seen all over the country with these weapons, creating tensions and putting farmers on edge — farmers who are not allowed to bear such arms. This impunity on the part of the Fulani herdsmen is inexplicable. It is as though there are different sets of laws for the Fulani nomads. The nomads have to be disarmed unless the government wants farming communities to similarly arm themselves with sophisticated military-grade weapons. That would be disastrous for everyone and for the country.


9.     Clearly, the Fulani nomads do not yet realize that their brand of cattle husbandry is outdated. From the yield perspective, nomadism diminishes the meat and milk yield of cattle. It precipitates clashes with farmers in the context of increasing populations. What’s more, nomadic grazing exposes cattle to the vagaries of disease, pestilence, and natural disaster and puts them out of the reach of advanced veterinary and scientific interventions that could protect them and improve their yield. Nomadic, long-distance grazing is simply unsustainable in our world, hence the transition to ranching and other sedentary forms of cattle production in many countries. If the Fulani nomads themselves do not get it, for the sake of farming communities across the country, the government should use its bully pulpit and overarching might to convince them to relocate their cattle to watered ranches carefully carved out for them in certain states of the North, where the bonds of ethnicity (and religion) might make the local people more receptive to such ranches and where the abundance of land and low population density would make the ranches more feasible.


10.  It is time to tell truth about the transformation in the herding culture of the nomadic Fulani in Nigeria. Their vocation is a dying one, and many younger nomads are quitting transhumant herding because it has become increasingly hazardous, economically unstable, and precarious. Many inherited herds have been lost to organized rustling, to disease, and to the absence of a scientific, sustainable mode of husbandry. The result is that many nomadic Fulani youths have become bandits and criminals. Familiar with grazing routes and routines, they lead bands of rustlers camped out in forests in the Northwest and parts of the Middle Belt. Others have taken to armed robbery and kidnapping. This is one more indication that the nomadic lifestyle is not one for the future and should be reformed into more sedentary vocations that would give nomadic youths a future outside criminal activities. Most of the rustlers arrested or killed by the security services since the Governors of the northwest states launched an operation against rustling in that zone turned out to be mostly former nomadic Fulani who knew the lay of the land as it were. Many members of the murderous Fulani militias are former herdsmen who now earn a living as mercenaries for their nomadic kinsmen.


11.  The mercenaries (foreign and local) who perpetrate the massacres in the Middle Belt on behalf of herdsmen have to be dealt with, disarmed, and prosecuted as terrorists.


12.  The Fulani nomads are essential members of the Nigerian fabric. They play a role in providing animal proteins to Nigerians, enriching our dietary repertoire. But they have to realize that their current method is unsustainable, and has already strained the fragile unity of the country. They should therefore cooperate with the government to transform their craft into sedentary ranches. Speaking of ranches, it is now the only viable solution. Previously suggested solutions such as the establishment of grazing routes and grazing reserves are now passé, rendered unfeasible by Nigeria’s charged politics of land ownership, the combustible mélange of ethno-religious self-preservation and the politics of autochthony, and contested access to ancestral lands. Non-Fulani peoples should not be forced to give up their age-long access to ancestral lands in other to solve a problem they did not cause.


13.  Non-Fulani people should not allow recent tragic massacres to transform the search for solutions into an inquest on the Fulani, their culture, their ways of life, and their rights as Nigerian citizens. Negative myths and stereotypes of the Fulani have already unfortunately proliferated across Nigeria and West Africa. The solution to this problem must include non-Fulani people unlearning their anti-Fulani prejudices and stereotypes.


Moses E. Ochonu is professor of African history at Vanderbilt University. He holds a Ph.D. in African history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA. A public intellectual, he writes regularly for several reputable publications.



The Fulani Herdsmen Threat to Nigeria’s Fragile Unity

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