Home Opinion For the historical records: “Nigeria and the cow problem” by Niyi Osundare

For the historical records: “Nigeria and the cow problem” by Niyi Osundare

[Since I began writing this column fourteen years ago, first in The Guardian under a slightly different name – Talakawa Liberation Courier – and then in its present title and location in The Nation, only twice have I ever republished another writer’s or columnist’s piece. Thus, the text by Niyi Osundare that appears in this column today marks the third time of this sort of republication of something that, in my opinion, greatly deserves to be noted for the historical records.

Niyi Osundare is Niyi Osundare; that is all the introduction he needs to all well-informed Nigerians. If we had a tradition of living national poet laureates, of all our living major poets, I can only think of one, at most two, other poets who could compete with Niyi for that exalted post. In all the national literary traditions of the world, when the national poet laureate speaks the whole nation listens attentively. But beyond this tradition, the piece that I am republishing this week in this column deserves to be read in its own right as one of the most eloquent and insightful reflections on the (in)security crisis in our country at the present time, a crisis that Wole Soyinka has aptly described as the crisis of death and life in Nigeria.

“Nigeria and the cow problem” speaks for itself and it does so clearly, and with wit, passion and insight. For this reason, I will make only two short comments to highlight issues that, in my opinion, deserve special attention by all Nigerians. First, there is the issue of the place of the “cow problem” in the present (in)security crises in our country. As I write these words, the Buhari administration has listed all the dire “security challenges” that we face and the list includes the following challenges: widespread banditry; kidnapping; ethnic and communal clashes; armed robbery; rape and sexual violence against women and underage girls; religious and criminal insurgencies. Osundare’s piece locates the “cow problem” in the broader context of these crises and challenges, but it also argues that the “cow problem” is the most pressing and, potentially, the most combustible of all our security challenges. Secondly, in his letter to the President, Osundare completely dismantles the real but often manipulated ethnic and primordial fears and anxieties surrounding our “cow problem”. He argues that the bodies are buried, not in primordialism; rather, they are to be found elsewhere, precisely in an atavistic failure to construct a modernizing and egalitarian regime of cattle grazing, rearing and production in our country. But enough of this introduction. Let Osundare speak in his own truly patriotic, radical and humanistic voice. One hopes that the putative addressee of the letter -Buhari and his administration – will take heed of Osundare’s analyses and suggestions, especially as they have also been echoed in bits and pieces by many other patriotic commentators. But in the end, it is the Nigerian peoples that are the collective addressee of “Nigeria and the cow problem”].

Dear President Buhari,
This letter, my second to you in five months, will begin with a very, very absurd question: Mr. President, will Nigeria drift into another civil war under your watch simply because the ‘Giant of Africa’ does not know how to manage its cows? Yes, absurd: for, absurdity is the faithful cohort of the grotesque and irrational, the conspicuously invisible and falsely true. No war has ever taken place without a potent dose of the absurd in its mix of causes. No calamity has ever happened without a touch of the irrational. The distance between travesty and tragedy is perilously short. This is why History’s capacious house is replete with the skeletons of nations which went to war, after leaving their brains behind.

Mr. President, the country over which you preside is burning in all its flanks: kidnapping on the highways, kidnapping on village roads, kidnapping on township streets, kidnapping in the homestead, kidnapping on the farmlands. Nigeria has never had it so bad. The notorious perpetrators of these crimes are widely called ‘bandits’ and/or ‘Fulani herdsmen’, depending upon the speaker’s degree of sensitivity or political correctness. The ethnic origination and/or attribution of these crimes is my object of worry – and should be to anyone who cares for the stability of Nigeria and its survival as a corporate entity. Yes, the cow, that four-legged, two-horned, long-tailed, absolutely innocent animal, has become Nigeria’s casus belli , the mooring metaphor of a planless, dysfunctional country, waiting for another bout of absurdity to push her beyond the brink, and plunge us all into avoidable catastrophe. Big wars are often caused by thoughtless little issues. Mr. President, war drums are already sounding in some parts of the country, provoked by a question as dangerously absurd as this: when you and a herd of cows meet on the road, who/which should have the right of way? When you, a struggling farmer, get to your farm and find a herd of cows making a meal of the crops which are the lifeline for you and your family, should you take a bow as you shout bon appetite to the bovine bunch? When your only child is kidnapped and tortured and murdered, even after the payment of a hefty ransom, will you ask your neighbours to join you in the singing of the national anthem? Absurdity, dangerous absurdity. But Mr. President, permit me to poach this unavoidably long excerpt from an interview which was part of my contributions to the activities marking the 59th anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence:

Now, on to the Fulani Herdsmen. The frightening frequency of the repetition of that designation in the Nigerian media in recent times has left me with chilling apprehensions. As I have said on other occasions, we need all the tact, all the restraint, all the wisdom we can muster to tackle this extremely dangerous development, for Nigeria cannot afford to stampede itself into another civil war. Let no one underrate the havoc and destruction that are widely caused by these herdsmen ; the epidemic of kidnapping , ransom extortion, and murder, the looting and destruction of farmlands, especially in the southern parts of Nigeria, and the uncountable bereavements that have been the lot of many households. President Buhari and his federal government cannot pretend that they do not know what is happening – that, indeed, there is fire on the roof of the Nigeria house. How much investigation has the government done into this dangerous situation? If any, how thorough, how non-partisan? If, indeed, as we have been told, many of the so-called Fulani Herdsmen are foreigners in search of green pastures in Nigeria, how did they get into the country, and what are the border patrol officers doing about this? What do we call a country that cannot secure its own borders? With the cloud of insecurity hanging over the country, you cannot but ask “Where are Nigeria’s security authorities: the army, the police, immigration, the civil defence corps, etc.? What do President Buhari and the Heads of these security units talk about at their official briefings?

To say the least the federal government’s handling of the herdsmen crisis has been amateurish, pedestrian, and dangerously incompetent. Tell me: Is someone in Aso Rock trifling away while the Nigeria house is burning? Say something, President Buhari. Do something.

The Ruga proposition is a ‘solution’ that is bound to compound the problem. That is why many people in many parts of the country have seen it as a poorly thought out attempt at the colonization of their own territories. And, by the way, there is a crucial, fundamental question we have not been asking: why do so many Nigerians, in this day and age, have to roam the entire country, in search of grass for cows they rear and nurture on behalf of richer, more powerful Nigerians? Why are they not in school – like the children of their rich and powerful patrons/clients? Let no one insult our intelligence with the atavistic excuse that this wasteful mis-employment of a vital group of Nigeria’s youth is a matter of culture and tradition. Genuine culture fares better; and tradition is no disempowering imprisonment.

The Americans pasture their cows, the British do; so do South Africans and Ghanaians and Australians and Argentines, Chinese and Koreans, without turning a sizeable number of their young men into cow-chasers; without plunging their countries into ‘Herdsmen’ war. Let us try the miracle of the modern ranch: green, friendly, and peaceably/equitably located. Let us stop this ethnic profiling and stereotyping, this hype and hysteria, before they plunge us into another civil war. The War of Bullets usually begins with the War of Words. Let Rwanda provide us with a tragic – but avoidable – example.

Mr. President, I said the above some 17 months ago. Since then the situation has grown grimmer, the absurdity more alarming, more dangerous. The war drums are louder now and more persistent because the tension has been left to escalate. The customary silence from the seat of power has accentuated the loudness of the drum.

In the opinion of many Nigerians, your apparent silence is nothing short of ethnic connivance: that the herdsmen roam and range all over the country, killing and maiming with astonishing impunity, because ‘the man at the top’ is their man. This feeling of untouchability, this sense of ethnic entitlement is evidenced by the preferential treatment reportedly enjoyed by the herdsmen, and the failure of Nigerian Law to hold them accountable for their actions. Mr. President, you owe yourself, this troubled country, and the world at large the urgent need to show in demonstrably practical terms that the entire country is, indeed, your ethnic constituency. Say more, do more about the violence that is threatening the already frail fabric of the country. Go out and see things for yourself. The monsters consuming Nigeria are not the type you can tame through chats with traditional rulers on emergency trips to Aso Rock. The story in many parts of Nigeria today are those of murderous assaults by herdsmen and gory reprisals by local victims. A trip to Nigeria’s southwest region will tell you how perilously close the country is to a civil war.

Needless to say, Mr. President, we live in strange and difficult times. As a result of climate change the desert is marching towards the coast; swarths of old pastoral land have disappeared; the beneficent streams between the mountains have all but vanished. As the search for pasture pushes cattle rearing southwards, herdsmen and local farmers have found themselves locked in bloody battle over the available green patch, with old friends and neighbours becoming mortal enemies, and frequent skirmishes flaring into ethnic conflagrations, the type that consume unwary nations. But bad as this situation is, the climate-change excuse will not suffice. Ranches, Mr. President, ranches. Computer-regulated irrigation. Pasture colonies. Created oases. Artificial lakes. Let the cows eat and drink where they are born, not forced into endless dangerous treks across the country in search of dwindling patches of greenery. Ask our River Basins how it could be done. Empower the Faculties of Agriculture in our various universities, (and our Universities of Agriculture), working in creative alliance with those of Engineering and Technology, instead of stampeding them into interminable strikes that drain the nation dry. Israel made the desert bloom by putting its citizens’ brains to work. Today, that country produces 95% of its food requirements, and some of the best citrus products in the world . Concerning the young men and boys now famously known as ‘herdsmen’, put them in school; put their feet on the road to a worthy life. Let their rich and powerful masters/patrons (all over Nigeria!) treat them the way they treat their own children. Science, not superstition, purposive reality, not bovine absurdity, that’s the magic. Time to wake up, Mr. President. Time to wake up. The thinking, working world has left us behind. The whole wide world is appalled by Nigeria’s ostensibly incurable delinquency.

And that world is watching and wondering at the tragic absurdity of a country sliding mindlessly into a civil war over where and how to graze its cows. It is waiting for us to prove that we are wiser than our bovine bunch. It is, indeed, wondering whether in ‘Africa’s most populous country’, it is the people who rear the cows or it is the cows that rear the people. Yes, the world is really wondering who owns Nigeria: the people or the cows?

Say something, Mr. President. Do something. Let us save Nigeria from another (un)civil war.