By Azu Ishiekwene
As the country struggles to push back the murderous Boko Haram from the North East, a new form of terror appears to be gaining ground. There were reports on Tuesday that a group of herdsmen attacked a village in Enugu, killing at least 20 people and burning down everything in their path.
Putting a number on the dead or a price on the property destroyed hardly does justice to the violence. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, each family is different in its own way and bears the stripes of adversity in its own peculiar way. The figures will never convey the depth of the grief or the magnitude of the loss, until it happens again and again and again.
And I fear it will.
Who’s next? As at Wednesday, there were unconfirmed reports that the so-called herdsmen were planning to attack Umuchigbo, a community in the Nike area of Anambra State. In February, about 300 people were killed in Agatu, Benue State, when a group, again presumed to be herdsmen, reportedly attacked some villages.
The common narrative, often reflected in press reports, appears not only straightforward but also quite enticing. It reminds me of the sort of prejudice you would often find when reading a report about Nigeria in the foreign press: it’s north vs south, christian vs Muslim and everything else falls in between. Except that this time, the prejudice is in-bred – the local press is framing the story, not foreigners.
With hardly any proof, the herdsmen have been described as “Fulani” and the pattern of attacks lately – starting from the north central to the fringes of the south west and now spreading to the south east – is portrayed as a “jihad” by other means. A version of the story on the Enugu attack on social media on Tuesday, for example, even said the attack in Enugu happened because President Muhammadu Buhari refused to take a potentially pre-emptive call from Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, an insinuation that Ugwuanyi said was false.
The message, in between the lines, is that the all-controlling Hausa Fulani who have now been forced to confront Boko Haram which they created as a tool to seize political power from a southern, christian president, have created another dangerous franchise to extend and consolidate control on other parts of the country. Who does not know that President Buhari, a Hausa Fulani, is also a cattle farmer, an essential herdsman?
Connecting the dots could be as subtle as the PDP Benue chapter claiming that the Agatu attack was a reprisal mission for David Mark winning his rerun. Or it could also be as brazen as comments on social media that Buhari has been reluctant to use an iron fist on the herdsmen because they are his “kinsmen.”
Simple profiling of the horrendous attacks by the herdsmen may satisfy our prejudice, soothe our fears or assuage our expectations that Buhari should be doing more after one year in office. It hardly addresses the root of the problem.
In its original form, especially in the early 2000, when the problem was largely one of trespass between “indigenes” in parts of Plateau State and “non-indigenes” mostly herdsmen, it was essentially an economic issue. Landowners in the area seemed helpless in the face of the foray by herdsmen in search of pasture.
Sadly, the landowners often suffered double jeopardy – they lost their sources of livelihood and could not get justice either from the traditional rulers in their communities or from the state. Parties resorted to self-help, which according a report entitled the Geneva Declaration 2011 left over 4,000 dead between 2001 and 2008.
It doesn’t make sense to frame disputes over “grazing rights” as evidence of the hegemonic influence of any ethnic group. The biblical story of the dispute between Abraham and his cousin Lot over “grazing rights” was no more a family feud than it was an economic one. Both parties had to go their separate ways to settle the matter.
Today, “grazing rights” issues are worsened by a completely wrong cultural attitude to property rights in many developing countries. In Nigeria, for example, it could be as simple as someone reading this article over your shoulder and being upset if you raised an eye; as ridiculous as a king “taking” another man’s wife by “placing a leg on her”; or as bizarre as government claiming that it owns all lands and all that lies beneath it. Respect for personal space or private property is suspect, or at best, rudimentary.
While the world has moved on, dealing with more fundamental issues of intellectual property rights, we’re not far from where Abraham was 4,100 years ago.
And this is not a uniquely Nigerian problem. Ghana has had a running battle with herdsmen. In Kenya, constant deadly clashes between the pastoralist Maasai and other ethnic groups led to an amendment in the constitution to strengthen title ownership rights after government-instituted group ranches failed. At a point, in fact, the Maasai were not only attacking farmlands, there were also attacking game reserves to secure their herd.
Across Africa, institutions for redress of property rights – be they the police or the law courts – are still a joke. And the bigger Nigeria joke, if were not an absurdity, is for at least three major attacks claiming over 300 lives to have happened in three months without one single person standing trial. That is inexcusable.
The matter obviously needs the same seriousness with which Buhari is addressing Boko Haram, pipeline vandals and looters of the economy. The scale, audacity and sheer cruelty of the attacks suggest an organised force beyond herdsmen of any particular ethnic group. The herdsman is largely a metaphor, a red herring for something far more sinister.
More and more herdsmen driven by climatic changes, escalating violence and insecurity in the North in the last few years, have obviously pushed further south wards in search of pasture. It’s unlikely that this has been purely a migration of pastoralists. Their ranks may have been infiltrated by criminals (especially foreign ones from neigbouring countries), who have access to arms pouring in from our leaking borders.
That may not be what people want to hear but the imprint is there for those who care to see. While the government cannot afford to spare the rod, journalists may soon find they’re up against a story that may not fit the headlines they would love to cast. It’s unpardonable that not one person has so far been prosecuted for the deadly attacks, but it’s foolish to call the attacks another Hausa-Fulani jihad.
*Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and member of the board of the Paris-based Global Editors Network