Herdsmen Terror: Rising Above Ethnicity


Punch Editorial Board

As Nigeria’s steady and seemingly inexorable drift into an abyss of anomie continues, it is difficult not to notice the striking resemblance between the way Boko Haram was propped up in the not-too-distant past, by those in a position to have nipped its incipient danger in the bud, and the way the marauding Fulani herders are being egged on in their sanguinary pursuits today. What is happening now, as was the case with the murderous Boko Haram group then, is a government adopting a policy of appeasement, or even turning a blind eye, in a situation that requires courage to deploy the full weight of the law to crush a certain and undisguised danger confronting the country.

This is really not surprising because Nigeria has an uncanny reputation for ignoring insidious signs of national disasters until they assume gargantuan proportions and start wreaking incalculable havoc on the country. Whenever such situations present themselves, rather than act swiftly and dispassionately, in national interest, the response has most often been coloured by politics, ethnicity and religion. This is still a sad reminder that, more than a century after the colonial powers unwisely yoked together a diverse multitude of nations and groups into a single entity, Nigeria is yet to attain the status of nationhood.

Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen’s terrorism remain the most vicious security threats facing the nation presently. But Nigerian leaders are approaching the matter the way Nero, a Roman emperor, acted when his country was under a serious security threat. Legend has it that he was fiddling, while Rome was burning. When the Boko Haram cancer started rearing its ugly head in 2009, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua was one of the few that knew the danger of allowing the dangerous group to fester. He ordered that it should be swiftly crushed.

But after the initial onslaught, resulting in the death of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and hundreds of others, Yar’Adua soon took ill and eventually died; but his order to snuff out the Islamist group was not effectively carried out. Boko Haram would later become the most deadly terror organisation in the world by 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Index. Not only has the terrorist group been credited with the death of over 100,000 people, it also carried out an audacious kidnap of about 272 schoolgirls, many of whom have yet to regain freedom. But as if contending with Boko Haram is not enough headache for one country, the Fulani herdsmen, designated the fourth deadliest terror group in 2014 by GTI, soon joined to effectively mark Nigeria out as the most terrorised country in the world.

But Nigeria is in this sorry pass because of the role of some Northern elite who politicised the Boko Haram narrative just as they are doing with the Fulani herdsmen carnage. Even the tepid response of the Goodluck Jonathan’s inept administration was frustrated by those who thought they could score political points using the unfortunate circumstances. A prominent champion of this cause was the former governor of Adamawa State, Murtala Nyako, who, in an infamous memo to the Northern Governors’ Forum, accused the Federal Government of committing genocide and blaming it on “innocent” Boko Haram.

Describing Boko Haram attacks as induced calamity, the retired vice-admiral attributed the mass killings of students and children in their schools’ dormitories and examination halls, and the mass kidnapping of girls, to Federal Government’s agents. Yet, these were acts for which the murderous group clearly claimed responsibility. Such wild claims by a supposedly respected elder left those with the responsibility of fighting terror in a quandary.

Nyako, a former Chief of Naval Staff, was just one among the elite cast of that gruesome drama. At a critical time when the group had just pulled off an incredible feat of bombing Nigeria Police headquarters in Abuja, in 2011, the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, also a retired senior military officer, warned against a military crackdown on the group, saying, “You cannot solve violence with violence.”

Two years later, the then presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, granted an interview to Radio Liberty where he also condemned the clampdown on Boko Haram. Buhari, who was quoted as saying that he did not support the declaration of a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, complained that the government was killing members of the Islamist sect and destroying their houses while giving special treatment to militants in the Niger Delta.

At a time when Boko Haram had started occupying large swathes of territory in the North-East, targeting its critics, some governors came out openly to apologise to the mindless killers. Some people even attempted to lure them into dialogue, with a view to granting them amnesty, which, in Nigeria, comes with monetary reward. Of course, this was a proposition that the Islamists, who were only interested in foisting Sharia, the strict Islamic law, on the country, were not ready to consider. It was only when Boko Haram started targeting mosques, Islamic clerics and even made attempts on the lives of the then Emir of Kano and the Shehu of Borno that they started taking the group seriously. By then, it was already late, and Muhammadu Shuwa, a retired major-general, and some other prominent people, had been killed.

Nigeria is in a very precarious state now because acts inimical to the security and wellbeing of the country are being condoned. As the Fulani herdsmen and militia are wreaking havoc across the country, the loud voices of condemnation that should be heard have been muffled by the politics of ethnicity and religion. There is hardly any part of the country that has not tasted the brutality of the group that specialises in sacking villages and in invading people’s farms with their cattle. What the herdsmen do in some places is akin to ethnic cleansing.

Instead of condemning their killings, the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali, would rather blame the anti-grazing laws enacted by some states to protect their people. The Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, whose duty it is to arrest the killers, also found it convenient to attribute the killing of over 73 people on New Year’s Day to “communal clashes.” It even took the government almost an eternity to react and almost two months after, the perpetrators have not yet been brought to book.

While Boko Haram has been limited largely to the North-East, the herdsmen’s threat is more widespread and can be felt even in the most southerly parts of the country. But, like Boko Haram, the destructive spirit of the herdsmen may eventually not be limited to their present targets. Very soon, those propping them up today may become their victims tomorrow. That is the time that the country will start voting billions of dollars to fight Fulani herdsmen terrorism.

Now is the time to stop the arms-bearing herdsmen and the militia that are killing on their behalf. When a similar problem cropped up in Ghana, the security forces responded swiftly by chasing them out of the country. Some of those that left Ghana eventually found their way here. Nigeria should not be a dumping ground for terrorists. The government has a responsibility to protect citizens against any external aggression, be it from Fulani herdsmen or any other terror group.


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