By Dare Babarinsa
Whatever may be the outcry or the preventive measures, the menace of the so-called Fulani herdsmen will not go away in a hurry. For many years now, suspected armed Fulani herdsmen have caused havoc and death in different parts of the country. More than the Boko Haram terrorists, they have shown a fearsome capacity to strike in any part of the Federation. They have struck in Nasarawa, Benue, Taraba, Imo, Abia, Enugu, Delta, Ondo, Oyo, Niger and many other places. In March, they laid waste to seven villages in the Agatu local government area of Benue State. The Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, has tried to broker peace, but so far, his troubleshooting effort has not yielded the desired result.
This war has crept on us like the imperceptible blackness of the night. Yet the herdsmen have always been with us. For many generations, they have moved their cattle from the North to the cities and towns of the South. While campaigning for the Presidency in 1983, Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, promised to create a first-class rail service in Nigeria that would move beef daily from abattoirs in the North, particularly from Kano, to the South in refrigerated wagons. Awolowo believes it was a waste of human and material resources to be moving cattle through the bush instead of rearing them in ranches in the North. Now, some people are ready to turn an inconvenient tradition into a permanent feature of our national life by creating path of ways for the Fulani herdsmen across the Federation. There is a bill now before the National Assembly to back it up.
There is no doubt that the Fulani have succeeded in monopolizing the supply of Nigeria’s beef market. In the past, they have had good competition from other sources of meat. There were the short-horn cattle called erinla, which was a native of Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State. It does not grow as massive as the long-horn cattle of the North. It is now virtually extinct and the erinla of Oke-Ogun have given way to the long-horn giant from the North. The bush meat that used to be plentiful in the South-West has been depleted by reckless hunting and senseless bush burning. The antelopes, big rats, buffalos and other wild beasts are in short supply and some are on the brink of extinction. Even the aparo (partridge) that used to fly low near the main town of Okemesi are nowhere to be found. The massive elephants and buffaloes that once roamed the land are all gone. We have eaten them all.
Worse, the rivers, especially Osun, Ogun, Ose, Oba and others large rivers in the South-West can no longer supply fish. They suffer, not just from over-fishing, but also from systematic poisoning by those who are looking for large hauls. Even the goats and rams that were once plentiful on this land have been surpassed by the studier breeds from the Fulani herds. Reckless loggings have also exposed the rivers so that they are drying up. In Okemesi, River Osun has now been reduced into a minor shy stream and despite occasional heavy rains; it has lost its traditional tumultuous strength. The rain forest canopy that once gave it cover has been removed by reckless logging and deforestation. Now our appetite is left at the mercy of the Fulani herdsmen and their healthy cattle.
The herdsmen have always been with us. Even before the Yoruba Civil Wars of the 19th Century; the herdsmen from the North have always been leading their cattle and horses to the South. In Ado, Ekiti State, there is an old quarters adjourning the palace of the Ewi, the paramount ruler of the town, which has been occupied by Hausa and Fulani men for generations helping to take care of the royal stables. Nobody ever thought of the Fulani herdsmen as the Army of the Night then, visiting lonely homesteads with death and destruction.
Even now despite the menace of this army of darkness, most herdsmen are peaceful entrepreneurs, minding their businesses. The Fulani are the most elusive of the Nigerian major ethnic groups. Since the revolution of 1804 when Fulani jihadists, led by Usmanu Dan Fodiyo, toppled the Hausa dynasties in the name of Islam, the Fulani have had tremendous influence on the course of Nigerian history. Though they are a minority group, their kinsmen sit on the emirship thrones of most cities in Northern Nigeria.
Beyond this, however, and unknown to most Nigerians, the Fulani are the best educated people about Nigeria. There is no Fulani man who does not speak at least two Nigerian languages. Some of them speak five or six. They travel on foot, by car and rail, to different parts of the country. They know Nigeria. The Fulani man knows how to travel on foot from Katsina to Lagos without entering any major town and he would be armed with adequate knowledge of all the different languages along the way. Apart from their native Fulfulde, most of them speak Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo and many other languages. I have never met a Yoruba who speaks Fulfulde.
It is time for Nigeria to know the Fulani herdsmen and what has happened to them now that some of them are employing the language of violence. The security agencies need to find out at what point the ordinary vocation of cattle rearing merged with bestial criminality? What motivated the Fulani herdsmen to be going about with dangerous weapons including Kalashnikov automatic rifles? Who are the people funding this stealthy army of the night that can strike with such precision and blood cuddling ruthlessness at their fellow Nigerians? What is really in their sight in their bloody pursuit? Is it the right of way for their cows? Power? Money? Or some hair-brain idea?
I fear that our country may be witnessing the genesis of something more sinister, than the terrible, occasional sighting of a wild beast. Therefore, those who are proposing the creation of a grazing right of way for the Fulani herdsmen may be missing the point. Our country should now move beyond the era of when cattle should be let loose on the highway. Even now, we don’t allow elephants to have the right of ways. In 1984, Commodore Michael Bamidele Otiko was appointed the Military Governor of old Ondo State by the new military regime of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. One of the first acts of the new military governor was to ban the free roaming of goats and sheep. Citizens were forced to keep their goats and sheep within the confines of their yards.
This is 2016 and 31 years after Otiko left power; we should think better of our herdsmen than free trekking across the Federation. Our state and Federal governments should encourage proper entrepreneurship in cattle rearing not just by Fulani but other people by the creation of ranches where necessary. Both the roaming herdsmen and those who are managing ranches should be properly registered. Not only that they can better be protected in this way, but also for them to have access to funding and other forms of assistance. We cannot be aspiring to be a modern country and allow our fellow citizens to be trekking from Sokoto to Lagos in the name of cattle rearing. The incessant crisis is a warning sign that we need to put an end to that era.
The criminal elements are not going to be satisfied with the creation of ranches and the growth of millionaire herdsmen and women. The aim of these criminal elements is different from those of the normal herdsmen. On Monday, the Nigerian military announced the arrest of almost 36 suspected herdsmen heading for Nasarawa State. They were armed and claimed that they were going there to recover their stolen cattle. They did not reveal how those cows were stolen, where and when and whether they ever reported to the police?
Therefore, we are dealing with another Boko Haram in its infant mutation, but with greater capacity and sophistication. These elements’ interest is beyond cattle and rams. They are ready, willing and able to test the capacity of the Federal Government in its sacred duty to protect the lives and property of law abiding Nigerians. It is futile to think that these criminal elements can be appeased by mere grant of right of way across the Federation. I believe they have a political agenda and some people are financing that agenda. This political agenda is beyond the capacity of the free agents of darkness like those who attacked the farm of Chief Olu Falae, former Minister of Finance and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s only opponent in the 1999 presidential elections.
This menace is of dire importance. With the kind of sophistication they have displayed and their capacity to disappear after grievous operations, we should know by now that this evil army has more sinister interest beyond the lore of money and the interest of cattle. Who knows, they may have allies sitting pretty in the Senate or sympathizers among some other distinguished Nigerian untouchables.
The article first appeared on The Guardian