NIGERIA has continued to demonstrate its capacity to undermine its potential for socioeconomic growth and political leadership in Africa. An economically developed Nigeria would empower the citizens and allow them to improve their socioeconomic conditions. Unfortunately, problems that ought to be stopped at the embryonic stage are allowed to blossom into uncontrollable full scale national challenge.
It is unthinkable that the Federal Government would allow herdsmen to migrate from one part of the country to other parts to wage war against people in their own homelands, to expel unarmed villagers, to create problems for local communities and to deprive them of their agricultural land. How could the Federal Government allow herdsmen to rampage through communities in the Middle Belt, the southern and western parts of the country where people were abducted and slaughtered, farmlands destroyed and the criminals strolled away untouched and unconcerned just because they wanted their cattle to feed wherever they could sight grassland. Villagers have been hacked to death because they attempted to defend their natural right to their property and their agricultural land.
When President Muhammadu Buhari delivered his acceptance speech one year ago, he said he would govern in the interests of all Nigerians, not in the interests of any specific geographic region. Everyone hailed him. In his acceptance speech, Buhari said all the right things that appealed to the nation. He said: “We will govern for you and in your interests…” Above all, Buhari assured the nation that “we shall never take you for granted”. These were extraordinarily important promises.
In an article I wrote on Wednesday, 8 April 2015, following Buhari’s acceptance speech that was widely saluted across the country, I said it was too early to forecast whether Buhari would become the best elected president the country ever produced since independence or whether he would emulate his predecessors, who shone like shooting stars that sparkled momentarily and vanished in the flash of light.
One year on, experience seems to suggest that Buhari has abandoned the popularity kite he flew in the first few weeks, following the inauguration of his government. It is everyone’s obligation to continue to remind Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) party of the guarantees they gave to the people of Nigeria. There is no difference between the Federal Government’s silence over the criminal activities of herdsmen and what President Goodluck Jonathan’s government failed to do weeks after news broke about the abduction of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram terrorists. Every government seems to be slow to respond to emergency national crises that require priority attention.
This was how Boko Haram was allowed to grow and develop into the nightmare it is today. This was how kidnapping was allowed to worsen and spread to all parts of the country where criminal groups now see abduction as easy avenue to make quick money to finance their unsustainable flamboyant lifestyle.
I have heard all manner of arguments, justifying the need for herdsmen to carry heavy weapons. Junaid Mohammed, the garrulous unrepentant defender of northern interests, said the other day that herdsmen need guns to ward off attacks by Boko Haram terrorists, who steal their cattle and other possessions. The herdsmen need arms, Junaid Mohammed snapped in an interview published in The Sun newspaper of Tuesday, 26 April 2016, to enable them to defend themselves against attacks by anyone. But Boko Haram do not operate in the southwest and southeast of the country where herdsmen have been killing people.
The same argument could be made by people who carry arms illegally. They could argue they need guns because there is so much crime in society. They could say they need guns to defend themselves against kidnappers. They could argue they need weapons to return fire for fire if and when they are attacked by armed robbers, assassins or Boko Haram. Where do you stop to justify the proliferation of weapons in society?
What no one has mentioned is that herdsmen can defend themselves without carrying automatic firearm (the kind that “continues to shoot until the trigger is released”) or other military-style semi-automatic firearms or even assault weapons. Prior to this time, herdsmen did not carry these kinds of weapons. Before now, herdsmen were not hostile to the communities through which they pass. Above all, they did not allow their cattle to feed on and destroy farmlands.
All these have changed in many radical ways. Herdsmen have transformed into brutal killers; they are violent, murderous, bloodthirsty, aggressive and provocative. They wage hateful wars against peaceful communities and villages located thousands of kilometres away from the states where the herdsmen originated.
I have also heard the bizarre argument that herdsmen are entitled to take their flock to any part of the country to feed because the Nigerian Constitution guarantees every citizen freedom of movement. This is one example of illiteracy on display. It illustrates how easy it is for people to misinterpret and turn the law on its head in order to validate evil. The same constitution that guarantees everyone freedom of movement did not say people should move freely to destroy lives and businesses in the manner that herdsmen are currently perpetrating. There is no law in Nigeria that authorises herdsmen or indeed anyone to go into local communities to kill farmers, to destroy farmlands and to drive out people in their villages, all in the name of freedom of movement.
The notion of freedom of movement raises the question about the limits to freedom. Freedom is not absolute. Everyone’s freedom ends where it interferes with another person’s freedom. Herdsmen do not have the right or freedom to go into local communities to kill the residents, destroy their farms and set their houses on fire.
As evidence of the level of insensitivity some people in the North have over the seriousness of decimation of local communities by herdsmen, Junaid Mohammed tried to underplay the seriousness of the problem. He said: “… People believe that the so-called herdsmen problem is indeed a problem, which should engage our attention the way it has been made to do or the way it has been presented… The issue is presented in a very skewed, one-sided manner. People are saying that the Fulani are troublesome, they are killing people, etc. Those who have an interest in presenting the message the way it is being couched have their own interest.”
This is the kind of crass ignorance that Junaid Mohammed has continued to display in the public domain. In his view, public outrage over the unprovoked and unjustifiable destruction of lives and property by herdsmen is unwarranted and over-dramatised. Essentially, Junaid Mohammed has denied that herdsmen killed people or raided and looted the property of people in local communities. In his defence of the herdsmen, Junaid Mohammed said: “Fulani don’t carry arms in order to go and kill anybody. It is a lifestyle.” So, it is a lifestyle for herdsmen to go and kill other people inexcusably. So, it is a lifestyle for one group of Nigerians to carry assault rifles with which they slaughter other citizens who reside not in the North but in the southern states. Why have the same herdsmen not visited communities in the North but chose to migrate to the southeast and southwest to cause trouble?
It is not only Junaid Mohammed, who has demonstrated narrow-mindedness over the murderous activities of the nomadic herdsmen. Nineteen northern state governors also tried to defend the herdsmen. The governors’ pathetic defence of crimes committed by herdsmen shows that high profile politicians can be just as bigoted and blameworthy in their utterances. When governors, who represent the law in their states condone crime, it is valid to regard them as guilty of crimes against humanity. If educated, presumably enlightened and mature state governors are so constrained or blinkered by ethnic and regional affiliations they cannot identify evil when they see it, you know Nigeria’s future is disaster-prone. We are an ill-fated people.
The governors had argued farcically at their meeting last Friday that herdsmen, who commit crimes in various parts of the country should not be regarded as criminals or Fulani. Thankfully, an appropriate response to the governors’ bigotry and distortion of facts has been delivered by Afenifere. Yinka Odumakin, the National Publicity Secretary of Afenifere, said the position of the northern governors to the killings perpetrated by Fulani herdsmen suggest thoughtlessness on the part of the governors.
No fewer than four leading newspapers have written unassailable editorial comments on the threats posed to national security, national cohesion, and inter-ethnic harmony by the criminal activities of herdsmen. The newspapers warned about the consequences of the government’s continued silence over the problems created by herdsmen.
In a well-argued and sound editorial published on Thursday, 28 April, 2016, The Guardian wrote: “The desire of the herdsmen to have boundless access to grazing fields across Nigeria is certainly unacceptable. The Federal Government must be told in clear terms that it has no power to alienate lands from the people, for state governments hold land in trust for the people.”
Why the Federal Government is keen to find grazing land for herdsmen from a section of the country is not only baffling but also exposes the level of bias by government officials. As The Guardian pointed out in its editorial, herding of cattle is a private business. If government must cater for the needs of herdsmen, the government must provide also for the needs of numerous private businesses that operate in the country. What is good for the herdsmen must be good for other business enterprises across the country.