In the recent past, Nigeria has been in international news for a bad reason – mass murder everywhere. But none could be compared to the one that happened on Saturday, June 23. That day, there was a very deliberate attack by some armed men in Barkin Ladi and surrounding areas in Plateau State. The men are believed to be herdsmen or their militant associates, and the attack went on uninterrupted for hours, with buildings razed to the ground and over 100 people killed.
The mindless bloodshed again opened the cankerworm of ethno- religious tensions that have always bubbled beneath the surface in Nigeria, especially in the very volatile Plateau State. Plateau State of Nigeria is one of the more cosmopolitan areas of the country and it was a thriving hub of commerce before the turn of the millennium. Since 2001 however, deadly clashing amongst the various communities of people in the state has made the region an undesirable destination. In 2018 alone, the countrywide herdsmen crisis has led to, at least, three major rounds of bloodbath between the settled Fulani people and indigenous farming communities in the state. Religion, ethnicity and land disputes have all played a role in the violence. The recent attacks are however not a strictly Plateau affair.
As people struggle to put a label on the violence witnessed that Saturday in Barkin Ladi and the many other mindless killings of the same pattern all over the country, the term genocide has often come up. Genocide is described as the deliberate and systemic destruction, in whole or part, of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group. At first, it seems far-fetched, considering the fact that these attacks seem intermittent and uncoordinated on the surface. But a combined analysis of the possible motives and impact of the clashes exposes a situation that could become the undoing of the country if the government continues to fold its arms.
The cattle owners group known as Miyetti Allah has been at the centre of most of the outrage about the herdsmen-related killings. The herdsmen appear to be set on a destructive course with farm owners all over the country and the group, Miyetti Allah, is naturally in the firing line for daring to be the face of the herdsmen. The group has made its own demonization even easier with its insensitivity to the loss suffered by victims within the farming communities. It also adopts an almost encouraging tone for continued killings as just retaliation for what it describes as a campaign against herdsmen and the majority Fulani owners of the cattle. A lot of shocking and divisive statements have been credited to the group, but some of the statements have proven to be false – which brings in a dangerous dimension to the mayhem.
As for the mostly Muslim Fulani ethnic group in the country, the statements and body language of some pan-Fulani groups are not unlike that of Miyetti Allah. Although some Fulani intellectuals have dismissed Miyetti Allah as unrepresentative of the Fulani people as a whole, there are suspicions that the group is backed and bankrolled by top Fulani figures and ‘elders’. The Sultan of Sokoto and the Galadima of Adamawa are said to be the most influential leaders amongst the Fulani people in Nigeria and it is unclear what their disposition towards the utterances of the group are. For many, the herdsmen and their militant associates, Fulani people and northern Muslims in general, are all parts of a whole, and they are seen as an existential threat to the rest of the country; and therein lies the major problem that may lead to genocide.
Every time there is a major incident between herdsmen and farmers in the country, national Muslim groups like Jama’tu Nasril Islam, JNI, Muslim Rights Concern, MURIC and key northern Muslim clerics and leaders like the Emir of Kano, have made comments that could be read as being in defense of the herdsmen. In like manner, the Christian Association of Nigerian, CAN, and many southern (and mostly Christian) leaders, including groups like Afenifere, the Pan-Yoruba group, and Ohaneze Ndigbo, the umbrella Igbo group have run to the defense of the farmers.
Lost and ignored between the apparent picking of sides is the universally condemnable act of murder on both sides that does not get as much condemnation. The result is that ethno-religious tensions are stoked with each incident and what may have ordinarily really been “communal clashing” has long spiraled into a far more dangerous fight. This is not helped by massacres at churches and on priests by alleged herdsmen in the recent past.
The security impact of this menace is far reaching, far beyond Plateau or any other affected community or state, touching on the very sovereignty of the country. There is a real possibility of foreigners at play in the crisis, true to the president’s word, as people in affected communities have reported that the gun-toting “herdsmen” sighted during these attacks do not look like the Fulani people ordinarily found in the country.
The Fulani race is spread across Africa in over 23 countries and the same violence with farmers are experienced everywhere they ply their cattle trade, even in war zones. Heavily armed herdsmen have not always been part of the picture of communal clashing in Nigeria where cutlasses and local weapons used to be employed. Therefore, there does seem to be an incursion of Fulani or other fighters into Nigeria based on the perceived threats to the Fulani nation or some other agenda.
The response of the government has been below par, almost to the point of suspicion of complicity. General Theophilus Danjuma’s damning verdict on the partiality of the army in favour of the herdsmen has not been forgotten, including rumours of complicity with Boko Haram. The current picture is that of defenceless people left to their whims by the almighty force of government. This has led to resentment of the government at every level, even in Plateau State whose governor had assented to the creation of the unpopular cattle ranches in his state. Plateau State government house was recently stoned by the people after the attacks in Barkin Ladi, in a display of this resentment for the government.
The economic impact of insecurity in farming communities is even more ominous since the country is currently building on agriculture as a substitute for the oil industry, in its attempts to diversify the economy. The herdsmen menace directly affects the ability of farmers to marshal that revolution, with fighting in all the major agricultural hubs in the middle-belt and deep in the south. At the same time as the Barkin Ladi attacks, other clashes were happening between farming communities along the border of Ebonyi and Cross Rivers State. It almost causes one to think whether all of these dastardly acts in farming communities are not being remotely engineered to destabilize the country.
Meanwhile, the weak government response is leading to the rise of many ‘citizen militias’ like has been seen in Benue and Taraba. The search for an enemy has landed them squarely at the door of Fulani Muslims majorly, but in reality, Fulani people in general. The Fulani are in turn beating the drums of war and a cycle of reprisals currently ensues in multiple locations in the country. If the current violence is allowed to fester, soon the word “genocide” will not be so far-fetched. With the resources of the Fulani race across Africa, Nigeria may soon find itself in the throes of war. The fighting will be undistinguishable in nature, as many inter-connected conflicts will be fought at the same time, whether ethnic, religious or intra-tribal (as between Fulani Christians and Muslims).
The victims of an all-out war will be southerners and middle belters in communities of interest to Fulani militants and moderate Fulanis, some of whom were terrified to leave their houses after the attacks on June 23 in Plateau. Culprits will be many and unexpected. Unfortunately, this government has been particularly weak on security and this is the time to find its strength. The initial success recorded against Boko Haram and the seeming uniting spirit that led to victory at the polls in 2015 quickly reached a plateau and now there is genocide on the plateau.
(c) 2018 The Nation (Nigeria)