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Herdsmen and our collective helplessness


The violence of the herdsmen goes back therefore to ancient times. Even the Israelites lived in perpetual fear of the warrior-like herdsmen who had no respect for human life and other people’s cultures.

In this article I am arguing that as willing as President Muhammadu Buhari, Governor Nasir El-Rufai and all security personnel may be in stopping the menace of the Fulani herdsmen, they cannot, because it is a racial attitude that goes beyond their authority, their individual preferences and socialisation.

I recall that each time I visited my village and had to attend the age grade meeting, it was a forum that automatically ‘equalised’ no matter your status. It is simply a cultural thing that you drop whatever you are when you come into that age grade circle, and mates are going to talk to you as mates, with all sarcasm and playful insult. My point is that, some cultural ethos are just the way they are no matter how influential one may try to be as a change agent. Within that set up, even one’s political status cannot be an instrument for change. A story is told of a United States President in the 19th Century who as a member of a fraternity was ordered by a felon to exercise prerogative of mercy because the felon was higher up in ranking in the fraternity. Sometimes no matter how much one tries one may not run against certain currents because of the inherent cultural and anthropological restraining factors. The nomadic Fulani do not seem to recognise any state nor any structure aside from their Ruga, family, lineage, clan and ethnic group. More so religion is such an important factor in defining who they are that if one is not of the same religion he or she may not be considered as valuable. The indoctrination that goes into the spiritual formation of children generally implants in their minds a deep sense of cultural identity and religion. The Fulani just seem to go where literally the green pasture is, and where the flock could be watered and do not feel bound by geography or property rights.

It may be interesting to note that herdsmen attacks go to pre-Christian and pre-Islamic times. I was reading the Holy Bible when I came across a passage from Judges which talks about the Midianites and their rampaging presence (6:3-5). The violence of the herdsmen goes back therefore to ancient times. Even the Israelites lived in perpetual fear of the warrior-like herdsmen who had no respect for human life and other people’s cultures. While the Israelites were tamed by their laws and religion, these herdsmen were nomads with a roving cosmology that recognised no other peoples’ right to private property and sanctity of human life.

Fortunately Christianity and Islam have enhanced the civilisation of some of these cultures. But the idea of the freedom and dignity of the individual as against the identity of a collective, as enunciated by such philosophers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacque Rousseau, that provided the enabling environment for democracy resonated more with Western cultures. Gradually these societies evolved democracy and transmitted the legitimacy to wield violence to the state rather than a lineage or a clan. Now nations are supposed to have the monopoly of the instruments of violence.

The challenge is when a state, with all the instruments of violence at its disposal, is weak.

Nigeria is a weak state. Many of those who come to justice are those who have no string to pull, although sometimes even the poor get through the system if they can raise the demanded sums to secure their freedom. The average policeman is intimidated by the big man because he is often barely educated and poorly paid; and in spite of reforms in the criminal justice system, the poor man does not see the courts as his last hope. The absence of a Nigerian national perspective makes things worse as it is impossible to see events from an objective point of view. A crime is not a crime until we know who committed it and where he or she comes from!

Unfortunately the Fulani herdsman no matter how poor he looks is not a common man, and this is where many get it wrong. The system of blood lineage and clan and ethnic group affinity makes him so connected as to be out of any trouble with the law in a jiffy. It would be surprising to know who makes a phone call when a Fulani herdsman is in trouble. A Fulani family is a cattle owning unit even as they may pasture for big men. The sense of connectedness makes the herdsman feel confident in going wherever he pleases. And his confidence is boosted by the ability of his clan to retaliate an infringement, even if it is 20 years later. In Owerri a church decided to secure its property by repairing the fence and putting a lock on the gate, to stop it being a thoroughfare. A Fulani herdsman simply broke the lock and threw the gate open to allow his cattle passage.

When he was accosted, he responded by saying that his brother is the president and owns every land and he could do and go wherever he pleased!

Of course it would be stupid of anyone to think that PMB would call his fellow Fulanis and announce to them that they could do whatever they pleased because he is in power! But the inherent mindset as demonstrated in such encounter as that in Owerri speaks a lot about the escalated Fulani herdsmen violence during this Buhari regime.

In an anthropology that sometimes sees human beings as lower than cows, communities should study the social relations that exist among the Fulani herdsmen, identify their leaders and engage them frequently, especially when there are conflicts. It is easier and more effective to work on sanctions with the leaderships of these communities than to attempt to take laws into one’s hands; for while every herdsman is trained to handle an AK47 rifle and have affinities with warrior groups, which operate irrespective of law enforcement and other security outfits, most community members are mere social media soldiers who escalate conflicts by their verbally violent posts.

Fr. Bassey is a Catholic priest.

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