Long term bridges in practice
As a parish priest, I had a strategy which I still value in peace building, conflict prevention, conflict management and conflict transformation.
Whenever, I was posted to a new parish, my first task was to pay courtesy visit to the traditional rulers and chief imams.
I introduce activities that often bring together youths from different religions. I endeavoured to sustain this relationship in the course of my mission in the parish.
In Udaba-Ekperi, Catholic diocese of Auchi (Edo State, Nigeria), this mission at the grassroots contributed to the stopping of the long communal war between Ifeku and Anagbette.
When I was transferred from the parish, a farewell ceremony was organised for me.
During the mass, the chief Imam requested to speak after the post communion prayers. Here is what he said: “I have entered the Church for the first time today.
This is because, Rev. Fr. Cornelius Omonokhua is a priest not only for the Catholics but for every person in our community.”
The eldest person in the clan of Ekperi, Pa Ayewele who was also present wept that I was leaving. He expressed fear that the war between Ifeku and Anagbette might begin again.
Unfortunately, and true to his words, the war started some years after my departure to another parish.
Today, Ifeku is completely wiped out because the bridge building process which kept the communities together for the three years I worked there could not be sustained.
Nigerians are being distracted seriously from knowing the causes of the killings that are making the country a dreaded place to live in.
Many now live in fear because of some criminals who sometimes disguise as Fulani herdsmen to commit heinous crimes and kill innocent people in the communities.
It now appears as if every crime in Nigeria is traced to cows as a root cause.
We seem to forget so soon that the success of some important ceremonies in Nigeria are measured by the number of cows one is able to display.
Today, the fear of cows appears to be the beginning of wisdom. I read on social media where Miyetti Allah has been reported to say, “we killed because they stole our cow.”
Recently, I saw on social media, a post of the two hundred naira note the picture of two cows that were referred to as “senior citizens.”
The person who posted the currency note did not explain that the picture of the cow is among other crops like groundnuts, onions, yams, cocoa to demonstrate that Nigeria is rich in agricultural products.
Are the Fulani really the only killers in Nigeria? Is every Fulani a herdsman?
Is every person who has cows a Fulani? When we were children, we used to run out to admire the caravan of cows.
In some of the Parishes I have worked in Edo State, Fulani Herders were never a threat.
I remember that sometimes along Imoga-Ibillo road, I would stop to carry some Fulani men, women and children in my car to Ibillo.
Each time they were very appreciative and friendly. Now I ask myself, what has gone wrong?
I think time has come to look beyond the Fulani herdsmen to the foreign mercenaries and criminals that are invading Nigeria and killing Nigerians.
Can’t the Federal Government order the security agents and Immigration to fish out the alleged foreign terrorists from Libya and elsewhere who are causing violence in Nigeria?
Why not make security intelligence present in the villages and local communities since Nigeria cannot afford State police?
In my enquiry on the Fulanis, I called Fr. Blaise Agwom, the Jos Archdiocesan director of Inter-religious dialogue who has lived and worked with the Fulani for a long time. I hereby present what he told me in his own words.
The Fulani are found in almost all the Local Governments of Plateau State just as it is the case with other states especially in Northern Nigeria.
They can be categorised into two major groups, namely the Bororos who are a wandering clan and migrate with their herds as dictated by the seasons in search of pasture and water and the nomadic Fulanis who have settled with the local ethnic groups.
This later group do not wander from place to place but own farmlands. They have built houses and raised generations of families.
This group also train their children in formal education, inter- married with the local tribes and speak their dialects fluently.
They also eat the local food of their host communities including their local brew.
In fact, they sometimes participate in their cultural activities with some becoming Christians.
This particular clan of Fulanis easily integrate into any community they find themselves.
We have some families from our local tribes who have had a long history of intimate relationship with the Fulani to the extent that some of their children and wards have been given Fulani names.
For example, some Birom families that I know bear Fulani names such as Bingel, Buba, Kabiru etc.
Although religious conflict in Plateau State can be traced to 2001, before then, there had been peaceful relationship and coexistence between this clan of Fulanis and their host communities until the 2001 conflict gradually invaded many parts of the state and eventually affected the Fulanis and their host communities.
One of the factors that dragged the Fulanis into the conflict was cow rustling.
Their cows were rustled and anybody who knows the psychology of the Fulanis and their attachment to their herds is aware that the best way to live in peace with them is not to harm or raid their cows.
This crime over time went beyond just stealing or rustling their cows to poisoning or killing them.
There are now multiple groups of bandits and criminal gangs engaging in that crime with some Fulanis and people from the local tribes forming criminal gangs for that evil purpose.
Hence the endless cycle of revenge and wanton destruction of lives and properties.
Most of those who attack the local communities are mercenaries who are brought in to fight by their local collaborators who may be aggrieved with the local communities.
With the above report from Fr. Blaise, let us capture the cycle of the ongoing violence in Plateau State from the diverse reports from the media with the following hypothesis. The cattle destroyed the crops of the farmer.
In retaliation some Fulani cattle traders where stopped and killed. In counter reprisal, the Fulani herdsmen killed a lot of innocent people.
In another vengeance, the natives who suffer the loss blocked the highways and killed innocent travelers.
In reality, none of the two sides has justification for killing. Rustling of cattle is wrong.
The action of grazing on farm lands is wrong; the action of killing Fulani cattle traders is barbaric; the Fulani retaliation is also wrong and the reaction of killing innocent travelers is inhuman.
No one is right in taking laws into his own hands but these chain reactions show that many Nigerians no longer have respect for human life and the rule of law.
The juggle justice in our hypothesis shows that many Nigerians have lost hope in the dispensation of legal justice, security agents and peaceful co-existence.
The owner of the farm should have reported to the Fulani traditional leaders and elders. If that is beyond the traditional leadership, then the community could present the culprit to the security agents.
Even if the owner of the cattle could not afford the fine of paying for what his cows have destroyed, the repercussion should not be a community clash.
Those who killed the Fulani traders should have been handed over to the police by their own community to face justice.
The genocide could have been avoided if there was adequate rapid security response.
In the face of the failure of government to provide security to the citizens, let us secure ourselves through long term bridge building, peace talks and commensurate punishment for criminals.
If there is justice, then there will be peace and the God of justice will stop these killings. May God of justice give us peace!
Fr. Omonokhua is director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja.