Quote me: the Plateau killings, in which over a hundred defenceless citizens lost their lives, will not be the last. I am not trying to be a prophet — much less a prophet of doom — but the reality of Nigeria is that things hardly change. Internecine killings have been going on consistently for the past 18 years, mostly in northern Nigeria, and there is yet no sign that they are about to end. The Plateau killings are not the first and will not be the last. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that the next massacre is just by the corner elsewhere. Without a realistic conflict management strategy in place, I can sadly assure you that we are just helplessly waiting for the next mayhem.
What sparked off the latest bloodbath in Plateau state? Predictably, truth is the first casualty. People easily take sides and always end up with so many versions of truth that you would be performing a miracle to be able to put your finger on the real thing. The initial story was that herdsmen went on the rampage in Barkin-Ladi, Riyom, Mangu and Jos south local government areas of the state. Why? An account says some herdsmen had been killed and their cattle rustled by Berom youths days earlier, hence a reprisal. Up till now, we are still not sure of the facts. We are left to speculate. My article today assumes that it was a product of the intractable herders/farmers/villagers crisis.
Initially, Mallam Danladi Ciroma, the north-central chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), was widely reported by the medial as suggesting that the Plateau attacks were “retaliatory”. He has since denied saying so, but he pointed out that the biggest issue “on ground” in the state is cattle rustling. In January 2018, after the Benue killings, Alhaji Garus Gololo, a leader of Miyetti Allah in the state, told BBC pidgin that the attacks were in retaliation for the stealing of their cows. “As we were relocating to Taraba through Nasarawa state, thieves came to steal 1000 cows from us at the border town of Nengere, so we fought them back,” he said.
There are recurring decimals of “cattle rustling” and “reprisal” in the narratives. We can thus make some general observations based on what is in the open. One, herders are losing their cattle to armed robbers. Two, herders are also losing their lives to these violent rustlers. Three, the security agencies appear overwhelmed and unable to bring the rustlers to justice. Four, the herders embark on revenge missions. Five, the security agencies appear overwhelmed (some even say complicit) whenever the herders exact revenge. Six, the offending herders are also hardly brought to justice. Overall, we have something like a mutually assured destruction (MAD) in our hands.
In every conflict, though, there are remote and immediate causes. Therefore, my one-paragraph summary does not capture all the nuances of the herders/farmers conflict in the north. Things are much deeper. A broad view of the crippling crisis will identify more triggers than “rustling” and “reprisal”. Some analysts have partly blamed the genesis on atrocious geography — desertification and a disappearing Lake Chad — which is increasingly driving herders southwards in search of fresh pasture and inevitably putting them in conflict with farmers and villagers as a result of destructive grazing practices. In addition, the Boko Haram insurgency has pushed them southwards.
That said, we also cannot ignore the fact that the grazing routes created by colonial masters have been ruined over time. The encroachment on these routes by farmers and builders has never been addressed and it is not to be unexpected that one disruption leads to another. Evidently at play is a fierce struggle for scarce resources. So at the base of these herders/farmers confrontations is an economic issue which unfortunately plays into our fault lines and inflame passions. Any analysis of the conflict that does not recognise this as a factor will be most unhelpful, and we cannot begin to think of a permanent resolution in isolation of these economic issues.
Another deadly undertone is that, historically, the north is strongly divided along ethno-religious lines, and these differences are more pronounced in the Middle Belt where the scars of wars from the 18th and 19th centuries are still being nurtured. In states such as Benue, Plateau, Taraba, Adamawa, Kaduna and Nasarawa, there is eternal tension between Muslims and Christians. It is very evident in the way people take sides over the herders/farmers issues. The historical fault lines are always activated after each mayhem — even by the most educated and enlightened commentators. It always generates an emotive response devoid of rationality and pragmatism.
It is also indisputable that the anti-grazing laws in Benue and Taraba have become very contentious. The “state police” (vigilante), in enforcing the law, have been accused of extorting the herders, stealing their cows and in some cases killing the herders. The herders then regroup and fight back, with the reprisals turning out to be deadlier than the original “crime”. Their victims are almost always innocent villagers. One fair conclusion we can quickly reach is that the anti-grazing laws cannot on their own resolve the issues at play. I do not know how much of impact assessment the state lawmakers did before passing the legislations. Is it worth the bloodshed? I think not.
But then we are also faced with practical questions. Should any state government fold its arms and allow herders to continue to destroy the farmlands and livelihoods of other people in order to feed their cattle? I think not. No honest human being should answer yes to that question. On the other hand, can any government stop open grazing without alternatives and not provoke repercussions? Will any herder fold his arms and watch his livestock die from lack of water and pasture? Again, I think not. I don’t think any rational person will say that is the way to go. There we see the crux of the matter. Finding a middle ground is what we are always running away from.
There are at least three realities we must face if we are to sincerely address the crisis. One, herders cannot continue to destroy people’s livelihoods without repercussions. Your right to do your business must not encroach on my right to do my own business. Two, herders are human beings and economic agents who cannot be wished away or wiped off the surface of the earth. Anybody who thinks we will stop having herders in Nigeria is daydreaming. Three, and consequently, we must find a balance between the rights of the farmers and the rights of the herders if there is ever going to be peace in the land. Any proposal that ignores these three realities will NOT solve any problem.
In the end, something has to give. Of all the proposals on ground, ranching is the most reasonable and the most appealing to me. But the nomads will have to imbibe a new breeding culture. This will not happen overnight. Teaching an old dog new tricks is a tough task. When you have been doing something the same way for thousands of years, it is a heritage you don’t want to give up. The transition period will be hard. Ranching is a multi-billion naira economy waiting to explode — with enormous benefits. Caution: states should not be forced to provide land for ranching. Only the willing should sign up. We shouldn’t attempt to solve one problem by creating another.
Unfortunately, 2019 elections are around the corner and everything is tainted with politics. This makes crisis resolution pretty difficult. There are those taking advantage of the situation to play dirty politics and will go to any length in their dangerous game.
These are the moments that need genuine problem-solving. Political leaders, religious leaders, traditional leaders, intellectuals and the media all need to exercise leadership in these tough times. Let us all remember that there is no medal to be won it we allow our house to be set on fire. We will all bear the brunt. If Nigeria is not at peace, Nigerians cannot be at peace. Comfort for the tree is comfort for the bird.
My parting words are to Buhari. Dear President, someone once said that leadership is not what you do every day; it is how you rise to the occasion when the occasion arises. The insecurity in the land is the biggest test of your leadership so far. Nigeria is bleeding. Mr. President, don’t let it be said that Nigeria bled to death under your watch. Be firm. Be courageous. Be open-minded. Expand your circle of advisers. Seek help wherever you can get it. Do the needful to calm frayed nerves. Re-jig your security set-up if need be. Culprits must be diligently prosecuted. Justice must be done. Another massacre is just around the corner — except we earnestly begin to do things differently.