Are herdsmen democratising deadly violence in Nigeria? – Magnus Onyibe

Are herdsmen democratising deadly violence in Nigeria? – Magnus Onyibe

Suddenly, the entire country known as Nigeria seems to have been engulfed by violence; herdsmen violence more than any other type of violence.

Although there have been times when living in Nigeria was considered highly risky in some parts, but it has never been this brutish at the same time all over the country.

The 1960s was an inglorious period in the history of Nigeria.

At that time we heard of “Wild, Wild West” in the South West zone of the country following the politically induced mayhem that erupted between the Action Group led by the late Obafemi Awolowo and SLA Akintola, the leader of the NPC in the western region.

The Yoruba term ‘wetie’, loosely translated in English language as the process of dousing opponents with combustible materials like petrol before setting the victims ablaze, was commonly used to trigger the gruesome murders of political opponents.

It is significant to note that the violence fomented by criminal elements in the leading political parties at the time -AG and NPC in the western part of Nigeria, was confined to the zone and managed there.

The South-south part of Nigeria, especially the Niger Delta states of Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta have also suffered their own peculiar violence arising from their agitation for environmental rights.

As the treasure trove of the nation from where most of the hydrocarbon resources are harnessed, the degradation of the environment prompted indigenes of the area to engage in a struggle for justice.

Dating back to the days of Nigerian Army’s Major Isaac Adaka Boro, who led the first military insurrection in the country by declaring a republic of Niger Delta, which was countered by the federal government to Ken Saro-wiwa, the poet and environmentalist who employed the tactics of civic activism before he was sentenced to death by General Sani Abacha’s military regime; and the present day militants who joined the fray by employing the strategy of kidnapping of oil/gas workers for ransom, the zone has been like a boiling cauldron.

After escalating from kidnapping to vandalism of oil/gas infrastructure, the federal government deployed a mix of palliative and punitive measures that restored relative peace.

So, just like the south west, the Niger Delta also suffered and is still suffering its peculiar type of violence.

Again, as it happened in the South west, the schism was restricted to the zone and it left it with a huge collateral damage to the environment like the devastation of Ogoni land, which is currently undergoing remediation with the support of the United Nations.

The only reason the violence in the Niger Delta impacted the nation at large is because it impeded oil/gas extraction and sale which starved the national treasury of very badly needed revenue which is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy.

The south east has also not been left out of the circle of peculiar violence.

Apart from the Civil War (1967-70) that was precipitated by the declaration of the state of Biafra by then Colonel Odimegwu Ojukwu, a Nigerian Army officer of Igbo extraction who felt the easterners were no longer comfortable being part of the Nigerian nation, successive attempts by various groups, including Movement For The Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and lndependent People of Biafra (IPOB), have risen and fallen with grave and calamitous consequences for the eastern region.

Eastern Nigeria reportedly lost about three million lives and had its socio-economic infrastructure severely damaged in the course of the civil war that lasted for about 30 months.

Fifty years on, the lgbo nation is still reeling from the severe consequences of the war.

It should be noted that at the time the foregoing violence took place in the aforementioned zones, the North, which was largely politically homogeneous owing to the prevalence of a common language and religion-Hausa and Islam, was free from the type of turmoil ravaging the southern parts of the country. And that simply derives from the fact that their common language and religion were two powerful unifying factors.

Inevitably, it was a question of time before the North had to suffer its own dose of violent calamity.

Ironically, it was one of the factors that shielded the zone from violence-the Islamic religion that later turned out to be one of the major sources of violence as reflected by the current religious insurgency now ravaging the region, particularly the North eastern states.

Before going further, it is worth stating at this juncture that the violence driven by religious extremism in the North had been evolving over the years as evidenced by Bulunkutu and Maitasine riots (which were quelled) before finally crystalising into Boko Haram terrorism at the outset of multiparty democracy with ex president Olusegun Obasanjo at the helms from 1999.

Like the ‘wetie’ politically induced violence that was concentrated in the South, particularly around the lbadan-Ondo axis, the Niger Delta militancy and Biafra war, which did not extend beyond their respective zones, the Boko Haram religious insurgency was initially confined to the North east.

That was the situation until the emergence of the new merchants of death – herdsmen whose propensity for violence qualifies them as the new killing machines and purveyors of Nigeria’s most horrific asymmetrical war that has been decimating families and devastating the country.

According to Amnesty International, last year, violence arising from Fulani herdsmen and farmers clashes from Sambisa forest to Enugu, Jalingo to Oyo and Makurdi to Ughelli in Delta State was in excess of 548 deaths. And in the first quarter this year, over 168 have been recorded.

That is not inclusive of the casualties from the recent deadly attacks in Benue, Taraba and Kaduna states.

Statistics from Sunday Vanguard newspaper is more grim.

The newspaper reported that 1,351 violent deaths were recorded in the first 10 weeks of 2018 owing largely to Fulani herdsmen attacks on citizens across 14 states of the federation.

In my considered opinion, referring to the terrorists as herdsmen is a misnomer aimed at reducing the gravity of their crime against humanity.

They are simply terrorist elements masquerading as herdsmen who must be called by their proper name so that commensurate globally accepted condemnation and measures for reining in terrorists would be applied towards routing them.

Based on the foregoing narrative and data of all the sources of violence in Nigeria, the herdsmen have been the most dastardly and democratic in terms of rapid distribution of killings across the country.

The brazen attacks by these terrorists disguised as herdsmen on farmers whose territories they invade is heinous enough to characterise them as terrorists and it beggars reason that they have not been so branded.

How else can one describe the systematic burning down of towns and villages nationwide and the slaughtering of harmless victims sometimes in their sleep?

By all indications, the herdsmen are certainly Nigeria’s equivalent of the ignoble Janjaweed in Sudan.

Today, herdsmen terrorism, under the smokescreen of herdsmen/farmers clashes has remained a major source of embarrassment to our security agencies and it is not only reprehensible, but it also portrays them as either incompetent or complicit.

Either way, it is a new low for Nigeria whose contingents on military assignments abroad from Congo to Sudan and Somalia often came back with laurels for their courage and competence.

Against the backdrop of the scenarios identified in the preceding paragraphs, some Nigerians have concluded, rightly or wrongly that President Muhammadu Buhari is culpable in the herdsmen killings of unarmed Nigerians that got exacerbated in the past three years that he has been on the saddle in Aso Rock Villa seat of power.

Those who hold the view believe that Mr. President either by omission or commission emboldened the herdsmen by failing to nip the menace in the bud.

It was an open secret that when the terrorists were being flushed out of Sambisa forest (the dreaded colony for criminals), outlaws, especially cattle rustlers from multiple countries that have common boundaries with Nigeria and regard the location as no mans’ land, would resurface somewhere else and continue to ply their nefarious trade that leaves sorrow, tears and blood in its trail.

Such accusers of President Buhari also do not express surprise that some hard line northerners are happy to disperse and in the process democratise terrorism in Nigeria as they were saddened by the fact that Boko Haram terrorism with its dire socio-political consequences on its host community was only confined to the North east of Nigeria.

But political violence in the South west was confined until it dissipated; the militancy in the Niger Delta and the eastern states civil war and agitation for self rule were also localised and managed within their respective territories.

Against the backdrop of the foregoing, I have no doubt that if a policy of containment was pursued to keep the religion-induced violence in the North east within that region, it could have been more easily managed as opposed to allowing it to spread nationwide.

Some of us had foreseen the threat of religious terrorism spreading across Nigeria after Boko Haram was flushed out of Sambisa if containment measures were not taken to encircle them and then close in on them and we wrote copious articles expressing our concern. Apparently, our wise counsel fell on deaf ears.

It is a no-brainer to anticipate that when criminals are for instance chased away from Kaduna, they would migrate to Abuja and vice versa. And that’s simply because the states are contiguous making it easy for criminals under pressure in one state to take refuge in another closest to it. Therefore, the best strategy to achieve optimum result is for both states to jointly act against the criminals.

The recent success in the recovery of over 1,000 men, women and children from the captivity of Boko Haram was a product of the collaborative efforts of the multinational task force comprising of Nigerian military in concert with that of surrounding countries.

As public intellectuals, we did our best by recommending counter insurgency ideas in several articles. We even raised the alarm that the so-called Fulani cattle herdsmen were Boko Haram insurgents blending in with the authentic law abiding cattle herdsmen and in the process gaining legitimacy to roam the length and breadth of Nigeria unchallenged. But our analysis were thrashed.

Had Mr. President ordered the arrest and prosecution of any herdsmen found with guns immediately the so-called rustlers were first reportedly found with AK47 rifles, the menace would have been curtailed if not eliminated soon after it first occurred. But it would appear that the authorities were not disposed to such preventive measures.

It may be recalled that under the watch of former president Goodluck Jonathan, some elements of Boko Haram were referred to as “Political” Boko Haram. The underpinning reason for the nomenclature was that, that strain of Boko Haram was motivated by politics as opposed to being driven by religious fundamentalism, which is the raison d’etre of the terrorist group.

Going by that antecedence, the current AK47 rifle wielding herdsmen can be termed “Political” herdsmen.

Tellingly, at various times, members of the top echelon of government have viewed the unleashing of terror by the herdsmen on various communities across the country with different optics, ranging from the absurd to the sanguine.

While the Minister of Defence considers it from the prism of the Lake Chad drying up hence herdsmen are moving inwards to Nigeria to graze their cattle, the Presidency’s optics is trained on the events in Libya. Aso Rock’s hypothesis is that after former leader Muammar Gaddafi passed away, the North African country became a failed state with all the trappings of anarchy with weapons falling into the hands of rogues. It has laboured hard to convince Nigerians and the international community that it is such small arms and ammunitions smuggled into neighbouring countries and Nigeria in particular that sustains herdsmen’ terrorism.

The truth is that the grim reality of terrorism being perpetrated by the nefarious ambassadors disguised as herdsmen can’t just be glibly explained away. It is capricious to do so.

This is because such subterfuge can easily be discerned by fair-minded Nigerians who are not fooled by the mendacity of those in authority who should call a spade by its name but choose to engage in doublespeak.

Curiously, why is it that the military that decisively quelled environmental rights militancy in the Niger Delta and IPOB’s attempt to secede, has failed to halt the spread of the herdsmen killing spree that’s spreading like wild fire in harmattan in the Savannah? Why is it that herdsmen terrorism has been allowed to continue unchallenged with no culprit (to the best of my knowledge) being brought to book till date?

The lack of justifiable answers to the posers above is the reason violence, which is the stock in trade of the terrorists pretending to be herdsmen, has now been fully democratised and commoditised as the killings by the despicable blood sucking vampires is now spreading from the deserts of Zamfara State to the creeks or Nembe in Bayelsa State.

From my understanding of the situation, it is not just Gaddafi-trained militias that birthed or are sustaining the violent herdsmen. That may be a contributing factor (the UN had set up an organ to monitor and manage proliferation of small arms and ammunitions long ago) but religious extremists who had been sowing extremist views in Niger, Mali, Somalia and Lake Chad area from time immemorial and over the years migrated into Nigeria are the most significant precipitate causes.

This is underscored by the fact that rather than guard and protect Nigerian borders to prevent people of extremist religious views from crossing over to sow the seed of their evil and intolerant faith in the minds of peace loving people of our beloved country , the authorities allowed the displaced fiery clerics to settle in our country along Lake Chad zone of Borno State.

Adjunct to that is the fact that due to the inability of authorities to control our border posts, criminal elements from adjoining countries such as cattle rustlers started inhabiting Sambisa forest, which was a fallow unpoliced swathe of land and therefore a sanctuary for outlaws.

As time went by, the religious extremists, from the countries earlier mentioned, settled and became indigenised and started wielding influence.

Consequently, they started fomenting religious crisis like Maitasine riots etc., which evolved into Boko Haram now spreading nationwide under the new brand name of herdsmen.

Evidence indicates that Gaddafi’s influence is only recent and mainly because Libya became a failed state and arms and ammunition from the war torn North African country flowed freely into West Africa and Nigeria through her porous borders.

Many people may accuse Gaddafi of advancing the policy of Islamisation of the Sahel. But more people would admit that it was prosecuted through ideology not warfare.

In my considered opinion, with Boko Haram realising that they are not equally matched with the fire power of the Federal government in conventional warfare, the terrorists have simply changed their tactics to asymmetrical methods by dispersing their fighters into Nigerian society while cloaking them in the borrowed robes of herdsmen.

Through that ingenious process, they left our apparently flatfooted security agencies scratching their heads and thus prompting a lot of Nigerians to demand for their sack.

The obvious failure of the military to contain the terrorists is due to a dearth of counter terrorism operatives and stems from the fact that instead of being on top of their game by building capacity to match the terrorists in adapting to the evolving new age warfare, the security organisations have been tugging at each other’s throats in the fight for turf and influence in Aso Rock Villa.

Since they have not been keeping their eyes on the ball, they have now been left in the lurch and in a quandary.

Nothing reflects or demonstrates the frustration or perplexity of the federal government over the killings by the herdsmen than the recent vocalised lamentations (not body language) of President Buhari, who in extending his sympathy to the victims of the latest killings of Gwari people by the so-called herdsmen in Kaduna State, alleged that there seems to be subterranean forces intent on causing disaffection that could lead to war.

In what seems like a covert effort to shield herdsmen from global spotlight and scrutiny, a new sobriquet or nomenclature has now been acquired for the killers – BANDITS.

As global pursuers of truth have insisted, you cannot call an apple banana, no matter the antics or theatrics that is adopted.

The overarching truth which the hardliners in government have failed to accept is that the ill feeling by the northern elites that the region had been marginalised by both Obasanjo and later Goodluck Jonathan governments, (especially after Umar Yar’Adua of blessed memory passed away as a seating president), fuelled the embrace of religious extremism by some ethnic and religious irredentists, who wanted to use it to destabilise the government in power and force a return of power to the north.

Such people were aptly tagged political Boko Haram.

By and large, the negative sentiment was packaged in the form of Sharia laws to serve as resistance to the rule over the predominantly Muslim north by the so-called infidels or Kaffirs – like Obasanjo and Jonathan.

I reckon that that strategy adopted by northern power seekers who engaged the services of religious extremist groups as pressure platform for forcing the return of power to the north after over 10 years of Nigeria not being under their control following the end of military rule, backfired as Boko Haram took on a life of its own by going rogue after it was legitimised by respected and respectable members of society.

Although the contention for power to return to the north is a legitimate cause since the pursuit of selfish or constituent interest is what politics is about, hence it’s not intrinsically wrong, the architects clearly did not think through the idea of bringing Boko Haram terrorists into the mix.

So, like a monster created in a lab that suddenly got out of control and started attacking its inventor, Boko Haram is now regrettably to the north, a case of a tiger and its rider.

How can the rider of such a ferocious cat dismount when the safety of the rider can’t be guaranteed after dismounting?

While the Boko Haram terrorist group has mastered the act of metamorphosing into different forms like the amoeba organism or blending with its environment like the chameleon, through the evolution of herdsmen now dispersed across the country; the Nigerian leadership and the military authorities which have been dazed and mesmerised by the sheer agility and ingenuity of the terror group, is now playing catch up.

The killer herdsmen are to me the current puzzle, enigma and mountain, which President Buhari must solve and as the case may be, climb in order for him to be re-elected in the 2019 general elections. He must put an end to the unprecedented killings that are stoking the anger and frustrations of Nigerians to the extent that even Mr. President himself is now talking about the highly volatile issue of war, which ideally should not be spoken in public by top members of government.

The angst and ire of Nigerians against the unbridled spate of killings by terrorists dressed up in herdsmen robes who are manifestly Muslims is so palpable that it appears to be galvanising Christians together for self-defence. The situation is so dire that President Donald Trump, during President Buhari’s recent state visit to the USA, offered him a friendly advice to address the horrific spate of killings as a matter of urgency.

From documented records, religious extremism should not be allowed to fester and creep into politics as has been the case in Nigeria.

Tales of human tragedy from Afghanistan, to Syria, Somalia and now the Sudan are too grizzly and galling to convey succinctly or contemplate as being imminent in our beloved country.

The horrific aftermath of the ethnic cleansing induced crisis between the Rwandan Tutsi and Hutsi tribes which ended up being the modern day genocide is still vivid in the minds of the world.

As earlier stated, the democratisation of violence in Nigeria through herdsmen is certainly going to be President Buhari and the ruling party, APC’s Achilles heels in the forthcoming 2019 general elections just as corruption was Goodluck Jonathan and PDP’s bogeyman in 2015.

Put succinctly, if Mr. President truly desires to be re-elected, he must start canvassing and winning the votes of Nigerians by quickly reining in the herdsmen whom not a few patriots believe are enjoying his sympathy knowingly or unknowingly and what some irreverently refer to as a “conspiracy of silence” by the Presidency.

The present Sabre rattling by high ranking opinion leaders and the rank and file across the socio-political spectrum of Nigeria have never been louder.

From retired Army General TY Danjuma in Taraba State, who had advised his people to defend themselves or perish, to John Nwodo who spoke on behalf of southern elders at a forum with Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and the General Overseer of Redeem Christian Church of God, Pastor Adeboye, who reportedly vowed that there may not be an election and a country in 2019 if the incredibly alarming spate of killings of innocent Christians by the terrorists dressed up in the garb of herdsmen is not immediately brought to cessation.

This is in addition to the urging of Pope Francis to Nigerian leaders to curb the evil orgy of killings after two priests and about 17 members of a church congregation were murdered in cold blood by BANDITS in Benue State.

While herdsmen are democratising terrorism by making violence a national crisis, what have we individually and corporately done to halt the carnage?

As things now stand, almost all men and women of goodwill, including political and religious leaders have weighed in with advice against the seeming descent of Nigeria into a state of uncertainty.

Only God is the power yet to speak directly on the matter.

Unlike in the days when He came down to commune with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden or when He descended into the world to give Moses the Ten Commandments, as conveyed in the holy Bible, God now only speaks through his prophets like his son Jesus Christ -also known as Isah by Muslims.

As things currently stand, silence is no more golden or a viable option for the wise.

By all indications, proactive and preventive actions have proven to be the best guiding principles of astute leaders.

As usual this humble contribution may be dismissed (by those who should analyse it) as mere academic exercise that is only useful as research materials for PhD Thesis.

As an individual, l am content that l have done my civic duty of trying to avert the minds of our leaders to the real and present danger now staring us in the face and proffered solutions that were disregarded.

(Magnus Onyibe, a development strategist, an alumnus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, and a former commissioner in Delta State sent this piece from Lagos.)

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