Finally, one can put an ethnic tag to the mysterious militia murdering people at will and disappearing into the vast shadows in the agrarian nerve-centres of the nation. It is a Fulani death squad. The unspeakable has finally arrived at the gate of the unmentionable. These are extremely dangerous times in Nigeria. Apocalypse has never been closer to our shores.
In an extreme manifestation of what we often describe in this column as an organic crisis of the state, everything seems to be coming together all at once for Nigeria—in a manner of speaking. Even for the strongest and most durable of nations, when a persisting political and economic crisis suddenly joins forces with ethnic and cultural hostilities fuelled by ancestral resentments, it is a perfect storm.
But we must avoid alarmist and hysterical railings at one another which only raises the national temperature without providing a way out. To move back away from the minefield requires extreme caution. To move forward requires unusual determination. Any miscue at this point may unleash dangerous forces of disintegration.
It is important to advise President Mohammadu Buhari that the same stubbornness and obstinacy which might have served him so well as head of state during the military epoch of Nigeria’s post-colonial transition can no longer be regarded as political virtues in a post-military era of acute political, ethnic and economic polarization of the nation.
Before he is successfully branded as an enemy of his people, it is necessary to remind General Buhari once again that you cannot step into the same river twice. Whatever his natural aversion and distaste for politics, he ought to know that once he chose of his own free will to vie for elective office, he has chosen to play politics and not military war games and destabilising psych-ops against sections of the country.
We must repeat that these are dangerous times for the nation. We appeal to patriots who are disgusted and affronted by the politically-challenged antics of this government and its dangerous mind-set that one does not have to belong to General Buharis’s party or be a member of the cabal he is reputed to surround himself to offer the way out of the genocidal maelstrom threatening to engulf the nation. Genocide is an equal opportunity terminator which does not have the time or the patience to finesse multiple identities and party affiliations.
Yet the irony of it all is that it is only now that we have been able to put an ethnic tag to the mysterious and ghoulish militia murdering and maiming its way through a huge swathe of the nation’s territory that the problem of restitution really begins. But this ethnic categorization and the clarity it brings to the resolution of the crisis has come at a stiff price. Rather than bringing shame and remorse to the guilty party, it has led to a stiffening of resolve and a shameless bravado which have in turn provoked remarkable sabre-rattling and war-cries on the plains of the Nigerian middle belt.
Readers of this column would have noticed a studied reluctance to put an ethnic label on the nomadic terrorists. In fact, this is the first time, the column would do so. There is a deep and touching cultural resonance to this reluctance which had been widespread up till this moment. It is a sign of the rustic goodness and goodwill among native Nigerians which is customarily mismanaged by government and those who believe that they are bearers of a superior culture which exempts them from native norms.
The usual narrative is that the normal Fulani herdsmen that people have grown up to sighting in the deep forest or grasslands do not behave in this bloodthirsty and fiendish manner. They came across as shy, friendly, kind and honourable people, polite and self-effacing almost to a fault. Nobody wanted to disturb or disrupt this placid and idyllic picture of the peaceful and kind Fula herdsman even when emergent realities from the forests were pointing at some diabolic developments.
In a society conditioned to a high degree of inter-ethnic harmony and peaceful co-existence among the various ethnic groups, the pictures of death and gory dismemberment coming from the field represent a radical rupture of perceptual habits. The possibility of the peaceful Fulani herdsman being responsible for the gory massacres was too horrendous to contemplate. At a point, we even had to resort to an invention of mysterious militiamen from the Middle East via the porous Maghreb. These are the symptoms of a society in a state of traumatic transition.
For most Nigerians as well as the denizens of the old world and its archaic values, the tendency is to live in denial; a collective state of child-like daydreaming and regression into a phantasmagorical world of delusion and deception in which uncomfortable truths and reality are pressed out to be replaced by saccharine versions. This strategic elision of the truth as a way of evading social responsibility and confrontation with evil is a function of societies rooted in ritual and magic as the order of existence rather than hurtful science.
But we cannot run away from modernity forever. There must come a time when emergent realities collide with the old ways of doing things, when a society descends into critical and even mortal disorder as old modes of reproduction enter into dangerous contradictions with new imperatives of productions and when all this lead to a momentous restructuring of personalities in line with new dictates of civilization.
Societies which refuse to offer their own terms and template for modernization are often at the mercy of its hostile forces which then proceed on their own terms and temperament. The murderous confrontation between sedentary farmers and nomadic herdsmen in Nigeria in all its bestial savagery and apocalyptic violence is a function of this encounter between a hapless society in a state of chaotic flux and the forces of involuntary modernization. But it can get worse if the necessary precautions are not put in place.
It should be recalled that despite critical pressures on land occasioned by farming and grazing, the old Central African kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi under the ruling kings or Mwamis existed in a state of relative peace, stability and cohesion until the forces of involuntary political modernization in the guise of adult suffragette and electoral democracy arrived to disrupt the idyllic coexistence among the Tutsi overlords and the Hutu, Twa and pigmy tribes.
Even at that, studies have shown that this development could have been traditionally managed but for the arrival of disaffected Belgian colonial officers who insinuated the bitter class divisions in their own country into the politics of the colonized territory. The result was genocide and an apocalyptic meltdown which became the closing shame of the twentieth century.
This is why General Buhari has to be cautious in the political choices he makes in the coming months. Although clashes between sedentary farmers and Fulani herdsmen preceded the current incumbency of the retired general and have been with us for close to a decade and half, it is in the last two years that they have assumed a frightening and alarming proportion.
However tenuous and weak the link may be, there are those pressing the claim of a link between the rise in the murderous menace of Fulani militiamen and the resurgence of Fulani political supremacists around the presidency of General Buhari. Disaffected critics and analysts point at the lopsided appointments which continue despite heavy criticism and the fact that the retired general reacts with a disproportionate sledgehammer and proactive violence to the least ethnic provocation from other parts of the country while treating the menace of the Fulani herdsmen with cavalier cool and even towering indifference.
Perception may eventually approximate to reality, in which case General Buhari may go down as a tragic impostor. No amount of good he would have recorded in other departments such as the fight against corruption, the incipient agricultural revolution and the return of fiscal and electoral sanity to the nation could offset the political villainy of condoning ethnic cleansing. In some extreme quarters, there are even whispers that the retired general may yet have his date with the World Court at Hague once his tenure is over.
This is not the way to build a nation. In fact, it is the surest way to ruin it and terminally too. Away from raw and primitive anger, let us return the discourse to the template of objectivity, science and modernity. There are two things responsible for the dark development between sedentary farming and nomadic cattle rearing. First is the increasing desertification or sahelization of the northern parts of the country which puts the pressure on herdsmen to roam further and further afield which then launches them on a collision course with farmers tending the land.
The second development is the worsening economic situation in the country which has led to a dramatic rise in incidents of cattle rustling and coordinated armed attacks on herdsmen. Unlike before when herdsmen used to be armed with long sticks, cattle rustling and encounters with armed robbers have led to a weaponization of the trade on a scale which could not have been imagined.
So, while dwindling grazing opportunities removes the customary Fulani reserve and sensitivity from the herdsmen, encounters with miscreants have toughened them to a point where they have scant regard for human life. As a Fulani elder and celebrated ethnic jingoist puts it: “ If a Fulani herdsman takes a particular route this year and he returns by the same route the following year and you say there is no way through, then there is bound to be trouble”.
What we can see in all this is a clash of civilization, of culture, of mutually unintelligible modes of production and a crisis of economic values accentuated by dwindling opportunities and increasingly scarce resources. In the past, these contradictions could be absorbed by the oceanic plenitude of farmlands and limitless grazing opportunity as well as by the profound economic possibilities of a nation with a great future ahead of it. Alas, all that has ended in a bonfire of vanities leaving in their wake mutual recrimination and savage anger about the state of the nation.
In the light of this, the establishment of grazing “colonies” may solve the problem in the short run but not as a long term solution. Grazing colonies can only produce colonized cattle. What is playing out with all these “solutions” and the semantic games we play with them is a fundamental evasion of social responsibility and concomitantly of the subsisting National Question. The question is: what are those herds boys doing roaming the forests with AK47 when the dictates of political modernity and economic modernization suggest they should be in school?
When the question is posed this way, the uncomfortable political and economic truth begins to stare us in the face and we can as well conclude that the herdsmen have been training their guns on the wrong people. That may be why they are sent out farther afield in the first instance. Despite its political hegemony, the north is sitting on a political and economic box of explosives which may yet consume the whole of the country if care is not taken.
But since this is a profound matter of political habitus and cultural peculiarity, it demands considerable sympathy and sensitivity. As it has been famously noted, no matter how much we try to ignore history, history in all its alienating necessities will not ignore us. Once again, the Fulani herdsmen tragedy has shown us why we can only postpone a radical restructuring of the country’s political architecture at our own peril.
Restructuring is inevitable once Nigeria failed to throw up a radically nationalist and modernizing military class which would have forcibly homogenized and ground into conformity the contending cultural, political, economic and spiritual peculiarities. In the process, some core values would have been distilled willy-nilly for the nation.
In the face of this missed opportunity, only a radical restructuring which allows key ethnic and cultural components of the nation to resolve their contradictions on their own terms will do even if this were to eventuate in a confederal arrangement for the nation. With gargantuan contradictions which continue to dog and hobble our match to authentic nationhood, confederalism which guarantees stability and relative prosperity may well be the nation’s saving grace.
For the sake of emphasis, these contradictions include and are not limited to the following: feudal enervation and exhaustion in the face of the dictates of modernity, laissez faire indolence and aristocratic fatigue in the face of aborted modernity, social cannibalism arising from an attempt to run before walking and the ritualization and romanticization of primitive animal husbandry as a way of avoiding and evading the challenges of modernization.
As we are discovering with the current herdsmen calamity, an organic crisis of the state may take its time to manifest but its fall-out does not waste time in hitting us in the face directly once it reaches full maturity. This is the time to find a solution to a tragedy that may yet consume the entire nation in its next visitation.