The Fulani Question(S)- By Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

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If your enemy hurts you, buy each of his children a drum – African proverb

The Fulani herdsman is at the heart of a monumental crisis at the most vital organ of the nation: its regulatory mechanism which allows it to take risks with its existence and still survive. He is both a symbol and a trigger of frightening tempers and tensions rising at the worst possible time for a country which leadership shows an unmoving inclination towards indifference to serious governance issues, or pandering to their causes for a pittance. Take a few of the hundreds of videos making the rounds at frightening speed in the last few days. Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, calmly spoke about an impending civil war, complicity of President Buhari in the escalation of the crises around what the Fulani represents to communities like his, and the positive roles of people like Sunday Igboho. Benue State’s Governor Ortom spoke to a familiar audience around a familiar theme: the need to permanently eliminate the problem of the Fulani herders by, among other measures, arming all Nigerians, and lamented the total isolation of President Buhari from an escalating disaster.

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Another video shows Sheikh Ahmad Gumi in a forest surrounded by armed Fulani whose leader reels out a long list of betrayals by the Nigerian state which will make any more deals difficult to strike. Another shows a Fulani man explaining to a local, apparently in the South East, in fluent pidgin English, how the Fulani had been victimised over recent times, and warning that no one would win a war against the Fulani. Finally, there is this old video finding a new lease of life. It shows a long line of parked buses and other vehicles apparently headed East and a lot of panicky travellers explaining that Fulani bandits had blocked the road and there was no help from the police. Until recently, all attention was on the criminal Fulani who appears to have designed a nationwide charter for himself. Now the focus has shifted to his brother trudging across the land with a century-old mentality and technique.

While videos speak with unrestrained venom, leaders say nothing, or, when they do speak, say what is guaranteed to raise tempers to new highs. Sometimes they say very little in public, presumably because they say a lot in private meetings and audiences. President Buhari’s spokespersons got their fingers burnt with the comment which followed the quit notice to herders in Ondo. Thereafter, they yielded space to security agencies which now release periodic, dire warnings that un-named persons intent on triggering mayhem are at play. It cannot be easy for President Buhari, to be accused as the problem and be expected to be  the solution at the same time. Now the president is entirely hamstrung by his past: everything he does or fails to do about the Fulani problem is suspect. Igboho is now an untouchable hero, in part because he looks like criminal Fulani who have broken laws without consequences.

Northern communities have long given up hope that the Buhari administration will arrest and eliminate the terrible scourge of kidnappings and banditry, and are virtually resigned to living with it. Northern governors, now basically on their own, are quarreling over strategies of dealing with mostly Fulani bandits, some insisting on throwing force and the law which they do not have against them, some insisting on negotiations and bribing the criminal away, some demanding that citizens should be allowed to arm themselves to fight the criminal. The rest of the country is drawing lines around a problem that looks every inch like the combined product of engineered mass hysteria, justifiable worries, dangerous politics and naive thinking that removing Fulani and his cattle from neighbourhoods will make everyone safe and secure. A key part of the grievance is that President Buhari is reluctant to support curbing criminality, brigandage and impunity among Fulani because they are his kith and kin. The sins of the Fulani are part of Buhari’s considerable political liabilities. The Fulani is also collateral damage in Buhari’s many battles, from his two election victories to his failure to govern well. The criminal Fulani is the cancer that grew in size under Buhari, making a mockery of an administration that came to power to secure the citizen better than his predecessor. The non-criminal Fulani has been a serial victim of power and authority, and now he represents the Achilles heel of a north that must be made to yield to political interests with an eye on 2023.

The supreme irony is that President Buhari, who enjoyed cult-like political support of Fulani, is not a key player in any scenario that could deal with the Fulani issue. The most immediate issue is to stop rhetoric and actions that imperil law-abiding Fulani in regions that are hostile to him. The president cannot, or will not do anything here. Poisonous rhetoric and demonisation have preceded genocide in history. President Buhari apparently does not feel he should go beyond warnings. Next, the law-abiding Fulani needs to be relocated from environments that sustain hostility against him to places where he and the community are safer. A panicky exodus of Fulani from the south to the north is the worst case scenario that should be avoided at all cost. It will happen if many Fulani communities feel sufficiently threatened by thugs and communities in the south. This will extend a chain reaction that is too frightening to contemplate, but must be, by those who have responsibilities to protect all citizens.

Outside a few islands that will take in a few thousand cattle and Fulani families, the north is ill-prepared to receive large numbers of cattle at a go. When, or if they move, they will be at the mercy of state agents, criminal Fulani, jittery northern farmers, hostile northern governments and the temptations to join criminal kin in forests where they are king. Deals can be struck with host communities in the south to tolerate law-abiding herders, but President Buhari does not have the moral authority or political clout to negotiate these deals with governors and ethnic champions basking under popular applause as Fulani cleansers.. The president cannot flush criminals out of forests in the south and the north. He lacks the police and army to even attempt this. Forests in the north are now entirely bandit territory. In the south, they are now the focus of a campaign for a cleansing by many, including people who did not even know the south had forests that represent its dignity.

It is very likely that the Fulani herder will no longer be welcome in the south of Nigeria in future. The question is how he can live permanently without serious damage to national security and peaceful co-existence. A related question is whether the hostility and violence from host communities is enough to remove him entirely from a part of his country. When he does leave, entirely or in part, the question is where he goes to live or pursue his livelihood in the context of shrinking economic and environmental resources, expanding local hostility and strong temptations to develop political consciousness out of a sense of persecution. Will federal and state governments fund large investments into infrastructure to domesticate the herder, or will they leave him to wander losing a national asset and boost security challenges? Who will champion the cause of the law-abiding Fulani herder and stop his depletion by crime and desperation? Ranching or some form of permanent domestication is the only alternative to wasteful and now dangerous herding across thousands of kilometers of land the Fulani has to beg for. Northern leaders control land and resources, but they have abandoned the Fulani herder for so long, they barely recognise him. They may continue to ignore his basic needs, but he will always be part of the nation, for good or evil.

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