Looking beyond violent clashes in the New Year

By Musa Aliyu

Benue is burning. There is fire in Taraba. The Plateau is on fire. The blaze in kaduna still rages. And the inferno the mindlessly murderous Boko Haram insurgents kindled many years ago, which has razed nearly the entire north-east to the ground, still endures, despite the significant downgrading of the terror group. Rivers is boiling too, but there’s no enough water to douse the fire.

It’s less than a week since the New Year began but terrifying tales of killings have overshadowed the celebration. In Rivers State, for example, dozens of churchgoers were in the early hours of the New Year ambushed and murdered. And in the restive southern Kaduna, a traditional ruler and his wife were killed; so were more than two dozens of people in Benue killed, for which Fulani herdsmen are blamed.

The herdsmen crisis, like the Boko Haram violence, is an inherited problem. However, a major difference between the two is that while Boko Haram successfully attained global notoriety after its April 2014 abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls, the herdsmen are largely unknown, internationally. Yet theirs is also a serious security problem, which is why this week’s discourse focuses on it.

And because it is a security challenge with potentially grave consequences it requires as dedicated handling as the Boko Haram insurgency got. But that has not been the case and this is due to a number of reasons.

First, the crisis is largely misunderstood even by the local media and, therefore, misreported. Second, because it is misreported or selectively reported most people are not aware that the herdsmen caused as much havoc before 2015 as they do now. And because they think it is a new problem, due to the way it is presented in the media, they believe the president is deliberately refusing to tackle it.

The third factor is directly corollary to the above. The fact that the herdsmen are believed to be Fulani and the president’s kinsmen leads to the assumption that the president is tacitly in support of their atrocities and shields the perpetrators from justice. Proponents of this conspiracy theory further argue that the systematic ethnic cleansing is in pursuance of a so-called Fulani supremacist agenda (whatever it means?).

They posit further that because the victims are mainly outside of the north-west geopolitical region the president does not see the urgency of ordering a swift, comprehensive military operation against the herdsmen. They point to the decision of the president, on assuming power in May 2015, to set up a military task force to tackle the Zamfara-Kebbi banditry, which they claim has led to the defeat of the bandits/cattle rustlers.

While it is true there were attempts to deal with the menace of herdsmen or bandits or cattle rustlers in the north-west after the president assumed office, it should also be understood that the crisis is far from resolved. The cattle rustlers, believed to be former herdsmen, have continued to present as much security concern in the geopolitical region, especially in Zamfara State, as they did a couple of years ago and earlier.

Even as recently as November 2017 several villages, including Mallamawa, Barka da Yabo, Tungar Kahau, Maikamar rimi and Gidan Anna (all in Zamfara State) came under well coordinated attacks in broad daylight. At the end of it dozens of innocent villagers lost their lives and many more injured. The killings prompted a statewide broadcast by the governor, AbdulAzeez Yari, who admitted that the military operation was only temporarily successful. The operation had merely sent the killers scampering to safety and they soon regrouped and returned with vengeance. So the claim that they were sufficiently defeated in the north-west is unsubstantiated.

One key weakness of this regime is a slow response to crises. Even acknowledging such crises in the media often takes several days. This pace, a distinct signature of the presidency, affects all fronts, including security and has nothing to do with some sections being ignored because they are not the president’s people. In fact this kind of thinking only arises because the media ignore the travails of states like Zamfara or Taraba, where several Fulani settlements were sacked and scores killed late last year.

In the case of Taraba State, after the killings in Mambila, neither the state government nor the FG acted sufficiently to prevent the bouts of reprisal killings that everyone knew would happen. Up until now no serious security measures have been taken to prevent the recurrence of the violence. And we have all buried our heads in the sand.

It is important, though, to appreciate the fact that the military and, in fact, every security apparatus in the country are stretched to a breaking point. If serious steps were taken, over the years, to prevent this plunge we, probably, would not have ended up being terrorised by Boko Haram or herdsmen or some rascals in the creeks etc.

In the early days of this government the security situation of the country was the subject of discussion in a BBC Hausa panel and phone-in programme Ra’ayi Riga. I was on the discussion panel and recall suggesting to the government to create a special security unit to respond to terrorism/security challenges that require non-conventional approaches. Although such decision would require a constitutional backing, if it had been taken seriously it would since have successfully gone through the two chambers of the National Assembly like the Peace Corps bill. But plenty of time was wasted while the herdsmen and other security problems spiralled out of control.

Now that things have reached this point it will require a collaborative problem-solving approach to tame the monster. When it became obvious the bandits were out of control, after the initial attempts to defeat them failed, the governors of the states affected in the north-west decided to work as a team to proffer solutions. Although that effort failed too some of the governors, individually, introduced an amnesty programme that saw the bandits exchanging weapons for money. This too has not been a total success but it has, at least, cut down the threat to a less severe chunk.

Trying something new and creative will be worth the effort. Revisiting the National Grazing Reserves matter with total seriousness and sense of urgency is very necessary. But, for it to succeed, it will require an assiduous sensitisation campaign that should be two-pronged: one targeting the nomads by highlighting the economic and social benefits; and the second aimed at convincing the locals of the immense benefits, including cheaper and healthier beef and diary products. But most importantly, both sides should be made aware of the immeasurable advantages that naturally come with peaceful coexistence.

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