The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, otherwise called Fulani herdsmen, could be the undoing of President Muhammadu Buhari.
The president appears surprised at the depth of outrage against him over the recent spate of violence across the country, especially the senseless killings by herdsmen in Benue State.
He thinks that we should understand by now that he means well, that we should see the sorrow in his face and sense the pain in his heart.
That’s precisely the point. His good intentions may be taking us to hell in a handcart and his gestures, just like Jonathan’s at the height of the MEND-led violence, are feeble and confusing.
Apart from Umaru Yar’Adua, every president since 1999 has been faced with how to rein in vigilantes or militias from their own ethnic group. For Olusegun Obasanjo, it was the O’odua People’s Congress (OPC), the militant response to the annulment of the June 12 election and the widespread insecurity that followed in many parts of the South West.
For Goodluck Jonathan, it was the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a "South-South" group that planted itself firmly on the national map by exploding the first bomb at the Eagles Square in Abuja on Jonathan’s first Independence Day anniversary as president.
Obasanjo was ruthless, especially in Odi and Zaki-Biam. But between his excesses in these communities and Jonathan’s indulgent cluelessness over MEND and Boko Haram, Buhari ought to have found a way to fulfill the first and most basic duty of government: keeping lives and property safe.
After significantly degrading Boko Haram, he appears to have settled for appeasement in dealing with the herders. That is unacceptable.
Clashes between farmers and herders predate Buhari but the overwhelming public feeling is that the herders have been emboldened on his watch. Whether in Agatu (in Benue) where over 300 people were murdered or Ukpabi-Nimbo (in Enugu) where over 40 were killed in the early days of his Presidency, Buhari’s muffled response did little to erase the impression that he is the patron saint of the herders.
If the excuse at the time was that his attention was divided between the war on Boko Haram and his poor health, then what are we to make of the government’s scandalous hand-wringing about the fresh round of violence in Benue which left at least 80 dead, scores wounded and hundreds displaced since Christmas?
Governor Samuel Ortom’s anguished cry after the herders unleashed the first wave of killings fell on deaf ears in Abuja. It reminded me of the surreal encounter between Governor Ibrahim Shettima and Jonathan after the kidnap of the Chibok girls.
Days after the mayhem in Benue, frightened citizens could not come out to claim the remains of their loved ones. As repeated calls for help from Abuja went unheeded, Ortom was forced to announce that the dead could get a mass burial, a fate less dignifying than the courtesy the government appears willing to extend to cows.
Among the few identified dead was Peter Aboh, a 28-year-old final year student of Microbiology at the Federal University, Lafia, Nasarawa State. Peter, who was due to finish his programme in August, had travelled to his village in Benue for the Christmas when the herders struck.
Perhaps Peter’s death and the death of a few others could have been prevented if Abuja responded swiftly. That was not to be. Instead, as the violence escalated the public was fed with news about the deployment of hundreds of policemen on paper; and only after the worst had happened did Buhari order the Inspector General of Police to move to Benue, followed by an invitation to Ortom for a closed-door meeting in Abuja.
I do not know of any decent country where 80 citizens would be murdered in peacetime and the president would be miles away, beyond the reach of the chief security officer in the state and the anguished cry of the bereaved.
A nation that rallied around its president at moments of great personal trial during his 153 days of medical vacation, followed by his son’s near-fatal bike crash deserves more than the President’s delegated presence in its moment of grief. Buhari’s absence from Benue is inexcusable.
And to think that just before the grieving families could retrieve and bury their dead, the President’s party announced a mega rally in Abia to prepare the ground for his second term! The same folly and insensitivity for which Nigerians punished Jonathan and the Peoples Democratic Party three years ago!
The government appears to be looking everywhere except where the solution to the problem lies. Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh suggested importing tons of psychedelic grass from Brazil or Saudi Arabia and creating cow colonies. He didn’t say who will pay for the grass or how the cow colonies would be organised.
After a number of states vowed not to provide land for ranches and at least three – Ekiti, Benue, and Taraba – responded with far-reaching anti-grazing laws, Ogbeh’s latest response to the killings in Benue, his home state, is that the government is not doing enough for herders.
Demographic and climatic changes have adversely affected herders just as badly as have land-grab by top government officials for themselves and for their cronies in many states in the North. Rapid population growth and haphazard urban planning have not helped matters either.
But these problems have been as catastrophic for herders as they have been for farmers and fishermen. It doesn’t matter the whitewash of the herders’ expansionism in superficial statistics – and I’ve seen quite some of that lately – cattle rearing is a private business.
If the government decides to create ranches in “hydrological zones” as some have suggested, for example, who will manage the ranches in the zones and how will they be funded?
The Grazing Bill that did not pass the last National Assembly suggests that a National Grazing Reserve Commission will, among other bureaucracies, probably be the white elephant to do the job. Such a beast is at best comparable to the old River Basin Development Authorities that got the country nowhere.
We’ve passed that stage now. Since Buhari insists that the present structure of the country is good enough and that only the process needs improvement, it will be a travesty of process for the Federal Government to take over what is essentially a private business.
Cattle rearing is private business and the owners of the businesses should come up with solutions in collaboration with those states that want to work with them. It’s a waste of time and resources to set up committee after committee at public expense to deal what is essentially private business.
And the appeasement must stop. No group is entitled to take the law into its own hands. If the perpetrators of the Benue killings – whoever they are – are not arrested and tried it will happen again and again. We’re already seeing it in Taraba where over 50 had been killed as at Wednesday.
It doesn't matter what Buhari says, if he turns a blind eye this time, he'll hardly be able to convince the public that he's not the patron saint of the herders.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network