It makes one dizzy trying to keep up with President Buhari's shifting, contradictory rhetoric on herdsmen killings. He has alternated between outright denial of herdsmen’s AK-47 possession and suggesting that there could be a new, deadly group of herdsmen, a group with origins outside Nigeria. His position is marked by waffling and confusion. Because he goes back and forth and contradicts himself on this issue, his words have elicited multiple interpretations, and he comes across as unsure of what the problem is, let alone of the solution. He seems torn between denial and frontally confronting an uncomfortable truth.
During his visit to Taraba State, the president famously challenged people to report herdsmen they see carrying AK-47s. This was a rhetorical challenge meant to answer the widespread sightings of well-armed herdsmen. Challenging citizens to report such herdsmen was his way of saying the much-referenced armed herdsmen do not exist.
It never occurred to the president that the problem is not that sightings of these herdsmen are not routinely reported by various communities — they are, but that precisely because they are armed with sophisticated, military-grade weapons, neither villagers nor security officials would confront them. It’s particularly suicidal for policemen to challenge these gunmen in the bushes of the Middle Belt, where they have already killed tens if not hundreds of policemen, the latest police killings occurring in the troubled local governments of Benue State.
The president has been struggling to come to terms with the fact that armed herdsmen of his ethnicity are implicated in repeated massacres across the North and Middle Belt. This explains his waffling attitude and his propensity to reach for external causation beyond the borders of Nigeria, a rhetoric that exonerates Nigerian herdsmen, his kinsmen, with whom he also shares occupational affinity as a cattle entrepreneur.
This defensiveness on the part of the president has led him into many errors and gaffes, one of which was his inexplicable statement that armed Fulani bandits (or whatever he chooses to call them) have killed more people in Zamfara State than in Benue and Taraba states put together, a most undiplomatic and factually inaccurate statement he continues to make. In addition to the shock and criticism, the statement elicited, citizens rightly observed that it is self-indicting both in terms of its callous reduction of the killings wracking the country to competing numbers and in terms of the indirect admission of the president’s failure to tackle the killings.
The president’s security services, too, vacillate between describing the killers as Boko Haram, herdsmen, and Libya-trained foreign gunmen. Perhaps taking a cue from his security services, the president has settled on the Libya angle lately while describing the killers in vague and confused terms as foreign-trained militants who carry AK-47, unlike herdsmen who carried sticks.
Here is what he said in London a couple of weeks ago: “Herdsmen that we used to know carried only sticks and maybe a cutlass to clear the way, but these ones now carry sophisticated weapons.”
Here, he seems to confirm what people in the theater of the killings have been saying, which is that there is a new clan of herdsmen who are walking around with AK-47 or being shadowed by marauding, AK-47-wielding militia kinsmen. At the same time, a mystery remains as to whether the phrase “these ones” refers to herdsmen or a new group the president is blaming for the killings. The mystery is deepened further by the fact that, in the same London statement, the president invokes the Libya angle. Herein lies the presidential confusion. A president who cannot identify an enemy or a problem cannot solve it.
A few days ago, in America, Buhari fleshed out his Libya angle a bit more, but in a confusing way. He said herdsmen carry sticks and machetes but that the killers are Gaddafi-trained militants with sophisticated weapons. It’s a reprise of his confused position and offered no clarity. The statement raises more questions than it answers.
Are the killer's herdsmen or not? Are they a new breed of killer herdsmen trained by Gaddafi? Are they freelance killers trained by Gaddafi? Are they killing on their own or on behalf of others? Are they Nigerians who traveled to Libya to be trained by Gaddafi, or foreign herdsmen who invaded our territories with sophisticated weapons as Governor el-Rufai has claimed while paying them to stop killing people in his state?
Anyway, the president's Gaddafi explanation is problematic for these reasons.
1. Herdsmen violence predated the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, an event which Buhari claims dispersed his trained killers across West Africa. In fact, killings on the Plateau began much earlier and even caused former president Obasanjo to declare a six-month state of emergency there.
2. Miyatti Allah is always claiming many of the massacres (although lately, they've been quiet), warning of future massacres that then occur, and justifying the massacres as vengeance for the theft or killing of cattle. Unless Miyatti is working with these Gaddafi-trained killers, the president's theory is not plausible.
3. If as Buhari suggests and his security forces have insinuated repeatedly, the attackers are foreigners trained and equipped by the late Muamar Gaddafi, it begs the question of why they would bypass neighboring countries bordering Libya (Niger and Chad) and elect to ply their murderous trade in Nigeria. We have not heard of these trained killers killing and uprooting farming communities in Chad and Niger. It’s not plausible that foreign killers who dispersed from Libya would prefer the much longer journey into the Nigerian hinterland than the shorter one to areas across the desert frontier border from Libya if generic killing and banditry are their missions.
4. Everywhere in the Middle Belt (Benue, Plateau, Southern Kaduna, Taraba, and Nasarawa) where the herdsmen militia has struck, the deserted villages are promptly taken over by herdsmen grazing their cattle. In fact, in some cases, the AK-47-totting militiamen stay around as if acting as protection for the herdsmen, to ward off attempts by residents to return to the land or by security forces to uproot them so that displaced survivors can return to their ancestral villages.
Maybe the herdsmen have abandoned their sticks for AK-47s. Maybe they've decided to hire the services of the killers to forcefully carve out grazing areas for themselves by removing indigenous farmers. The least likely possibility is that the herders are just fortuitous and lucky beneficiaries of the devastation caused by the mass murderers —that they just happen to, perversely speaking in this case, be at the right place at the right time when farming communities are being razed down and their inhabitants killed or displaced.
The president wants us to separate the "stick-carrying" herdsmen from the killers. Perhaps some herdsmen are indeed separate from the mass murderers. However, to believe in a separation between all stick-carrying herdsmen and the killers one would have to believe that the herdsmen, at least in the Middle Belt, always happen to be grazing nearby or lurking around the areas where the killers operate. Such repeated coincidence is highly unlikely.
The president is going to have to make up his mind. Perhaps he should listen to victims of the violence, who have repeatedly and consistently said that there are indeed two groups of herdsmen, both of them indigenous and produced by internal and not external training or forces. One group owns cattle and is desperate for grazing land and does not want to be accountable to farming communities that restrict its cattle from their farms.
This group, previously peaceful and willing to obey the rules set by host farming communities, seem to have made common cause with criminal, well-armed Fulani militia kinsmen, who carry out the killings on their behalf while they move with their cattle into deserted villages and farmlands. Some of the same groups of Fulani bandits are responsible for cattle rustling, killings, and banditry in the Zamfara-Birnin Gwari axis, and armed robbery and kidnapping in the Kaduna-Abuja, Minna axis. Access to military-grade weaponry, ecological threats to transhumant pastoralism of the Bororo, the emergence of banditry and mercenary militancy among young Bororo, and fissures within herding communities are all factors herdsmen violence that has escalated as the current administration has misread, misrecognized, and deflected the problem. These are largely internal factors.
There is no problem that Buhari does not externalize or blame on people other than himself, his appointees, or the institutions they oversee. Blaming others and being defensive about his deficits are his signature rhetorical maneuvers when confronted with the failures of his administration. However, even by his own standard of a chronic failure to take responsibility, blaming the late Gaddafi for the herdsmen massacres and forceful occupation of farmers’ lands is beyond the pale.
Some interlocutors have suggested an intelligent separation of young, criminal Fulani men, who have abandoned herding for criminal vocations, from older, cattle-herding Bororo Fulani. This is a welcome analytical intervention. We need to understand why these former herders, young people who were born into a herding culture, have taken to a life of banditry and mass murder for profit and on behalf of their herding kinsmen. This is a more productive path than externalizing the problem and blaming a dead man.
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