By Segun Ayobolu
PMB, Statemanship and National Security
One of the most thorny security challenges that has confronted Nigeria in this democratic dispensation has been the incessant clashes between Fulani herdsmen moving their cattle southward in search of grazing land and water and sedentary farming communities particularly in the middle belt states of Benue, Plateau, Nassarawa and Taraba as well as parts of the Southeast and South-south. The violent confrontations have resulted in large scale destruction of farms and crops, wholesale razing and displacement of entire communities and the loss of thousands of innocent lives.
While the menace of herdsmen-farmers clashes appears to have abated significantly in the North-central zone, there has been a sharp rise in cases of kidnapping, rape, armed robbery and other crimes perpetrated in the Southwest allegedly by Fulani herdsmen or bandits who have reportedly invaded and occupied many of the forests in the region. Indeed, the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi and the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, have publicly drawn the Federal Government’s attention to the prevailing combustible situation in Yoruba land.
While the Ooni personally visited President Muhammadu Buhari at the presidential Villa, Abuja, to formally complain about the invasion of forests in Yoruba land by ‘strangers’ as well as request the Federal Government’s support in enabling affected communities in the region defend themselves, the Alaafin wrote an open letter to the President urging him to arrest the country’s slide to anarchy as well as warning of the readiness of the Yoruba to protect their lives and property if the present situation is allowed to continue.
The Ooni again led a formidable 12- man delegation of prominent traditional rulers from Yorubaland to deliberate with the President on the precarious situation in the South West and proffer solutions. A positive fallout of these initiatives was the promise by President Mhuhammadu Buhari that drones and Closed Circuit television (CCTV) will be deployed in the Southwest to monitor and guarantee the safety of lives on the highways as well as in the region’s numerous forests. Suffice it to say that this commendable move should not be limited to the Southwest but rather must be part of a wholistic plan encompassing the entire country, where citizens are daily victims of assorted acts of criminality.
The murder on the Ondo-Benin-Ore highway of Mrs. Funke Olakunri, daughter of the leader of Afenifere, Pa Reuben Fasoranti, brought to the forefront of national consciousness, once again, the gravity of the security challenge in the Southwest. Yet, it also drew attention to the danger of reflexively ascribing every crime of kidnapping or armed robbery on highways in the region to Fulani herdsmen without thorough investigation. Some sources, for instance, quoted eyewitnesses as saying that the murder of Mrs Olakunrin was perpetrated by Fulani herdsmen even before the police authorities had made any statement on the matter.
On his part, the Ondo state police commissioner, Mr. Udie Adie, blamed bandits for the murder with armed robbery as the probable motive. Pa Fasoranti’s son and the deceased’s junior brother, Mr. Kehinde Fasoranti, sharply disagreed with the police commissioner insisting that officers at the Ore police station had told him the act was the handiwork of Fulani herdsmen. In any case, if it was a case of armed robbery, how come that none of the deceased’s valuables were touched by the assailants he asked?
Neither party, in my view, should jump to a premature conclusion. Only a thorough and unbiased investigation can unravel the truth. It is immaterial whether Mrs Olakunrin died at the hands of herdsmen or bandits. What matters is that a crime has been committed and those responsible must be brought to book and urgently too. There have been too many cases of unresolved murders since the commencement of this political dispensation in 1999. A not insignificant number of Nigerians believe that only half-hearted efforts were made by the relevant security agencies to get to the root of these homicidal acts as well as apprehend and bring their perpetrators to justice.
However, a serious danger of instinctively blaming Fulani herdsmen for kidnapping and armed robbery on many of the highways in the Southwest without prior investigation by security agencies is that it gives ample room for other individuals and groups to violate the law with impunity with the very high possibility of getting away with such lawlessness. This is because once there is the mindset that it is only one group responsible for crimes, there will be the tendency for investigations to be flawed from the onset as the real criminals will not even be on the radar of the security agencies at all. It certainly cannot be the case that the violent crimes of armed robbery, kidnapping and rape in vulnerable areas of the South West are the brainchild only of Fulani herdsmen.
In any case, is it not possible that forces bent on destabilizing the country and sabotaging her unity can perpetrate heinous crimes in the Southwest and attribute it to the Fulani herdsmen? That would instigate bad blood, bitterness and hostility between the two parts of the country and give those with a separatist and secessionist agenda more ammunition for their divisive weapons. There is also the danger of unfairly profiling one ethnic group as criminal and making them the target of vindictiveness and possibly misdirected retaliatory, even genocidal, violence by other ethnic groups.
These are delicate times in Nigeria that requires wise, restrained and mature leadership. In the highly inflammable situation in which we find ourselves, a careless or unthinking word by irrational leaders or opinion moulders can set the whole country ablaze. And the sad thing is that, it is only possible to know how a bloody crisis that can consume millions of lives starts, it is always difficult to say how or when it will end and at what cost to human lives and property as well as a national cohesion that has taken a great deal of sacrifice to forge even as it remains a work in progress.
Of course, none of this is to peremptorily absolve herdsmen of blame for this or any other alleged crime in the Southwest or any part of the country. This would be as criminal and unjust as instinctively blaming the group for acts of kidnapping, rape or arson without proof. I think the standard requirement should be: Focus on the crime and not on the ethnic origin of the criminal. Don’t stigmatize any ethno-regional group. Stigmatize, apprehend, prosecute and punish the individual criminal.
It is the seeming inexplicable paralysis of the will on the part of the security agencies to do this with a sense of purpose, professionalism and decisiveness that have spawned assorted and damaging conspiracy theories. A situation in which the President is Fulani and virtually all his security chiefs are from the north and are also Muslims does not help matters in terms of trust and confidence between the government and governed in a complex country like ours.
It is, of course, easier for partisans on different sides of the political divide to make emotive statements in the kind of situation in which Nigeria finds herself today in order to play to the gallery and win cheap popularity. The path of statesmanship is a far harder one to chart. It is that of pursuing the middle course and appealing to reason and restraint in the interest of peace, stability and unity without which the pursuit of justice such as bringing to book the killers of Mrs. Olakunri cannot be meaningfully undertaken. It is this narrow path that I see Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu striving delicately to tread. Pa Fasoranti himself has struck a remarkably restrained note in the face of this grave tragedy that has befallen his family. He has said that what he desires most is the restoration of peace and security to all parts of the country.
The greatest challenge of statesmanship, however, rests today on the shoulders of President Muhammadu Buhari who has been given an emphatic renewed mandate for a second term in the February, 23, 2019, presidential election. A necessary but admittedly not sufficient imperative for enhancing national security and halting what is widely perceived as a gradual slide to anarchy, is for the President to urgently reconstitute his military/security high command both to more accurately reflect the country’s ethno-regional balance as well as bring on board no less qualified officers with fresh ideas and strategies to build as well as improve on what the current team of service chiefs have achieved in the last four years.