The farmer-herdsmen conflict now outranks both the Niger- Delta crisis and the North-East insurrection as the gravest existential challenge that confronts the entire Nigerian Federation today. We concede that it is a fairly long standing feud. However, in terms of scope, damage, impact, and wider implications, nothing compares with the farmer-herdsmen conflict, in its current incarnation. It will therefore be an attack on our own best interests if we do not arrest this unfolding carnage at once.
Typically, every instance of the conflict affects both local government and state governments. Frequently, it also makes security demands on Federal authorities. Its impact, as can be imagined, is therefore extensive, unsparing and total. In 2016 alone, for example, 2,500 people were killed and 62,000 displaced in our country as a result of this conflict. The conflict also presents in an intriguing rash. Thus even though Benue state appears to be the hub of its violence, and has the highest number of internally displaced persons, this scourge has also affected Nasarawa, Kaduna, Plateau and Taraba states.
The root cause of this conflict is the struggle by both herdsmen and farmers for the control of arable land and water. In times past, the presence of a proper regulatory framework had ensured that both parties lived more or less harmoniously. Routes leading to pasture were well known and properly described. It is said that in those days, some herdsmen, even with their eyes in blindfolds could grope their way from Sokoto to Calabar. Conflicts flared up now and again, but they were managed and were hardly framed in religious or ethnic colors. Nor was there a casual recourse to armed violence such as is now the case.
The entire landscape has however changed; the demography of the region is different; the country’s population has risen considerably and the demand pressure for arable land as well as for water has gone through the roof. More importantly, the fundamentals of ethnic identity and religious faith are these days deployed more commonly to interrogate civic life. Thus innocent disagreements are now erroneously perceived as a clash of faiths, a clash of religions or a clash of any of the polarities which exist in our diverse country. In addition, the collapse of governance in Libya after Gaddafi’s death in 2011 has led to the release of a welter of weapons, many of which have found their way via Chad and Niger to Nigeria. These weapons are now on hand to give a new edge to the conflict between farmers and herdsmen.
Killings have occurred principally in Taraba, Nasarawa and mostly infamously, when in the horror of January 1st this year, 73 people were massacred in Benue state. This blood-letting, rather than produce clarity on the matter, has instead led to an endless blame game in which all are guilty and none is innocent. President Buhari himself, has had a profoundly difficult time, and has not emerged from this mudslinging smelling of roses! As the President has no gift for theatrics and gesture politics, he was unable to visit Benue after the January killings. Some held this against him and have accused him of taking sides with the Fulani herdsmen. Those with a sense of history, additionally recall how President Buhari travelled all the way to Ibadan on the 13th October 2007 to protest the alleged harassment and killing of cattle-rearers in Saki, Ogun area of Oyo state. Lam Adesina, the then sitting Governor, received him correctly and assured him that the cattle-rearers were in no danger at all. President Buhari’s prompt protest in 2007 is in odd contrast with the lethargy he has displayed towards the rampaging herdsmen in Benue.
Anyhow, the charge that the guilty party in Benue are not being treated firmly now appears incorrect. President Buhari has held several meetings with the Minister of interior, as well as with the Police and service chiefs. Quite soon, the criminals involved should have their day in court. In addition, the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Audu Ogbeh, is working on the proposed cattle colonies, to which 16 state governments have already subscribed. In our view, even though the idea sounds good, it has a hint of panic. Besides, the choice of the word colony can provoke unhappy associations, of hordes of the Fulani waiting in the wings to unfurl a new imperial charter across Nigeria! It is also difficult to explain why the Federal Government is unable to procure 100% subscription for a dire project like this.
The farmer-herdsmen conflict is creating new cleavages in the Nigerian polity. We are therefore dismayed that some state and non-state actors are beginning to employ incendiary or inappropriate polemics, reminiscent of the period just preceding the commencement of the Nigerian civil war. Miyetti Allah and its President, Alhaji Abdullahi Bello Bodejo spoke against the anti-grazing law using intemperate language. This is inappropriate. The Nigerian Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali, also caused considerable public concern, when he blamed the anti-grazing law for the killings in Benue State. This howler hardly helped matters in an environment in which emotions were already running high.
Governor Ortom of Benue state ought also to have exercised more circumspection before enacting the anti-grazing law. Even the name gives the impression that the law might have been inspired by the impulse of vengeance. The Governor’s polemics along with those of some of his commissioners, notably, the commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Onoja, drip with violence and incitement. They speak sometimes as if Benue is now a separate country with its own army and security establishment. A new hysteria against a known enemy seems to be agog in Benue state. Some hostile analysis has already explained this attitude. The power establishment in Makurdi, they say, has very little silverware to point at after its two and a half years in office. Better therefore to placate the anguished electorate by fighting off imaginary enemies. The Fulani are therefore, a God-sent excuse and target for Governor Ortom and his war mongers.
We can ignore all this computation as fanciful. But still, we need a new level of sobriety in dealing with the farmers-herdsmen clash in the Middle-Belt. We have lost too many people and shed too much blood already. It does seem that we also stand the danger of losing our own heads too. We need to take a step back and reclaim our humanity. A new clarity of purpose is required to stop this needless mayhem. A great deal of stereotyping is going on; killings also continue, and one-sided solutions are being vended by parties to the conflict. This is bedlam. The parties must all come together and speak the language of peace and compassion. The Federal Government and the Presidency must provide decisive leadership.