The New Independence Group (NIG) wishes to express its feelings of shock and horror at the massacre of over a hundred citizens in Plateau state by herdsmen of Fulani extraction. The Group wishes to extend its heartfelt condolences at this moment that words are not enough to convey its grief, to the scores of victims of the attack, many of them now homeless, and now battling between life and death.
This latest attack is so shocking, not so much because it is the first, or rare. In Benue state, there have been two public mass burials of victims of Fulani herdsmen attack. Taraba, Nasarawa, Kaduna and a handful of southern states, to a lesser degree experience pockets of killings, while mass murder by bandits in Zamfara have also become a regular feature of news headlines. While the nation has often offered muted outrage at these killings, it has worryingly become manifest that the incessant nature of these killings has normalized horror, made tragedy a daily expectation and increasingly drained the capacity to be empathic and concretely appreciate the dehumanizing reality of the daily depreciation of life. The routine occurrence of the killings and the anonymous, casual reportage of casualty figures, often without names, data and other basic information about the victims has made the mental tally of mass killings an abstract exercise which passes off human lives as mere numbers. And to worsen matter of assault on our humanity this administration appear to be in a morbid competition with its immediate predecessors to determine who gets the inglorious trophy for a more insensitive, less caring and less-prepared in securing the lives of Nigerians.Or, how are we to rationalize the fetish with which the presidency has become notorious in trading figures on casualties to establish that Nigerians are not being needlessly slaughtered, compared to his predecessors
Therefore, the level of outrage, while unusually high, may as has happened in the past fizzle away until the next tragic massacre of huge proportions. For us at the NIG however, the Barkin Ladi massacre is not just another episode in the series of targeted attacks on settlements by herdsmen; its sheer scale, manner of execution, and the extenuating explanations for it demonstrates in no unclear terms that something fundamental has broken both in terms of societal values, the State’s capacity for the maintenance of law and order as well as the system and structure upon which the architecture of the nation rests.
With Barkin Ladi, the violent, militant wing of Fulani herdsmen, ranked as the fourth most deadly terrorist group by the Global Terrorism Index as far back as 2015, reinforces its image as a coordinated group hellbent on imposing an outdated, less effective nomadic style on the rest of the country, with an agenda of ethnic cleansing alongside. The targeted sacking of Birom villages and wiping out of the inhabitants, reminiscent of same pattern of coordinated wiping out of settlements in Benue and other parts of the Middle Belt, demonstrates in ways that are obvious that the Fulani herdsmen are genocidal and expansionist in their agenda.
The Barkin Ladi attack fits into a pattern which predates the current federal government, but it is the culmination of a rising wave of attacks which many have predicted, on account of the government’s indifference and sometimes culpable exculpation by those saddled with the task of securing the lives and property of all Nigerians across ethnic lines. It is important that this point be made because in spite of the numerous coloration being given to it, these attacks are primarily ethnic-related. While the religious demography of the attackers and the victims may tend to suggest a religious slant, what our findings reveal is that differences in the faith confessed by the majority of the Birom people on the one hand and the Fulanis on the other, is not responsible for this conflict. Far from being religious, what is going on in the Plateau, as in other places, have to do with ethnicity, ways of life and resource contestation, rapidly morphing into appropriation. Faced with the drying up of the Lake Chad and desert encroachment that shrinks the grazing resources available for its multiplying, herding population, there is an upsurge in expansionist Fulani attacks, primarily targeted it appears, to annex land and water resources.
In his first press release after the attack, President Buhari betrayed huge bias by seeking to contextualize the attack within the narrative of retaliation provoked by the earlier rustling of about a hundred cows and the killing of five Fulani herdsmen. The statement was a sad reminder of similar statements made on the killings in Taraba as well as Zamfara in the recent past. It also affirms the suspicion in many quarters that the incendiary remarks of Monsur Dan Ali, the national Minister of Defence, to the effect that Fulani herdsmen will continue to attack people of other tribes unless they are allowed to graze openly, have the backing of the President.
The way and manner in which the presidency, and by extension, the Federal government rationalizes the atrocities of the herdsmen appears to embolden the group the more, as it becomes more ferocious with every new attack. It may also have been a signal to the security forces who have become notorious for arriving the scenes of these massacres long after the attack has ended, with no arrests, prosecution or conviction made thereafter. There are also mounting claims of connivance between the security agencies and the terrorist Fulani herdsmen. It is not reassuring in anyway to communities under these sustained attacks that whereas those who are accused of attacking herdsmen are being swiftly arrested, prosecuted and convicted as reported in the media in recent times, those who unleash large-scale violence barely get apprehended. There appears to be an incommensurate speed between how those who reportedly attack Fulani herdsmen get served justice, and how the Fulani herdsmen are dealt with. The level of havoc being wreaked by the latter is disproportionate to the rate of arrests and prosecution.
History teaches that when such allegations become rife, even if unproven, in the face of seeming abandonment of the victims by the security agencies, the resulting attempt to seek self-help exacerbates the orgy of profiled attacks and counter-attacks that threaten social order. The lessons of the ethnic cleansing that culminated in the Rwandan genocide among other historical instances presently appears lost on the federal government as shown by the way in which it has responded to the crisis.
The utterances of the President, made in Jos, far away from the scene of the massacre which he refused to visit, is not reassuring to say the least. Promising to sustain the pressure on his security chiefs to beef up security suggests that there are likely not going to be consequences for the evident lapses that failed to nip the attack in the bud even in the face of rising tension between the Fulani herdsmen and the Birom in Barkin Ladi. By also saying there is nothing he can do beyond praying, the President further assails the confidence reposed in him as the commander in-Chief of the Armed Forces vested with the responsibility to protect the citizens. It was far from reinstating the confidence of the people.
For the NIG, the Barkin Ladi massacre presents the FG with perhaps a final opportunity to deal decisively with the ethnic cleansing embarked upon by the Fulani herdsmen by taking far-reaching measures, first, to prevent more dangerous attacks of its nature, second, to prevent the inevitable breakdown of law and order that these hitherto unrestrained pogrom is likely to generate.
The federal government under President Buhari has the all-important responsibility to galvanize the nation across partisan divides in the effort to put an end to mass, routinized killings across the country. It is important to look beyond ethnic and political affiliation, in disabusing the national psyche which has become so battered and benumbed to the point that every other killing becomes yet an additive, demonstrative episode of our disregard for human lives. Much needs to be done to break the cycle of mass murders, social media outrage, normalization and reocurrence in an increasingly frequent, tragic drama.
To start with, the President needs to put an end to reccuring violence in states where Fulani herdsmen have been commiting these atrocities. All those behind the premeditated attacks should be arrested and made to face the wrath of the law. Where necessary, the State should be ready to charge the main culprits with crimes against humanity. Nothing can justify the butchering of children, helpless women, the aged and infirm. Definitely, the loss of cows, or Fulani lives to suspected bandits of Birom extraction, condemnable if true; does not come close to explaining the massacre that took place in Barkin Ladi. The law must be heavy on the perpetrators to deter a recurrence. This requires the recognition that what is going on is no longer the farmers/herders conflict that used to ensue in pockets of places in the past. The Fulani herdsmen appear to have developed a militant wing whose professional mandate appears to be the clinical decimation of communities opposed to the grazing interests of its members. This group can only be stopped with a firm resolve.
It is equally imperative that the security agencies be rejigged, not only on account of glaring incompetence but also for the need to rebuild the confidence of the people in the capacity and willingness of the State to protect them. A situation where there is a wide perception that the composition of the leadership of the security agencies are deliberately skewed in a certain way to indulge the murderous and expansionist agenda of Fulani herdsmen is in itself a threat to government’s efforts to adequately secure lives and property. At the minimum, the federal government must recognize the right of people who are exposed and prone to attacks, to self-defence. The security forces need to desist from disarming these communities, especially where it has become obvious the government has been unable to provide adequate security. Confiscating all possible instruments of self-defence, including matchetes, recognized world over as an implement of subsistence farming, in the name of mopping up arms grossly exposes these communities to attack by the herdsmen, who often strike shortly after such exercises, to reinforce insinuations that a section of the security agencies indeed connive with the executors of the attacks.
Also, President Buhari is placed at a vantage position to tell the Fulani herdsmen, being one himself, the unsustainability of nomadic grazing in the face of increasing urbanization, climate change and more efficient methods of cow rearing. It is time to ban and criminalize open grazing. He must also device ways to collaborate with states that are dominated by Fulanis to train the herdsmen in modern ways of ranching. This training and empowerment however, is to be done in such a way that imbues skills and know-how, devoid of suggestions in some quarters that lands be ceded to herdsmen for ranching colonies. The government at different levels may facilitate loans for those trained in modern ranching to lease or permanently acquire lands as private citizens involved in business. This way, the government would have helped midwife the necessary cultural and economic transition critical to the sustenance of the dominant economic activity of the Fulanis without posing any threat to the lands of non-fulanis.
To make this happen in a sustainable way however, it is important to strengthen the national borders and prevent infiltration. There are numerous reports suggesting that oftentimes, indigenous Fulanis get substantial help from their kins across neighbouring countries when they attack people of other tribes within Nigerian territory. Policing the borders more effectively and mounting an aggressive, digitized process of citizen identification is one way of discouraging future attacks and ensuring that measures being put in place to address the economic concerns of herdsmen of Nigerian extraction can be sustained over a long period.
With the advent of modern technology, ranching and farming need not be mutually exclusive, even in the face of threats posed by climatic changes. The most significant factor which has been missing in the management of farmers-herders conflict that have now metamorphosed into the systematic annihilation of the farming tribes by the herding Fulanis, is the political will. The government must be very clear, firm and unbiased in its clampdown on killings under any guise. The solutions it offers, long-term, must also be such that does not appear to appease one party by depriving the other. The insistence of solving the problem by appropriating lands for grazing is a recipe for multiplying flashpoints of conflicts in the near future. It is an approach that merely fuels the fear of ethnic expansion without reforming and modernizing the grazing method for the benefit of the Fulanis and the nation at large.
Finally, the NIG admonishes the President and the National Assembly to live up to the promise of the ruling APC government to restructure the country. This will give the federating units greater powers to efficiently manage their resources, prioritize their goals and deal with some of the security challenges that communities are aware of but incapable of handling, on account of the centralization of the security structures of the country. As the federal government continues to groan under the weight of the needless burden it presently bears, it is time for the nation to seriously consider ways of reorganizing and empowering the component units for greater efficiency and burden-sharing. That is one good way of halting the gradual, frightening drift towards the cliff.
*for NIG by Akinyemi Onigbinde