Many adults can remember the ‘class idiot’ in their primary and secondary school days. Virtually every class had its own ‘idiot’ – someone who was always the butt of jokes for either being an academic or social misfit or both. Ironically whenever the ‘class idiot’ decided to quit the school, another idiot would quickly be invented to replace him as the butt of jokes. The new class idiot would mostly likely be one of the victimisers of the former class idiot.
We can use this class idiot theory to explain the profiling of the Fulani ethnic group in the light of the justified national outrage against the barbarous murder of many Nigerians in Benue State by herdsmen. In moments of such outrage there is often a tendency to forge a consensus that the country has found the solution to its political problems or rather the ethnic group responsible for why the country has not been able to transition into a proper nation-state. The concomitant assumption is that once that ethnic group is dealt with (or if possible excised from the country – if it does not have oil), the country will be fine. Thus, a few months ago, we had ‘Igbo problem’ when the rascality of Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB was at its zenith. Before then, we had the ‘Niger Delta problem’ when the Niger Delta Avengers emerged – partly from the government’s errors- and began blowing up pipelines such that Nigeria lost its spot as Africa’s largest oil producer. Until the current government, we have had a perennial ‘Yoruba problem’ because their political options emphasized their distinctiveness and consequently glamorized opposition politics as progressive politics.
Whenever one ethnic group becomes fingered as the problem, the others unite against it – as in the class idiot case. But as always that consensus is fleeting and the alliance that underpins it brittle. It is like a special purpose vehicle which allows the now ‘super patriotic’ groups to vent in the open those spleens we reserve for one another in hush-hush tones or behind closed doors. The point is that we are all victims and victimizers in this.
The above is not to make light of the seriousness of the Benue massacre. We have learnt quite a few things about the herdsmen: it may not actually be the herdsmen we see every day that carry out the attacks but their security arm (or mercenaries), many of them fellow Fulanis from neighbouring countries. Those mercenaries come for reprisal attack for sins committed against some herdsmen or their cattle years back (which the offending community may actually have forgotten about). We also know that the attacks by the herdsmen predate the Buhari government but seem to have become more widespread now. We equally know that the Fulani herdsmen have been on the receiving end in places like Mambilla and Numan and that fellow Fulani are also occasionally victims as happened in Zamfara. If the Fulani casualties do not figure prominently in the current narratives, it is only because the sort of consensus that is built in identifying the ‘problem ethnic group’ thrives on the simplistic binary of the ‘good guys versus the bad guys’. The ethnicities in the alliance are the good guys while the one on the receiving end is the bad guy.
There are several observations arising from the Benue massacre:
One, every ethnic group in this country comes with its glory and villains. Thus while the Fulani may have the herdsmen, the Igbos have their drug barons, the Yoruba have their credit card fraudsters and ‘Yahoo boys’ while the Niger Deltans have their militants and oil pipeline vandals. Though we instinctively know that we should not define any group only by its villains – just as no sensible person judges a weather only by its inclement side – this is precisely what we end up doing in moments of false consensus such as we have now against the Fulani. The challenge for all the ethnic groups is how to rein in their villains so they do not end up defining the group.
In the case of the Fulani herdsmen, sometimes we get the impression that some Fulani seem to take pride in the fact the herdsmen do not forget a slight and must always take revenge no matter how long it takes. This may bolster the group’s image as a ‘warrior tribe’ but also creates an image problem for the herdsmen because few people want to live with people who may suddenly organize groups or mercenaries to kill them and set their community on fire for sins committed by their forefathers against them or their cattle.
Two, primordial identities that are perceived to be under threat are often the ones most vociferously defended. No matter how patriotic or ‘de-tribalized’ one may be, the moment one of your primordial identities (ethnic group, religion, village etc) is perceived to be under serious threat, that identity becomes your dominant identity, and often the prism through which you filter realities around. This is the context the very unhelpful comments by some eminent Fulanis in the current Benue massacre can be understood. For instance the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi while admitting that he was one of the patrons of Miyetti Allah was reported to have said that he had evidence that “800 herdsmen were killed in Taraba in 2017 but the government failed to take action even when he presented evidence.” One of the ways this sentence could be interpreted is that the Benue massacre could be justified because more Fulanis were killed in Taraba in 2017 and the government did nothing. I doubt it was what the Emir set to accomplish by that statement. My feeling is that his ‘rhetorical flourish’ was a mere defence of his Fulani identity – just as many of those who congregated under NADECO to fight for the re-validation of M.K.O. Abiola’s mandate did so out of defence of ethnic pride rather than defence of MKO Abiola as a person (who was not really the region’s darling). The same can be said about the apparent defence of IPOB by several prominent Igbos. The point is that we are all guilty of such oratorical effusions when our primordial identities are perceived to be under serious threat.
Three, there is time and place for everything under the sun. The most beautiful plant that grows when or where it is not needed becomes a weed. In this connection, what was the point in Kaduna State Governor El Rufai and seven Northern governors visiting Buhari to urge him to contest in the 2019 election when the entire country was still boiling in anger at the Benue massacre and the government’s tepid response? Interestingly, unknown to El Rufai and his group, rather than their visit being a demonstration that Governors wanted Buhari to run in 2019, what was communicated by innuendo was totally contrary to what the Governors wanted to achieve: For instance, the fact that only seven of the 19 Northern Governors made the visit suggested that 12 Governors from the region did not want to have anything to do with it. Again that the visit was made by only Governors from the North could reinforce the persistent accusation of Northern parochialism often levelled against the President.
Related to the poor timing above is the timing of the government’s announcement of plans to set up grazing ‘colonies’. This came at the crest of insinuations in the South and the Middle Belt that the attacks by Fulani herdsmen were part of an agenda to Fulanize and Islamize the country. In the same vein, the government’s choice of phrase in its proposed solution to the herdsmen problem lacked creativity and sensitivity. Largely because ‘grazing colonies’ and ‘British colonies’ are homonyms, the phrase ended up heightening agitations of possible hidden agenda by the government.
Four, one of the things highlighted by the Benue massacre is governance failure. Until recently, hardly were the perpetrators of herdsmen attacks apprehended or punished. Also part of this governance failure is people not seeing their President show righteous indignation when such happens. For instance wouldn’t it have been more effective if the President visited the scene of the Benue massacre to commiserate with the people rather than summoning Governor Ortom to the State House?
Five, earnest discussion of how to solve the herdsmen problem is complicated by perceptions that the President has not done enough to rein them in because he is of the same Fulani stock as them. This is especially when compared with the dispatch with which he dealt militarily with the IPOB and Niger Delta Avengers. There has been clear lack of ‘tough love’ by the President towards the herdsmen – as Obasanjo did with OPC during the early years of his presidency and Governor Peter Obi did in Anambra State when he ordered a shoot-at-sight against MASSOB activists. Above all, the herdsmen must be made to understand that glamorizing their capacity to bear grudges and launch reprisal attacks will only mean that few communities will want to live with them – despite the fact that in strict economic terms many communities ought to be wooing them.