Opinion

Anatomy of a Conflict: Why Nigeria’s “Fulani Herdsmen” are fighting, By Victor Anazonwu

Access Bank

Until a few years ago, the classic portrait of the Fulani herdsman around Nigeria was of a shy, distant, staff-wielding shepherd, dutifully tending his animals. He went from town to town through the bushes, occasionally showing up along the highways, avoiding large human settlements, and generally minding his own business. He was a peaceful, introverted and unobtrusive fellow. Most spoke neither English nor Hausa nor any of the more widely-spoken Nigerian languages. But no one cared. What mattered was that they brought with them an item of great value (cattle) and that business transaction with them often ended with every side smiling to the banks.

That was as it should be. Wizened by experience from countless generations as itinerant pastoralists, the “Cattle Fulani” (Fulanin Daji or Bororoje), appeared to have internalized the saying that “A traveler does not make enemies among those he routinely journeys through their territories, otherwise he makes himself unwelcome.”

It was the same with “Town Fulani” (Fulanin Gida) – their sedentary, city-dwelling relatives.[i] Although their influence can be felt on most major events that have shaped the fate of the country since 1914, they have largely used their political capital by proxy. Since they were subdued by the British a little over 100 years ago, the Fulani political elite have been deftly subtle and evasive, preferring to operate under the canopy of “The Caliphate” or “One North.”

It is a socio-political philosophy that can be traced back to Uthman Dan Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in the early 19th Century. This philosophy was upheld by the British and used as part of a highly successful Indirect Rule policy a hundred years later. It was subsequently consolidated by Ahmadu Bello as Premier of Northern Nigeria.[ii]

This philosophy recognized that although the Fulani had emerged as leaders over the region, on their own they were numerically disadvantaged and vulnerable. So, it was expedient to deliberately subsume their ethnicity under a bigger caliphate or regional union of over 100 ethnic groups covering much of Northern Nigeria.

Today however, things appear to be changing rapidly. The Fulani are either re-emerging in their own right or are being singled out in popular narrative for all the wrong reasons. The phrase “Fulani herdsmen” is currently synonymous with violence, conflict, mass killing, armed banditry, kidnapping for ransom and war-mongering. Some would add ethnic cleansing and terrorism. The once shy and easygoing pastoralists, it seems, are giving the entire ethnic group a bad name.

So, at what point did the Cattle Fulani swap their famous shepherd staffs for Kalashnikovs? What happened to so radically alter the orientation of this group from peaceful introverts to violent merchants of death and destruction? How did the Fulanin Gida, this stoic, politically adept group of empire builders, suddenly become the butt of anger and negative emotions among other Nigerian groups?

The answer to these questions lies in words – Ecology, Insurgency & Economy.

Nature at work

Over the years, climate change and global warming have led to a slow and gradual decimation of the once lush savanna areas of upper Northern Nigeria. In place of open grasslands where animals once pastured happily, desert sand dunes have crept in, moving south from the Sahara not far away. It is called desertification. To rear livestock in such an environment for more than a few months of the year is to court disaster. So, cattle breeders are compelled, purely by force of nature, to move southward for most of the year in search of water & pasture. They must protect their source of livelihood or perish.

Their first major port of call in this southward movement is the area covering the Niger-Benue river valleys and the Mambilla Plateau. This area is home to some of West Africa’s most arable lands. It is called the “Middle Belt.” It is Nigeria’s food basket.

Although this phenomenon (transhumance) has been going on for centuries, today, for the first time in about 200 years, the Fulani are not just passing by on their way to lucrative cattle markets in the south. They are looking to stay – longer term. And to stay long term, they need lands to settle, not just to graze their animals on-the-go.

Insurgency in the North East

It is not only nature that is at work to force an unusual migration of herders southward. In the last ten tears, man-made armed conflict between the group Boko Haram and the Federal Government of Nigeria, has added fuel to fire.

Angered by the extrajudicial killing of their leader in police custody, the group with its headquarters in the northeastern state of Bornu, had declared a holy war on the Nigerian establishment. At one time, it even claimed territory and declared an independent Islamic caliphate over its enclave. In a bid to restore law and order, the Nigerian armed forces launched a full scale military operation in Bornu and the adjoining states of Yobe and Adamawa. Thousands have been killed and millions displaced from an area the size of several European countries put together. Among them are pastoralists who can no longer graze their cattle or do business with bullets flying and bombs exploding around them. Their destination? The nearby Middle Belt which offers not only peace but lush grazing fields also.

Conflict of interests

Trouble is, land in these areas now comes at a premium. They belong to traditional farming communities who value them like gold. The peoples of the middle belt are no longer willing to let go of their lands – even briefly or temporarily as they used to.

Events of recent years, notably the Southern Kaduna and Plateau crises, conspired to change local attitudes towards leasing, renting, selling or granting temporary free use of lands to “settlers”, especially Fulani.

In the conflicts under reference, indigenous land owners fell out with Fulani “settler” communities after many years of peaceful coexistence. What led to conflict?; Struggle for control of dwindling natural resources like water and grazing lands, as well as control of political power.

The Fulani are said to welcome their kin from Nigeria and abroad in large numbers wherever they settle. So, they tend to grow rapidly in numbers over time.  Besides, they are natural warriors, toughened by migration and conditions in the wild. Sedentary farming villagers of the Niger & Benue river basins are all too aware of this. Some have been worsted in sporadic conflicts. So they are jealously guarding their lands like never before, making the displaced and desperate Fulani even more nervous and unwelcome in the process.

The Fulani are not accustomed to paying or begging for land. They have been traversing or using it freely for centuries. Their cattle have been grazing freely on the bushes – mowing down the rapidly growing shrubs for the villagers in an unspoken exchange of value. They have camped in the bushes for months, even years, without challenge. So, buying, leasing or renting land is not part of their business lexicon or calculations. Such practices are completely alien to the Cattle Fulani lifestyle. They want to do “business as usual.”

Thus, the scene is set for one of the major conflicts of our time. At root, it is a struggle for survival unleashed by the forces of nature and complicated by military operations to flush out Boko Haram in North East Nigeria. The usually shy Bororoje are at their wits end and way out of their comfort zone – in search of territory. What we see is the Domino Effect of their plight on surrounding communities, especially along the lush green corridor which connects northern and southern Nigeria.

Casualty figures from rampant clashes, attacks and reprisals are frightening. In 2016 alone, 2500 people were reportedly killed, 62,000 displaced and goods worth $13.7b lost in only four of six states most affected – Plateau, Nasarawa, Kaduna and Benue. This did not include statistics from Taraba, Adamawa and other states where incidents were also reported.[iii] Between January and June 2018, over 1300 were also reportedly killed in similar conflicts around the country – more than those killed in Boko Haram insurgency[iv] during the same period. Worse still, frequency of clashes and casualty figures show no signs of slowing down and security forces seem totally overwhelmed.

The Middle Belt is the “bridge” territory between sources of livestock supply in the far North and major centers of livestock consumption in the deep South. In the latter, beef is the primary source of animal protein. Its powerful aroma and taste have become a welcome addiction.

Among the Yoruba of the south-west, for instance, beef is consumed with relish at every meal. It is the predominant item of food for those who can afford it, as more protein and less carbohydrates is considered a status symbol. At parties and countless other social events that fuel the Western Nigerian lifestyle, beef is one of the principal gastronomical tonics and its abundance is a symbol of affluence. Not to mention the fact that almost every part of the cow’s anatomy, including the skin and innards, with the possible exception of the horn, is eaten with relish.

Eastward among the Edo, Urhobo, Isoko, Igbo, Ibibio, Efik, Ijaw, Kalabari and vast number of other ethnic groups of southern Nigeria, the taste for beef is only slightly more selective; but it remains a major currency of dietary, social, economic and cultural transactions. To kill a cow at a wedding or funeral party, for instance, is a mark of social and economic distinction.

Balance Sheet

The cattle trade in Nigeria is a multi-billion dollar business. According to FAO estimates, there are 19.5 million heads of cattle in Nigeria, producing about 380,000 metric tons of meat annually.[v]  Total market value is estimated at between $3 and $8b annually. Thousands of cows are slaughtered around the country daily, not counting goats, sheep and smaller animals. Cattle, goats and sheep are traded primarily by Fulani. About 70% of this is consumed in Southern Nigeria. Lagos, with an estimated population of 20 million inhabitants, accounts for the largest single chunk – nearly 20% of total or 6000 cattle daily.[vi]

Those who say that the Fulani value their cows more than human lives are only saying part of a more complex truth; the other part being that cows are the mainstay of Fulani livelihood and political economy. It is a business in which they enjoy near total ethnic monopoly. They invest their time, money and passion in little else. It is incredibly lucrative. And it is almost entirely untaxed!

So, without cows the Fulani are toast – in a manner of speaking. Just like fish without water or workers without their jobs. This is the business that also finances the political machinery of their elite, city-dwelling relatives. A typical Fulani elite owns hundred, maybe thousands of livestock which are tended on his behalf by the herdsmen or shepherds you see on the streets and bush paths And protecting one’s lawful means of livelihood is a universally legitimate enterprise.

PR Disaster

But the Fulani have not done themselves any favors by the way they have gone about protecting this livelihood with a largely militaristic strategy in recent years. They have shown a poor appreciation of the tools of social diplomacy, negotiation, compromise and the media – quite unlike their illustrious forebears – Uthman Dan Fodio, Mohammed Bello (his son), and Ahmadu Bello, the former Sarduana of Sokoto and one-time Premier of Northern Nigeria.

Current narratives portray them as nursing a sense of entitlement to any territory they desire. Some say they are ruthless and blood-thirsty. This is exactly what puts them in the emotional firing line of other ethnic groups around the country – who also happen to be their business customers!

The predominant school of thought in Nigeria on why the Fulani are suddenly up in arms is that they have a new hegemonic agenda – in the mould of the Uthman Dan Fodio jihad of 1804 – 1810. But that raises a few questions, like: Why would they take such a gamble at a time when one of their own is at the helm? Does it make sense to spill a glass of sweet wine already in your own hands? Or is the Muhammadu Buhari presidency part of the master plan – paving the way and softening the targets? Quite unlikely.

A second school of thought holds that the marauding herdsmen are the new face of Boko Haram, the visible tip of a long arrow remotely controlled by unspecified foreign powers intent on keeping Nigeria perpetually on the boil. Those foreign powers, the theory goes, are the ones arming and financing the otherwise easy-going herdsmen and nudging them into violence.

This report is without prejudice to extant explanations and theories, some of which may have some merit. It only adds the practical issues of ecology, economy and sociology – what historians would call the immediate or precipitating factors – to our understanding of the ongoing crisis. This is based on the principle that there is hardly ever an upheaval or insurrection in human experience without real existential challenges which lure ordinary men to take the bait or enlist in the cause.

Whatever side of the story you look at, the Fulani reputation is today in tatters. The Fulani brand in Nigeria is currently synonymous with death and violence – not economic and political dexterity as it used to be. Their business and political interests are in jeopardy. No one is telling their own side of the story. It is a PR disaster.

It is this pervasive and one-sided narrative that has helped transform once innocent and peaceful villagers into angry vigilantes ready to safeguard their ancestral lands from “Fulani incursion” at all cost. It has also transformed once reclusive and peaceful Fulani herdsmen into Kalashnikov-wielding militias in “self-defense” – according to their spokesmen.

How this conflict is resolved will task the political and diplomatic skills of any statesman to the limits. For now, it is not helped by the fact that the president himself is Fulani. He has been variously portrayed as a partial arbiter; a judge with vested interest who should ordinarily excuse himself.

The Federal Government’s plan to establish “cattle colonies” with lands “donated” by states all over the country has only fueled this suspicion of partiality and a secret political agenda. When security forces move in to disarm local self-defense groups after an attack by alleged herdsmen, some observers have cried foul and accused them of being part of the grand plot for a total Fulani takeover. It doesn’t get worse for a leader in time of crisis.

But it is not only in Nigeria that the Fulani are involved in violent conflicts. The pattern is fairly consistent across much of West Africa with several incidents reported in Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger also.

On Monday, June 10, 2019, about 95 people were killed in an overnight attack on the central Malian village of Sobane-Kou. Reports said the attack on an ethnic Dogon village would appear to be a reprisal for an earlier one in March in which an estimated 150 Fulani were massacred in a neighboring village. According to Al Jazerah, “Violence between the Dogon and Fulani has compounded an already dire security situation in Mali’s semi-arid and desert regions, The Fulani are primarily cattle breeders and traders, while the Dogon are traditionally sedentary farmers.”[vii]

Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Programme, was quoted in the report as adding that, “Jihadist terrorist issues have become mixed up with longstanding inter-communal tensions over access to land, water and grazing,”[viii]

Psycho-social Dimensions?

On the strength of evidence, it is tempting to conclude that the Fulani are the trouble makers of the region – more often in the heart of conflict than other groups. But to be fair, any conclusion must discount the fact that they are also the single most widely dispersed ethnic group in the region and therefore exposed to multiple points of contact (and a higher risk of conflict) than most other ethnicities.

As itinerant herdsmen, they have little or no territories to call their own. They depend on vegetation which grows on “borrowed” lands owned by other ethnic groups to tend their cattle – their most precious economic asset. This dependency syndrome would appear to create a subliminal sense of irritation among the Fulani as they are treated as guests, settlers or strangers wherever they go.

Guests, we know, have a limited welcome period after which they are expected to move on. When they are not ready or happy to leave, their hosts feel threatened; their space invaded. They want to reassert their rights over ancestral lands and privileges. Tensions rise, sometimes boiling over.

Viewed from this perspective, the Fulani appear less like villains and more like victims of circumstance imposed by nature and occupation. It is like what happens when you spend so much of your life in transit – living in airplanes, hotels and guest houses. After a while, it gets to you; you crave for a place you can call home, somewhere you can feel completely free and at ease. That is perhaps part of the dilemma facing Cattle Fulani to which no one is paying close attention – an absence (or shortage) of the privileges of “home” which the rest of us take for granted. Perhaps, finally, the itinerant herdsman needs a place he too can call “home.”

The situation is not helped by the Fulani concept of Ngorgu (manliness & bravery)[ix], a vital part of Pulaaku (or Fulaniness, the group’s code of values and behavior), which enjoins Fulani to avenge the blood of their kinsmen killed in conflict.

As if to underline this point, Nasiru El-Rufai (politician, former Minister and now Governor of Kaduna State) tweeted on July 15, 2012: “We will write this for all to read. Anyone, soldier or not that kills the Fulani takes a loan repayable one day no matter how long it takes.” A furore erupted on Twitter and other digital platforms following this post, with many calling for the arrest and trial of El-Rufai for offences including ethnic incitement. No such thing happened.

El-Rufai was referring to a value system which probably evolved centuries ago to strengthen the bonds between small bands of travelling herdsmen traversing vast distances and often outnumbered by local communities they travelled across. It was also clearly intended to discourage other groups from preying on the Fulani. But whereas this might have served them well in time past when jungle law prevailed, today it is a recipe for endless bloodbath and group attrition, especially as the group is engaged in multiple battle fronts. Itprobablyhelps explain the cycles of reprisal and vendetta which usually accompany communal conflicts involving the Fulani.

By encouraging self-help, revenge and other forms of extra-judicial behavior, Ngorgu also challenges the rule of law and judicial process, two major pillars on which the modern nation-state rests. This often pits the Fulani against contemporary governmental authorities and portrays them as implacable aggressors.

Political Patronage

In Nigeria at least, the situation is further complicated by a long-standing system of political patronage in Northern parts of the country. Since the 1950s, it has become customary for governments (regional, local, state & federal) to pay for nearly everything on behalf of the people – education, healthcare, religious pilgrimages, fertilizer, seedlings, irrigation, motorcycles, even bride price and wedding expenses for indigent young men and women. Where government stops, local “Big Men” take over to subsidize the existence of the mass poor. In exchange, they get political favors by way of total (some say servile) loyalty during elections.

On the one hand, this arrangement may pass as a brand of Social Welfarism. On the other, it would appear to have encouraged a sense of entitlement, low enterprise and excessive dependency among some of the people who are now not used to paying for major factors of production and some of their existential needs.

Cattle owners and herdsmen are among that lot. They can’t understand why things are suddenly so different. For as long as they can remember, they got land and pasture for free. “Why should we pay for it now?” they ask in genuine consternation. For fear of political backlash, government officials can’t look them in the eye and say, “Sorry, gentlemen, the party is over.”

Thus we have a problem of attitudes and perceptions built over many years of habituation; an entitled mentality that has suddenly become unsustainable, compounded by political considerations.

Yet another angle to the increasingly  complex political dimension of this phenomenon exists. Recently, Alhaji Barujeh, a former member of the ruling APC who has now gone rogue, alleged that groups currently labelled as “Fulani herdsmen” and “bandits” are actually non-Nigerian Fulani mercenaries brought into the country around the time of the 2015 elections. The objective, his story goes, was to destabilize the Goodluck Jonathan administration which was expected to hold on to power, come what may, in the hotly contested elections of that year.

The soldiers of fortune were surreptitiously funded and armed by interests working for the then opposition presidential candidate of the APC, Muhammadu Buhari, according to this school of thought. The plan, Barujeh alleges, backfired when the former president unexpectedly accepted electoral defeat and peacefully handed over power. President Muhammadu Buhari thus inherited an army of unruly men who turned against him and the Nigerian state when funding sources dried up, he claims. Several attempts to disband and repatriate the mercenaries failed, it was alleged, as they asked for very huge payoffs. Many refused to go back to their countries of origin, preferring the “good” carefree life they found in the  jungles and suburbs of Northern Nigeria as they took to kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling, rape, plunder and other forms of criminality to keep body and soul together.

Most opponents of the Buhari administration accept this theory. At least, they say, there are elements of truth in it. They say it helps explain why Nigerian security officials appear jaded and largely unable to smash the criminal gangs or arrest and bring perpetrators to trial. They claim the criminals will spill the beans if put under real state pressure. They believe the security chiefs know this and that’s why they let the criminals off the hook lightly.

Some say it also probably explains why despite a huge public outcry the president kept service chiefs in office for so long until recently; and even after removing them he announced “juicy” ambassadorial postings for all four of them – the first time in Nigerian history. “They know too much and are being paid to keep a sealed lip,” said a source who wouldn’t want to be named.

These are very weighty allegations which have so far been neither addressed, denied nor disproved. If they are true, then we have a case of self inflicted injury involving the APC-Buhari government. If they are false, then opponents of the administration are exploiting the misfortune of the government. Either way, the Buhari administration is clearly struggling under a stranglehold.

Mistaken Identity?

Today, dozens of crimes reported across Nigeria, especially involving armed gang attacks and hostage-taking along highways, are blamed on “Fulani herdsmen.” Even the best trained guerrilla army in the world would be proud to pull off such “statistics.” Yet the criminals are seldom apprehended nor their identities verified. It is quite likely that other criminal elements of diverse backgrounds are now taking advantage of negative stereotyping to strike and evade detection, knowing that it would be blamed on the infamous herdsmen once it has their “imprint.”

Given the frequency and spread of alleged herdsmen attacks, this is a highly probable scenario which crime detection and law enforcement authorities need to work on to separate facts from fiction. Until then, the Fulani are left to carry the can. Sadly, Nigerian security officials are not exactly known for sterling or ground-breaking credentials in crime fighting. Indeed, they are often accused of either looking the other way, doing too little or even colluding with organized crime – in this instance, the infamous Fulani herdsmen.

Evolutionary Imperatives

Assuming that there are no mercenaries and external forces at work, there appears to be only one sensible way out of this potentially ruinous and long-drawn conflict – a negotiated settlement based on mutual respect, compromise and willingness to face change. The leadership of the herdsmen represented by Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) must take the initiative to wean their members off the mindset that they are entitled to lands and pasture  belonging to other communities by right. This mindset is at the root of the problem and must be erased firmly and gently by showing victims (yes, herders are victims too) how else things can be done with even better results.

In the short term, all parties must work towards a mutually agreed code of conduct guiding relations between genuine pastoralists (not criminal elements) and sedentary farmers. This would address immediate challenges such as the status of wayfarers, settlers and indigenes; delineating approved cattle routes and setbacks; stipulating the rights, privileges, duties and obligations of all parties; and setting up proper channels for conflict reporting, arbitration and settlement. Meanwhile, all persons involved in violence and acts of lawlessness must be arrested, tried and made to face the full force of the law. Those who have suffered unjust losses must be identified and compensated. If government fails to step in justly and firmly, it will lose control.

Longer term, there must be demonstrable willingness to adopt new methods and processes to protect or advance their business. Fresh private sector investment in modern animal farming (ranching, dairy production, meat processing, trucking, waste recycling and the entire value chain) is the smart way forward. It might even hold the key to a new wave of economic prosperity for those who dare. Insisting on old practices and business models that no longer sit well with other stakeholders won’t cut it. When things are no longer working the way they used to, it means that nature is nudging us to change course or method, not necessarily our destination. Cattle may have been reared in a certain way for centuries, but this doesn’t make such a way ideal for all times. There comes a time when change is inevitable. Such a time is now, it seems.

Africa is one of the few continents of the world where cattle still grazes openly and is moved on foot across vast distances through highways, bushes and streets. When the animals trample on food and cash crops – the economic backbone of sedentary farming communities – the resultant clash of economic interests quickly takes on ethnic, religious and political colorations. Surely, no group’s interest must be advanced at the expense of another. Government involvement in this regard must be limited to restoration of law and order, policy-making and neutral facilitation. It cannot afford to be seen as fronting for vested interests.

Cattle owners must be prepared to buy, rent or lease lands on commercial basis and on terms dictated by local norms, laws and economic conditions – not lobby for free lands “colonized” on their behalf by a “protective” Federal Government. They are engaged in private business and must operate on competitive, free market principles as all other sectors do. They must be prepared to plough profits into refinancing their business or approach financial institutions for help. Nothing is free in the modern global economy – not land, not grass and certainly not livestock.

The trouble with government creating “cattle colonies” (once considered by the Nigerian government) is multifarious. Soon, every trade, vocation or line of business might be asking for their own colonies; or creating adverse circumstances to force the hands of government to create them. We would then be in a state of permanent strife and agitation. Or we would be busy creating colonies everywhere and turning our country into a confederation of colonies.

What would be the legal and constitutional status of the colonies? What would be their relationship with surrounding villages, towns, local governments and states? How will they be administered? How would conflicts between these layers of government be resolved? Under what laws & customs? And how can we have “colonies” inhabited by citizens of a free and independent nation? This idea simply doesn’t pass the test of reasonableness, universality and sustainability.

Any thoughts of achieving goals by intimidation or force of arms must be perished by all groups in this conflict, especially the Fulani who are almost always the Intruders on conflict lands. Force is neither feasible nor sustainable under current geopolitical arrangements around the world. It can only lead to mutual assured destruction. No one group has a monopoly of violence or political influence and it is fairly easy for any group to arm itself in self-defense given Nigeria’s porous borders and weak state institutions.

All sides have much to lose in the event of a conflagration. Economically, Fulani livestock are exposed, their supply routes jeopardized and their customers alienated. A consumer boycott of their product (beef) could be ruinous, especially in Africa’s largest economy.

Politically, they may also lose the solidarity of a vast number of other ethnic groups, especially in Northern Nigeria, upon whom they have relied for leverage since the Jihad of Uthman Dan Fodio in 1804. These groups, some of whom are being antagonized in the current face-offs, are watching with keen interest to see how things pan out. Without them, the concept of “One North” may come crashing down and Fulani political elite will be the biggest losers. Already, political developments in Benue State during the February 2019 elections as well as statements by men like Gen. T. Y. Danjuma (rtd.), one-time Nigerian Defense Minister and a highly decorated army officer of Takum (Taraba State) extraction, clearly indicate that a shift is already well in progress.[x]

Still, nursing grudges, ramping up propaganda, throwing tantrums, reprisals and playing the ethnic card only go to sow the seeds of further discord. If the end game is mutual survival, peace and progress, then all aggrieved and warring communities must be ready to stand down and engage constructively in the interest of nation-building. If the end game is to give one group an unfair advantage over others, then let the fireworks begin.

The practice of ethnic profiling and stereotyping is both wrong and unhelpful. Not all Fulani are herdsmen. And not all herdsmen are complicit in the crimes generically ascribed to them. Some are peaceful, law-abiding people going about their business in a way that now clearly needs reform.  A more accurate picture is that some dangerous elements have infiltrated a largely peaceful group and given it a bad name. The best way to overcome this challenge is to isolate the dangerous elements and clinically eliminate them from the system – not compromise the entire system by demonizing an entire ethnic group. The latter often has the undesired effect of forcing even the good elements among the victimized group into a sense of unjust persecution and self-defense.

This was the very same mistake made by the Nigerian state in the 1960s when owing to the naivety of a few young, inexperienced soldiers the entire Igbo ethnic group was negatively profiled and victimized under the watch of the Federal Government. This set in motion a chain of events eventually leading to the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970 during which some say up to six million lives were lost.[xi] Some of the wounds of that war are still fresh and gaping 50 years after. Nigeria may not survive another war, especially one fought along ethnic lines.

Leaders of the cattle Fulani in particular, being in the eye of the storm, must show flexibility, humility, statesmanship and willingness to make amends, going forward. The longer they delay, the higher the price they have to pay. Any thoughts of using the Buhari presidency to negotiate or wrestle an unfair advantage must be trashed as perilous and unsustainable. The Nigerian president is certainly a very powerful man but his powers are severely limited both by constitution and convention. And he certainly has no powers to shift boundaries or reallocate ethnic and communal lands. Besides, no president will be in office forever. There is only one sensible path to take – the path of equity, justice and fair play.

All sides to this conflict (except mercenary Fulani as alleged by some) are members of the great Nigerian family. Each group brings something to the table which only they can. Nigeria is enriched by the sheer diversity, taste and aroma of the resultant buffet. But to enjoy this feast, everyone must first stop fighting and start building bridges.

Almoravid (Berber) attacks hastened the collapse of Old Ghana Empire. Just as Fulani Jihads facilitated the fall of the Old Hausa City States and rise of the Sokoto Caliphate in the 19th Century. Will today’s inter-communal clashes involving the Fulani lead to the collapse of Africa’s most populous country and largest economy? Only time will tell.

Victor Anazonwu, a historian and journalist, is author of the book: What Everyone should know about Nigerian History, Politics & Government (2017)

 

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