By Devaan Mom
Thursday the 11th of January 2018 pulled the people of Benue state together in ways only religion and politics usually do. This time however, they had been summoned by overwhelming grief: they were in mourning. Mourning for their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. They mourned also for their children, including those unborn, brutally cut down, way before their time.
The culprits? Murderous herdsmen. The reason? Cattle rustling…or so we were told.
Such was how the doors of 2018 opened in the usually peaceful state in North Central Nigeria (also referred to as the Middle Belt) which over the last 10 years or so has started witnessing an escalation in vicious, seemingly unprovoked attacks by so-called herdsmen.
The ethnicity of these roaming armies of brigands has remained a subject of sour debate. Though it has been pointed out that herdsmen aren’t all necessarily of Fulani stock, it’s easy to make that association because the bulk of them remain Fulani at least in Nigeria. We know them well, as do we also, their milk maids whose beautiful long braids and unique traditional attires we admired.
There was a time when these milk maids would carry their fresh milk and cheese in calabashes mounted on their heads, hawking in peace and sometimes even enjoying the local cuisine at family meals. Their men could be seen on the plains, wielding their herding staffs, dressed in traditional garb with wide straw hats as protection against the elements. More reserved than their women, they seemed somewhat menacing in their brooding aloofness. Yet despite their appearance, skirmishes between them and locals hardly ever occurred and where such did happen, were quickly quelled or repelled. All were resolved amicably.
But we speak here of the Fulani of the yesteryears. Those we knew and reluctantly admired for their ability to live rough and the silent mystery surrounding their culture as we marvelled at their migrant lifestyles, wondering how they coped.
Fast forward to the present.
The milk maids we once knew no longer exist. Their milk calabashes have since been replaced with plastic buckets. Their lovely traditional attires have been replaced with regular atampa wrappers. We have no idea what their hair looks like anymore, because it is totally covered. Their men also look different, weirdly dressed in garishly coloured jeans and tee shirts. Many can be seen openly wielding sophisticated machine guns, said to be AK47s, weapons of war. Gone are their shepherding staffs. Gone are their straw hats. That air of silent mystery has been replaced by an aura of rabid savagery.
Why? Their cattle are being rustled, their means of sustenance threatened, we are told.
As a result, these vampires have made vicious bloodletting their calling card. They sneak into communities in a most cowardly manner, usually in the dead of night when their victims, mostly peasant farmers, have retired after a full day of exhausting work. They come well-armed, demobilise their victims by shooting them first, then go to town on the wounded, slitting throats, disembowelling pregnant women, bludgeoning babies and other such bloodthirsty antics. Their activities are not restricted to the Benue Valley either. States like Kaduna, Plateau, Kogi, Ekiti, Nasarawa and more recently Taraba, and more have all had a taste of their crazed viciousness.
Various schools of thought have emerged regarding the origin of these violent and bloodthirsty herdsmen.
Some believe them to be the very same Fulani we have always known but who appear to have evolved (to a certain degree) with the changing times. These Fulani whose means of livelihood was once primarily cattle rearing, have now not only evolved with regard to advanced methods of herd protection, but are also engaged in advanced criminality including kidnapping and armed robbery (think the Abuja -Kaduna road axis).
The issue of the Fulani’s legendary vengefulness also rears its head. They are said to be unforgiving, biding their time to dish out revenge when wronged. Indeed, recent unguarded outbursts by individuals such as one Prof. Umar Labdo Muhammad, said to be a lecturer at the Bayero University, Kano, Kano state in the North West of Nigeria, appear to give this thinking credence as he attempts to twist history on its head by describing Benue as peoples conquered by the Fulani and insists the state as “part and parcel” the Sokoto Caliphate, a lie if ever one was told.
Another school of thought is more comfortable with the notion that with the almost total collapse of governance over the last 10 years, Nigeria’s porous borders attracted nomadic tribes from foreign lands. Theory has it that, owing to their lack of allegiance to Nigeria’s nationhood, and our lack of a robust security apparatus, these unknowns plunder and kill all in their path in a grim determination to ensure well-fed herds.
Yet another thinking has it that politicians, many of whom own huge quantities of cattle which are left in the custody of these same herdsmen, equally have a hand in the mess, having armed their herdsmen to the teeth with sophisticated weapons to protect their cattle.
What about the disbanded terrorists? Boko Haram. The group attained notoriety as the most vicious terrorist group on earth before the Buhari administration managed to curb their excesses. Where have those who survived the government onslaught fled to? How do we know that they are not now well incorporated into the nomads?
And yet others opine that there is a sinister plot at hand to ensure the disintegration of Nigeria as a political entity. Those who are of this view tilt more toward the notion that there is a powerful syndicate comprising really wealthy, powerful Nigerians, working hand in glove with external forces to bring about this collapse and the herdsmen are their foot soldiers.
We must not ignore the fact that crude oil was recently discovered in the Benue basin. Same oil said to have been found in Borno state which ostensibly galvanized the killings in that axis in a bid to scare of locals and cause a take-over (by who?).
Each of the above scenarios is possible and indeed all could be playing out in various vicious cycles. Whatever the truth might be, we must recognise the fact that the “herdsmen” have proven to be a far more menacing tool for destruction than Boko Haram ever was. They strike unguarded communities when they least expect it, subsequently melting off into the shadows, anonymous, effective, deadly.
What do they want? No one knows.
It must be noted that prior to the New year day attacks, the Benue state government had implemented the Open Grazing Prohibition Establishment Act (2017) better known as the Anti Open Grazing law. This move came on the heels of similar action taken by the government of Ekiti one of the South-Western states. In Ekiti, an opposition state, a certain degree of respite has been recorded which was most likely the galvanising force behind the decision taken by Benue State.
Hailed around the state as a security measure, the new law left a sour taste in the mouths of some, specifically MACBAN, also known as, Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore.
The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, MACBAN, serves as the umbrella body for registered cattle breeders associations in Nigeria. Its protests against the new law banning open grazing were well recorded in mainstream media (https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/11/anti-open-grazing-law-time-bomb-miyetti-allah/) These protests soon went a step further and became thinly veiled threats. Threats insinuating attacks in the event the Benue state government failed to repeal the law, which the government, of course, ignored.
The New Year massacre affected 2 Local Government Areas, Guma and Logo, leaving 73 dead and many displaced. Just another one of many attacks (http://punchng.com/herdsmen-kill-20-burn-houses-in-fresh-benue-attacks/ , https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/06/herdsmen-attacks-another-boko-haram-senate/ http://ipnnews.info/timeline-attack-benue-state-2013-2016/ ).
In the wake of the killings, the State Governor, Chief Samuel Ortom moved swiftly, blurring party lines and burying old rivalries to rally all Benue sons and daughters together to find a way forward and prevent future attacks. The message delivered to the Federal Government: we have no land to give marauding herdsmen for cattle colonies. The suggestion for cattle colonies had been proposed by the Minister of Agricultural Resources, Chief Audu Ogbe, himself of Benue extraction. It has since been met with great resistance and not just by the people of Benue state.
At this point, it is quite obvious that identifying the ethnicity of these marauders is as important as figuring out their modus operandi, and motivation for the swathe of blood left in their wake. The following questions beg answers:
• Who really are these marauders?
• What have the state instruments of security remained helpless?
• How come those caught are never seen to be brought to book?
• Who are their funders and how are they armed?
• Is the Federal Government complicit in anyway?
Hard questions yes, but requiring answers all the same if the Buhari Administration hopes to retain a hold on power especially in the most affected states. Elections are around the corner.
●●Mrs. Nom, a journalist, resides in Abuja.