Simon Kolawole, The CableNG
Recent events in south-western Nigeria, as I would offer to think, are not ordinary. First, Chief Sunday Adeyemo (also called Sunday Igboho), a private citizen described as “youth leader”, stormed the Fulani community in Igangan, Oyo state, and gave them seven days to vacate the land, failing which he would expel them. The “grassroots mobiliser” confronted the Seriki Fulani, Alhaji Saliu Kadri, accusing his kinsmen of killing Yoruba people. After issuing his ultimatum, Igboho said: “It’s not like I just commanded the Fulani to leave our land or that I suddenly said something arbitrarily. For like two weeks now, these Fulani people in Ibarapa have been killing our people.”
Second, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo state issued another seven-day ultimatum to Fulani herdsmen to vacate the state’s forest reserves. The deadline is today. He has banned night-grazing and movement of cattle within cities and highways. He has also outlawed what he called “under-aged grazing” — which I must presume are the young herders. His Riot Act has been opposed by presidency and prominent northern elders. There is a debate on the constitutionality of his order. Akeredolu, though, does not seem to bother. He has ordered massive recruitment into Amotekun — the south-west quasi-state police outfit — ahead of the operations to flush out Fulani herders.
Why is Akeredolu so incensed? Bad elements, he said, have turned the forest reserves into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out “other criminal activities”. The governor asked those who wish to carry on with their cattle-rearing business “to register with the appropriate authorities”. Igboho, on his part, has defended his unilateral action. “Some are saying I am not in government and that I am meddling with what does not concern me. If there is a government and it is not doing what it is supposed to do, the people that voted will rise up,” he explained. In other words, there will be something like free-for-all — as we see in failed states.
Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo state is more temperate in his own reaction. He has come out clearly against ethnic profiling. Labelling every Fulani a kidnapper, armed robber and murderer is unhelpful as far as he is concerned. Focus should be on the criminals, not the ethnic group, he warned. Makinde also had a dig at Igboho, whom many describe as a political agent rather than a youth leader. “For people stoking ethnic tension, they are criminals and once you get them, they should be arrested and treated like common criminals,” Makinde told the police commissioner, adding that they cannot hide “under the guise of protecting Yoruba’s interest” to perpetuate chaos.
Events are unfolding at a rapid pace. Houses owned by Fulani people have been burnt in Igangan after the expiration of Igboho’s ultimatum. On Saturday, Mallam Garba Shehu, presidential spokesman, announced that the inspector-general of police has issued an order for the arrest of Igboho for the eviction notice. Ordinarily, such an announcement should be coming from the police authorities and not presidential spokesman. But it is what it is. The Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), the northern group, has warned that the attacks on Fulani communities in the south-west can lead to war. Afenifere, the Yoruba group, has described ACF’s statement as “insulting and arrogant”.
Indeed, the eviction notices to Fulani communities offer a different dimension to the security crises. There are many scenarios running through my head, but this particular one scares me: the notice expires; Amotekun launches an operation to evict them; they resist; they get killed; their bodies are taken to the north for burial; Fulani groups reinforce and launch reprisals — which, from experience, can become protracted and gruesome; Yoruba villages come under regular attacks; Yoruba youth groups take revenge on other northerners in the south-west; northerners attack Yoruba up north; and we end up with thousands of dead bodies in a number of states. Not looking good at all.
That is why I would rather suggest, or plead, that our immediate concern should be how to de-escalate the tension rather than fuel it. The easiest thing to say is “let us go to war”. Many people who witnessed the End SARS uprising in Lagos will testify that it was not a pleasant experience — and this was far from being a war. I have discussed with many Nigerians who witnessed the civil war from 1967 to 1970 and most of them always pray that Nigeria would never go to war again. There is hardly any Igbo family that did not lose a loved one during the war. War mongering is sweet on Twitter but the actual event is not a tea party. I would appeal to our leaders to curb the war rhetoric.
Here is my take on the situation. First, it boils down to one thing: the feeling that the security agencies are not doing enough to curtail the criminalities in the region. Igboho said if the government would not do something, the people would rise up and protect themselves. This is a major red flag for state failure. The moment government loses monopoly of use of legitimate force, militias will fill in the gap. The signs are already everywhere: citizens are forming vigilante groups because the security agencies are ineffective. Citizens have lost faith in the ability of the state to enforce law and order, to protect life and property. This is what you see in Somalia and Syria.
Meanwhile, it does not help that there is a theory that the Fulani have an agenda to take over the whole of Nigeria and “dip the Quran in the Atlantic Ocean”. The herders’ association, Miyetti Allah, is believed to be enjoying state protection. If you accept this theory, as millions of southerners and middle belters do, then you are likely to have serious sentiments for the anti-Fulani movement. And you are likely to support the actions of Akeredolu and Igboho. You will see their endeavours as an attempt to protect Yorubaland from Fulani “jihadists”. I fear that this suspicion is fuelling the tension between Yoruba and Fulani communities in the south-west. Hence, the songs of war.
Ironically, herders, mostly Fulani, are also heavily implicated in the insecurity ravaging the north-west. Most of the kidnappers in that region are said to be Fulani. There have been incessant kidnappings and killings in Zamfara state in the last seven years — that was before Buhari came to power. The crimes are usually attributed to bandits. Therefore, what we have in our hands is a failed security system that has led to insecurity nationwide. The narrative in the south is that the criminals are bandits when they strike up north but Fulani jihadists when they strike down south. That is the price we pay for the inability of the country to protect us. It creates room for all sorts.
I would also say that the federal government is not acting in a way that will make southerners trust the state. Take, for instance, the order to arrest Igboho — which I support. No individual, not even a governor or a president, has the power to evict any Nigerian from any part of the country based on ethnicity, politics or religion. But where this administration always loses the case is that it is not even-handed. In 2017, a group of northern youths led by Alhaji Shettima Yerima issued an ultimatum to Igbo people to leave the north by October 1 because of Biafra agitations. Nobody ordered his arrest, and we had a police force and an IGP to boot. That is how trust is lost.
Nevertheless, I would like to warn against ethnic profiling when it comes to criminal matters. It is a dangerous game. To the best of my knowledge, every ethnic group in Nigeria has criminals. For all you care, the Fulani guys that are implicated in kidnapping and ransom-taking might be working in conjunction with Yoruba insiders and police accomplices. They will be sharing the proceeds of crime without discrimination. That these people are getting away with these crimes — without any arrests or prosecutions even when the states have the power to do so — suggests that it is an organised network. They appear, to me, to be enjoying protection from security agencies.
The challenge facing us is two-fold: de-escalating the tension and improving security. While the first is urgent and immediate, the second is medium-term; without it, there will always be such flare-ups. Insecurity by itself is bad enough. When we now allow it to be layered with ethnic tensions, it is doubly dangerous. The Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) has a role to play in calming nerves. Most importantly, Buhari needs to be actively involved. He should call the governors to a meeting and, if necessary, summon an emergency meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss the burning issues. We are, as it seems to me, playing with fire. We should not take our luck for granted.
In the final analysis, moments like this call for statesmanship, not war mongering. This is not the time to be beating drums of war. This is the time to “kulu temper” and confront the issues one by one: why are these crimes so easy to commit? Why is nobody facing prosecution? What can we do to protect the lives of all — no matter the ethnic or religious affiliation? We have enormous security problems to overcome if we are to enjoy peace. One of my favourite Yoruba proverbs says: “Irorun igi ni irorun eye.” You see, it is in the interest of the bird that the tree is comfortable for her to perch on. If we don’t silence the drumbeat of war, we may live to regret it. My two cents.