Tragedy On The Plateau

By Idowu Akinlotan

THE reaction of the federal government to the murder in Jos of some 22 or 25 Ondo State-bound northerners two Saturdays ago is mystifying. Irigwe youths in Bassa local government area of Plateau State were blamed for the killings. Swiftly, the government brought down the hammer on the suspected killers, arrested scores of them, police chiefs and top military commanders visited the crime scene, Governors’ Forum decried the crime and condemned the killings, and the government itself, after deploying helicopter and other law enforcement assets, promised to bring the perpetrators to book. The killings were believed to have been a reprisal attack on the travellers who were returning from a religious retreat in Bauchi State, and were thought to be mostly Hausa or Fulani.

A week or two earlier, members of a Fulani militia had swooped on Irigwe land and murdered, by some reports, over 70 natives. The natives described the killings – not the first, they insisted – as ethnic cleansing and land grabbing. Mourners were actually in a procession to bury a few of their dead when they encountered the Ondo-bound pilgrims, and violence erupted. Plateau indigenes, angry and feeling abandoned and helpless, accuse the federal government of being indifferent to the seizure of their lands by Fulani militia. They are surprised that the government has done nothing to help them reclaim their communities – over 60 by last count – on which the Fulani have settled, even renaming some of the villages. Gradually, they may be starting to suspect that if they do not reclaim their communities from the Fulani by force, no one would.

In many instances, the federal government has painted the violence in Plateau State as clashes between herders and farmers. The Plateau people insist the killings are attacks on their villages and farms, because the killings take place on their lands, and are, therefore, not clashes in the classical sense. At other instances, such as the killing of the Ondo-bound travelers, the violence is painted as ethno-religious. In fact, all the stories and reports that emanated out of the killings have been painted as Christian militias murdering Muslim travellers, a religious narrative unwisely encouraged and legitimised by the police and the federal government barely hours after the killings. The violence may ebb and flow, but it is unlikely to abate, regardless of the force the federal government deploys. There does not appear to be sincerity or competence in tackling the crisis.

While the state government has been somewhat timid in tackling the ongoing crisis, frequently appearing to acquiesce to federal narratives than its own reasoned summations of the violence, the federal government has been flagrantly less even-handed in dealing with the violence. Not only have they abandoned neutrality going by their refusal to come out with a definitive statement on the land seizures, they have been more glib and sprightly in embracing the arguments of the Fulani militias, leading to suspicion by Plateau natives of a secret collusion between the herdsmen militias and the federal government. Moreover, both the paramount ruler of Irigwe land, Rt Rev Ronku Aka, and the national president of the Irigwe Development Association, Robert Ashi, for instance, have insisted that the military deliberately pulled their punches in responding to the invaders even though they were alerted. The suspicion of collusion will not go away. The federal government has been reluctant to speak to that puzzle. Governor Simon Lalung of Palteau State has also been accused of behaving obsequiously in threatening to arrest those who try to bail the suspects arrested in connection with the killings of the travellers, a step interpreted as a ploy to rewrite the constitution. Worse, Bassa LGA chairman also echoed his governor by supporting the state government and law enforcement positions.

Killings are deplorable, whether as attack or reprisal. There is no way to justify them, regardless of the reservations many analysts may have about the federal response to the crisis and the suspicious narratives being promoted to obfuscate the killings and drape them in misleading emotions. Murder is horrifying, and it must be condemned, for the innocent could sometimes be the victim. But the killings in Plateau, like those in Benue, Nasarawa and Kaduna, must be thoroughly investigated in order to establish their root causes and determine appropriate solutions. Narratives are conflicting, with victims painting the picture of the injured party, and attackers painting the picture of the needlessly provoked. What is clear, however, is that what began decades ago as clashes between farmers and herders over shrinking pastures have unrestrainedly metamorphosed into land seizures, perhaps for the purpose of acquiring grazing fields for cattle.

While it is acknowledged that the problem has lasted for so long, even defying solutions, it is still mortifying that the current Muhammadu Buhari administration has made itself a party to the conflict rather than an arbiter. Because of its many one-sided statements and actions to unconstitutionally secure grazing rights for herders, whatever solutions it proffers are more likely to be seen as dishonest. It may already be too late for the administration to portray itself as neutral, nor will any of the badly affected communities see it as one. Nearly the whole country now abjure the traditional form of cattle rearing; but the Buhari administration has persisted in backing ancient and untenable animal husbandry practices to the point of trying to reclaim inexistent grazing routes and reserves for Fulani herders through the deployment of federal power and its unlawful exercise. How it expects that this anomalous and intransigent exercise of federal might would not lead to further clashes capable of threatening the stability of the whole country is hard to say.

The federal response to the Plateau crisis undoubtedly showed bias, and it abhorrently played upon religious and ethnic sentiments. The authorities have arrested over 30 suspects with a swiftness and comprehensiveness it had never demonstrated when the Plateau locals were on the receiving end. The same orientation perfused the federal reaction to the Benue killings years ago, such that officials even suggested to locals to cede land in order to obtain peace in return and cessation from mercenary attacks. Sadly, the same attitude is observed all over the country where victims aggressively defending their lands and lives have been hostilely treated by the government while attackers, mostly herders and their mercenaries, have been left to pillage unhindered by law enforcement agencies and unencumbered by legal obstacles.

Last Thursday, President Buhari assured Nigerians he would not let insecurity define his legacy, promising to come down hard on crime. He was prepared to rejig his security system if necessary, he added. Does he not think that optimism is belated? It took more than six years to cast his administration’s insecurity record in stone; it is hard to see it changing in two years, especially because he has refused, or is unable, to appreciate the fundamental causes of the problem. At the bottom of that problem, alas, is his government’s faulty disposition to national unity, which administration officials neither understand nor possess the neutrality to deconstruct. Until he and his government reach a substantial understanding of the root causes of the various insecurity crises exploding upon the country everywhere, until he understands that his ham-fisted approach to dealing with malfeasant Fulani militias fuels their rampage, and until he realizes that he has sectionalized the country into we versus them, no appreciable progress can be made to restore peace.

Should the president feel confident enough to conduct an opinion poll on the people’s perception of his administration, he would be shocked to discover that they fear he has taken sides in the conflict, and indeed that he encourages Fulani militias to rampage for land. Most of the Fulani attackers are non-Nigerians in the first instance, but too many Fulani political elite in power simply do not see any border when it comes to herdersmen. The president and his supporters, particularly the incendiary associations of herders, have very little understanding of the forces they are inadvertently unleashing upon the country through their dissonant approach to conflicts in the Middle Belt and the South. Foreign Fulani mercenaries rummaging through Nigeria for land are encouraged by lax law enforcement and conniving government officials to run riot around farming communities in Nigeria. Even if the invaders pacify the country or seize as much land as they can, it still would not guarantee peace or bar the mercenaries from turning against those who gave them free rein to trample upon the country. Somalia should provide the ruling elite a cautionary tale that ethnic or religious homogeneity does not guarantee anything.

It was expected that an empathetic government and people would show outrage over the killing of 25 innocent travellers. Even the Irigwe people, who have been at the receiving end of Fulani mercenary attacks, have had the unpleasant duty of denouncing the killings while still mourning their dead. Reprisals have, however, continued. The vengeance killings will not end until justice is done to placate the injustice and tragedy felt by those whose lands have been seized. A decade or so ago, current Digital Economy minister, Isa Pantami, reportedly offered to lead a jihad against the Jonah Jang government in Plateau State, threatening mayhem in the same Bassa LGA. Despite his incendiary views which recently came to light, he remains highly influential in government. Who could blame the Irigwe people and other Plateau indigenes for suspecting a federal conspiracy against their lands and lives? It has been decades since a massive tragedy began to unfold on the Plateau. That tragedy is still playing out today because the arbiter who should resolve the crisis is neither impartial nor credible. Indeed, the administration has refused to disabuse the minds of those who lost their lands and farms, and who are today in IDP camps, that the federal government can be trusted to dispense justice without ethnic or religious colouration.

Drawing the wrong lessons from Afghanistan

IN his latest article in the Financial Times of London on terrorism, President Muhammadu Buhari reflects on the United States foreign policy debacle in Afghanistan. He tries to draw a few lessons from the crisis, most of them apocalyptic and absolutely tangential to the issue at hand, and rightly acknowledges that America could not eternally guarantee peace in countries threatened by war or terrorism. He suggests in addition that Africa is expected to be the next epicenter of global terrorism capable of endangering the West. He goes ahead to identify a few countries, including Mozambique, Somalia and Nigeria as countries embroiled in terrorism. He then plaintively appeals to the US and other Western countries not to be war-weary simply because of their experience in Afghanistan, in responding to global terrorism threats.

But Afghanistan did not need to collapse, or be liberated, before President Buhari appreciates the urgency of cobbling the right and homegrown policy responses to terror threats in Nigeria or in neighbouring countries. Though he correctly identifies a few social and economic drivers of terrorism, he disingenuously avoided any reference to religion as a factor, though it is the most critical because it lethally intertwines with ideology, as Afghanistan has shown. Yes, he speaks about a lack of policy response to the problems of burgeoning population and low investment in infrastructure, insisting incredibly that the latter justifies his inscrutable decision to build a rail line to Niger Republic when he has not built one to the eastern part of his country; but the fact is that Nigeria has done nothing about its burgeoning population, absolutely nothing, and has borrowed the country to ruin in trying to address the country’s infrastructural deficit.

Nigeria’s economic troubles, the president admits, create a gap for militants to ‘perversely’ exploit, and he thus advocates aid from the developed world. But Nigeria runs a ‘perverse’ national structure that enthrones inefficiency all-round — in the economy, in politics, and in the society at large. He calls for help from outsiders though his country runs a turgid and wasteful economic structure that rewards, through meaningless revenue allocations, all manner of incompetent and adventurous administrations at federal and state levels. Nigeria also runs a system of government that is huge, expensive and virtually useless because it is largely unaccountable. That twisted system is run by unimaginative and shortsighted leaders. President Buhari has strenuously refused to address these anomalies and inefficiencies, but shockingly seeks for economic assistance from the rich world. Surely, he can’t be blinded to the irony.

While President Buhari admits the limitations of force in solving terrorism, as the inadvisable US occupation of Afghanistan has shown, he has run his government and responded to crises under the illusion that force is the needed anodyne. His economic, social and political policies have promoted ethnic and religious exceptionalism, prompting leading politicians and former presidents to accuse him of bigotry and division. He gives the impression that he could impose, without fear of consequence, his proposed and one-sided Water Bill, Grazing (RUGA) policy, harbouring of repentant jihadists like Isa Pantami in his cabinet, flagrant diminution of the rule of law, and many other undisguised actions that have manifested in skewed security appointments. Having contradicted his own arguments on the applicability of force, he goes on to suggest in the FT piece that the US and other industrialized countries must not refrain from offering “…technical assistance, advanced weaponry, intelligence and ordinance”, adding that US air strikes on al-Shabaab positions in Somalia last month was effective and should be replicated, perhaps in Nigeria.

Boko Haram has lasted for more than 20 years. It curiously began as Nigerian Taliban. It is ideology-based, and it is relentless, unapologetic and inflexible in pursuing its goals. As the sudden but explicable collapse of the Afghan armed forces showed, despite the US expending more than a trillion dollars to build it, ideological (Taliban, ISIS, etc.) militants hardly repent, whether they are ISWAP or Boko Haram. It is suspected that many states in the core North of Nigeria, including government officials at federal and state levels, secretly harbour sympathies for the insurgents, sympathies now controversially extended to bandits in the Northwest. The Nigerian crisis is obviously just beginning, after more than 35,000 dead, as hinted by President Buhari in the FT piece. Years of fraternising with extreme religious groups in the name of Puritanism have produced a lethal mix of lawlessness and terrorism. Meanwhile, the Buhari administration has spent a fortune through a programme called sulhu designed to deradicalise and reintegrate factionally disaffected and displaced Boko Haram militants. The seed of future crisis is being sown. It will germinate.

President Buhari is unlikely to address the underlying issues predisposing Nigeria to terrorism. He has not drawn the right lessons from Afghanistan partly because neither he nor many in the North have seen anything repugnant about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. What is more, neither he nor most of his supporters view Nigeria from the prism of its religious and ethnic mosaic, a heterogeneity he believes taxes his patience and capacity, a mosaic he is not enamoured of. Past presidents and military heads of state chose subtle and surreptitious religious and ethnic control of Nigeria. President Buhari has instead engaged in open and hostile measures to divide and control Nigeria. His inadequate understanding of history bar him from appreciating the limitations the British, Soviets and Americans experienced in their occupation of Afghanistan. That inadequacy will not let him draw a parallel between those occupying powers and the occupation he is exhuming and fostering in Nigeria, more than a century after British colonialists in 1904 resurrected the fading and frazzled Sokoto Caliphate and coldly foisted it on the restive local populace.

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