Nigerians feel so vulnerable

Two things happened in the last few weeks that made me think of the prevailing mood across the nation.  One, President Muhammadu Buhari addressed Nigerians on January 1, 2018, and he made some comments worth noting. Two, before then, some elders visited him and had a private discussion. Asked what they discussed with the President, one of the elders said they told him the truth regarding how Nigerians felt. He added that they told the President what none of his officials would tell him.
Now, I notice a few things in the contents of the President’s New Year and October 1, 2017 Independence Day addresses. In October, and I needed to point this out, he mentioned electricity-related issues in two sentences and moved on. (At the time, I had stated on this page that Nigerians deserved to hear more on the challenges of electricity supply from the President). So, I noticed the difference in his New Year address, in which he devoted exactly 339 words (3/4 of an A4 page) to electricity-related issues alone. Still, there’s another segment in the New Year address that’s directly relevant to this piece.
Buhari spoke to Nigerians thus: “Unfortunately, I am saddened to acknowledge that for many, this (sic) Christmas and New Year holidays have been anything but merry and happy. Instead of showing love, companionship and charity, some of our compatriots chose this period to inflict severe hardship on us all by creating unnecessary fuel scarcity across the country. The consequence was that not many could travel and the few who did had to pay exorbitant transport fares…I am determined to get to the root of this collective blackmail of all Nigerians and ensure that whichever groups are behind this manipulated hardship will be prevented from doing so again.”
Those are words that kindle hope; yet, for me, they pointedly call attention to how vulnerable this nation is, especially the large pool of its helpless citizens. Nigerians feel vulnerable at every turn. At the slightest pull, turmoil ensues, fear, violence; it’s everywhere. Diverse issues trouble the land at the moment, but here I focus only on security-related matters – especially fallout of the farmers-herdsmen conflicts.
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We know the conflict extends from North-West to North-Central and parts of North-East. Reports indicate there’s a large pool of displaced persons in the affected areas, comparable to the consequences of the damage that insurgents have caused in the North-East. But the former is below our radar because we don’t have a culture of tracking such displacement in order to keep reliable data. Displaced people have been largely left on their own when attacks happen, and they go wherever they can get succour. As for bystanders forced to stay in camps in their states, TV cameras bring them to our homes, and we watch them say they cannot return to their villages because they fear further attacks. How more vulnerable could citizens be in their nation?
That’s for the bystanders. How about the farmers and the herdsmen involved in the crises? Both sides share the same feeling, because battle lines have been drawn in many of the affected states. Suspicion reigns. Both know where their members can safely go and where they cannot. But this hasn’t always been the case. For instance, I’ve travelled to, and briefly stayed in Southern Kaduna several times. I have friends among the people from the area, and I’ve interviewed some of their opinion leaders. I’ve attended events in Kafanchan (Southern Kaduna) where high profile stakeholders say people of Fulani ethnic background in the area are members of the umbrella organisation, the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union. They’ve lived together and intermarried for generations.  I had heard highly educated people of Fulani origin say they were born, and they grew up in Southern Kaduna so they knew no other place to call home. Opinion leaders tell me that the original cause of feuds in the area is the use of land to accommodate both the needs of farmers and herdsmen, while the frequent violent attacks are acts of reprisal, essentially perpetrated by people who’re from outside the area. This points to economic dimension in human relations, one that causes conflicts even among members of the same ethnic group and religion. It’s a reason I marvel when some quickly read reported clashes through ethno-religious lens.
In the North-East where I had my NYSC programme, lived for some years and still travel to regularly, this same scenario applies. A few years ago, I was with my northern friends when one of them looked at some teenage herdsmen and their cattle where they moved from one street, crossed a major road, into another street. He observed, speaking to another person among us, that from the time he was a child, he knew these herdsmen had always followed that same route. His amazement was in the fact that from one generation to the other, the herdsmen had used this route that the government set for them even from the pre-independence era.  Of course, when the route was allotted it was on the outskirts. However, by this time, it was right in the center of the capital city of the state in question. In many states, increased population and the pressure of development have taken the routes that herdsmen should use. But the general public or farmers aren’t solely responsible for this as it has been popularly made out. Successive governments have contributed to it. Government officials plan towns and cities, construct roads, allocate land to people, carve out land for  farmers in reserved forests without taking into consideration the needs of herdsmen.
Here, I’m referring to how successive governments should have seen ahead, and made plans concerning care for the livestock segment of our agricultural sector. But it didn’t happen. I have listened to the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, on several occasions. He said governments had left herdsmen to their own devices over the years. True. Now we have crises on our hands, the outcomes of the usual emergency approach to a problem that has been building up for years, and which now leaves every Nigerian – bystanders, farmers, herders – vulnerable. It’s been said that herdsmen are engaged in a private business for which they should be ready to invest in ranching. Yes. But we are talking about a culture that has been there for centuries. We want to change it in one year.
I understand that many cattle owners agree to immediately ranch in Benue State, for instance. But for each person who ranches, there are several herders for whom this amounts to a sudden change of culture. Culture is never changed in a day, not in months. It evolves. While I condemn acts of violence by any of the parties involved in the ongoing crisis, I think we’ve judged even law-abiding herdsmen from where we sit on horses, offering little assistance to make it easier for them to embrace change. Sometimes, I’m alarmed at how out of touch many Nigerians are with the reality in the existence of our people at the other end of the ladder. I know friends who, as we watch events on TV, express surprise at the practices among some of our people. Often I have reminded them it’s the reality,  that a lot of people still live that way. I’m of the view that governments have assisted farmers to change practices over the years. Why not herders? But getting herdsmen to adopt an approach different from the one passed to them across generations should be a process, a clearly defined one.
The President said he would ensure that what left Nigerians vulnerable during  the latest fuel crisis didn’t happen again. He needs to deal with the crisis that has rendered innocent bystanders, farmers and herdsmen vulnerable too. For me, part of the process in getting this done is for government to massively assist by creating a new arrangement whereby  herdsmen can operate without having to struggle with farmers. We must do this with focus, not the half-hearted attempt by the Federal Government to colonise herdsmen and their herds in the past that had failed, the facilities abandoned.  Every country assists its meat producers in one form or the other, including the Western countries that we like to emulate. So, there’s nothing odd in utilising public resources to establish permanent peace between farmers and herdsmen. This is the time to start.