When 73 people were killed in Benue State in early January, the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali, briefed State House correspondents, after a meeting of the security chiefs with President Muhammadu Buhari, and gave the government position on the reasons for the continuous attacks by the herdsmen. He said: “Whatever crisis that happened at any time, there has to be remote and immediate causes. What are the remote causes of this farmer-herder crisis? Since Independence, we know there used to be a route which these cattle rearers use.
“Cattle rearers are all over the nation. You go to Bayelsa, you see them. You go to Ogun, you see them. If those routes are blocked, what happens? These people are Nigerians. It’s just like you going to block river or shoreline. Does that make sense to you? These are the remote causes. But what are the immediate causes? It is the grazing law. These people are Nigerians. We must learn to live together with each other. That is basic. Communities and other people must learn how to accept foreigners within their enclave. Finish!”
Before his weird and callous justification of the herdsmen’s killings by the government, the Governor of Plateau, Simon Lalong, had said that he advised his Benue State counterpart, Samuel Ortom, not to push for the passage of the anti-grazing law. He said that he advised him to go for ranching, explaining that the relative peace he had in Plateau was achieved through accommodating all people. Ironically, in the first week of March 2018, 50 people were killed in Plateau State, with 25 killed last Tuesday alone in Bassa Local Government Area.
The cattle owners association known as Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria had also blamed the killings in Benue on the anti-grazing bill that was then just passed into law. The Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, had also blamed the killings on the anti-grazing law.
However, people of Benue refuted the claim, arguing that even before the anti-grazing law was passed, hundreds of people had been repeatedly killed by herdsmen in Agatu and other parts of Benue. Other people also noted that in many states like Enugu, Zamfara, Ondo, where people had been massacred on many occasions, there was no anti-grazing law.
But the icing on the cake was their attack on Kogi State last week. In February 2018, the Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, had donated 15,000 hectares of land to the Federal Government to be used as “cattle colony”. Bello has always tried to create the impression that he is not an enemy of the herdsmen, their interest and well-being and, by extension, President Muhammadu Buhari. Last week, the herdsmen struck in his state, killing 32 people, although the Governor later said that only 12 were killed.
The question that has kept gnawing at the mind of most people is: “What exactly do these herdsmen want?” If they attacked states that refused to provide grazing routes for them as well as states that have banned open grazing, why did they attack states that have provided grazing “colonies” or “ranches”?
What is their grouse? Are they angry at those who oppose them and also those who support them? Are they indirectly telling Governor Bello that they are not satisfied with the size of land he gave them? Or are they telling him that they want the entire state as their territory? Are they saying that they do not want to be restricted at all, that they want to roam freely as they wish?
In February this year, Kano State Governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, condemned the persistent attacks in the North-Central states and urged all the herdsmen in different parts of Nigeria to relocate to Kano, where there are enough facilities and grazing space to accommodate them and protect them from cattle rustling and diseases. The advice has been ignored while the killings have continued. Are these killings executed to have access to space for cattle to graze freely or are they carried out as an attempt at ethnic cleansing or religious expansionism?
Ethnic cleansing and religious expansionism have been denied by some people, with the argument that many of the herdsmen are not even Muslims and do not care about owning any land. But those who do the killings are not the herdsmen who go about with their cows. Rather the killers are fighters assembled from different states, when the need arises, to attack a given community and return to their bases once the attack is done. Those who can determine the reason for the attacks are those who sponsor the attacks and approve where an attack should take place.
Last week also, Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, criticised the way President Buhari has handled the persistent killings carried out by herdsmen, urging him to declare them a terror group. Soyinka and all those who continue to speak out should be praised for not keeping quiet or justifying evil. But they should realise that Buhari will NEVER declare herdsmen a terror group, even if they kill one thousand people every day.
The reason is simple: Buhari sees the herdsmen as “his people” that need to be protected. His words and actions show that he believes that the herdsmen are poor victims who are merely fighting for their survival in a hostile environment. The words of his Defence Minister, Inspector General of Police, and other lieutenants on the issue clearly depict that mindset. They all believe that the herdsmen are fighting to survive in a wicked and intolerant environment that wishes them dead. To them, what is taking place is not a massacre but ordinary clashes between farmers and herdsmen, and the only solution to it is for farmers to accept the herdsmen as their brothers, tolerate them as compatriots and live in peace with them as good neighbours. End of story!
That is why the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria can publicly issue threats and statements that show that they are aware of the killings and endorse them. Yet they are not arrested. Rather they are pacified and invited for discussions.
If the herdsmen were of a different ethnic region and religion, Buhari would have been vicious on them and would have crushed them. It is one of the reasons that show that Buhari does not have the capacity to treat all parts of Nigeria equally. Other Presidents and military dictators before him could mask their preference for their ethnic region and religion, but Buhari has never hidden his. Patriots are differentiated by their ability to rise above all ethnic, religious, sexual, and political considerations, put the nation first and take care of the security and welfare of the people.
States which think that once they create “grazing colonies” for herdsmen, they would achieve peace are merely joking. The killings by herdsmen go beyond grazing space for cattle. Only time will tell what the real motive of the killers are.