By Emeka Omeihe
Events happened in many fronts in the last few weeks to highlight the inherent contradictions in extant practices in cattle rearing business in this country. Not that the issues are entirely new. But the momentum they gathered, seem to suggest that something more innovative, more enduring and futuristic has to be done before altercations and acrimony arising from the cattle rearing business tear this country apart. And ominous signals to that effect have begun to emerge in statements within the public domain.
Tension was seemingly ignited by the raiding of some forests in Oyo State by the States’ Security Network Agency-Amotekun to rid them of criminal elements terrorizing, kidnapping, killing and raping women hiding under the cover of the bushes. The raid was part of the determination of people of the state to protect themselves against sundry criminals in the face of the inability of the federal government to confront and tame the rising insecurity across the country.
In the ensuing operation, three alleged criminals were killed. The Fulani community raised dust claiming that the killed men were genuine herders and not criminals as alleged by Amotekun. But both the state government and Amotekun operatives insisted that those killed were criminals and not genuine herders as the Fulani community claimed.
However, another dimension to the Oyo forests’ raid emerged when 47 well armed Fulani men in buses were arrested by men of Operation Burst– a security outfit made up of soldiers and the police. Initial reports claimed that the armed men came to the state on the invitation of their kinsmen to avenge the killings arising from the raiding of the forests. But the leader of Fulani herders in the state said they were not criminals but members of the ‘Vigilante Group of Nigeria’ fighting banditry, kidnapping and robbery in the area. It remains uncertain under which law such arms-bearing group operates- Oyo State or the federal government. But that is part of the muddle you find in the scheme of things in this country.
Before the dust of the Oyo altercation could settle, the Ondo State governor, Rotimi Akeredolu issued an order on herders without authorization to quit their forest reserves within seven days. The governor said the government took the step to address the root cause of kidnapping in particular and other nefarious activities detailed and documented in security reports, the press and debriefings from victims of kidnap cases in Ondo State.
The governor said the security challenges are “traceable to the activities of some bad elements masquerading as herders…that have turned our forests into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out other criminal activities”.
But the presidency in a statement by its spokesman, Garba Shuhu said Akeredolu was least expected to “unilaterally oust thousands of herders who have lived all their lives in the state on account of the infiltration of the forests by criminals”. He sought to justify the inappropriateness of such quit orders by citing federal government’s positions when he claimed the IPOB issued an order to northerners to quit the southeast and the very recent one by a Sokoto Muslim group asking the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Matthew Hassan Kukah to quit.
But the statement misread the context of Akeredolu’s quit order. He never gave quit notice to all herdsmen living in Ondo State. He only asked those occupying the state’s forest reserves without permission to exit the reserves and get registered with the government. And he is within his rights as the governor to do so. This is especially so with security and media reports as well as accounts of kidnap victims indicting some herdsmen as the masterminds of such criminal activities.
The indecent haste with which Garba reacted and his obvious misinterpretation of the order led to accusations that the federal government was out to shield herders despite mounting complaints on their complicity in sundry criminalities emanating from the cover of the forests they occupy. Garba’s position fits into the overall attitude of the Buhari regime in shielding herders for the criminalities associated with their activities across the country.
Then, the emergence of one Sunday Igboho said to be a Yoruba freedom fighter. Apparently piqued by recurring complaints from the people of his area, Igboho had also issued a quit order to the herdsmen to leave. He did not stop at that but assembled his men and stormed the Ibarapa area of the state- the hotbed of the recurring crisis between herders and local farmers.
Igboho and his team also went to the premises of the leader of the Fulani community after passing through three security check-points allegedly mounted by the Seriki. There, he saw clear evidence that the Seriki was living luxuriously in an environment that had been despoiled by kidnapping and other criminalities. Reports had it that Igboho interrogated the Seriki on the sources of his huge wealth and could not get convincing answers.
After he left the area, a mob was said to have stormed the house of the Seriki, burnt it down together with 11 very expensive cars parked there. The Seriki has since fled that community. Some days after the incident, one of the houses of Igboho in Ibadan was set on fire in what was alleged to be a reprisal attack. That appeared to have set the stage for serious tension.
The southwest is not alone in this as there have been some skirmishes in parts of the southeast and the south-south with women groups staging demonstrations against open grazing. Some northern groups have reacted angrily with some warning of possible reprisals if the trend continued. One of such came from Bashir Tofa, chairman of Kano Elders Forum when he alerted there could be attacks on southerners in the north.
He said tension was beginning to build and “if revenge attacks against southerners begin in the north, it would be difficult to control”. But the reaction of the Northern Elders Forum NEF was to ask Fulani herders to return to the northern region if their security cannot be guaranteed by their host communities in the southern parts of the country. NEF said the advice became necessary following alleged attacks on Fulani herders, their families and communities in some southern states. There have also been interventions from some governors calling for calm and stressing the dangers in self-help in the festering crises.
Parallels have also been drawn with other crimes where people from certain sections of the country were allegedly found most complicit without tagging those sections with that crime label to underscore the incongruity in profiling Fulani herdsmen as kidnappers etc. That may as well be.
But in all the references to the criminal activities that take place through the cover of the forests and bushes, the point raised is that criminal elements hide as herders to perpetrate these crimes. Akeredolu made that point very clearly citing security reports and accounts of victims. He even said that most of these criminals are foreigners.
If accounts of kidnap victims and security reports show that those in that devious enterprise in the forests are mainly of the Fulani ethnic stock, that makes matters difficult and the attempt to exculpate that ethnic from crimes emanating from the forests the mainly occupy, patently diversionary. The snag is in the inability to draw a line between the genuine herders and the criminal ones.
Those who complain about the profiling of Fulani herders as criminals must also be concerned with this fact. That is by no means to imply that all herders are criminals. No! But they have to come up with suggestions on how to make that differentiation in the face of worsening criminalities associated with their business in the face of the waning patience of the host communities.
And for how long shall we engage in blame games when life has been reduced to nothing in many communities by criminal elements hibernating in their forests. That is the puzzle. That is the monster some state governments seek to confront by flushing out suspicious elements from those forests. It is a desperate solution to a desperate and debilitating problem.