President Buhari And The Fulani Herdsmen Menace

The circumstantial case against Buhari is compelling and may help explain the signature failures of his administrations, from his neglect of the deadly violence of armed herdsmen to the collapse of his war against corruption.

1. In October 2000, Buhari led a Fulani delegation to confront Governor Lam Adesina of Oyo State on the death of some herders allegedly killed by farmers during clashes. His was not a fact-finding or peace mission. He had a predetermined agenda founded on a preconceived understanding of what had transpired. His words to the governor betrayed his mindset. Instead of asking his host about what had happened, his mind was already made up. His parochial instinct was to take sides with his ethnic kinsmen, to be their champion. Instead of inquiring, his approach was accusatory. He was convinced that his kinsmen had been unfairly killed by Yoruba farmers. His infamous words to Governor Adesina, “why are your people killing my people?” was a clear expression of his preference for being a champion and defender of ethnic interests over being a statesman. Governor Adesina had to patiently and politely educate him on the nuances of the conflict, on how Buhari was misinformed, and how farmers and Fulani herders were, for the most part, living quite peacefully together in Oyo, and how the clashes had been isolated incidents with casualties recorded on both sides, not just on the side of the herdsmen. This widely reported encounter demonstrates the default reflex and impulse of Buhari. He tends to instinctively view the farmer-herder conflict in ethnic terms, and more specifically as an anti-Fulani conspiracy designed to threaten the interest of his nomadic kinsmen. His utterances, silences, actions, and inactions corroborate and emanate from this mindset.

2. Recently, the political and traditional leaders of Benue State paid a visit to Buhari in Aso Rock on the herdsmen massacre in the state. We may not know everything that they discussed with the president, but we know what Buhari told them because several newspapers carried it as their headline. Buhari is reported to have urged the delegation to “in the name of God accommodate your countrymen.” The “countrymen” he was referring to are his kinsmen, the herdsmen. This is telling example of how the president thinks about the ongoing crisis of herdsmen violence. The Benue delegation must have given him an earful about the devastation the armed herdsmen militia wrought on the state, first in Agatu and now in Logo and Guma. Yet the president’s most widely reported comeback was not empathy but an admonition on the Benue leaders to accommodate their nomadic countrymen, a clear insinuation on his part that the Benue leaders were or had been hostile to his Fulani herdsmen kinsmen. It was also an indirect critique of the anti-open grazing law duly passed by the state’s legislature, a desperate, last-resort effort to stem herdsmen killings in the state in the face the inertia and indifference of Buhari’s government. The president’s “accommodate your countrymen” statement was, in addition, a classic case of blaming the victim. But it is consistent with how Buhari thinks about any issues involving his kinsmen or his core political constituency of the northwest and northeast. His default position is to externalize or deflect blame from his kinsmen and political supporters–to protect, absolve, exonerate the kinsmen; to be their advocate. Whatever the Benue leaders told him, his working, unshakable paradigm was that the herdsmen were victims and that the Benue people were not “accommodating” them, leading to the conflict. His belief was that the killings stemmed from this failure to “accommodate” the herdsmen. He was judge and jury in the situation. Why would a president who harbors this belief deal decisively with the menace or send soldiers to deal with the killers? He would be going against his instinct of not finding fault with his kinsmen. He would rather send in the police, who would not go after the killers, whom he probably believes were lashing out because they were not “accommodated” in Benue. It’s an extremely reductive prism to view the menace, but that has always been Buhari’s point of departure, his reference.

3. When the offensive against Boko Haram began during Jonathan’s presidency, Buhari’s response was to say that a military assault on Boko Haram was an assault on the north, or more appropriately the Northwest and Northeast, his political stronghold.

In all these instances, was the president deliberately abetting or protecting criminals? No. But he was pandering to the primordial sentiments of people he saw as either his kinsmen or his reliable political constituency. In stubbornly clinging to a belief in an unfounded notion of Fulani victimhood and anti-Fulani conspiracy, is Buhari intentionally incubating or ignoring the menace of his herdsmen kinsmen? Would a sane person do this to their legacy? No. But he was acting in a manner consistent with his history of putting his primordial, parochial instinct above statesmanship. He was operating in his comfort zone and also rewarding the loyalty of his kinsmen and political constituency.

Is the president a genocidal maniac who enjoys seeing his compatriots killed in their hundreds and thousands? Not at all. The problem is that the president comes to these issues with hardened preconceptions that blind him to reality, inform his policies or lack thereof, and lead him by default to reciprocate the loyalty of kinsmen and supporters no matter how culpable they may be. It is a recipe for inaction and indifference. It is fundamentally a problem of parochialism and inordinate personal loyalty to proximate, familiar entities.

It is the same inexplicably unquestioning loyalty to supporters, benefactors, and kinsmen that led him to say Abacha did not steal any money, although his current administration is taking delivery of hundreds of millions of dollars in recovered Abacha loot, and to write to the Senate exonerating David Babachir Lawal of corruption only to be forced to reluctantly acknowledge Babchir’s guilt by firing him.

As with the Babachir situation, it will take enormous public pressure to compel Buhari to acknowledge and act decisively on the existential threat posted to the nation by armed, AK-47 wielding herdsmen militias. We will need to force him out of his provincial comfort zone and make him assume the status of a statesman, even if he kicks and screams.

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