by Olusegun Adeniyi
On a sunny day in January 2010, in a small town in Kuru Karama, Plateau State, a Muslim mother watched helplessly as Christian men bludgeoned and hacked to death her two young children. About the same time, in a nearby village in Fan district, a Fulani pastoralist witnessed farmers from the Berom ethnic group—his neighbours—burn his house and kill his uncle. A year later, Berom residents in Fan district witnessed former Fulani neighbours kill Berom women and children in a murderous night raid.
In April 2011, a Christian man in the Northern part of neighbouring Kaduna State saw Muslims from nearby villages surround his village and kill two of his Christian neighbours and set fire to their church and homes. That same month, some 200 kilometres to the south, in the town of Zonkwa, a Muslim secondary school student, from the Hausa ethnic group, witnessed her history teacher, a Christian, murder her father.
In each of these cases, the witnesses knew the perpetrators of these crimes, but none of the perpetrators has been brought to justice…
The foregoing are the opening paragraphs in the executive summary of a chilling 146-page report released on 12th December 2013 by the United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on the orgy of bloodshed in Kaduna and Plateau States which, by the publication’s account, had claimed about 3,000 lives within a period of three years. Titled “Leave Everything to God: Accountability for Inter-Communal Violence in Plateau and Kaduna States, Nigeria”, the authorities, at all levels, were indicted for “taking no meaningful steps to address underlying grievances” or bring to justice those responsible for what the report described as “tit-for-tat killings” with victims targeted for extermination, “often in horrific circumstances”.
That report—which also contains useful recommendations—is instructive against the background of the mass burial last week in Makurdi, Benue State capital, of 73 persons who were gruesomely murdered by suspected herdsmen on New Year day. “For several years, these attackers have turned our beautiful and endowed land into their killing fields and the main reason has been the clashes between herdsmen and farmers, but these attacks have intensified with alarming devastation since 2011”, said Governor Samuel Ortom who vowed not to repeal the anti-grazing law that is believed to have precipitated the violence.
Unfortunately, at a time we ought to be looking for ways to restore law and order to that troubled section of our country, so many people are stoking the fire while the call for restructuring, especially at a period like this, completely misses the point. For sure, the system is creaking beneath all of us and we need to fix it but even at that, restructuring will not resolve the conflicts that are making neighbours turn daggers against one another. And to the extent that various peoples, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, will still have to live together, even in a proper federation, we must begin to look for the positives in our diversity.
I am quite aware that there are times when we may have to take sides in conflict situations since, as the late Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel warned, neutrality only helps the oppressor. But there are also times that call for statesmanship. When the lives of innocent citizens are involved, it pays for those who call themselves leaders, at all levels, to be circumspect. It is all the more important given that there is a class dimension to the perennial violence between herdsmen and farmers in the Middle Belt that we conveniently choose to ignore and may account for why the problem festers.
Has anybody ever wondered why in most of the killings over the years, what we are usually regaled with are numbers rather than names? That is because it is the poor of our society, those whose names command no attention and have no Facebook or Twitter accounts—expendables fit only for mass burials—that are mostly the victims of this violence while those supplying the AK-47 and other deadly weapons are secured in the knowledge that they, and members of their immediate families, are far away from the theatres of war. And that nobody would ever try to fish them out for punishment.
Therefore, spreading hate and incitements on social media can only worsen an already bad situation, especially when what started as an economy/ecology problem has now assumed ethnic and religious dimensions with old grievances and ancient prejudices being exhumed. Yet, what saddens the most is that at times like this when you need good people to stand up as voices of reason, nobody—save for people like Abubakar Dangiwa Umar—wants to be identified as either a ‘coward’ or a ‘traitor’ by the various publics we have created out of the mismanagement of our diversity. But the greater challenge is that the Nigerian state is gradually losing the capacity for its primary responsibility: security of lives and property.
In the 2013 tragedy in Kaduna and Plateau States as recorded by HRW, for instance, many of the victims of the violence were reportedly shot, burned alive or macheted based on ethnic or religious identity. Witnesses came forward to “tell their stories, compiled list of the dead and identified the attackers, but in most cases, nothing was done” said Daniel Bekele, the then African Director for HRW who added rather poignantly: “the authorities may have forgotten these killings, but communities haven’t. In the absence of justice, residents have resorted to violence to avenge their losses.”
What is glaring from that is a failure of leadership, especially at the national level. “Nigerian authorities can and should take urgent steps to ensure that the perpetrators of communal violence, including mass murder, are investigated and prosecuted, and that victims are provided restitution or compensation for their enormous losses,” HRW wrote in 2013. Of course, no such thing happened and I will be surprised if the victims of the current Benue massacre get any justice. Besides, in a milieu where the security agencies are often accused of either taking sides or not responding to distress calls at the appropriate time, it is difficult to end what has become a spiral of revenge killings. That perhaps explains why today, grieving families have lost faith not only in the capacity of the system to give them justice but also in the ability of the authorities to address the crisis in a holistic manner.
Aloof and distant, it came as no surprise that President Muhammadu Buhari could not foresee any trouble the moment the anti-grazing law was being enacted in Benue State. Had he intervened at that point by calling a meeting of all the critical stakeholders in the state, including the governor, so that a compromise could be reached by way of short, medium and long term solutions, perhaps we will not be where we are today. But he waited until everything exploded in his face before belatedly agreeing to a meeting where he was begging for peace “in the name of God”.
Notwithstanding, I consider the accusation of partisanship against the president unfair. While he may be suffering the consequences of his past indiscretion—when, as a former military leader, he led a sectional team to Oyo State on behalf of his Fulani kinsmen—there is nothing to suggest he is complicit in the current ethno-religious violence in Benue State. What he has not done, which unfortunately is quite in character with his style, is to provide the much-needed leadership that will help resolve the crisis not only in Benue but in other theatres, including Zamfara State where both the protagonists and antagonists are Hausa, Fulani and animists and where several deaths have been recorded in recent months. And we should never forget the 347 Shiite members, including women and children, who were killed and buried in shallow graves following the 12th December 2015 clash with the military authorities in Zaria, Kaduna State, even when those unfortunate victims would most likely be Hausa and Fulani, and definitely Muslims. In that tragedy too, the president stands indicted!
On Tuesday, the Senate gave the Inspector General of Police, Mr Ibrahim Idris, a 14-day ultimatum to apprehend the perpetrators of the Benue pogrom and bring them to justice. But it is futile expecting anything from Idris whose first response on 6th January was that “it is a communal crisis” before admonishing that “we should be praying for Nigerians to learn to live in peace with one another”.
Meanwhile, men of the Department of State Service (DSS) that you expect to be professional are more concerned with monitoring and chasing about some political pastors preaching against President Buhari’s second term aspiration with regime protection, rather than national security, as their main preoccupation. Here, let me offer a quick word: The primary responsibility of the security forces is to protect the citizenry and defend their basic freedoms. Harassment of clerics of any known faith is a direct invitation to sectarian conflict.
The question now is: What is the way forward in the still-fresh Benue tragedy?
While the proposed ‘Cattle Colonies’ will not address the challenge, given the mutual ethnic and religious suspicions that have been thrown up, I also believe that Ranching, which remains the only enduring solution, will require enormous resources, attitudinal change and take a while to institute. But the most important thing now is to bring down the temperature/heat in Benue and other states in the Middle Belt and that will not happen until the authorities rein in the Miyetti Allah men who are rationalising anarchy and vowing to take the law into their own hands.
Indeed, that the Miyetti Allah threats are being condoned calls to question the neutrality of the security agencies that are headed, as it were, only by people from a section of the country. As an aside, such insensitivity in critical appointments serves only to fuel the kind of animosity that would make it difficult for any leader to build trust and inclusiveness in a plural society. That, sadly, is the way of the current administration.
Since the primary responsibility of a functioning state is to protect the lives and livelihoods of all citizens, it should worry President Buhari that Nigeria is fast becoming a funeral home under his watch.
- This piece was written by Olusegun Adeniyi/Thisday