Herdsmen and Defence minister’s controversial views

IN their meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday, Nigeria’s security chiefs took another look at the killings going on in some parts of the country, particularly the Middle Belt where herdsmen have been accused of masterminding bloodbaths over grazing routes and farmlands. There was no communiqué at the end of the meeting, nor a statement by the president’s spokesmen.

But the Defence minister, Mansur Dan Ali, a retired brigadier-general, caused a disingenuous statement to be issued on his behalf in which he reportedly made private suggestions on the crisis rather than the security council indicating a consensus on the crisis. But the minister’s suggestions have become hugely controversial. In the statement issued by his public relations officer, Col. Tukur Gusau, immediately after the meeting with the president, the minister was said to have suggested that to reduce tension in the affected states of Benue, Ekiti and Taraba the implementation of the anti-open grazing laws passed by the three states must be suspended, while safe grazing routes for the herdsmen should be negotiated. Of course he made some other suggestions relating to the grave and spiralling problems of mindless killings and banditry in other parts of the country, particularly Zamfara and Kaduna States. Col. Gusau’s statement was not so carefully worded that the suggestions of the Defence minister did not appear coterminous with the decisions of the nation’s security chiefs, all of whom were present at the meeting.

But as far as the herdsmen crisis was concerned, the minister appears eager and bold enough to claim ownership and responsibility. He will of course recall that he had in January 2018 made an equally controversial statement on the herdsmen problem, insisting, rather than suggesting, shortly after emerging from a meeting with the president, that herdsmen were left with no choice but to force the issue when they discovered that grazing routes had been constricted or blocked by deliberate and unfavourable state policies as well as urbanisation over the decades.

Then as well as now, it has become clear that President Buhari is unable to manage the herdsmen crisis with the even-handedness expected of him. If after meeting him together with other security chiefs, the Defence minister could still issue the seemingly one-sided statements attributed to him explaining and even justifying herdsmen’s strong-arm tactics, then it points to the fact that the nation’s security chiefs appear to have bought into the same argument proffered by Brig.-Gen. Dan Ali (retd.). Increasingly, Nigerians may be beginning to acknowledge that as far as the herdsmen crisis is concerned, the Buhari presidency will not be able to propose a single, well-defined, not to talk of logical, answer to the crisis. The Defence minister’s suggested solution to the tension between herdsmen and locals is to advocate the suspension of the implementation of the anti-open grazing laws. In other words, he suggests that the trigger for the crisis are the laws passed by the three states. Yet, evidence shows that the killings orchestrated in those states that have passed the law and other states yet to pass that same law predate the passage of the laws. In short, the laws were more likely a consequence of the violence and killings in those states than a cause. Strangely, the Defence minister fails to see the problem form this evidential angle. But the Defence minister is not the only one among the nation’s security chiefs who sees the crisis favourably from the herdsmen’s angle. The controversial and defiant police chief of the nation, Ibrahim Idris, once suggested that the problem was not quite as complex and insurmountable as many saw it. According to him, the killings were a product of communal crisis.

Even though he later reversed himself, he finally gave his unalterable position that until the anti-open grazing laws were suspended, no one could guarantee an end to the crisis. The president himself followed suit with conflicting explanations of his own. First, he indicated that the crisis was between brothers, and a decision by everyone to accommodate his fellow countrymen would placate the killers. He later modified this explanation by suggesting that remnants and stragglers of the Libyan civil war, or at least their weapons, were responsible for the crisis and the killings in the Middle Belt. But guns follow ideas and intentions. Whatever the causes were, it was expected of the government first to proactively curb the killings and then address the remote and immediate causes of the crisis. Instead, the government has fiddled more with who or what was to blame rather than bring the killers to justice and stop the flow of blood. The Defence minister’s reiteration that the law regulating grazing must first be suspended fits into the same mould of exculpating the killers and blaming the victims. Whether the anti-open grazing laws were sound or not, the first step is to bring the killers to justice.

That, sadly, has not been done. Worse, the government has fished for motives in a way that leaves farmers and native communities feeling despondent and abandoned. In addition, the government’s conflicting and unsubstantiated theories about the crisis have unfortunately promoted the suspicion that it could not be trusted to manage the crisis with the neutrality demanded of it by the people and the constitution. Even more damaging to the government’s credibility is the fact that more people are becoming persuaded that neither the security chiefs nor the presidency possesses the capacity to think its way through the festering crisis.

The problem may therefore linger for much longer than many expect. The Defence minister is bold and outspoken on the herdsmen crisis, even seeming to view it more narrowly than probably some of his colleagues in the country’s security council. Soon after he made his reiteration, the National Assembly shrieked that his interventions were misplaced and misconceived. On their own, many Nigerians were aghast that the country’s Defence minister could proudly embrace a narrow perspective of the difficult crisis. But all considered, the minister has not seemed to deviate at all from the presidency’s position.

That position may not be popular, and may even be scandalously parochial, especially considering how their allegations that agent provocateurs could be fanning the embers of the crisis have tended to obfuscate the problem. But apparently, they will stick to their guns as ardently as the Defence minister’s view has both exemplified and amplified the government’s position. It is pointless trying to persuade the government to see the problem from the perspective of redesigning their animal husbandry and dairy farming policies. They are enamoured of ancient cattle rearing practices, and are more anxious to protect and advance the interests of the nomadic herdsmen rather than weigh the dilemma and pains of farmers and host communities whose countryside and forests have been turned into a theatre of war.

The government is also strangely unable to understand why some Nigerians are uncomfortable with the skewness of the nation’s security council, a malformation that has seemed to render their debates unproductive and insular monologues. And because the government has not been able to come up with a unified and sensible explanation for the crisis, let alone  attempt to build a consensus around a logical solution, the crisis may be much farther away from resolution than anyone thinks. It is troubling that the country’s security chiefs seem to think that the herdsmen crisis is nothing more than a law and order matter. For the umpteenth time, they must be told that it is not. The crisis will not abate simply because most, if not all, security chiefs think that once herdsmen’s rage is mollified by unrestricted access to dwindling grazing lands, peace would reign. Nor should they imagine that by simply applying force against troublemakers, who are a symptom of deeper underlying fissures, peace would be fostered. The presidency and the nation’s security chiefs may not inspire much confidence in their capacity to tackle the crisis, but it is still urgent that they must be compelled to find lasting and structural answers to the crisis. Every other measure, including opening grazing routes or counselling distressed farmers, will be nothing more than a palliative.

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