How did Fulani herdsmen become such bogeymen in Nigeria?

Fulani cow. Moor Plantation, Ibadan. Image credit Dr. Mary Gillham via Dr. Mary Gillham Archive Project on Flickr.

In the last few months, alleged attacks on innocent civilians by herdsmen across Nigeria have been on the rise. These attacks have preoccupied commentators from across the political and religious spectrum in Nigeria. Many of these pundits have ascribed the preponderance of these attacks to a particular ethnic group noted for their pastoral life: Fulanis.

The Fulanis are a majority Muslim ethnic group whose life are heavily dependent on animal pastures. As a result, some of these pundits have ossified around the discourse of an attempt by the Fulanis to reproduce the Usman Fodio Jihad of 1804, with the intent of spreading Islam across the country. The fact that current President Muhammadu Buhari is a Fulani Muslim also adds to this speculation about the Fulanis planning to take over Nigeria. To buttress the point about a planned “Islamization” of Nigeria by these Fulani pastoralists, many of these pundits, especially those on social media often circulate pictures of herder’s wielding AK-47s while tending to their pasture. Many of these widely circulated pictures of alleged AK-47 wielding herders have been discredited as either photoshopped fakes or simply images found randomly on the Internet. More importantly, some Christian leaders such as Bishop Oyedepo of Winners Chapel recently claimed to have received a letter from herders where the herders wrote “God had given them the land.” Oyedepo’s claim of receiving a letter from herders who want to Islamize Nigeria has been proven to be false.

However, what is missing in this conversation is the question as to why and how a pastoralist community suddenly becomes a roving insurgency across the country. Several factors can be adduced for the incessant attacks on innocent farmers across the country.

Many of these factors are interrelated and intertwined. They include: the emergence of Boko Haram as a roving insurgency; the effects of climate change on herders; the spread of small arms across the Sahara Desert; and the growing ethnic and religious mistrust in Nigeria.

Before moving forward, it must be noted that many Nigerian communities always had lived in harmony with pastoralists. Many of us who grew up in rural Nigeria would remember the constant presence of Fulani herders in our community who were always welcomed with open arms. In the 1970s and 1980s many kids would welcome Fulani herders to town centers with the chant of “Baba Yaya,” signifying that the herders were the fathers of the cattle. Calling the herders Baba Yaya was not in anyway meant to discountenance the importance of fatherhood for the herders, but was in recognition of the love the herders had for their herds, as well as their kids who would also follow them around while herding cattle.

Why and how have the children of the Baba Yaya era, who are today’s pundits, suddenly become an advocate for the complete annihilation of Baba Yaya? What has changed? Unpacking these factors will help in deepening the conversation about these attacks particularly on farmers.

Recent reports indicate that the number of casualties associated with herdsmen violence is just behind that ascribed to Boko Haram in Nigeria. But there is a correlation between the dislodgement of Boko Haram from their most active sites in the Northeast and the rise in violence associated with the so-called herdsmen in many parts of Nigeria. While not disputing that there are attacks perpetrated by herdsmen, to put all attacks in one box will be tantamount to reductionism. It will be absolutely correct to assert that many of the attacks associated with herdsmen may actually be attacks carried out by remnants of Boko Haram dislodged from their most potent spaces. Thus, many of these dislodged Boko Haram militants have basically turned themselves into roving insurgents across the country. Additionally, the instability occasioned by the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast has also meant that many pastoralists would have had to relocate their cattle to a safer pasture.

The presence of an unusually large number of herders has resulted in a form of economic, religious and political anxiety in the South. Herders moving through areas in search for new pastures has led to large scale destruction of farmlands. This is happening in areas not used to seeing a large number of herds. So, lives and properties are destroyed, and there is greater distrust amongst the population.

The crisis is compounded by the associated problem of small arms floating within the West African corridor, particularly the Maghreb route. The preponderance of small arms in the region has also meant an increase in rebellions, especially in states such as Nigeria with a weak security apparatus. A weak security architecture, combined with social injustice, creates rebellions that are in most cases lacking in ideological clarity. The lack of clarity makes these rebels susceptible to sponsorship from different interests, whose ultimate intent could be destabilization of the state as a result of their displacement from governmental patronage networks.

The question then becomes, how are these insurgents with no clarity of purpose able to recruit members into their dysfunctional group? The answer to this question is not far-fetched. First, the effect of climate change on the rise of social inequality in many parts of the country has meant the increased susceptibility of socially vulnerable groups to recruitment. The Lake Chad basin that had for many years provided employment for many young adults in the region is drying up. Many whose livelihood depended on their ability to fish, graze or farm have had to contend with two obstacles — drying rivers as a result of climate change and insurgency by Boko Haram in the name of religion. In the absence of gainful employment, those who could not flee the insurgents are either forced into it or incentivized to join.

In this hysteria, elites in the South are pushing their states to abandon the project of animal husbandry as a large scale agricultural policy. Many governors elected, by not only indigenes of their states but all residents of the state, including Fulanis, now are awoken at night from nightmarish visions of invasion by cattle with sutured head like demons. The cattle have become the metaphor for an alleged Islamization of Southern Nigeria by those considered to be “alien” even if these same aliens are entitled to rights as Nigerians.

Many in our human rights community have abandoned the struggle for the rights of all citizens. Yesterday’s human rights activists have become today’s champions of ethno-nationalism in alliance with those they had previously despised as collaborators with military autocrats. But in idiotic shortsightedness, driven by the Southern elites bigotry to see Islamization where there is none, they are blinded to see the potentials that abound in terms of employment opportunities and fiduciary gains for the people if animal husbandry is commercialized in their states

The elite make it look as if the North has a God-given right to monopolize the animal husbandry industry. This is myopia at its worst affliction. Relying on the vituperative tantrums of religious merchants, media profiteers and ethnic irredentists, who are hell bent on causing division and ethnic hatred in furtherance of their own self serving agenda, is not the way to go. We owe a duty to ourselves to free the Nigerian state from this melancholy.

Omolade Adunbi

Omolade Adunbi, an anthropologist, teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is author of Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria.

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