“Herders’ republic: Nigeria at cusp of another security crisis”, Punch, May 4, 2016

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Nigeria’s security challenges continue to escalate. While the Boko Haram insurgence keeps mutating, kidnappings and hostage taking for ransom rise in competition as side dishes in the main course of the country’s ignominious rise in terrorism profile. Yet, the abducted Chibok girls remain a scar on the conscience of the Nigerian government at all levels. At present, Nigeria’s abysmal human rights record is taking another stress at the instance of recent violent encounter between members of the Shiite Islamic sect and the military. The Shiites-military incident casts Nigeria at the centre of high-stake diplomatic intrigues and religious chess game beyond its borders whereof the country would have no absolute control of the undercurrents other than bear the consequences of self-inflicted victimhood.

Recently, the lingering tension between nomads and traditional farming communities has taken a new dimension. The boldness with which itinerant cattle herders (by whatever named called and whatever ethnicity associated) have continued to violently and regularly disrupt, kill, maim, rape and overrun settled farming communities is alarming. The blood has yet to dry on the recent mayhem in Enugu State. In the absence of state protection, such occurrences drum support for ethnic or regional militias as a civic defence strategy by affected communities and regions. Nigeria’s dismal national security profile is ill-equipped to contain another phase in the rise of ethnically organised militia franchise at this point in its fragile socio-economic unravelling.

Not only do these herdsmen-farmer clashes strike at the core of Nigeria’s highly vulnerable ethno-political fault lines, they have ramifications for the prevalent challenges of climate change and food security. Like all other African countries, crop farmers produce over 80 per cent of the food consumed in Nigeria. Leaving this critical lifeblood of Nigeria’s economic and cultural life at the mercy of herders and their cattle is not an option. Farmers, a majority of whom are women, are under siege. Not only do they constitute the bedrock of Nigeria’s informal economy, the unofficial farming sector is the highest sectoral employer of labour in the country as in other African countries. Nigeria cannot afford to throw its farmers under the bus. Not before now; not at all now; when the importance of agriculture as the most enduring alternative to the country’s economic stability is more compelling than ever. Agriculture is Nigeria’s most viable place of retreat at the dawning reality of a post-carbon economy when excessive dependence on fossil fuel increasingly becomes an unviable forward pathway.

The skirmish over natural resources, in the present case, water and grazing fields, would become direr as the rubber hits the road on climate change. That struggle has significant security implications for Nigeria, and indeed other African countries. Its resolution requires thoughtful intervention, including a combination of policy options rooted in technology and innovation as well as on political and sustainability policy responses. Itinerant herding is an age-long practice. Like all aspects of culture and civilisation, its purveyors must adapt to the new realities. Private ranching, which has tourism potential, is one such option. This is different from any legislative fait to appropriate traditional crop farmlands of indigenous and local communities in whatever disguise.  In a multi-ethnic society like Nigeria, co-existence, and not conquer, is a sacred code of social cohesion.  In detesting the colonial culture of conquest, which has some parallel to Nigeria’s current herdsmen-instigated internal strife, Arthur Agwuncha Nwankwo has observed, there is no standard of morality by which the conquest and subjugation of one by another without any provocation whatsoever can be rationalised.

In Nigeria’s present case, the ongoing resource and environmental tension represented by herders’ clash with crop farmers has embedded religious connotation. Most itinerant herders are northerners, especially of the Fulani stock and are adherents of the Islamic faith. And their encounters with farmers happen mainly in southern states and regions where majority are Christians and animists. Perennial ethno-religious suspicion in Nigeria often fuels apprehensions of ulterior subtext over the escalating tension. Such a setting has consequent significant security dimension that can easily be exploited by those that do not wish Nigeria well. The governments of Nigeria may choose to neglect these increasing tensions at their own peril. Already, politicians are playing to the gallery with some postulating that the marauding and highly weaponised herders are not Nigerians. Assuming, but not admitting, that they are not Nigerians, what does their menace say of the state of Nigeria’s national security?   There is a perception of state impunity for the herders given evident lack of resolve by the government to rein them in. Whether that perception is accurate or not, Nigeria cannot afford to bury its head on the sand before these hydra-headed security monsters that taunt its corporate existence get out of hand.

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka was spot on when he noted recently that “For every crime, there is a punishment, for every violation, there must be restitution. The nomads of the world cannot place themselves above the law of settled humanity”. Nigeria ought to know that climate change and resource control present complex interface of security challenges. That country is potentially a perfect test case of the intersection of these interrelated elements. A national strategy based on innovation, security, sustainability and political will is urgently required to mediate the present agro-ecological tension that threatens to disrupt Africa’s most populous country and arguably the continent’s largest economy.

There is no more qualified person or government to champion the initiative than President Muhammadu Buhari and his government. The President is a retired general and a cattle farmer with close traditional association with herders. But so far, Nigerians are far from impressed over their government’s handling of the fast escalating crisis. And none has yet so aptly captured the national mood on the subject than Soyinka when he observed: “I have yet to hear this government articulate a firm policy of non-tolerance for the serial massacres (of innocent farmers by herdsmen) have become the nation’s identification stamp.  I have not heard an order given that any cattle herders caught with sophisticated firearms be instantly disarmed, arrested, placed on trial, and his cattle confiscated”. According to him, government’s response “smacks of abject appeasement and encouragement of violence on innocents.”

A stitch in time, they say, saves nine.

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