The travails of Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom and the Benue people over persistent, consistent and well organised attacks from bandits appears to be a local problem, an issue for Benue State alone to take care of. But by being silent over the pains and slogs of the Benue people, Nigeria is gradually emptying itself into a calamity it may never recover from.
It is my informed opinion that this is war on the state. Whatever we call it, Boko Haram, herders or herdsmen, bandits, is not a battle between cattle rearers and farmers whose crops have been destroyed. This is an organised attack on the state, and we simply misrepresent them tagging them to be herders.
I grew up to meet herders in my Ogoni community. They will come to the farms during the day for grazing and in the evenings they return to their ranches in Bori. During our break periods in school, we sometimes watched them as they moved with the cows through our primary school and would have fun as the birds clinched the parasitic insects that perched on the cows. They messed up our football pitch but we were used to that and it never caused a problem.
We never had clashes with herders and they never posed a threat to the peace of our communities. Though they were dreaded because of the sharp knives they always take along. But I still cannot remember any incident of a herder using his knife on anyone in my community. Sometimes, the cows will destroy farmers fields and crops, it never led to violence against anybody. Such incidents will be resolved with their leaders in Bori when they do occur and it never stopped them from returning the following day for grazing in the safer parts of the farm.
Today, the story is different. Herders are now touted and misrepresented to constitute a huge threat to the peace and unity of our country. The ordeal of the Benue people and news reports of killings in the North, East and Western parts of our country are stunning. It appears the government is overwhelmed and unable to cope with these threats. But why the government is unable to win this battle is something I cannot comprehend.
The overwhelming situation has compelled me to ponder over some few questions: Are these the same herders or the likes of those I knew while attending primary school in my village? And based on facts and evidence, I can categorically say they are not.
These killers are not herders. I am further persuaded to think that those who promote these killers as herders may just be the real enemies of our country. What their goals are should be best known to them. However, based on my independent assessment, I am able to make some deductions:
The Boko Haram sect has been classified as the most deadly terrorist group in this part of the world. Global attention has turned to them as their operations now constitute real threat to the region. But the group has increasingly been difficult to manage and could become a new normal with the Nigerian Government only struggling to checkmate and repel their attacks.
While the government struggles in this war, what has happened is that Boko Haram has quickly decentralized their operations, assumed a new name and penetrated every part of Nigeria. They are now simply called herders or herdsmen. But the reality is that herders have lived with us for decades and have never constituted a threat to peace. These new paradigms of herders are terrorists and should be treated as such.
In my Ogoni country, Boko Haram have taken over parts of Nyo Khana Kingdom. The villagers woke up one morning to find over 2,000 cows occupying their farmlands and feeding on their crops. They engaged the herders and the response was rifles pointing at them. The local Police authorities have been unable to displace the headers and increasingly, lives are in danger if the situation is not carefully managed. On the other hand, the people see a state that is increasingly unable to provide security. A state that has lost control of how firearms flow into the country and are being distributed under the watch of a security team that still claims to be in control.
Unlike the herders we knew, some of whom were our friends, they related with us and were no threats to anybody, the new militants to whom the government expected us to give lands are no friends. It’s time to strengthen the fight against bandits by isolating them from herders. The government needs to lead this war and the citizens will support. A starting point should be to conduct routine security search on the residence of cattle rearers to determine the true herders from bandits. These must be conducted transparently to win the support of the people and should be done with focus on bandits and not violating the privacy of citizens.
We are all in danger and Abuja needs to intervene now before it becomes too late. Insecurity is gradually crippling our country. Parts of our territories have become overwhelmed and if we do nothing now, we may be unable to predict the future of our country.
Fegalo Nsuke is President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). He wrote from Abuja, Nigeria and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org