Northern elders’ goof

February 8, 2021
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Last week’s statement by the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) urging Fulani herdsmen currently grazing their cattle in different parts of the South to return to the northern region if their security could not be guaranteed is not only unhelpful; it is downright irresponsible and likely to worsen the existing situation by fanning the embers of conflict between the herdsmen and their host communities.

Signed by its Director of Publicity and Advocacy, Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, the Forum’s statement alluded to “reports of ejections, under threats and attacks, of Fulani herders, families and communities in some states of the South, appealing to “law-abiding Fulani communities to seek protection where it is available” and “resist temptation (sic) to take the law into their hands.” The statement also warned “people who threaten law-abiding Fulani communities in all parts of Nigeria, particularly in some parts of the South, to desist since the “majority of Fulani are law-abiding and have rights to live lawfully wherever they can find means of subsistence.”

In the light of the urgent need to seek reconciliation between Fulani herders and their host communities in the southern part of the country, the NEF’s statement is a missed opportunity. In the first place, the statement neglects any mention of why herder-host relations have deteriorated over the course of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, and how the ensuing atmosphere of mutual suspicion both fuels and is at the same time reinforced by the worsening insecurity in the country.  The statement is right in observing that the “majority of Fulani are law-abiding and have rights to live lawfully wherever they can find means of subsistence.” As to the first part of the statement, namely that the majority of Fulani are law-abiding citizens, this is a red herring, as the Northern Elders Forum is merely repeating a fact that no one denies, and which is not at all in question.

The same thing applies to the second part of the statement. True, Fulani have the rights to live lawfully wherever they can find means of subsistence. But again, this is a fact that is not open to debate. The real question is what happens when your right to live lawfully and find means of subsistence positively denies the other party their own constitutionally guaranteed rights.

The freedom that Fulani herders enjoy to live anywhere they like in the country is the same freedom guaranteed to every Nigerian by the constitution. Nevertheless, freedom to graze cattle is not freedom to camp on other people’s land, trample their crops, and destroy their means of livelihood. Nor is it freedom to kidnap farmers and other hapless citizens, set farmlands on fire, and commit serial rapes and murders. This is a crucial distinction that the NEF statement obtusely glosses over.

We regret that the NEF statement offered no meaningful ideas on the broader backdrop to the herders’ search for greener pastures in the South: increasing desertification across the North. Nor does it in any way allude to the key question of open grazing, which is more likely than not to lead to conflict between herders and host communities. The country needs more thoughtful and productive interventions than the statement by the Northern Elders Forum.

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