Opinion: The Sultan, the Cardinal, and killer herdsmen – By TUNJI AJIBADE


Getting to know a Sultan and a Cardinal well is a difficult task. I mean getting to know what either of them thinks.  It’s because we don’t get to see a Sultan or hear a Cardinal every day. This is essentially true of the years before the emergence of Sa’ad Abubakar as the Sultan of Sokoto, and Olubunmi Okogie as Cardinal and Catholic Archbishop of Abuja.

But both elders have worked to bring about changes. I can’t recall any other Sultan who has travelled to so many parts of Nigeria – north and south – as Abubakar has done. In the process, he makes many more Nigerians, Christians and Muslims, feel comfortable with the person and office of the Sultan. At public events, Abubakar speaks frankly to national issues such that those of us who pay attention to what he says feel we understand his mindset. Abubakar has shown to the country that he’s a Sultan of the people, and he’s for the unity of this nation. The other year, he hosted some NYSC members from the South serving in Sokoto State. Thereafter, these corps members told journalists how comfortably they felt around Abubakar as well as in Sokoto State about which they previously held strange and erroneous impressions.

Many of the things that I state about Abubakar apply to Okogie too. He’s the first Cardinal I’ve seen in Nigeria who makes one feel he’s a Cardinal of the people. He’s comfortable in the midst of both the low and the high. Because of him, I wish we have more Cardinals who, as he does, use their good offices to help our nation and promote its unity. The other time, Okogie collaborated with Abubakar to hold an Interfaith Conference on Religious Harmony in Nigeria. They put the conference together with the success of the 2019 general election in mind. President Muhammadu Buhari was present. The Cardinal and the Sultan said they had one aim which was to get religious leaders to properly direct their followers. Leaders, they added, “should act in controlling and sensitising their adherents to the necessity of living in peace and harmony.” They note that this has become necessary following past unfortunate religious crises in Nigeria and the need to prevent such in the 2019 general election.

Why is this worth pointing out? The Cardinal and the Sultan belong to the category of a few religious leaders in Nigeria who work to ensure our people live together in peace. While they do this, there are in this nation religious leaders who fan the embers of hate and violence. They talk to their followers in a way that can make them hate rather than love. I’ve asked on this page before if this is what the Holy Book of any religious leader teaches them. Of course, there will be offences. My argument is however simple: The moment a religious leader descends into the “Us versus Them” narrative, defending ethnicity (while using religion as a cover) rather than seek restoration and sustenance of peace among our feuding people, they have abandoned the call of their office. They may as well look for another job.

Yes, we hear appalling stories involving herdsmen and farmers. There are reports that some herdsmen kill people who don’t offend them apart from saying animals shouldn’t be let loose to eat their crops. I place this strictly within the context of the national security challenges that we have. A careful analysis of each local case of violence involving herdsmen and farmers, not the uninformed sentiments that some spread, makes this clear. Killings continue in the Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara areas. It’s noteworthy that killers there are mostly referred to in news reports as “armed bands” and “cattle rustlers”. Katsina and Jigawa states are not left out. A few weeks ago, people of Fulani origin who were farmers in some villages in Jigawa State called on the government to help deal with the Fulani herders who raided their farms and killed their people. In Gombe State, victims – Fulani and non-Fulani farmers – in the Muslim dominated north and central senatorial zones have related the same tales to me. They state how herdsmen usually cross international borders and make animals eat their water melon, groundnut and maize plants before these are taken home from the farm during the harvest period.

I’ve been to some of the affected areas. I notice they are usually remote rural settings that police officers can’t reach until these herders have left the scene of the havocs they cause. In such places, security operatives aren’t immediately available to make arrests even when a farmer is killed by these herders. In Gombe, especially, people generally bear their pains and losses in silence. The examples point to acts perpetrated by criminals who exploit the inadequacies in our security system. Any contrary narrative is either limited in scope and understanding or deliberately pushed for political gains as well as present a picture of victimhood. Meanwhile, victims in the cited cases haven’t been limited to members of one religion or ethnic group. In addition, there’s nothing ethnic or religious about how, when, where and against whom these crimes are committed. I take note how the leaders of one faith take up the battle for their members but they are silent when people of the other faith are killed by these criminal in places such as Zamfara and Kebbi.

What is seen in Jigawa and Gombe plays out in states across the Middle Belt area. But here, the media has helped to perpetuate stories that the activities of some herders are part of a grand plan to eliminate members of a religious group in the north. Ethnic tag is also given to criminality by regularly calling those who engage in it “Fulani herdsmen” rather than criminals that such persons are.  Criminals exploit our security inadequacies to carry out armed robbery and kidnapping in Nigeria’s south. No one calls those involved “Igbo armed robbers” or “Yoruba kidnappers”. I state here that those who refer to Fulani herdsmen rather than criminal elements consciously or unconsciously take this matter out of its proper context of our security challenges. Others find the Fulani narrative convenient against the backdrop of ethnic tension that has always been there between the Fulani and other ethnic groups in the Middle Belt area from the pre-colonial period.  There’s also the use of Fulani-related issues for political purposes. I was in the hinterlands of the Middle Belt areas late 2014 when some politicians went around villages telling old people that if Muhammadu Buhari,  a Fulani, came to power, Christians in the north would be Islamised. I state that every attack and reprisal between herdsmen and farmers from Southern Kaduna, Plateau, Benue, to Taraba and Adamawa is often milked for its political gains.

I reiterate here that from the outset, the fact that some herdsmen successfully attack farmers and escape is purely the challenge of inadequacies in a security system that should tackle and arrest the criminals involved. This has equally encouraged reprisals, the type shown recently in the killing of a retired Major-General of the Nigerian Army in Plateau State. These are criminal acts. It doesn’t help to link crime to any particular ethnic group. Such linkage distorts the narrative, making an understanding of the issues involved more difficult. It equally beclouds judgment which has primarily led to reprisals. I believe tagging criminals with their ethnic affiliation as is being done in areas from Southern Kaduna all the way to Taraba and Adamawa states creates room for a wrong analysis, understanding and response to the security challenges involved. I agree with Sultan Abubakar who has said criminal herdsmen should be called criminals rather than be tagged “Fulani” herdsmen.

The reader may note that in the news concerning killings in Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara, as well as Birnin-Gwari (populated by Muslims in the north-central part of Kaduna State) reporters hardly mention “Fulani herdsmen”. They say “armed bandits” and “cattle rustlers”. When crime is committed in the herdsmen-farmers crisis, narrating it from ethnic or religious perspective rather than criminality doesn’t help anyone. It only breeds hate and more violence. While some leaders push negative narratives, few strive to reconcile our people. Sultan Abubakar and Cardinal Okogie belong to the latter. All well-meaning Nigerians need to appreciate and encourage them. Punch


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