When serious figures like Wole Soyinka and the Ooni of Ife start issuing calls for Nigerians to “defend their ancestral lands” and warning that the “colonial contraption known as Nigeria cannot survive another Civil War”, it would seem high time the Buhari government realized something has gone amiss.
Calling on civilians to “defend” their lands is a vote of no confidence in the Nigerian state to perform its primary role of protecting life, liberty and property. It is unlikely either Soyinka or the Ooni would have issued such a remarkable statement if they hadn’t been inundated with stories of people suffering violence and its threat at the hands of Fulani pastoralists. The 30-day ultimatum issued by the Coalition of Northern Groups for the federal government to implement the controversial Ruga settlement plan seems to have further radicalized their stance. Meanwhile, in May this year, another influential Yoruba, Olusegun Obasanjo, warned of a growing “Fulanization” agenda.
While Obasanjo can be plausibly portrayed as pursuing a political vendetta against a government he wanted ousted, it would take significant ill-will to suggest Soyinka and many of the other non-politicians speaking out on this issue are doing so to achieve personal or sectarian objectives. The “Fulani herdsmen” issue is a complex one to be sure. From as far back as the pre-colonial era, nomadic pastoralist Fulanis have been present in much of the territories now known as Nigeria. In many areas, they had hitherto largely peacefully co-existed with local communities for all these years; some speak fluent Yoruba, Igbo and other southern Nigerian languages.
The difference today is that Nigeria’s population has nearly quadrupled from 55 million citizens at independence to an estimated 200 million today. Meanwhile, there is no more land now than there was in 1960. Factor in advancing desertification, adverse climate change and an increasing number of people competing for ever scarcer good land, and you have the makings for aggressive human conflict.
Add the growing pervasiveness of violent banditry and kidnapping in Nigeria, and you have a ready-made cocktail of fear, anxiety and heightened mutual suspicion. Combine all of this with a Fulani president who is seen as remarkably liberal in his reactions to systematic violence involving “his people” at the forefront compared to his no-nonsense clampdown on pro-Biafran agitators, and you have all the ingredients for a conflict increasingly interpreted through an ethnic lens.
A Nigerian president who does not want the spread of conspiracy theories about his or her ethnic group harbouring ethnic-domination plans must be quick to speak and act against any form of ethnic-based or even seemingly ethnic-based violence from members of their own group in particular. A Yoruba president should go out of his or her way to act against any exhibitions of Yoruba sectarianism while in office, ditto an Igbo president, and so forth. This sends a powerfully reassuring message to other groups.
Justifying his controversial suspension of Justice Walter Onnoghen early this year, President Buhari argued that “if justice cannot be done and clearly seen to be done, society itself is at risk of the most unimaginable chaos.”Indeed. But if that argument held true in the case of a single individual, how much more so in the case of a sizeable group of individuals perpetrating large-scale violence and mayhem across the country? If justice is not done and clearly seen to be done in the case of numerous attacks by Fulani pastoralists on other people’s properties and lands, how does Buhari expect southerners not to believe there may exist a “recurrent internal colonization project” as Soyinka and the Ooni’s statements alleged?
Surely this president has been around long enough to know the power of perceptions. The Igbos have never had the numbers or resources to dominate Nigeria, yet that didn’t stop millions of people believing in plans for “Igbo-domination” during the colonial and post-colonial era. We all know how that ended. The same applies today with regards to talk of a “Fulanization” agenda. It is absurd to suggest an ethnic group that constitutes just 7% of Nigeria’s population could possibly overwhelm the rest of the country in any realistic scenario, even with “their man” as president.
But the danger with perceptions of threat from out-groups is that they don’t need to be steeped in reality to do damage; all they need to be is plausible enough to a large enough group of people. This group can then infect others with that most infectious of human emotions: fear. Once fear penetrates the hearts of men, reason goes out the window. Neighbours turn on neighbours. The growing sense in the southern parts of Nigeria that this government is unwilling or unable to protect inhabitants from attacks by armed bandits seen as part of some ethno-ideological agenda is dangerous stuff indeed. If Buhari does not act decisively and effectively upon the growing cries of voices like Soyinka et al to tackle this crisis, then God help us all.