Bandit here, Fulani terrorist there!

By Mahmud Jega

Why is it that when a person commits an atrocity in one part of Nigeria, he is called a criminal or a bandit but when he commits the same atrocity in another part of the same country, ethnic, political, religious and conquest motives are ascribed to the deed? To be more specific, why is it that when a criminal gang kidnaps someone in Zamfara State or on the Abuja-Kaduna highway, they are described as “kidnappers” but when the same gangsters carry out a kidnap operation on the Ibadan-Ife highway, they are called “Fulani herdsmen,” “terrorists” or “Jihadists”?

Since 2013 at least, thousands of people have been killed in Zamfara State by armed men who raid and sack communities, rustle cattle, kill anyone they can find, set fire to villages and they send tens of thousands fleeing to IDP camps. Many Nigerians have even crossed the border into Niger Republic to find succor. Most of the gangs that carried out and still carry out these atrocities were identified by their victims as ethnic Fulani. I don’t doubt their account because almost all the attack victims have said so and also because a Hausa speaker knows the Fulani accent very well. In fact, the two communities once lived together in harmony so the victims even know the names of some of the attackers.

With the exception of Borno State in the hands of Boko Haram, no state in Nigeria since the Civil War ever came under the reign of criminals as much as Zamfara State did in the last seven years or so. Three rounds of special military operations, including bombing of suspected bandit camps by the Air Force, are yet to stop the atrocities. Yet, no one in Zamfara State ever said there was an agenda to conquer their lands, cleanse them ethnically, colonise them, or convert them to another religion. Instead, the newspapers referred to the criminals in Zamfara State as “bandits,” even if many of their attacks qualify as terrorism and mass murder.

In the past month or so however, armed robbery and kidnapping stepped up in the South West states. Now, these crimes, especially armed robbery, are not new to the region, contrary to the impression created by some spokesmen. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, from what we read every day in Daily Times and other newspapers, most armed robbery in Nigeria took place in Lagos, the South West as well as in the South East states. The situation was so bad that the Federal Military Government responded with the Robbery and Firearms Decree which prescribed the death penalty by firing squad for armed robbers. Lagos was the scene of many executions of convicted armed robbers in those days, what the newspapers called “the Bar Beach show.” Many executions also took place in Ibadan, Benin, Enugu and other cities.

In those days, no one worried about the robbers’ ethnic or religious identities. The newspapers called them armed robbers, pure and simple. If anyone wanted to research ontheir ethnic or religious identities, he could try to do so through their names. The newspapers did not bother to do so, even though Northerners made a mental note that most of the convicted men [there were no women, as far as I can recall] were Southerners.

The same rule applied to other crimes. For example, in 1985 when the Buhari/Idiagbon military administration apprehended and executed three drug traffickers—Lawal Akanni Ojuolape, Bernard Ogedengbe and Bartholomew Owoh—there was a nationwide plea for clemency by all religious, women, labour, student, professional and cultural associations. There was no reference in the newspapers to their regional or ethnic origins. Sheikh Abubakar Mahmud Gummi made a very passionate plea for their lives to be spared, which even drew an angry reply from the ruling soldiers and soon afterwards, his pension was stopped. I suspect that if the same incident were to happen these days, pleas for clemency will split along communal lines.

Nor was there ethnic and regional ascription of the criminals when Nigeria suffered other bouts of crime, including human trafficking to Europe, 419, Yahoo Yahoo and assassination. At one time in the 1980s, several people were assassinated at the doorsteps of churches in the South East. This was attributed by newspapers at the time to commercial disputes in Lagos and the manner of killing was done to emphasise malice. There was however no public talk about the killers’ ethnicity.

Mass kidnapping, which debuted at the end of last decade, started mostly in the South East before it spread like wildfire to other parts of the country. While it raged in the South East around 2008-2011, Igbos did not blame anyone else for importing the scourge. They went about tackling it and now the region is much safer, at least with respect to kidnapping, than it was ten years ago. Even though the news media massively celebrated the case of Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike alias Evans, he was consensually called “Billionaire Kidnapper” without reference to his ethnic origins. Which was just as well, because a rundown of Evans’ most prominent kidnap victims showed that ethnic solidarity was the last thing on his agenda.

With the recent explosion of kidnapping on highways in the South West region, several of the region’s leaders made many belligerent statements at the weekend ascribing political motives to the criminal acts. While some said it is terrorism, others said it was a plot to conquer their land. Still others said it was Fulanisation and Islamisation agenda, while some it is an effort to complete the Jihad from where Dan Fodio stopped in 1808. South Easterners borrowed a leaf; a viral video at the weekend showed a community in the South East driving pastoralists away from their community.

Like the South, like the Middle Belt. Last week, I saw a social media posting by an academic from Benue State who said, in reaction to the Federal Government’s plan to build Rugga settlements in some states, that it was always Shehu Dan Fodio’s wish to conquer the Benue River valley so that his kinsmen could graze their cattle in its rich pastures. Interesting. Dan Fodio, his brother Abdullahi Fodio and his son Muhammadu Bello together wrote hundreds of books and pamphlets. Could someone kindly show me a passage where they talked about acquiring grazing lands? Their mission was to reform Islamic practice, not to graze cattle.

If their main concern was grazing land, the Fodios needed not fight a Jihad because two hundred years ago, Northern Nigeria was wetter and the vegetation much greener than it is now. To boot, the population was a fraction of what it is now, so “population pressure” and “competition for land between farmers and herders” were not issues in those days. Even in my lifetime, I knew when the Sokoto-Rima rivers used to flood annually and their valley was lush with green vegetation, so I cannot imagine why Dan Fodio could have craved for the grass on the Benue valley. I don’t think he even owned cattle; I saw no mention of it in his numerous books.

If a solution is ever to be found to a scourge, it must begin by identifying it correctly. Attributing political motives to a purely criminal phenomenon only succeeds in mobilizing ethnic sympathy for the criminals, unduly heats up the polity, and also makes the search for a solution more difficult. In this wise, I commend to all partisans the example of Zamfara State’s new governor, Bello Muhammad Mutawalle. I read a story last week where he said many of the deadly attacks on communities in his state were “reprisal” attacks mounted by the bandits in response to local vigilante members’ indiscriminate killing of ethnic Fulani men in markets. Mutawalle did not take the politically easy path and said Fulanis were killing Hausas.

Ethnic jingoists beware, lest you incite wholesale attacks on the pastoral community or their cattle and they respond with deadly reprisal attacks.

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