The session started with a powerful prayer offered by President Olusegun Obasanjo on the benevolence of God for sparing our lives. This was 8th February 2001 when the THISDAY Board of Editors and top management were at the Villa to thank the president for his intervention following our survival in a plane crash in Maiduguri two weeks earlier. It was particularly gratifying that Obasanjo had sent a Presidential Jet to convey us back to Lagos at a time when THISDAY columnists had been labelled ‘enemies’ of the administration. But Obasanjo would also never let such an occasion go without claiming his pound of flesh.
After our Chairman, Mr Nduka Obaigbena, concluded his remarks, the then president responded.
“You say you and your team are rededicating your lives and newspaper to working for the greater good of Nigeria…” He paused, executed the familiar clearing of throat and then added, “I hope you mean that.” This drew laughter but Obasanjo was not done. “In most cases, I take what Nigerian newspapers report with a pinch of salt. In your own case, I take it with a bag of salt”. It was as if we had taken our ‘Meet the Nation’ engagement to the Villa: “THISDAY, according to you people, stands for the cardinal principles of democracy, free enterprise and social justice. If indeed you stand for democracy and social justice, we should be standing together. I don’t know how often we stand together. But from now, maybe we shall be standing together. Because we should be standing together.”
There is really no reason why the media and government cannot stand together. The point of departure most often occurs when government begins to act in a manner that does not advance the public good. After a long lecture, Obasanjo came back to the crash that could have claimed our lives. Waxing ecclesiastical, he said: “Those of you who have been saved from the jaws of death, I congratulate you. I congratulate myself too. Because if you people had died in the crash while going round the country (I don’t even know what for) they will say it was during Obasanjo’s time that 14 journalists perished…”
I recall the foregoing against the background of what is happening in Nigeria today – not much different from the situation we faced 20 years ago. By the turn of the century, the declaration of Sharia in Zamfara and many other Northern states fractured the polity and divided the country along ethno-religious lines. The period coincided with members of the Ganiyu Adams-led faction of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) and a number of northern communities in Lagos embroiled in a war of attrition. It was under this acrimonious situation that Obaigbena proposed that THISDAY editors should tour the country to meet critical stakeholders, engage them on their fears while seeking common ground as to how we might strengthen our union to ensure it works for all citizens. Obaigbena told us how Henry Robinson Luce took editors of TIME magazine on such a tour of America. Perhaps then, and maybe even now, there is a bit of Luce in Obaigbena. In a letter to his then girlfriend (later wife) at age 23 when he was planning to establish TIME magazine (along with Briton Hadden, his colleague at The Baltimore News), Luce wrote: “[The] two of us are showing signs of pernicious insanity and will probably undertake a new publishing venture in a few months.”
We experienced quite a few such ‘insanity’ moments at THISDAY in those days so travelling around the country to ‘Meet The Nation’ was a perfect fit. Quite naturally, we decided to begin the dialogue sessions in the North. From Kaduna to Kano and Jos, we were received by huge turnouts of political and business elites and interactions were insightful. Then from Jos on the night of 22 January 2001 we were heading to Maiduguri when our journey terminated with a plane crash. Sadly, 20 years after those engagements on the state of our nation, nothing seems to have changed.
On Monday last week, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu asked all herdsmen to vacate forest reserves in Ondo State within seven days. “Today we have taken major steps at addressing the root cause of kidnapping, in particular, and other nefarious activities detailed and documented in security reports, the press and debriefings from victims of kidnap cases in Ondo State,” the governor stated. “These unfortunate incidents are traceable to the activities of some bad elements masquerading as herdsmen. These felons have turned our forest reserves into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out other criminal activities,” declared Akeredolu who banned night-grazing and prohibited movement of cattle within cities and highways in the state.
Barely 24 hours after Akeredolu’s statement, Chief Sunday Adeyemo aka Sunday Igboho, also gave an ultimatum to Fulani herders in Ibarapa North local government area of Oyo State to leave on account of the same problems. While both the Yoruba Council of Elders (YCE) and the Pan-Yoruba socio-political organization, Afenifere, cautioned that such an ultimatum was capable of fanning the embers of disunity and were looking for ways to diffuse tension, the presidency put itself in the middle of the crisis by issuing an unhelpful statement.
In my July 2019 intervention on the failed ‘Ruga Settlement’ proposition, Akeredolu was one of the leading voices in rejecting the idea. And his position could not be attributed to opposition politics, as he is a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). In the past few years, rural dwellers in Ondo State and other parts of the Southwest have been at the mercy of daredevil kidnappers who use the forests as their operational base. They kill, maim and rape—sometimes after collecting hefty ransoms from the families of victims. It therefore came as no surprise that Akeredolu would fire a salvo at the ‘bad elements masquerading as herdsmen’. That the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) leadership could reason with Akeredolu, as they did on Monday, implies that the presidency rushed to judgement over an issue it knows nothing about, raising questions about motive.
Following a visit to Katsina State last June, I interrogated the encroachment of grazing reserves in Kankara, Malumfashi, Bakori and other local governments resulting in many herders feeling short-changed. “The moment they realised that more money could be made from demanding ransom than rearing animals, the ‘diversification’ led to the violence that has become almost a daily staple in the state,” I wrote in the column titled, ‘Katsina: A State Under the Gun’. Following similar visits to Sokoto and Kebbi States at different times, I have also written on how these bandits practically hold Zamfara State by the jugular.
That many of these criminal elements have found their way to the southern parts of the country where they have set up ‘shops’ in some of the forests is not in doubt. The fact that security agencies (disproportionately headed by one section of the country) seem incapable of dealing with the problem has led to an accusation of complicity. But can we criminalise all Fulani people because of the action of a few? How do we classify the ritualists, the ‘One-chancers’, the armed robbers etc. who are not Fulani but equally constitute a menace to the people not only in the Southwest but across the country?
What we are dealing with is a collapse of security, across the board. It is not limited to any region. In fact, it is more widespread in the North; with the Abuja-Kaduna road now almost impassable. Kidnapping has become a business, especially when the state has shown that it lacks the capacity to secure people or take justice to the criminals. There are also many ungoverned spaces that make it easy for them to thrive. True, herdsmen have been implicated in most places, especially in the Northwest and Southwest, but the exploding criminal enterprise is peopled not exclusively by herdsmen.
The challenge at hand is insecurity, not ethnicity, but when the two are allowed to comingle, it is always combustible. The dilemma of asking the Fulani—including those who have lived in Yorubaland for centuries—to leave the Southwest was most eloquently summed up in a tweet last Sunday by my friend, Akin Adesokan, an associate professor of comparative literature at Indiana University, Bloomington, United States: “Sunday Ìgbòho and Seriki Fulani speak in the same Òkè-Ògùn accent, though the Seriki’s expression for illegal mining (“won nwa kùsà”) is hardcore Yorùbá. Bigotry and violence feed on rich African resources, material and human.”
With the inferno of insecurity raging across Nigeria, stereotyping people on the basis of their ethnicity or religion can only energize certain subliminal impulses that constitute a serious threat to peace. In a pluralistic society such as ours, profiling not only creates and perpetuates a poisonous social environment, it also makes peaceful co-existence very difficult. But in an environment where those who should resolve crisis apply double standards in dealing with security challenges, that precisely is what you get. With all that has been going on in the Southwest, there has been no visible engagement beyond one partisan press statement and a feeble threat from the Inspector General of Police against Sunday Igboho. Was any threat of arrest made when some other territorial entrepreneurs were also seizing the space on behalf of ‘their people’?
Following a risky peace mission to Fulani settlements along Abuja-Kaduna routes that have become notorious for banditry and kidnapping, respected Islamic cleric, Dr Ahmad Gumi, has made shocking revelations. Sharing his experience in Daily Trust newspaper at the weekend, the Sheikh said the bandits and kidnappers who carry out the nefarious activities are mere foot soldiers and that the real kingpins live in the cities. Asked whether he was not afraid for his life engaging such characters, this is Gumi’s response: “I am not afraid of the bandits. I am more afraid of those people who capitalize and exploit them. When we asked some of the bandits why they kidnap people, they said they don’t know the rich people, they don’t go to towns but there are people in the cities who ask them to attack certain rich people. So, the bandits are only agents. When the ransom is paid, it belongs to those people in the town, the bandits are only paid an operational fee. If you see them, they are tattered.
One of the commanders was wearing slippers and you just can’t see any sign of the millions on them. So, those (the sponsors) are the people I fear because we live in the city with them and because they fear that we are trying to break their chain or hold on their agents. The people I fear are those that are capitalizing on the weakness of the Fulani to indoctrinate them with their own ideology.”
The import of Gumi’s statement is that what we are dealing with is organised crime into which many of these nomads have been recruited. What then comes out clearly is the failure of intelligence for which we must hold the State Security Service (SSS) to account. If Sheikh Gumi could identify kidnappers and trace them to their abodes, why couldn’t the SSS track their movement across the country as they rape, loot and kill, causing ethnic hostilities? It is this blatant abdication of responsibility by the authorities that causes the allegation of complicity to fester. A deafening silence from the Villa worsens the situation. While being withdrawn may work at an interpersonal level, it is a huge drawback in political leadership positions, as we have seen in almost six years of Buhari’s presidency.
As I stated earlier, President Obasanjo also faced a similar challenge two decades ago. The only difference between then and now is that nobody could accuse Obasanjo of taking sides or that nepotism drove his response to public policy. We cannot say the same of the current administration. More troubling is the penchant for running government by press statements. A president should not be hiding behind his spokesmen on serious national security challenges. Akeredolu is a member of the ruling party and there was no reason why the president could not have invited him to the Villa for a discussion. Which is why we must commend both the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) and MACBAN for their troubleshooting role in Akure on Monday and Sheikh Gumi for his risky meetings with bandits. They all demonstrated the kind of leadership that is very much needed at a time like this.
With Monday’s long overdue replacement of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Tukur Buratai—who for years deployed ‘smiling crocodiles’ and ‘dancing pythons’ to bamboozle the president into believing regime protection is the same as national security—we hope that things will begin to change in the fight to rid our country of insurgency. At another level, what is happening makes the case for community policing more compelling. It is the vacuum created by the absence of grassroots oriented policing system that mavericks like Igboho are stepping into as ethnic champions.
On the whole, President Buhari should be concerned about his legacy. Regardless of whatever we may see on the surface, what is fueling this crisis is not necessarily what some poor herders (who themselves are victims of Nigeria’s mismanagement) are doing in a remote forest but rather the mutual ethno-religious recriminations arising from a lack of equity in the distribution of opportunities. To compound the challenge, there is a total failure of leadership, particularly at the topmost level. Until President Buhari therefore takes direct responsibility by rallying everyone and embracing the entire nation as his constituency, it will be difficult to harness our potential for the greater good of all Nigerians.
▪︎ You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com
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