A Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, in an essay on Wednesday criticised President Muhammadu Buhari for the failure of his government to blame and act decisively against Fulani herdsmen for the recent killings of scores of people in communities in an around the country’s Middle Belt region.
There has been an increase in attacks and killings in farming communities in Taraba, Benue, Adamawa and Kaduna States blamed. Many of the attacks have been blamed on Fulani herdsmen, although Fulani communities were also victims of attacks by other ethnic groups.
In the piece titled “Impunity Rides Again”, Mr. Soyinka did not mince words over the government’s seeming reluctance to blame the herdsmen for the series of killings. He likened it to the initial disbelief of Mr. Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, when the so-called Chibok Girls were kidnapped from their school dorm by Boko Haram militia.
“President Muhammed Buhari and his government – including his inspector-general of police – in near identical denial, appear to believe that killer herdsmen who strike again and again at will from one corner of the nation to the other, are merely hot-tempered citizens whose scraps occasionally degenerate into ‘communal clashes’ – I believe I have summarised him accurately. The marauders are naughty children who can be admonished, paternalistically, into good neighbourly conduct. Sometimes, of course, the killers were also said be non-Nigerians after all. The contradictions are mind-boggling,” he wrote.
Mr Soyinka, the first Black Nobel Laureate in Literature, said the government’s excuses for the cause of the conflict despite the admission by the herdsmen that they were responsible for the attacks and killings amounted to exonerating “mass killers.”
He berated the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, over his comment in an interview suggesting that the attacks were a result of the failure of successive governments to pay attention to herdsmen and cow farming. He said the national outrage was about the refusal of the government to bring those responsible for the killings to book.
“However, the present national outrage is over impunity. It rejects the right of any set of people, for whatever reason, to take arms against their fellow men and women, to acknowledge their exploits in boastful and justifying accents and, in effect, promise more of the same as long as their terms and demands are not met. In plain language, they have declared war against the nation, and their weapon is undiluted terror. Why have they been permitted to become a menace to the rest of us? That is the issue!”
Mr. Soyinka criticised the Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai, a staunch ally of Mr. Buhari, for his decision in 2016 to pay some “aggrieved” herdsmen to stop the killings in the south of the state.
Mr. El Rufai had argued then that the attacks were reprisals by Fulani herdsmen from neighbouring countries who were attacked in the area around 2011. He said some of the herdsmen and their cattle were killed at the time and that they had organised themselves to avenge the killings on the communities.
“We took certain steps. We got a group of people that were going round trying to trace some of these people in Cameroon, Niger Republic and so on to tell them that there is a new governor who is Fulani like them and has no problem paying compensations for lives lost and he is begging them to stop killing. In most of the communities, once that appeal was made to them, they said they have forgiven. There are one or two that asked for monetary compensation. They said they have forgiven the death of human beings, but want compensation for cattle. We said no problem, and we paid some,” Mr El-Rufai said.
But in his piece, Mr Soyinka roundly berated him saying his decision to pay compensation to the herdsmen suggested that the lives of cows may be more valuable than human lives.
“El Rufai, governor of Kaduna State, proudly announced that, on assuming office, he had raised a peace committee and successfully traced the herdsmen to locations outside Nigerian borders. He then made payments to them from state coffers to cure them of their homicidal urge which, according to these herdsmen, were reprisals for some ancient history and the loss of cattle through rustling. The public was up in arms against this astonishing revelation. I could only call to mind a statement by the same El Rufai after a prior election which led to a rampage in parts of the nation, and cost even the lives of National Youth Service corpers. They were hunted down by aggrieved mobs and even states had to organise rescue missions for their citizens. Countering protests that the nation owed a special duty of protection to her youth, especially those who are co-opted to serve the nation in any capacity, El Rufai’s comment then was: No life is more important than another. Today, that statement needs to be adjusted, to read perhaps – apologies to George Orwell: ‘All lives are equal, but a cow’s is more equal than others.’”
Mr. Soyinka added that while the government is busy cooking up excuses for the herdsmen and paying them compensation, the herdsmen themselves have repeatedly admitted having carried out the killings and are not known to have complained about being neglected.
“It is important to emphasise that none of their spokesmen referred to any government neglect, such as refusal to pay subsidy for their cows or failure to accord them the same facilities that had been extended to cassava or millet farmers.
“Such are the monstrous beginnings of the culture of impunity. We are reaping, yet again, the consequences of such tolerance of the intolerable. Yes, there indeed the government is culpable, definitely guilty of “looking the other way”. Indeed, it must be held complicit,” he said.
Mr. Soyinka said the pussyfooting of the government to act decisively and punish the killer herdsmen contradicts its swiftness in declaring the separatist group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a terrorist organisation, despite the fact that IPOB is not known to have perpetrated widespread killings like the Fulani Herdsmen.
“This question is now current, and justified: Just when is terror? I am not aware that IPOB came anywhere close to this homicidal propensity and will to dominance before it was declared a terrorist organisation. The international community rightly refused to go along with such an absurdity.
“For the avoidance of doubt, let me state right here, and yet again, that IPOB leadership is its own worst enemy. It repels public empathy, indeed, I suspect that it deliberately cultivates an obnoxious image, especially among its internet mouthers who make rational discourse impossible. However, as we pointed out at the time, the conduct of that movement, even at its most extreme, could by no means be reckoned as terrorism. By contrast, how do we categorise Myeti? How do we assess a mental state that cannot distinguish between a stolen cow – which is always recoverable – and human life, which is not. Villages have been depopulated far wider than those outside their operational zones can conceive. They swoop on sleeping settlements, kill and strut. They glory in their seeming supremacy. Cocoa farmers do not kill when there is a cocoa blight. Rice farmers, cassava and tomato farmers do not burn.
“The herdsmen cynically dredge up decades-old affronts – they did at the 2016 Benue “peace meeting” to justify the killings of innocents in the present. These crimes are treated like the norm. Once again, the nation is being massaged by specious rationalisations, while the rampage intensifies and the spread spirals out of control. When we open the dailies tomorrow morning, there is certain to have been a new body count, to be followed by the arrogant justification of the Myeti Allah.
“The warnings pile up, the distress signals have turned into a prolonged howl of despair and rage. The answer is not to be found in pietistic appeals to victims to avoid ‘hate language’ and divisive attributions. The sustained, killing monologue of the herdsmen is what is at issue. It must be curbed, decisively and without further evasiveness.
“Yes, Jonathan only saw ‘ghosts’ when Boko Haram was already excising swathes of territory from the nation space and abducting school pupils. The ghosts of Jonathan seem poised to haunt the tenure of Mohammed Buhari,” he wrote.