Agatu and the De-escalation of Herdsmen Violence in Nigeria
Even as the Nigerian Air Force is mounting aerial surveillance around Southern Kaduna where the Nigeria Police as well as the military are also establishing new posts, signals from Okpale-Ogege in Edumoga District of Okpokwu LGA in Benue State, Madagali in Adamawa and Enugu indicate newer flashes of herdsmen violence. Mister Philips Ogwuche, the Head of the National Secretariat of the Edumoga Development platform has confirmed virtually everything that Punch published about the flare in Okpale-Ogege. EDEMA, the community platform articulating the interests of the District has not only visited those wounded in the hospitals, it has equally held meetings with the police and the cattle breeders in the area. Given the similarity of the area in question to Agatu in terms of the water holes and grass types as the attractions for herdsmen, it could be another Agatu in the making. This is not to talk of Southern Kaduna, Nimbo and similar other places where this has happened or is happening. All these raise the overarching question as to how the herdsmen violence develops in such a way that outcry against it does not stop re-occurrence or new flashpoints. Does the sequence of events in the invasion of Agatu in February 2019 helps in answering this question, Agatu being the starting point of the current wave? As the military launches “Operation Accord” which it says is to flush out herdsmen, as northern governors and new voices of peace such as General Martin Luther Agwai, (See Daily Trust January 8th, 2017), try to calm the situation, what lessons does Agatu offer them, individually and collectively?
The first time the world woke up to the current wave of violence by Fulani herdsmen was Agatu in Benue State of Nigeria on February 29th, 2016. But that sort of violence had been going on since 2011. February 2016 only caught attention because the weapons of war changed from cutlasses, bows and arrows to AK 47. AK 47 made all the difference by giving the Fulani herdsmen the upper hand in a low intensity violence that had raged for long. The community vigilante had always successfully resisted the herdsmen each time they made a move. In spite of the resistance, there is no house standing now in at least Ugboju, Okoklo and Adagbo in Agatu land. No less than 50 persons perished in the series of raids by herdsmen crossing into Agatu from Nasarawa State through Oweto River in 2014 alone. But it was the 2016 level of destruction that forced even rather unsentimental players such as Senator David Mark, representing the area, to cry. It is not clear if this happened because he confronted a situation about which even he found himself impotent to do anything. In broad day light as the convoy of the then Number Three citizen was moving from Odugheho and Ogbaulu settlements in Agatu, he came under fire from forces he had no idea of their military strength relative to the fire power of his convoy. In other to avoid the embarrassing situation of the convoy of the Senate President engaging a militia in a combat, he had to duck.
How could there be a modern society where this sort of violence could go on for five years, (2011 – 2016) without the governments, political leaders and the security establishment doing anything about? And the media too did not pick it up. No matter how remote Agatu might be, nothing but a terrible decay of society can only be the explanation for this reality!
It is surprisingly why local NGOs such as the One Idoma Initiative, (OII) were, however, able to rise to the forefront in not only speaking out for Agatu but leading the peace process where key players couldn’t. So successful in their intervention that leading spokespersons for the Agatu community have anchored lasting peace on Permanent Peace Committees in which they would be key. Andy Akubo, a leading voice in the crisis who did not think highly of the local NGOs before now thinks highly of them and insists on their involvement. He told Intervention this much and equally canvassed the position at the seminar on rural banditry marking Dr Tajudeen Abdulraheem’s 7th Anniversary last May. He continues to commend the works done by their leading members such as Barrister Paul Edeh and Dr Enyantu Ifenne, among others.
It is a matter of regret that it was in the hands of government their efforts suffered a major setback in the outbreak of violence in 2016. It came by way of a pronouncement by Mister Solomon Arase, the then Inspector-General of Police early March 2016. Arase was quoted as saying in Minna that only a few people were killed in the Agatu crisis and that people should learn to live with other people. It is either Arase was not aware or wanted to calm the situation by downplaying everything that happened. Otherwise, a video tape containing every details of the degree of destruction had been taken by a UN staff to the headquarters in New York and those who should know already knew what the true position was. Although the identity of the very senior UN staff is not known, to the video tape in question is attributed the reported decision of some countries to classify herdsmen violence as terrorism. Back to Arase, it took long time to persuade the youths in the community to embrace the peace process again after his pronouncement and without the youths, peace is nearly impossible in most communities. Other than the One Idoma Initiative, the Agatu Network Forum has been very active too, particularly after the world shifted attention to other pressing challenges, leaving Agatu to get on with life. Intervention was told its leaders such as Chris Enenche have left no stone unturned in search of answers to the puzzles.
One such puzzle is the spectacular manner the herdsmen are always able to achieve their missions with military precision. In the case of Agatu, they had multiple entry points. These included Igala land through Ankpa; Nasarawa State through Oweto River by boats; River Benue and by
land. In the February 29th, 2016 raid, they entered by land through two settlements by name Ocholonya and London. It was from these two places they advanced on other places. One such place was Odugheho where the most haunted victim must be Mohammed Ada, a Professor of Veterinary Medicine and the Clan Head of Ikobi Ochekwu. His house was completely razed and all his cows killed. The herdsmen thought that the professor stole their cows when, in fact, breeding cows is the professor’s training. Beyond the professor, it took more than three months before people started returning to the area. In other words, the professor and his clan’s plight revealed the identity of the herdsmen through the cow connection, although herdsmen have never hidden their Fulani identity. Two examples are most frequently cited.
One is the fact that the cattle breeders have leaders who have said consistently at meetings that they went to Agatu on a revenge mission for the killing of a Fulani leader in 2010 and cows. (It was learnt that the security agencies are aware that the Fulani leader killed in Agatu land was not killed by Agatu people. Agatu was, therefore, only ‘guilty’ by contiguity). At one such parley at the Government House in Makurdi attended by the Benue State governor, the then IGP, (Arase), the elected representative of the Agatu community in the Benue State House of Assembly and the cattle breeders association, their leaders restated the position that they went to Agatu on a revenge mission. That was in the first week of March 2016, still in the heat of the violence in Agatu.
At the conclusion of the agreement between Agatu Network Forum and the Miyetti Allah or the cattle breeders brokered by One Idoma Initiative, the leaders of the cattle breeders asked for three (3) hours within which all their members would have withdrawn. And within that three hours, no herdsmen were seen anywhere in Agatu land. From that day, they left for Nasarawa State and they have not been seen anywhere in Agatu. But they are not happy. An insider told Intervention that the natural water supply system in and around Agatu as well as the presence of a particular type of grass makes the place one of the most attractive. This source argues that herdsmen agenda in Agatu is occupation of the land because, among other things, “that grass is not found in many places in Nigeria and they felt they should come and take it over”. This argument corresponds to the view of some conflict analysts who centralize climate change and the push towards the middle belt by cattle breeders in particular.
Does the climate change argument challenge the Islamisation agenda argument regarding the essence of herdsmen violence, particularly around the middle belt? For those who make a strict distinction between the material and the ideational, it does. For those who do not insist on any distinction between the ideational and the material, it doesn’t. The only knotty gap in the agenda analysis is how unarmed local NGOs could penetrate the fog and get peace agreements but not the federal might nor the Benue State Government at that time. Considering that much of Fulani violence in Agatu and Jos took place under former President Goodluck Jonathan, the Fulani agenda must be such a self-expanding agenda beyond comprehension by non-Fulanis. And even by the Fulanis themselves who see the problem differently.
At the 7th Dr Tajudeen Abdulraheem Anniversary in Abuja on May 24th, 2016 already referred to, both Barrister Mohammed Bello of Miyetti Allah and Mallam Sale Momale of the Pastoralist Resolve respectively argued that much of what is going on is what they understand to be Fulani lack of voice and media misrepresentation of Fulanis. For the two, basically, Nigeria is witnessing the emergence of an underground criminal movement that goes beyond ethno-religious and geographical identity of the perpetrators. They argued further that the criminal system is a relay which could sometimes involve a Fulani herdsman, a Hausa butcher, a Yoruba transporter and an Igbo trader acting out criminality in a chain. For them, the key question is the incapacitation of the security agencies to even distinguish cattle rustling from rural banditry or make such other nuanced judgments. Momale particularly argued his case, citing how cattle rustling criminality had seized Shiroro in Niger State, Birnin Gwari in Kaduna State and southern parts of Kebbi and Zamfara states. His narrative is that bandits could surround an entire village or community, kill whoever challenged them and cart away whatever they could. Without disputing their submission, the evidence from Agatu would suggest that the two gentlemen might have been talking about rural banditry, not herdsmen violence.
The point about criminality in their submission must though be noted because the role of mercenaries in Agatu was evident to those who observed their early morning entry, the shooting into the air thereby bringing people to attention before the violence began. But, if it were just mercenaries, why were cows put in front, thereby keeping the people engaged while the action went on? The cows engage the people because cows eat up cassava farms, tubers of yams gathered in the farms and grains especially guinea corn. That is why a tuber of yam now costs as much as 200 Naira around Agatu when it would never have been beyond 20 Naira before. Agatu elite in the urban centres are the losers there. Whereas most of them could fill their car boots with free gifts of yams by natives grateful for little financial remittance, no such generosity obtains anymore. It is the reason they are warning Edumoga District to speak up or they might experience what they, (Agatu) went through. Part of the warning to Edumoga is to deemphasize over reliance on the vigilante but ask for the military to maintain a no-entry zone, a land version of ‘No Fly Zone’. Their argument is the age-old logic of prevention being better than cure. Most of them would describe the peace at Agatu now as fragile peace. There is a military post there and there are patrol boats along River Benue. These block the entry points but whether that’s the end of it all is something else.
But the Agatu story proves General Agwai right where he argued that “There is no problem in this world that doesn’t have a solution. You can only say there is no solution if you are not determined to solve the problem”. However, with a highly fragmented elite, a ruling political party that is in disarray and with such a stiff political leadership at the centre with very little interest or skills in galvanising the people on popular democratic aspirations, it would be interesting watching General Agwai make his peace moves.
Ordinarily, there is nothing too difficult in halting the land movement of herdsmen. Neither the society nor the herdsmen gain anything from it. It is only the backwardness of society that sustains that manner of farming now. Even Fulani leaders such as Murtala Nyako or practicing farmers such as Audu Ogbeh have told the Northern Governors Forum this much many, many years before. Why it has not been done till today is part of the Nigerian tradition of turning the simplest problem into a crisis, providing grounds for all manner of plausible interpretations. One such interpretation is the conception of the herdsmen agenda as a Fulani agenda. The coincidence of the escalation of herdsmen violence with the coming of President Buhari who happens to be Fulani and who has had something to do with being a leader of the cattle breeders has strengthened that interpretation.
Instead of making a conclusive move that shatters such interpretation, the president, his party, his advisers and the entire leadership are running around, from IMF to the World Bank, from Paris Club to G-8, looking for endorsement, models and platitudes while Rome is burning. That is why peace has gone on AWOL in contemporary Nigeria. AWOL, of course, is the military synonym for Away Without Official Leave. This statement about peace in the country is true from whichever side one turns. There is both physical and structural violence across Nigeria, from insurgencies in both the northern and eastern as well as the south-south parts of the country. While the Islamicist insurgency in the north east is being put in its place in a counter-insurgency operation by the Nigerian military, the negotiations with insurgencies springing from identity assertions and resource nationalism movements in the east and south-south respectfully remain inconclusive. As much as the challenges from these uprisings are, Nigeria is faced with even greater crisis of state legitimacy from silent cases of structural violence involving many people who became victims of impunity at class, ethnic and gender levels. Who knows whether it is the blood of innocent people crying to high Heavens that might have even contributed to what an Intervention interviewee recently called the political blindness of Nigerian leaders. For, ultimately, it is the quality of governance of that brings about peace and security to a society.