Ordinarily, it was thought that leadership and governance could deal with it and contain the incongruent narratives emanating from each party to the long running, multi-faceted conflict over transhumance in central Nigeria. After all, everyone accepted or ought to accept that transhumance or the practice of moving cattle on land across the country has been overtaken by development. Neither the cattle owners nor any other persons in that chain derives any benefits from that practice anymore. It has simply come into contradiction with the very concept of development. Nigeria is, therefore, dealing with a major contradiction in the herdsmen-farmers conflict across the country. The question then is what could be so difficult in responding to this contradiction in a scientific, modernist agricultural sense?
This is more so that before ever returning to power, the president, Muhammadu Buhari had been an actor in the management of the clashes and had said many years ago when he was not even a politician that the producers of the country’s protein, (herdsmen) and the producers of her food (farmers) should not be clashing. In other words, he recognised and accepted that it is, indeed, a contradiction. So, there was basis for optimism that, as president, he was going to make a leadership statement on the herdsmen violence. It is possible he tried behind the scene but did not succeed, for whatever reasons. It is also possible he didn’t try, based on information that might have been available to him as president. But, on this issue, the buck stops on the president’s table because it is about monopoly of legitimate use of violence, meaning that herdsmen’s access and use of weapons is a challenge to the Nigerian State, not to the Benue State Government.
Without dealing with it in that manner, it has become an open sore, generally and specifically. Anti-open grazing law in Benue State, for example, is a super sensitive issue. There is a strong perception across the board of a plot around herdsmen violence – a plot to occupy and a plot to Islamise. As perception is the elder brother of reality, something like the anti-open grazing law was bound to come up. The scenario without it could have been worse. The point the state government felt frustrated enough to resort to making an anti-open grazing law was the time the Federal Government was expected to have intervened to calm nerves and reassure everyone by action. Why that does not appear to have happened is the mystery everyone is talking about.
When Dr Paul Unongo smoothly succeed late Alhaji Maitama Sule as the Chairman of the Northern Elders Forum last July, it was interpreted in some quarters as an exploration of an alternative medium of resolving not just Fulani herdsmen conflict in the Middle Belt but other issues about difference and mistrust lingering. And that Unongo’s cabinet would withdraw to the back, talk to as many of the interests involved in the crisis of difference and produce a consensus or something close to a consensus for further peace work. That does not appear to be working. The way the anti-open grazing law in Benue has become a matter of contestation is evidence that such has not happened.
What all of these suggest is that neither the Nigerian State nor an alternative channel such as the Northern Elders Forum has been able to move the issue in contest from who to what is wrong and to act on what is wrong in a way that produces a win-win outcome for everyone. This is, however, the time federal leadership should have been experimenting with more progressive models of governing difference. It is in the context of that failure that laws and practices are emerging which seeks to fill observed or felt gaps, with observable but also hidden implications for democracy, the Nigerian State, citizenship, power (and use/misuse of power) and the management of difference. The lesson is that nature abhors a vacuum.