Funmilayo Odude, Legal Practitioner, Damod Law Practice

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Counter-productive ethnicisation of the herdsmen-farmers conflict 11 Feb 2018


President Muhammadu Buhari


It would appear that the apathetic response of President Muhammadu Buhari's administration to the intensified crisis between pastoralists and farmers in January 2018 would be the government's undoing. Undoubtedly, majority of Nigerians are displeased with the administration, citing a plethora of failings, including the illegal arrest and detention of Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, and his wife.

The government is also accused of disobeying court orders both in respect of Sheikh El-Zakzaky and Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd), former National Security Advisor to President Goodluck Jonathan, who remain incarcerated. The protracted fuel scarcity, which started since late 2017; subsidy payments, which stink of corruption; and the clampdown of the Department of State Services (DSS) on judges, reporters and any group perceived to be critical of the administration, are among several grievances many Nigerians have against the Buhari administration.

Citizens' disaffection with the government has been driven close to boiling-point with the farmers-herdsmen conflicts. Little wonder that the open letter by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to President Muhammadu Buhari, advising him not to seek reelection in 2019 on account of its many failings, came on the heels of the mass burial of victims of the herdsmen's fatal attacks in Benue State. The First Lady, Aisha Buhari, herself did not shy away from retweeting a video of some senators criticising the government after this incident.

There are two other stories that are developing since the recent attacks by the herdsmen in Benue, Taraba and Kaduna states. On January 22, 2018, some eminent Yoruba personalities under the rubric of “Voice of Reason (VOR),” published a piece in Punch newspaper, where they expressed the willingness of the Yorubas to exercise their right to self-determination unless a fundamental restructuring is carried out before the next elections. The concise and grave tone of the publication as well as the notable signatories, which included Olorogun Sunny Kuku, Prof. Oye Ibidapo-Obe, Olumide Sofowora SAN, AIG Tunji Alapini (rtd), Dr. Seyi Roberts put the publication beyond any allegation of politicking.

The second story involves Deji Adeyanju, who, under the auspices of the Concerned Nigerians, filed a suit at the Federal High Court in Abuja on January 19th, 2018, against the president, the newly-appointed Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Ahmed Rufai Abubakar, and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami. In the suit, Adeyanju challenged the appointment of Abubakar as DG of the NIA on two grounds, namely: breach of the constitutional federal character principle and the unfitness of the person of Abubakar to hold that office.

Though there is an infinitely complex combination of contingencies that sparked the violence witnessed as a result of the herdsmen-farmers conflicts, the poor response by the government has left room for ethnicising the criminality. Indeed, pastoralism is facing multiple threats, including rapid population growth, shrinking grazing areas and water resources due to climate change.

The crisis also has border-control dimension as some of the armed herders are said to be foreigners seeking grazing in Nigeria. It is therefore counterproductive and dangerous to give ethnic and religious connotations to a sensitive security issue. Such mischaracterisations could lead to reprisal attacks and hate crimes by easily 'radicalized' youth.

This is one of the reasons the publication by the VOR is laudable. It could help to tame inflamed passions that are kindled from being victims of acts of violence. The knowledge and hope that a formidable group of 'elders' are tackling the issue is invaluable.

Obviously, the first reaction of any government to such a crisis is to maintain law and order using the security apparatus of the country. It is arguable whether this government is doing all it can to maintain law and order in those flashpoints. If it is, the citizens are not convinced. There is a growing level of mistrust between the citizens and this administration and a huge part of the mistrust is rooted in ethnic bias.

The government has to make concerted efforts to dispel the growing perceptions that impunity is an ethnic privilege and the protection of life and property by the government is determined by ethnicity. This is important in stemming the erosion of public of trust, which is a slippery slope that could lead some communities to take the law into their hands. There are three areas the government needs to look at critically to stem the rising divisiveness permeating the polity as a result of this crisis.

First, the administration has to solve its poor information management. The government is always the last to give information to the public. Furthermore, the government's belated responses often take the tone of public relations management for the administration, rather than showing accountability to the citizens it works for.

Poor communication and misinformation only imbeds more mistrust in government. Information must be cohesive, accurate and given with some form of compassion and a grave sense of responsibility and duty.

The Buhari-led administration has a duty to engage the media (including social media) more constructively, thereby preventing the negative utilization of ethnicity to define issues, including the pastoralist-farmers conflict. It is due to the lack of an effective crisis management strategy on the part of the government that the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) is the predominant voice in the media with respect to this conflict.

Beyond the constructive engagement of the media by the government, a proactive and effective crisis management system should also involve engagement with civil, religious, traditional, professional and youth leaders outside its political circles. The aim would be to project a more responsive and inclusive government.

Second, it is also important for this administration to take another look at the composition of the heads of the security apparatus in the country. The government will only fuel allegations of ethnic bias when the Minister of Defence, Minister of Internal affairs, National Security Adviser, Director-General of the State Security Service, Chief of Army Staff, Inspector General of Police and now the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency all hail from the same Northern region as the President and his Chief of Staff. There is a clear breach of the federal character principle enshrined in our Constitution.

While the sentiments on the ethnic disproportionality of heads of Nigeria's security agencies and apparatus – especially with the addition of yet another northerner as head of one of our security agencies – is very valid, Adeyanju's suit is bound to face a jurisdictional challenge. The portion of the Constitution – which he seeks to enforce, and which forms part of our fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy – is by the same constitution (section 6(6)(c)) excluded from the ambit of the judicial powers vested in the courts.

The Constitution provides that “the composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few States or from a few ethnic or sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.”

It can be argued that other regions in the country are properly represented in this administration by their appointments in other ministries and government parastatals. Nevertheless, the spirit behind the federal character principle is the promotion of national unity and the commanding of national loyalty.

Therefore, with the security challenge on our hands, is the current composition of the heads of the security apparatus in the country capable of projecting any spirit of national loyalty? Does it promote national unity that the pastoralists who are accused of attacking rural farmers the kinsfolk of all the heads of the security apparatus meant to bring them to justice? It is time for the president to reshuffle his cabinet.

Third, in the context of this discussion, an aspect of the debate on restructuring cannot be ignored. It is becoming increasingly clear that Nigeria cannot continue to run its federal system of government in the manner we currently do. State governments have begun to exercise the powers they have by making laws regarding the land in their states, held in trust by the governors for the people. States are also rightly enacting laws, which they believe protect the lives and properties of their citizens.

But in Nigeria's unwieldy situation, where the machinery for enforcement of these laws lies in the control of the federal government, states are then left at the mercy of the federal government to support their policies and laws. In the absence of the federal government's backing, states are left with no other option than to rely on vigilante groups and other minor security apparatus they can create. But anyone with foresight can see an impending clash between the federal might and the improvised security apparatus of some state governments.
 
A Financial Nigeria columnist, Funmilayo Odude is a Lagos-based legal practitioner, and a public affairs analyst.