By Edward Dooga
As a growing boy in the early 1970s, death was a major and dark event in our land that always left a black patch on our individual and collective tender psyche as children. We dreaded death. It always left a dark, sorrowful and mysterious cloud over the whole community, even when it was just the death of an infant. The quiet of the land would be pierced by the sharp-edged, heart-rending shrills of women wailing. If it were in the night, we could never find sleep again for fear. Even when sleep would eventually overtake our weary heads, it would be crowded with nightmares! Other than the constant dirges, followed by sorrowful drum beats, and the shrills of wailing women, everywhere would be quiet, real quiet, except for the one last and most frightening feature of death: The Death Cannon! Boom! It would go, frightening our souls out of our bodies. For every death, we children died many times over! Good news is that, there would usually be quite a long gap between any two deaths, long enough for us to finally overcome the fears of the last one.
Something else that seemed a strong feature of our society was the seeming belief that nobody just died for dying sake, but that most deaths were caused by some external factors, most times believed to be human mischief. For this reason, there was some sort of traditional justice system. Each time a man died; there would be a traditional coroner’s inquest to ascertain the cause of death before the man would be buried. Amazingly, someone was almost, always indicted, and in many such cases, the culprit would confess! My largely animist and somewhat primitive but simple society believed in the philosophy of causality: If an owl cries in the night and a child dies in the morning, the two events are related! And the justice system ensured a fair and balanced society!
This piece, however, is not primarily about the animism of my people or the history of their traditional values. It is about causality and justice. It is about eroded values and rusted consciences. It is about a system that has refused to protect its very own. It is about death! It is about the high economic value of death, not just the death of one man but of many people: men, women, boys, girls, and children; even the unborn! About genocide that has made millionaires out of many greedy individuals with seared and sold consciences. It is about how the all-powerful Fulani of Nigeria, through their herdsmen, mercenaries and terrorists, have visited wanton bloodshed, sorrow, agony, pain, arson, destruction; indeed genocide and crimes against humanity upon multiple communities across many states, dislodging and occupying with impunity under a federal and constitutional system and everybody carries on as though nothing happened! It is about how law-abiding citizens have become helpless refugees in their states with a new and very beautiful identity as Internally Displaced Persons, (sweetly referred to as IDPs for short) sleeping under trees, and leaders who should relentlessly pursue and defend their cause are contented to sit down in large air-conditioned offices (with personal security paid and armed from these poor taxpayers moneys) and feed fat on monies and materials made available to alleviate the sufferings of these our home-grown refugees; scarce resources provided through the painful sacrifices of other citizens! It is about how death, genocide and injustice have become quite economically viable in our day and some people actually pray for when the next one will happen instead of flooding the land with tears for the evil that has befallen us!
For quite some years now, Benue State, and a few other states of the Middle Belt of Nigeria, among them, Taraba, Nassarawa, Plateau, Kaduna have suffered severe, organized, systematic and concerted attacks by the Fulani people, who are mainly nomadic cattle breeders from northern Nigeria flocking southwards in search of pasture. These attacks that have been genocidal in nature have, over the years, assumed a common pattern which has become obvious to anybody who cares to take a closer look. The pattern goes something like this:
Select a group or cluster of villages in a particular area. Pick one on the fringes; sneak up on it in the dead of night when the occupants are fast asleep, defenseless, helpless and suspecting nothing. Set houses and barns on fire. Those who run out in the confusion cut them down with automatic fire from sophisticated guns. Those who refuse to come out of their houses, burn them alive with everything in the house! Those who you can grab, waste no bullets, but slit their throats, decapitate them and chop off their limbs. The young women, rape before you slaughter them…
By the time it is morning, the village is in total smolders, you have withdrawn while the news travels to the other villages. Fear, which is in itself, a very strong weapon, does the rest. While the survivors in the smoldering villages flee, the other villages do not also wait. They flee! You come back again and mop up any unfortunate persons that may be behind for whatever reason. When sure the coast is clear, you bring in thousands of cattle and occupy the deserted villages while grazing on their farms. This way, one attack gives you many villages at the same time. Quite an effective and simple strategy.
The result: many birds killed with one stone. The Fulani people have a brand new village they can now call their own as they build their kind of huts; the cattle have sufficient fodder from farm produce and the fresh, highly nutritious grass in the region, thereby boosting their cattle business; the tentacles of Islam and the Sokoto Caliphate extend wider, the corrupt politicians who stand to gain new wards can expect more victory at the polls; in some cases, fresh sign posts are erected designating such villages as part of another state all together. Even the big guys that manage relief materials for refugees can expect to grow richer and so much more!
As a result of these developments, Benue was particularly being reduced into a jungle. There was total disregard for law and sanity as an aggrieved citizenry that hopelessly waited in vain for justice from state structures took laws into their hands and started lynching any Fulani by sight! Suddenly, as truckloads of corpses continued to arrive the state capital from sacked villages, more corpses were generated on the streets from reprisal mob actions. Fear and insecurity reigned supreme!
Finally, when it looked like our society was tipping into a precipice and public outcry could no longer be ignored, the government sluggishly got up. Committees were set. Police men and soldiers were drafted to restore peace. More relief materials were sent, making those who prosper by it ecstatic.
And there was hope. Hope that the occupied villages and farmlands would be recovered by security so these poor IDPs can go back home. There was hope that the invading and occupied forces of the Fulani would be disarmed. There was hope that these evil aggressors and their sponsors would be made to pay for their nefarious acts. There was hope that the government would take proactive steps that would facilitate and cushion the return of these thousands of refugees to their ancestral lands and livelihood. There was hope that the dead might finally rest because justice would have been done. There was hope that there would be some form of coroners’ inquest, an investigation to find out why so many human beings had to die mercilessly on their ancestral lands just for hungry cows. There was hope that these hungry cows, sworn enemies to crop farmers who consist almost 100% of these displaced populations, would be sent back to where they came from. There was hope that finally, government would do something about hundreds of thousands of cattle taking over streets in our cities in 21st Century Nigeria, thereby bringing sanity into our land like it’s the practice in civilized societies today. There was hope that, perhaps, this cropping season will not pass by while those who have tirelessly fed the nation for years languish unattended in camps while cattle feed on their farms: a sure way to compromise food security. Yes there was hope!
But as soon as the military went into action, dislodging those who had killed and occupied these ancestral homes, their sponsors started another war! They screamed about government’s conspiracy to wipe out the Fulani tribe. They threatened to take the military to the International Criminal Court of Justice. They screamed about their constitutional rights to the occupied lands as Nigerians. They screamed about their right to graze where ever they deemed fit. They screamed about government’s obligation to create grazing reserves in every state for them. They pushed bills through the federal legislature. They manipulated the machinery of government to set up committees to urgently meet their needs. They demanded their few, poor, helpless and struggling kin with a few cows not be marginalized.
Strangely, government fell for this scam. Peace was restored alright, but it was an ominous kind of peace. At least the wanton spate of killings was abased. Peace committees were set up. Funds were spent. Pacts were signed. But at the root of it all, the peace pact was to allow the conquerors, who had suddenly become peaceful and accommodating, and had promised to sheath their swords and discontinue hostilities, to coexist and live ‘peacefully’ with their helpless crop farming vassals. Instead of disarming the invaders who had occupied territories not their own, they got security protection from government. Instead of arresting and prosecuting those who committed genocide along with their sponsors, they sat at table with them, ate and drank, and signed pieces of papers that essentially sold out the very people they should protect. And the Fulani leaders basked in their victory. They even adorned themselves in full Tiv traditional regalia and went to the office of the state governor to pay homage in the name of apologizing! Meanwhile, more Fulani and larger herds of cattle keep flocking into the state every day, occupying more lands and grazing on fresh farm lands as the few helpless farmers who were bullied back to the farms look helplessly on.
Something is not right. Even my animist and primitive ancestors had a better sense of judgment than this our civilized society. Owls screamed in the night, and many children are lying dead at dawn, but nobody seems to see anything wrong. Even the wise men of our land seem to bask more in the relief materials to be shared among themselves, the gifts of a few cows, and some change in their pockets rather than right the wrongs that have been visited on our land. The blood of the innocent is crying out from the land for justice. Their blood cries out louder than that of Abel, yet the elders seem stone-deaf!
The Fulani have alleged that their ranks have been infiltrated by terrorists. Measures to check such infiltrations have not been taken, yet they and their cattle seem free to go wherever they please. There have been recent terror threats against our schools in Benue, yet it is a common feature to see hundreds of cattle grazing freely through such school compounds, an obvious security threat that is waiting to explode. Some farmers have attempted going back to their lands only to find it occupied by herdsmen and their cattle, and they are totally helpless about it. Tensions are understandably high. Despite the so-called peace pacts, there are already allegations of rapes and silent killings by the Fulani in the farms.
The whole land is sitting on a large barrel of gunpowder and our leaders seem to be playing the clown as they juggle with fireballs. It is only a matter of time before the ominous and inevitable catastrophic explosion occurs. And when it does, it would be one great explosion that has no equal in the history of our land. The whole land will then be consumed. Then, even those dead, who enjoy burying our dead, will be consumed! Meantime, let us make the most of this peace that has been shoved down our throats with a gun to our heads. After all, the sworn enemies of the land are not wasting it. They are maximizing it as they consolidate their sweet victory!