When I wrote the piece title: “Hard Time to be a Herder”, in November, last year, many of the responses I received were of the opinion that harder times were beckoning to the herders due to the perceived nonchalant attitude of governments across the nation to their fate. And so, it turned out to be. In the space of only a few months, the herding community has been hit, times and again, by the horrendous tragedy of wanton killings of its most innocent, comprising largely women and children. What galls about these killings is that they were perpetuated by drones that have been difficult to trace and identify their owners.
The President of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Baba Othman Ngelzarma, in a heart-rendering message, explained the circumstances of the latest killings. He said that the pastoralists who were normally based in Nasarawa State had gone to Makurdi to retrieve their livestock impounded by the livestock guards in Benue State after paying a fine in millions of naira.
He said, “They hired vehicles from Makurdi to convey back their seized livestock to Rukubi, and it was in the process of offloading their livestock that an attack was conducted that killed 31 pastoralists, including eight Hausa butchers from Benue who had escorted the vehicles to offload the cows, and four others are now on admission in a Lafia hospital.”
There are reports that temporary Fulani settlements strewn along the Nasarawa/Benue border have previously been hit by planes or drones whereby innocent women and children were killed. This recent airstrike is itself controversial. Some media reports say that the killings were either a result of an accidental drone strike or a bomb dropped by NAF occasioned by dubious intelligence. The decision to strike was made when the military high command received intelligence that some terrorists had moved into some communities around the boundary between Nasarawa and Benue. The fact that the drones that attacked these herders took off allegedly from Makurdi lends credence to the allegations that they must have got their intelligence from the Benue State Government or its surrogates.
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And when one considers the fact that there is no love lost between the Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, and the entire regional herding group, one can understand why fingers are pointing that way. Benue State under Ortom has enacted some of the most draconian laws against the free movement of herders in this country. The laws, according to many discerning lawyers, even override the Nigerian constitution and the West African Protocol that has been governing the movement of herders for ages throughout the region. The laws, which have been left unchallenged, come complete with stiff fines and livestock guards to superintend the implementation. For example, for any seized cow there is a fine of N300,000 and another N700,000 for its upkeep.
There was little show of empathy from the Benue State Government for the cruel fate that befell the herders.
However, the Nasarawa Governor, Abdullahi Sule, rose promptly to the occasion. He had an immediate meeting with the Fulani community leaders in the Lafia government house a day after the incident to commiserate with them and explore measures to forestall future occurrences. The meeting had in attendance the National Chairman of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, Abdullahi Bello Badejo, and a host of ardos (Fulani chiefs) leading the Fulani communities in Nasarawa and Benue, as well as members of the security agencies.
At the occasion, those affected made many heart-wrenching disclosures to the governor. One of the owners of the cattle, Usman Bawa, explained to the governor the reasons why they came out to receive the cows in large numbers. He said some of them were there just to help and some were butchers.
He said, “If cows stay for days without food and they are made to drink water after they are released, they will die. While some of us were bringing down the cows from the vehicles, others were preventing them from going to the stream to drink water having not been fed for days.”
Someone also explained why they came with a contingent of butchers, saying, “Some of the people who died in the attack were butchers who were invited to slaughter the cows that fell sick while in detention to avoid wastage.”
All said and done, the governor was able to pacify them for the moment and even arranged further meetings between the Fulani leaders with the security chiefs in Abuja to find lasting solutions. It was a face-saving event for all the government apparatus. But we need to go further. There is a need for a louder intervention from the federal government as it seems these are interstate killings. We need to know the owners of these drones as the NAF has disowned them. We need to ascertain the source of the intelligence feeding the owners of the drones. On the whole, there is a need for an independent investigative panel to unravel the circumstances surrounding the attack.
May this be a good opportunity also to ask both the federal and the state governments to dust up all those promises made to resettle the herders in secure environments conducive to their livelihood.