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News media’s cultivation of “Fulani herdsmen” hysteria

Journalists like to think they are the mirror of society. In fact, a famousAmerican journalist and authorby the name of Arthur Brisbane (1864-1936) once said,…

Journalists like to think they are the mirror of society. In fact, a famousAmerican journalist and authorby the name of Arthur Brisbane (1864-1936) once said, “A newspaper is a mirror reflecting the public, a mirror more or less defective, but still a mirror.”

This notion gave rise to the idea that the news media “reflect” reality. But insights from cultivation theory in mass communication tell us that the news media do not reflect reality; they cultivate it instead. Although the theory originally studied how heavy TV viewing distorts our perception of reality, it has been extended to explain how the news media’s habitual framing of news skews perception of reality in general.

I see a lot of media cultivation of “reality” in the coverage of “Fulani herdsmen” in the Nigerian media. This cultivation has been so successful that the mental frames it has established are hard to escape. One of these mental frames is the conflation of “Fulani” ethnic identity, “herdsmen,” and murderous criminality. Even President Buhari, who is half Fulani (a quarter Hausa and a quarter Kanuri), uses “Fulani herdsmen” as a stand-in for the murderous criminals that are ravaging several parts of Nigeria.

But here are the facts. Most Fulani people are not cattle herders and, although most cattle herders in West Africa are Fulani, there are hundreds of cattle herders who are not Fulani. Most importantly, though, most cattle herders are NOT criminals or murderers. The fact that there are cattle herders who commit crimes does not make all cattle herders criminals, nor is it sufficient to equate cattle herding in and of itself with criminality, although cattle herding is, as I argued in my January 20, 2018 column titled “Existential Threats of Nomadic Pastoralism to Nigeria,” anachronistic.

The Nigerian media, however, have chosen to make “Fulani herdsmen” the lexical substitute for “criminals” or “murderers.” Even when the media are not sure who committed a crime, it is typical for them to attribute the crime to “suspected Fulani herdsmen,” not even “criminals suspected to be Fulani herdsmen,” implying, in essence, that to talk of either “Fulani herdsmen” or “criminals” is to talk of the other. This violates a cardinal journalistic principle that says “when in doubt, leave it out.” If you only “suspect,” which means you’re not sure, why rush to give an ethno-occupational identity to the suspects?

This invidious, ethnically colored media narrativization about “Fulani herdsmen” and “murderous crime” has become so mainstream that most Nigerians have now been programmed to associate criminality with and murderous intent to any Fulani cattle herder. To get a sense of how unfair this is, imagine alternative scenarios involving other people. If a Baatonu farmer commits a crime, for instance, you won’t read a headline like “Baatonu farmer kills herders.” (I am Baatonu, by the way). You will never read a headline like “Ogoni fisherman murders farmers.” You will never come across a headline like “Yoruba mechanic slaughters customer.” Nor will you see a headline like, “Igbo spare parts seller kills man.” And so on so forth.

I warned of the dangers of ethnic and occupational stereotyping in news reporting in at least three columns (see, for instance, my October 10, 2015 column titled “‘Fulani herdsmen’ as Nigeria’s New Devil Term” and my February 4, 2017 column titled “The Dangerous Criminalization  of  Fulani Ethnicity”). In the February 4, 2017 column, I pointed out that“Criminalizing and pathologizing an entire ethnic identity is often the precursor to genocide.”

It didn’t come as a surprise to me when I read of the February 1 murder and burning of 7 innocent Fulani cattle herders by people who have been programmed to associate criminality with all Fulani cattle herders. Early last year, some man by the name of Apostle Suleiman had told his church members to extra-judicially murder any Fulani person they saw. “And I told my people, any Fulani herdsman you see around you, kill him,” he said in a widely circulated video. “I have told them in the church here that any Fulani herdsman that just entered by mistake, kill him, kill him! Cut his head!”

He said this precisely because of the unreflective conflation of “Fulani herdsmen” and murderous criminals that the media have caused to percolate into the consciousness of Nigerians. 

A few weeks ago, a certain Sayo Ajiboye, who introduced himself to me as the President of the Redeemed Bible College and Seminary in Texas, USA, called me after reading one of my columns on the unfair media portrayals of Fulani cattle herders. He said until he read my article, he hadn’t consciously thought of the fact he also grew up with Fulani herders in his hometown of Ilesha in Osun State several decades ago and that Fulani herders kept his father’s cattle for him in trust-like they do elsewhere.

But the continuous demonization of “Fulani herdsmen” in the media had put him in a state of suspended animation. He wasn’t able to make the mental connection between the Fulani people he grew up with-and that still live peacefully in his community-and the demons the media report on. If a highly educated man like that is only just now coming to this realization, imagine what everyday consumers of Nigerian news think when they see a Fulani cattle herder. The truth is that the vast majority of Fulani cattle herders are peaceful, everyday people with the same needs, anxieties, and hopes as the rest of us.

This is not by any means intended to lessen the dangers and existential threats that foreign cattle herders pose to Nigeria. Nor do I intend to be understood as implying that Nigerian Fulani cattle herders don’t commit crimes. There are criminals and good people in every ethnic group and occupation. To insist that any group is free of criminals or is composed only of criminals is to denude such a group of its very humanity.

I should point out, too, that Miyetti Allah is as culpable in demonizing Fulani cattle herders as the news media have been. In claiming to represent Fulani cattle herders and admitting to several mass murders, they make even innocent bucolic Fulani cattle herders in various communities objects of suspicion and targets of righteous anger. 

Look at this March 27, 2017 press statement from Miyetti Allah’s Kwara State chairman by the name of Usman Adamu, for instance:“Fulanis from across the country and neighbouring countries gathered here last week and they requested for my permission to go and retaliate but I insisted that they should sheath their swords… See what is happening in Nasarawa, Zamfara, Jos and other states. If you see what our Fulanis did in Imo, and if you are Muslims, honestly, you will cry, and if somebody said it was Fulanis that did that, you will not believe it.”

That’s a chilling self-confession of mass murder that implicates millions of innocent Fulani cattle herders. With “leaders” like that, do innocent Fulani cattle herders need enemies?


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