Op-ed: Understanding Nigeria’s Security Challenges from Perspectives of History, Ethnicity and Politics
Umar Ardo, Ph.D
Introduction: Nigeria is today steeped in a state of insecurity mainly by way of insurgency and banditry that if not conclusively resolved could ultimately cause the disintegration of the Nigerian State. Given also the deep seated centrifugal forces intent on destabilizing the country on account of politics, the existence of these two active armed insurrections in many parts of the country can be fatal to our democracy and our country. Specifically, it could make the holding of the all important 2023 transitional elections impossible. If Nigeria 🇳🇬 must cross this threshold, the current state of insecurity will have to be resolved.
We therefore need to understand the nature of the problem from its historical, ethnic, religious, geographical and political perspectives to be able to proffer durable solutions for the sake of our country and our democracy. However, here we’ll treat only the banditry aspect of the national insecurity, which is more widespread and more debilitating, but more straightforward to contain.
History: Mainly from the 15th century, large number of Fulbe started migrating eastward in search of better pastures from their concentration in today’s northern and eastern Senegal 🇸🇳 where they led a predominantly pastoral life. This migration developed peacefully and gradually, overtime spreading all across West Africa. Along with the migration, many also adopted Islam. The fall of the great empires of West Africa by the early 18th century gave rise to new states formation, principal of which are new nation states of Futa Jallon (1725), Sokoto Caliphate (1804), State of Massina (1818), and the Tokolor Empire (1850). Beginning in 1889, imperial European states of Britain 🇬🇧, France 🇫🇷 and Germany 🇩🇪 took over the entire territory and carved it into various protectorates of their colonial domination; out of which arose the present nation states of West Africa.
Ethnicity: All the four created nation-states were established exclusively by the Fulbe ethnic group using the religion of Islam as the foundation of their actions. The Fulbe are divided into two main groups; the sedentary group permanently living in towns. This group is predominantly Muslim. For their knowledge in Islamic literature they peacefully integrated in settled communities. Numerically smaller, they are the ones that have later risen into positions of power under new states they themselves created. The other Fulbe group are pastoralists. Numerically the larger group, they are nomadic pastoral cattle herdsmen, either outright pagans or nominal Muslims, living permanently in the bush and pasturing the grasslands in a transhumance oscillating cycle. They live in clans and their entire lives centered on their herds and family. They sale herds to contribute to their settled kins’ war efforts, and also form the bulk of the Fulbe fighting forces.
Geography: These four Fulbe States are geographically contiguous. They occupy roughly parts of the present day Senegal 🇸🇳, Guinea 🇬🇳, Mali 🇲🇱, Burkina Faso 🇧🇫, Niger 🇳🇪, Nigeria 🇳🇬 and Cameroon 🇨🇲. This territory lies within the vast Savannah Belt of West Africa, in between the desert biome to the north and the rainforest biome to the south. Mostly located near the equator, it is of vast savannah plain grasslands, with two of Africa’s four major rivers (Niger and Benue), many smaller rivers and streams, and the Mega Chad. It is a zone most conducive for nomadic pastoralism and herding, seasonally oscillating East-West wards.
Politics: After the formation of the four nation-states, government took control of all the lands in the territory for settlements, farming and grazing. In this way, a symbiotic relationship developed between the kith who took control of state and had power over land and the pastoralists kin who need land to graze their herds. While the Fulbe government will be guaranteeing, facilitating and protecting grazing lands for their pastoralist kins, who oscillate in transhumance cycles the grasslands of this vast territory, the latter support the Fulbe ruling elites militarily and financially. Also, the abundance of herds helped in the economy, nutrition and manure needs of these new Fulbe states. On the whole, so long as their pastoralist kins are happy in their transhumance life, their Fulbe ruling kith allowed them unhindered without settling, educating or Islamizing them. On their part, away from civilization, undisturbed and protected by their ruling kith whose efforts they helped in coming to positions of authority, the pastoralists are contented with their way of life in the forests and available to support the establishment. Both groups are also bonded by Pulaku, the Fulbe code of conduct symbolizing boundaries of Fulbe identity.
Under European colonial powers, the status quo remained virtually the same subject only to colonial alterations and interferences. Significant in such colonial alterations is colonial land administration and the demarcation and codification of grazing lands and cattle routes. Another significant alteration is the grouping and adding to the Fulbe domains other territories, mostly of the coastal regions through which the Europeans took over the region, to form the new colonial nation-states. In the movements for decolonization and independence, the Fulbe ruling elites played significant roles and, with the exception of Guinea 🇬🇳 where they momentarily lost out, the Fulbe generally retain considerable power and influence in the post colonial political order.
And throughout these transitive stages – precolonial, colonial and post colonial – while the Fulbe ruling elites were undergoing fundamental transformations, their pastoral kins continued their transhumance life unperturbed. But now, as a result of certain factors, such as environmental, demographic, economic and political, open transhumance grazing is impossible. Suddenly, the natural habitat of the pastoralists, the forests, have vanished. Unaccustomed to sedentary civilization, the herdsmen emerge as security threat in banditry, kidnapping, etc., venting their frustration and anger on society.
Solution: I personally believe that the problem cannot be solved through military engagement for two reasons. First, the factors that were responsible for the failure of other security agencies such as Customs, Immigration, DSS, NIA and the Police in carrying out their duties, such that the situation where military action is needed will equally hinder the military from succeeding in its mandate too. The fact that military engagement against BH insurgents has been on for about 12 years now is a point to note. Second, banditry is as widely spread as the habitats of the nomads. It is therefore tactically impossible to organize quick and conclusive military operations against the bandits. As forest men, nomads can sustain a long drawn gorilla warfare against the state, which is needless. Also, that modernity has caused a fundamental and abrupt disruption of their archaic way of life is actually not their fault. If anybody is to blame is successive authorities that didn’t factor the pastoralists in their national or subnational developmental plans.
Given the above, therefore, the only alternative solution left is engagement – government must develop political will to take this option; engage in a dialogue towards settling not just the pastoralists security threat, but also other contending political and structural issues in the country. But the immediate security threats of insurgency and banditry need to be durably solved and peace restored. They should be brought out of the bush and settled, their herds ranched, by legislations ban open grazing and facilitate for the establishment of wide range of animal feeds industries and water treatment plants to develop animal-related industrial bases.
This way, beyond creating wealth through animal husbandry and its value chain, we would remove an aged-old source of perennial conflicts between farmers and herders. It will be easy to succeed as it has enormous benefits for the herdsmen, the communities and the state. Most of our people depend on cattle, sheep and goats for meat, milk, ghee, cheese, hair, honey, butter, manure, incense, animal blood, hides and skins. In the villages, farmers use cattle bulls for carting, plowing, and hauling. Thousands of people wholly or partly make their livings from selling, milking, butchering, or transporting herds. Cattle and animal owners can thus play important roles in the economy and nutrition of our communities. With its value-chain, herding is potentially a multi-trillion naira industry.
But if their centuries-old lifestyle is abruptly disrupted with no viable alternative and are ignored and despised, with no sense of belonging and unintegrated into society, then the challenge of present state of insecurity from the herdsmen will remain and escalate even for generations to come. Because, like any other being, if threatened they will fight for survival.
And this is where the Sheikh Ahmad Gumi effort offers a window of opportunity for such engagement. If it would initiate the bringing out of the pastoralists from the bushes and developing a comprehensive settlement program, then it needs to be given serious consideration and encouragement as a viable solution to the herdsmen conflict and its attendant security threats to the country. I think the government and Nigerians of goodwill need to adopt, develop and use it as a starting template.