Nigeria’s ruling class understand the trajectory we are on but they are too irresponsible to care. Of course, they care for themselves and are busy buying houses in Dubai, United Kingdom, Ghana… For the rest of us who are going nowhere, our future is in our hands, do we allow the criminal elements to destroy us through conflict or do we make efforts to rebuild a political community that would serve the interests of all Nigerians?

The mass circulation of small arms and light weapons among the civilian population has placed Nigeria on the path to self-destruction. When the Minister of Defence challenged Nigerians to defend themselves against bandits wielding sophisticated weapons, he was telling us the truth we know, that there is no state to defend us, and we are on our own; as such, let’s do what we can. Of course, what he said does not make sense, coming from someone with the responsibility to defend us. The reason we have the state and give it the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence is to provide for our collective security, as if we all have our arms we will turn against each other in a direct march to anarchy. That is why we, citizens, unlike criminals, do not procure arms.

Today, we live in a society in which we are faced with the Kalashnikov Challenge, characterised by the mass use of modern rifles by civil actors with criminal orientation. In the good old days of inter-tribal warfare, a week of combat between two communities might produce two or three casualties. The dane gun that was in use at that time had a quasi-democratic character. In one out of four times that the trigger is pulled, the gun explodes and the shooter is the victim. The Kalashnikov has changed all that. A young man with a single rifle could wipe out a whole village and start hate memories that the whole of previous history could never have imagined. We live in difficult times in which the destruction of community, society and ultimately the state has become too easy a pathway.

The Fulani pastoral community has endured the highest agency in this regard. Over a period of three decades of serious crisis of the pastoralist mode of production due to well documented causes – population growth and expansion of agriculture, climate change and dramatic decline of the availability of pasture, as well as extortion by police and area courts, amongst others, many within the community lost all or significant parts of their herd. It was in that context that cattle rustling, an age-old practice of pastoral communities utilised in forming herds and for getting cash and meat was revived.

When procurement of the Kalashnikov rifles started in the late nineties and early 2000s, cattle rustling was transformed into a vicious criminal activity far beyond the quasi-cultural practice earlier observed by anthropologists. Low intensity conflicts were quickly transformed into commando like attacks with sophisticated weapons, affecting both pastoralists and large-scale farmers. The result was that the scale of loss of both herds and human beings started to escalate and the victims were mainly Fulani pastoralists in the bush, as such the stories did not make it into the legacy and social media.

The third phase was the extension of these criminal activities to neighbouring Hausa communities who were also subjected to the malfeasance. Through the 2010s, criminal gangs composed mainly but not exclusively of Fulani youth and uniformed vigilante groups known locally as “yanbanga”, set up by communities to provide security, fought each other.

The second phase was also largely unnoticed. When security agencies initiated significant moves in the early 2000s to trace rustled cattle, the method of criminal activity changed and rather than rustle, heads of cattle owning families were kidnapped, forcing the families to sell their cattle, pay ransom and get their relations released. The forests straddling Zamfara, Kaduna and Katsina States became the ungoverned territories for these activities. Much of this was done without media attention.

The third phase was the extension of these criminal activities to neighbouring Hausa communities who were also subjected to the malfeasance. Through the 2010s, criminal gangs composed mainly but not exclusively of Fulani youth and uniformed vigilante groups known locally as “yanbanga”, set up by communities to provide security, fought each other. The fight was uneven and Hausa farming communities were the main victims. Some Hausa leaders, starting from Zamfara State, started providing heavy duty weapons to newly formed Hausa militia known as “yansakai” to strike back, and revenge assaults became the order of the day. These developments hit the media, creating shock when Middle Belt communities in Plateau, Nasarawa and Benue States also got affected by the spread of these criminal activities.

The dynamics of the conflict became national, especially as access to pasture became dramatically reduced partly due to the effects of activities by some pastoralists but also some other actors. The Chad basin for dry season pastures was affected by the Boko Haram insurgency and insecurity, so pastoralists avoided it. They also fled the Zamfara/Katsina wet season pastures, as cattle rustling grew and pastoralists became frontline victims. The spreading out of violence from the Zamfara/Katsina vortex subsequently affected the Dandume/Birnin Gwari zone in southern Katsina and Kaduna States. The Boko Haram insurgency spread arms south to affect the Falgore/Ningi grazing areas between Kano and Bauchi States. As pastoralists were being blocked out of their traditional grazing reserves in the North-West and North-East due to growing insecurity, large numbers moved South.

The war between the Fulani and the Hausa is enroute. At the national level, the coming war is read with a different lens; the Hausa-Fulani Muslims are seen as a united group against the Christian Southerners and Middle Belters. The risk at that level is national cohesion and the survival of the country.

As these movements intensified, the conditions under which they were operating also pushed cattle breeders into adopting pastoralist methods, which increased, rather than decreased, the potential for conflicts and discord. Traditionally, pastoralists engaged in open grazing disperse themselves so as not to overgraze areas and encroach on farms. With rising insecurity, however, they started moving in large groups in smaller spaces, as they got blocked out of their traditional grazing zones. This large-scale concentration of pastoralists in limited ranges allows them to protect themselves against attacks. The paradox is that the more concentrated they are, the more damage they do to crops, which in turn fuels more violent conflict. As they spread around the country and are being chased out of many States, the conflicts have intensified. This conflict-generating trend that spread around Nigeria can only be reversed when security in rural Nigeria begins to improve.

We are now entering a new phase in which drivers of conflict are being multiplied. Rural banditry and mass kidnapping are sapping rural communities of their resources and savings. Families are being forced to pay millions of naira in ransom, which they do not have. To pay, they have to tax themselves, sell their animals and farms to secure the release of their relations. There is a deep process of pauperisation that is ongoing in rural Nigeria today. The youth of the affected communities, therefore, have nothing to lose but their poverty. The pathway to success that has destroyed their family resources is the Kalashnikov, as such they also choose to seek it and arms thereby spreads and violence grows. It is a pathway to self-destruction. The war between the Fulani and the Hausa is enroute. At the national level, the coming war is read with a different lens; the Hausa-Fulani Muslims are seen as a united group against the Christian Southerners and Middle Belters. The risk at that level is national cohesion and the survival of the country.

Nigeria’s ruling class understand the trajectory we are on but they are too irresponsible to care. Of course, they care for themselves and are busy buying houses in Dubai, United Kingdom, Ghana and other places to bolt out when the times come – just they and their nuclear families, while their relations and former compatriots fight it out. That is why they are not really making any effort to rebuild the state and create conditions for rebuilding legitimacy and state capacity to provide for the security and welfare of all citizens. Wherever they go would be a temporary abode, their destination is hell. For the rest of us who are going nowhere, our future is in our hands, do we allow the criminal elements to destroy us through conflict or do we make efforts to rebuild a political community that would serve the interests of all Nigerians?

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.

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