Sunday Igboho

For prevailing over criminals, the Igbohos of this world offer nothing. In contrast, #EndSARS won the disbandment of a police unit, the eponymous SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) that had been the greatest security threat to young, urban Nigerians since 2008.

Coming in the wake of greater global awareness of the #EndSARS hashtag, the #Igboho hashtag represents a competing vision of security in Nigeria. The #EndSARS movement calls for equitable and effective federal policing. #Igboho calls for ethnic cleansing as the final solution to insecurity.

I must ask, in what ways are both the worldview and the eponymous Sunday ‘Igboho’ Adeyemo an effective response to insecurity? There is no evidence, over the past four months or indeed over his entire career, that Igboho has nabbed a single bandit, which he is well within his rights to do under Nigerian laws. Again, there is no evidence that Igboho has killed any bandit, which would be a crime, except it is in self-defence.

They say a 20-year headstart does not keep truth from catching up with falsehood in one day. There are serious allegations, which are over two decades old, that Igboho had a hand in the murder of innocents and in arson, including the burning of schools.

Nonetheless, a popular Fuji musician sings his praise. Nigeria’s most celebrated playwright considers him to be defending besieged communities in the way he knows. One of Nigeria’s finest poets claims Igboho for a champion of schoolchildren. The section of the Nigerian press headquartered in the South-West has anointed him a ‘Yoruba activist.’

Yet, if that man has ever killed people in his life, it is all too probably innocent Yoruba people. This is the irony of the ethnic logic, in all of its self-defeating capacity. Absurd as it is, I must enquire into the conditions that allow prejudiced citizens to mistake Igboho for a champion. A good place to begin reviewing those conditions is with the crisis of farmer-herder relations.

Nigeria’s challenges would have been hard enough were they not compounded by citizens who conflate the ethnic and legal dimensions of the farmer-herder conflict with the wave of violent crime that has been sweeping Nigeria and crushing the lives of farming and herding families for well over a decade.

By the legal dimension of the farmer-herder conflict, I mean trespass, property damage, assault, battery and sometimes manslaughter and murder. By violent crime I mean murder, rape, arson, armed robbery, kidnapping. There is a clear overlap but solving Nigeria’s problems requires nuanced thought.

Again, the challenge of farmer-herder conflicts is hard enough without citizens conflating the operations of transhumant herders with that of sedentary herders. The expectation that sedentary herders who 30, 20, 10 years ago submitted themselves to the due process of customary law and gained permission to use land can be told to uproot their families and leave, subject to any whim or caprice, is cruel and unjust.

The conflicts over the use and ownership of land that are rampant in rural Nigeria – as likely within and between farming families, as between farmers and herders – are exactly the same kind of conflicts over landed property in urban Nigeria. Customary law and oral agreements may be more influential in rural areas but human behaviour is the same everywhere. There is therefore no need to resort to conspiracy theories or primordial myths in grappling with the challenge of farmer-herder conflicts. 

A significant portion of the herds that are tended closest to long-established farmland or urban areas are owned by powerful local people. Such powerful people engage in-migrants as poorly paid hired hands or ill-used share keepers. They also require the proximity of their investment as reassurance, yet these types of herds cannot but be involved in trespass and property damage. As these factors do not fit into an ethnicised framing, they are often passed over in silence by supporters of #Igboho.

With respect to violent crime, I must be clear: Everything that farmers in Nigeria’s South West are suffering, herders are suffering too, at the hands of the same criminals. Everything that crop farmers, nationwide, are suffering, herders are suffering too, at the hands of the same criminals. 

Grappling with Nigeria’s challenges also requires facing one other fact about the ethnicity of criminals: Some of the criminals are Fulani and some of them are Edo, Hausa, Igbo, Ijaw, Shuwa, Yoruba, Zarma, etc.


These are the truths that an Igboho seeks to replace with demagoguery. Given the facts, do the words of Nigeria’s august playwright amount to anything more than ethical evasion? Do I find Igboho championing the cause of schoolchildren? Or, do I find his actions consistent with his reputation: Arson, picking on the innocent, fuelling communal discord?

The principle is therefore clear: Whenever any individual or society makes crime about ethnicity, such an individual or society has abandoned the pursuit of crime prevention and crime control. Whether you ethnicise criminality or you criminalise ethnicity, you are on the path to ethnic cleansing.

There is a parallel I must draw here. This is, at least, the second time when oil prices will be in a global slump and in Nigeria’s consequent socio-economic downturn, some people will impose a tribal framing on social problems.

In the early 1980s (the first cracks in the formal economy appeared in 1976) the bogeys were West African immigrants. This time, it is Fulani in-migrants. The focal crime then was armed robbery. Today, it is kidnapping. Involvement of Ghanaians in armed robbery was one of the four major excuses Nigeria gave for its 1983 ‘Ghana Must Go’ policy.

However, the problem of robbery in Nigeria did not abate after the deportation of immigrants. In the decade after ‘Ghana Must Go’, my family moved residences between Oyo and Ondo States a few times. Whichever State we were in, our lot was a minimum of one break-in each year, and our experience was only the common fate of Nigerian families.

Over a decade after ‘Ghana Must Go’, between 1993 and 1996, Lagos State became the stomping ground of armed robbers. That was under a negligent and incompetent military administrator. That was the era of urban legends about armed robbers sending advance notices to Landlord and Tenant Associations. Drive-by shootings and explosions were not strange.

The crime situation in Lagos did not begin to turn around until a different military administrator took over. It was not the ethnicities of the military administrators that mattered, contrary to the worldview of #Igboho, but a competent focus on policing as the proper response to insecurity.

The latter administrator made a systematic effort to punish acts of corruption and brutalisation of civilians by the joint police and army personnel of Operation Sweep. At the same time, he singled out for commendations and reward Operation Sweep personnel who displayed good thinking and courage in doing police work.

These are the truths that an Igboho seeks to replace with demagoguery. Given the facts, do the words of Nigeria’s august playwright amount to anything more than ethical evasion? Do I find Igboho championing the cause of schoolchildren? Or, do I find his actions consistent with his reputation: Arson, picking on the innocent, fuelling communal discord?

That was a reputation that was established in my impressionable mind when I was in secondary school. I heard about the folks in whose ranks Igboho earned his notoriety, attacking women and children, burning homes and schools in that communal discord between Ife and Modakeke. That was just over 20 years ago.

In Igangan, one of the notable sites of Igboho’s so-called activism, residents said that bandits had camped on the outskirts of town for a long time, tormenting both Fulanis and Yorubas. Residents also accused them of kidnapping. The community therefore sent a delegation, which had both Fulani and Yoruba members, to the State capital to ask for government’s help, well over a year before Igboho came to town.

The residents of Igangan received no help from their government. Two successive Commissioners of Police, the Inspector General, the Governor and the President failed the residents of Igangan.

What was Igboho’s response? He fuelled discord between the Fulani and Yoruba residents of Igangan, leaving behind a trail of arson. Is that an effective response to either banditry or government negligence? As a matter of fact, Igboho was very careful not to take on the land-grabbing, murdering bandits that all Igangan residents had sought government help against.

Imagine that the case of a victim of a violent attack were taken to a court, either by the victim themselves or by their loved ones. Would it be enough for them to present the ethnicity of the attacker? Or, to take a different tack, if the complaints were presented first, would it add anything to present the ethnicity of the attacker?

For prevailing over criminals, the Igbohos of this world offer nothing. In contrast, #EndSARS won the disbandment of a police unit, the eponymous SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) that had been the greatest security threat to young, urban Nigerians since 2008.

#EndSARS also compelled political backing for the work of the National Human Rights Commission and the set-up of 28 state judicial panels. If nothing at all, those panels have surfaced and won compensation for wrongs suffered by vulnerable Nigerians, wrongs for which offices of state attorneys-general had functioned as blackholes.

What is more, #EndSARS holds many lessons about the mental adjustment required of policymakers if Nigeria is to prevail over criminals. In June 2019, over a year before the #EndSARS protests of October 2020, the president instructed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to commence throughgoing reform.

Had the IGP carried out this task, the carnage that occurred almost a year after the IGP should have driven reform past major milestones would have been avoided. It was a terrible lapse on the part of the IGP, an even worse lapse on the part of President Buhari.

In those lapses, the Buhari administration was exhibiting the recurring symptoms of the sickness that plagues police reform in Nigeria. 2019 was the fourth time – Nigeria has had police reform panels under different presidents in 2006, 2008 and 2012.

Nevertheless, the Buhari administration had broken with previous administrations. Before the #EndSARS protests, it had passed legislations to reform the police. The problem is that beyond making new laws, police reform continues to stall.

The delays in translating police reform from paper to the substance of reality evokes my dismay. One of President Buhari’s current policy advisers once wrote, “Focus should, instead, shift to the long overdue task of modernising the police force, equipping it for twenty-first century challenges, and positioning it as the vanguard of a law enforcement and public safety architecture that accounts for and regulates citizen-led communal vigilance initiatives.” Let us see that in the practice of this administration.

The truth about checks and balances in the Nigerian political system is that governors, acting to counter or reinforce the actions of the president, are the most effective mode by which checks and balances operate in Nigeria’s democracy. State governors cannot claim they do not have the leverage to demand that the Nigeria Police Council functions. The twice-a-year minimum of meetings specified for the Police Council in the new Police Act is too few in my view. However, it is a minimum that I hope will be exceeded in practice.

The Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, the Anti-Torture Act 2017, the Police Trust Fund Act 2019, the Police Act 2020, annual Appropriation Acts, with due focus on the need for an effective and equitable police and judiciary in Nigeria’s rural areas, must become the palpable substance of reality. That is the acceptable continuation of #EndSARS.

To conclude, I offer a thought experiment. Imagine that the case of a victim of a violent attack were taken to a court, either by the victim themselves or by their loved ones. Would it be enough for them to present the ethnicity of the attacker? Or, to take a different tack, if the complaints were presented first, would it add anything to present the ethnicity of the attacker? In short, is the ethnicity of the attacker a materially sufficient or necessary fact?

The answer offered in response to those questions is not important. What is important is explaining why one’s answer is correct.

The assumption at the heart of constructing a modern state is that the systems of policing and the judiciary exist to both right and deter wrongs. When wrongs are neither being righted nor deterred, one either accepts that fundamental assumption still and calls strongly for the systems of policing and the judiciary to be improved. That is the view of #EndSARS. Or, one rejects that assumption in the belief that policing, the judiciary, were never up to the tasks of preventing or correcting wrongs and will never be so. This is the worldview of #Igboho, which then offers as alternatives ethnic cleansing and the frenzy of disguised wolves.

Adebiyi Olusolape writes from Ibadan.

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