A defence of Buhari's reaction to Fulani herdsmen crisis

The president has once again been accused of being tribalistic, but does he deserve it this time?

In attacks allegedly orchestrated by Fulani herdsmen between December 31, 2017, and January 7, 2018, in Benue and Taraba, over 100 people were killed.

The killings in Benue have gotten more attention because of the gory images of the slaughtered men, women and children that have found their way onto the internet.

Since the crisis broke out on January 2, the one man that has gotten the most flak for it has been President Buhari, for a lot of reasons.

The most damaging allegation against the president has been that his reaction to the killings has been significantly atrocious especially since they were carried out by people of his Fulani extraction.

By implication of his 'body language', many have accused the president of indirectly condoning the killings, and in more extreme accusations, even sponsoring them.

These accusations forced Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to urge the Nigerian public to not politicise the killings and make it about the president.

This has done nothing to stem the multitude of fingers that have wagged in the president's direction and accused him of even more sectarianism at the detriment of Nigerian lives.

It's important to assess just what exactly the president has done that has warranted this finger-pointing and if he truly deserves it.

History of herdsmen menace

In a bid to quell the pressure of politicising the recent killings, President Buhari's Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, noted that 756 people were killed by Fulani herdsmen between 2013 and May 2015, under a different president with no (possible) kinship with the perpetrators.

As misguided as the announcement of that observation was, especially after Osinbajo's warning about politicising the crisis, that statement was indicative of a more complex problem than had been painted.

What it simply meant was that the problem of killer Fulani herdsmen is one that predates a sitting Fulani president.

According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index report, "Fulani militants" were responsible for the death of 1,229 people in 2014, making them the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world before Buhari's ascension.

To avoid misunderstanding here, this is not an attempt to acquit the president of failing in his responsibility to ensure safety for countless Nigerian lives like he promised during his campaign.

However, for years, the nomadic herdsmen have been in conflict with local farmers, especially in the Middle Belt, over the access and control of lands on which their cattle carelessly graze.

Tensions between both parties have long ago resulted in the armed conflicts that have been coloured by tribal and religious factors that have escalated the problem.

While Benue has borne the brunt of the conflicts, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Plateau, Taraba and Zamfara have also been greatly affected by the marauding band of murderous militants.

Even though the crisis chiefly started as out-of-control clashes between farmers and herdsmen, it has devolved into isolated, well-orchestrated attacks that are targeted at vulnerable communities.

The result of this is the Agatu killings of 2016 when herdsmen massacred hundreds as vengeance for the killing of a Fulani man in 2013; the coordinated killings of hundreds of Fulanis in Taraba in June 2017; another orchestrated killing of at least 45 women and children in Fulani communities in Numan, Adamawa by a Bachama militia group in November 2017, and a lot more that barely got any coverage.

Boiling down the recent crisis to just Buhari's seat at the head of the table is a reductive exercise that doesn't do the situation adequate justice.

Buhari's reaction to Benue

In a press statement signed by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, on January 3, President Buhari commiserated with Benue governor, Samuel Ortom, over the killings.

Describing the attacks as "wicked and callous", the president assured the governor that relevant security agencies have been directed to do everything possible to arrest those behind the regrettable incidents that resulted in the deaths of "even innocent children".

Earlier that day, the Benue State Police Command announced that it had arrested eight suspects in connection with the attacks, and six of them have already been arraigned at a Magistrate Court.

Two days after another attack by herdsmen led to the death of at least 11 people in another community in Benue, the president ordered the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, to relocate to the state with more police units and end the crisis.

With public pressure mounting on the president to do more, the Nigerian Army deployed Special Forces to Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa to appease the growing anger in the country.

So why does Buhari keep getting accused of condoning the attacks by his kinsmen if he appears to have done everything reasonably possible, albeit at a snail's pace, to quell a very unfortunate situation?

In Buhari's defence

A major trigger for why the president has been accused of pandering to his kinfolk in light of the Benue crisis has been his distant reaction to it.

Even though many Nigerians expected him to speak directly on the issue and name and shame the perpetrators as the terrorists they are, he only issued a tame statement through a spokesperson, went ahead to commission projects in Kaduna two days later, and neglected to pay a visit to Benue.

While these are expectations that are valid and should be expected of any duty-bound leader to execute without being prodded by the public, it is fair to question when Buhari has ever cared about the tender side of a crisis.

It wasn't during the Agatu killings, or more recently, the flood crisis that displaced thousands in Benue in August 2017; the president has always been comfortable engaging troubling crises in the country through media proxies without the helm of his own garment in touching distance.

The administrative reticence of his government has been played out one too many times: he commiserates through a drone; he barks orders to whoever should handle what; and he withdraws into the inner sanctuary of the Presidential Villa; but he never engages in the affectionate way Nigerians demand.

So if this is already the standard the president has set over the course of his tenure, what is the fuss about this time?

The truth is there's always a fuss about the president's body language because his apparently unfeeling method of leadership is a disappointment that many thought would disappear with the last administration.

However, it's an undeniable fact that the most notable reason this particular crisis has taken on a tribal dimension (other than previous allegations of the president's ethnic bias, of course) is that this one involves the president's 'people'.

It's noteworthy to point out that while the Benue crisis brewed, 22 people were also killed in on January 1 by a local cult group in Omoku, and the president has reacted in a near-identical way to both crises.

However, no one has linked his reaction to that unfortunate incident with his ethnic roots; it's simply President Buhari being the President Buhari that we have come to know.

While the thought cannot be completely dismissed, it's really difficult to rule for sure that the president's sentiment is critically at play with the criminals the country is dealing with in Benue; but there's more compelling evidence suggesting that it's the case of him falling short of the expectations of Nigerians, yet again.

So while Nigerians blame the president for something as sinister as putting tribe over country, maybe there's a simpler explanation.

He's just incompetent.

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