What does it mean, exactly, to label herdsmen terrorists?

Nigerians continue to clamour for the declaration of herdsmen as terrorists, but how will it work?

Two of the dead victims were soldiers of the 3 Division Garrison Jos Plateau State who were killed when troops responded to distress calls and were fired upon by herdsmen while moving in to settle the dispute.

That same week, 26 people who were killed the previous week in Omusu Edimoga, Okpokwu Local Government Area of Benue State, were buried.

In light of the hundreds of bodies that have dropped in Nigeria in 2018 alone in attacks linked to nomadic cattle herders, calls have grown ever so loudly to declare them terrorists.

Last week, Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinkalent an even stronger voice to that position when he questioned President Muhammadu Buhari's motive behind not declaring the killers terrorists.

He said, "We're speaking of governance, will, and responsibility, the readiness to respond with massive punitive action when the fundamental security of a people is violated.

"We're speaking here of a president showing up at the arena of human desecration, not to shed any anxious tears, but to read the riot act and give an order, right on the scene of violation.

"Order his forces into action against the arrogant, blood-thirsty renegades of society who wallow in the blood of others, having been assured one way or the other, of a cloak of impunity.

"We're speaking of the courage to decree such monsters terrorists and enemies of humanity with the same dispatch as the declaration of far less violent, far less destabilising movements, albeit disruptive, supernaturalism and sometimes nasty in their attestation and activities."

A recent history of Nigerian terrorism

More than the wanton killings and the cynical nature of them, one of the main reasons the calls for the government to declare herdsmen terrorists are deafening is a result of very recent history.

The separatist pro-Biafra group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), was proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the government after a week of unrest that involved clashes between the members of the group and troops of the Nigerian Army.

Even though many Nigerians didn't agree with the group's scandalous tactics, a lot of people, even the international community, deemed the act of labelling them terrorists as taking it too far.

The group, for all of its shortcomings, hardly openly engaged in armed confrontation with security agencies, unlike herdsmen who have already killed police officers and soldiers in bold fashion.

Much of the group's stock-in-trade involved peddling wild conspiracy theories such as the real president being switched out for an impostor from Sudan, as well as promises of marching on Abuja to demand secession.

Even if the penalty of tagging the group a terrorist organisation might have seemed excessive, it was done within the ambit of the law (eventually, at least) and is arguably deserved.

This firm decision, taken mere months ago, is what has made the government's inaction over the surge of extracurricular herdsmen activities more puzzling. Why is the terrorism tag good for the goose but not for the gander?

Many people allege that the president's kinship with the Fulani tribe, who have been mostly blamed for the killings, is the real reason why the government won't bring down the stamp of terrorism.

While the government continues to dither, it might be worth examining what it means to declare herdsmen as terrorists.

Miyetti Allah group

The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) is the apex body of all Fulani cattle breeders in the country.

It was founded in the early 1970s as a loose partisan advocacy group centred on promoting the welfare of pastoralists.

The group has gained notoriety over the past decade as conflicts began to escalate between nomadic herdsmen and local farmers over the access and control of lands on which their cattle graze.

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

The group has always had something to say about these clashes in reckless ways that suggested that they were not merely condoning but orchestrating the attacks.

Since this year's killings first attracted the country's attention in Benue, state governor, Samuel Ortom, has used every opportunity to lay the blame at the feet of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, a Fulani socio-cultural group.

According to him, the group had been making threatening statements in open rebellion to its implementation of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law that outlawed open grazing in the state in 2017.

Just a day after the implementation of the law, Kautal Hore northcentral zonal leader, Gidado Bebeji, criticised the method of implementation.

He expressed concern that the herdsmen's human rights to free movement was being violated as a result of the restriction placed on the conduct of their business.

"The state government has been speaking English with nobody caring to properly inform the pastoralists," he said.

Since the 2018 killings became worse, the Miyetti Allah group has shuffled between a range of reactions; from raising alarm that the killings are not one-sided to appearing to justify the killings, and then denying involvement in carrying out attacks, all at the same time.

The group's often conflicted and firebrand manner of addressing the recent spate of killings across several states has led many to conclude that they are the ones fueling the crisis; hence, the big bad problem that needs to go away.

According to many, the solution to putting a definite end to the killings is to declare herdsmen or the Miyetti Allah groups as terrorists. The one-sided conversation is a little vague on how exactly it will work if the government listens to reason.

How does the terrorist declaration work?

According to the nation's Terrorism Act, a person or corporate body who knowingly in or outside Nigeria directly or indirectly does, attempts or threatens any act of terrorism; commits an act preparatory to or in furtherance of an act of terrorism; omits to do anything that is reasonably necessary to prevent an act of terrorism; assists or facilitates the activities of persons engaged in an act of terrorism; participates as an accomplice in or contributes to the commission of any act of terrorism; assists, facilitates, organizes or directs the activities of persons or organizations engaged in any act of terrorism; is an accessory to any act of terrorism, or; incites, promises or induces any other person by any means whatsoever to commit any act of terrorism; commits a terrorist offence and is liable on conviction to maximum of death sentence.

Going by just their public conduct alone, it's hard to argue against the notion that MACBAN is guilty of at least one of these conditions that qualify them to be tagged terrorists.

For instance, after the first wave of attacks in January 2018, MACBAN's National Co-ordinator, Garus Gololo, said the attacks were reprisals for the alleged killing of some herdsmen and theft of cows, explaining away the crime as self-defence. While he provided context for the conflict, he unwittingly admitted that herdsmen belonging to the group carried out attacks.

He further tried to argue that the attacks were due to the Benue government's implementation of the anti-open grazing law, but the violence has spread to places like Kogi, Plateau, Nasarawa that have never entertained the idea of the same law.

So if the government decides to shake the tree here and label MACBAN a terrorist organisation, what does it mean in a bigger context?

It's really not a far-fetched thought that the perpetrators of these attacks are mostly undesirable elements who are manipulating the nation's tense political state right now to foment trouble and have no direct link to MACBAN. To put this in more transparent context, not all herdsmen are necessarily members of MACBAN or Kautal Hore.

If the government declares the group a terrorist organisation, does it mean that all the members under it will stop functioning in their vocation?

If MACBAN's activities get proscribed, will security agencies have the mandate to arrest every herdsman that openly grazes in the country? Does it mean a ban on open grazing across the country?

Unlike IPOB, or even Boko Haram, herdsmen are not necessarily tied to a group that can make it hard for them to go about their primary jobs if such a group is cast in the negative light of terrorism.

This means branding MACBAN a terrorist organisation doesn't necessarily solve the killing problem; unless what is being suggested here is that the government declare all herdsmen to be terrorists which is quite impracticable.

More importantly, how helpful is labelling herdsmen terrorists to ridding the country of the wasteful killings that have threatened to become commonplace?

Since the country does not have a federal anti-open grazing law in place, it'd be a constitutional violation to deny herdsmen the right to conduct their businesses across the country if they're not hurting anybody and are no longer a member of a proscribed group.

This means that despite the world of possibilities opened up by labelling MACBAN or bloodthirsty killer herdsmen as terrorists, there's a potential loophole large enough to lead a herd of cattle through.

This means these kinds of attacks could still continue with security agencies finding it hard to keep up with them.

While the killings keep happening nearly every week, the government's body language suggests that herdsmen, or MACBAN, or Kautal Hore, are never going to be tagged terrorists.

Since troubles escalated in January, the Federal Government has stepped up plans to establish the controversial cattle colony initiative which is a combination of many ranches restricted to one location.

This plan has already been openly criticised by the public and state governors who have said they won't give up their lands for such a venture but at least 15 states are known to have volunteered at least 5,000 hectares each.

While Nigerians continue to clamour for a world where herdsmen are tagged terrorists for the many atrocities they've committed in the space of three months, the government is barking up a different tree.

A lot of thought needs to go into either 'solution' as there are a lot of shadings to do around the edges to achieve anything close to effectively putting an end to the killings and the conflicts around them.

The truth is herdsmen didn't have to be declared terrorists before they were named (described as "Fulani militants") in the 2015 Global Terrorism Index as the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world after being responsible for the death of 1,229 people in 2014.

A lot of forethought on the part of the government could have likely prevented the current crisis if they didn't wait for it to happen again, especially after the atrocities of Agatu, before trying to seek measures to address the root causes of the situation.

It also goes without saying that security agencies could have dealt better with the current situation by, for example, inviting MACBAN's leadership to explain a string of careless utterances in public before letting the sense of lawlessness fester.

Whatever the government resorts to now, it is important to ensure perpetrators of this current string of attacks are arrested and prosecuted with extreme prejudice to serve as deterrent that the nation does not condone senseless disregard for human lives within its borders.

In the end, putting a stop to the wanton killings and avoidable clashes as well as the bringing of perpetrators to book is what everyone wants.

Whether that comes in the shape of invoking the Terrorism Act or creating cattle colonies or ranches, or dancing around a fire, it should not matter as long as the problem goes away.


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