By Moses E. Ochonu
The circumstantial case against Buhari is compelling and may help explain the signature failures of his administrations, from his neglect of the deadly violence of armed herdsmen to the collapse of his war against corruption. A few facts will suffice.
1. In October 2000, Muhammadu Buhari led a Fulani delegation to confront Governor Lam Adesina of Oyo State on the death of some herders allegedly killed by farmers during clashes. His was not a fact-finding or peace mission. He had a predetermined agenda founded on a preconceived understanding of what had transpired. His words to the governor betrayed his mindset. Instead of asking his host about what had happened, his mind was already made up.
His parochial instinct was to take sides with his ethnic kinsmen, to be their champion. His approach was thus accusatory. He was convinced that his kinsmen had been unfairly killed by Yoruba farmers even before gathering the facts of what had occurred. His infamous words to Governor Adesina, “why are your people killing my people?” was a clear expression of his preference for being a champion and defender of Fulani ethnic interests over being a statesman. When a man sees himself as a champion of a particular ethnic group it is hard for him to approach an ethnically charged issue with an open mind.
Governor Adesina had to patiently and politely educate Buhari on the nuances of the conflict, on how Buhari was misinformed, on how farmers and Fulani herders were, for the most part, living quite peacefully together in Oyo, and on how the clashes had been isolated incidents with casualties recorded on both sides, not just on the side of the herdsmen.
This widely reported encounter demonstrates the default reflex and impulse of Buhari. He tends to instinctively view the farmer-herder conflict in ethnic terms, and more specifically as an anti-Fulani conspiracy designed to threaten the interests of his nomadic kinsmen. His utterances, silences, actions, and inactions corroborate and emanate from this mindset.
2. Recently, the political and traditional leaders of Benue State paid a visit to Buhari in Aso Rock on the herdsmen massacre in the state. We may not know everything that they discussed with the president, but we know what Buhari told them because several newspapers carried it as their headline. Buhari is reported to have urged the delegation to “in the name of God accommodate your countrymen.” The “countrymen” he was referring to are his kinsmen, the herdsmen. This is a telling example of how the president thinks about the ongoing crisis of herdsmen violence. The Benue delegation must have given him an earful about the devastation the armed herdsmen militia wrought on the state, first in Agatu and now in Logo and Guma. Yet the president’s most widely reported comeback was not empathy or a promise to go after the mass murderers but an unsolicited advice to the grieving Benue leaders to accommodate their nomadic countrymen, a clear insinuation on his part that the Benue leaders were or had been hostile to his Fulani herdsmen kinsmen.
The president’s remark was also an indirect criticism of the anti-open grazing law duly passed by the state’s legislature. The law is a desperate, last-resort effort to stem herdsmen killings in the state in the face of the inertia and indifference of Buhari’s administration, so there is some irony in the president’s subtle but discernible criticism. If the Benue leaders were courageous they would have reminded him that it was his inaction and the resulting impunity and expansion of the herdsmen’s violence that necessitated the drastic action of making a law banning open grazing of cattle. Speaking of courage, the Benue leaders should, in the first instance, have insisted on the president visiting the state to see and hear the victims’ pains firsthand, instead of visiting him in Aso Rock to be lectured on the importance of “accommodating” one’s countrymen.
The president’s “accommodate your countrymen” statement was, in addition, a classic case of blaming the victim. But it is consistent with how Buhari thinks about any issues involving his kinsmen or his core political constituency of the northwest and northeast. His default position is to externalize or deflect blame from his kinsmen and political supporters — to protect, absolve, and exonerate his kinsmen, to be their advocate.
Whatever the Benue leaders told Buhari, his working, unshakable paradigm remained: that the herdsmen were victims, that the Benue people did not “accommodate” them, and that this led to the conflict. His belief was that the killings stemmed from this failure to “accommodate” the herdsmen. He was judge and jury in the situation. Why would a president who harbors this belief deal decisively with the menace or send soldiers to deal with the killers? He would be going against his instinct of not finding fault with his kinsmen. He would rather send in the police, who would not go after the killers, whom he probably believes were lashing out because they were not properly “accommodated” in Benue. It’s an extremely reductive prism through which to view the menace, but that has always been Buhari’s point of departure, his reference.
3. When the offensive against Boko Haram began during Jonathan’s presidency, Buhari’s response was to say that a military assault on Boko Haram was an assault on the north, or more appropriately the Northwest and Northeast, his political stronghold. He was, once again, instinctively pandering to his constituency, not opposing military action against Boko Haram terrorists per se. At a time when many northerners believed that Boko Haram was a conspiracy against the North and therefore saw the military assault on the group as an effort to weaken the region, Buhari felt that he had to say what his northern constituents wanted to hear, that he had to amplify and validate this popular but erroneous interpretation of the military campaign against the terrorist group. This is an enlightening glimpse into the mindset of Buhari as a parochial panderer, as a man who is more concerned about upending or being seen to be going against the prevailing views and suspicions of his constituents than he is about failing as a national candidate or leader.
In these three instances, was the president deliberately abetting or protecting criminals and mass murderers? No. But he was pandering to the primordial sentiments of people he saw as either his kinsmen or his reliable political constituency. In stubbornly clinging to a belief in an unfounded notion of Fulani victimhood and anti-Fulani conspiracy, is Buhari intentionally incubating or ignoring the menace of his herdsmen kinsmen? Would a sane person do this to their legacy? No. But he was acting in a manner consistent with his history of putting his primordial, parochial instinct above statesmanship. He was operating in his comfort zone and also rewarding the loyalty of his kinsmen and political constituency.
Is the president a genocidal maniac who enjoys seeing his compatriots killed in their hundreds and thousands? Not at all. The problem is that he comes to these issues with hardened preconceptions that blind him to reality, inform his policies or lack thereof, and lead him by default to reciprocate the loyalty of kinsmen and supporters no matter how culpable they may be. It is a recipe for inaction and indifference. It is fundamentally a problem of parochialism and inordinate personal loyalty to proximate, familiar entities.
It is the same inexplicably unquestioning loyalty to supporters, benefactors, and kinsmen that led him to say Abacha did not steal any money, although his current administration is taking delivery of hundreds of millions of dollars in recovered Abacha loot, and to write to the Senate exonerating David Babachir Lawal of corruption only to be forced by mounting evidence and pressure to reluctantly acknowledge Babachir’s guilt by firing him.
As with the Babachir situation, it will take enormous public pressure to compel Buhari to acknowledge and act decisively on the existential threat that armed, AK-47 wielding herdsmen militias pose to the nation. We will need to force him out of his provincial comfort zone and make him assume the status of a statesman, even if he kicks and screams.
Buhari’s aides are too enamored with him to extricate him from his provincial way of thinking. Otherwise courageous inner circle members such as Nasir el-Rufai cannot help the president either. El-Rufai is a Fulani supremacist who believes in appeasing killer herdsmen by paying them “compensation” from public funds while forcing their victims to embrace so-called apology billboards apologizing to their tormentors. El-Rufai is reading from the same script as the president on this issue. He is the author of the viral, infamously inciting ethnic supremacist tweet endorsing the vengeful violence of Fulani herdsmen on civilians and members of the Nigerian military who are deemed to have hurt the herdsmen.
The president, if he is wise, will therefore look beyond his inner, incestuous circle to his critics for the truth in this situation. If he does not trust people in the political opposition or people from the South or the herdsmen-ravaged Middle Belt, he should listen to the likes of Senator Shehu Sani, a fellow APC member from his Northwestern zone. Senator Sani has been sounding the alarm on this crisis and speaking clearly and courageously on the threat that this menace poses to the country as well as on the president’s scandalous inattention to it.