By Philip Agbese
Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai’s comments, suggesting changes to certain policies and legislations as additional impetus for peace in the middle belt – Benue, Taraba, Nassarawa and some other neighbouring states, where farmers/herders’ have differences, has metamorphosed into a complex crisis that claims lives every now and then struck my entire being like Moses’ rod that was used to cross the Red Sea .
General Buratai, who spoke when he took journalists on a tour of Benue riverine areas bordering Nassarawa, being no politician, hit the nail on the head in a manner not previously achieved by anyone in his position. He made his points without compromising on the neutrality expected of his office as the COAS.
In his words, “We are deploying more troops to cover the area, though, that place is part of a larger area, the three states combined together have common boundaries – Taraba, Nassarawa and Benue states. It is very important that we look at it and see how we can further reinforce the troops and then the mobility on water is also something that is very critical, which we are also looking into. Already there is a planning committee on ground from Defence Headquarters that is working on this and there are a lot of boats that have been brought in for deployment on the waters, so they should rest assured that the place would further be safe for them to go back.
I said earlier too that certain policies or certain laws need to be reviewed to give everybody a sense of belonging, I think that is very fundamental. If it is done it will help us a lot to ward off some of these insecurities. But one point is that there are so many intrusions of criminals on both sides – both on the side of the herders and on the side of the locals. We shouldn’t give them that chance to cause disharmony,” he stated.
Had these words come from anyone else other than Buratai, no one would have wasted time paying attention to them, considering that a lot of the intervention made to date are driven by ethnic religious, political, geo-political and cultural leaning of those making such input. But Buratai as a man who is ready to lay down his life to end the killings in the country, was able to erase everyone’s doubt about what needed to be done.
The Army, under his command has not only deployed troops to the trouble spots as ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari, but has also taken the initiative to reinforce the number on tour to the area. Equipment have also been procured to address the loophole that the waterways constitute in the movement of those intending to do harm in the region. In making these bold moves, he has antecedence that confirm he is a Military Chief who is in tune with what needs to be done.
First, when he became Chief of Army Staff, Boko Haram insurgents attempted to scare him by raiding his village and setting his father’s house and his personal house on fire in attacks that were meant to make him lose face and be intimidated at the same time. But he was in no way deterred at that time as he remains unbowed now that he is confronted with dealing with another crisis that requires walking a political tightrope to make impact. He went on and on to fight the Boko Haram insurgents until the country achieved the current level of peace – which may not be perfect but definitely an improvement on the period that the people in Abuja and states further south lived under siege of terrorists.
Secondly, the same way he placed himself in the theatre of operations to dislodge Boko Haram, Buratai ensured that he visited the nooks and crannies of the states experiencing clashes between farmers and herdsmen; his convoy being ambushed by militias in Adamawa, was not enough for him to give up or hasten back to the comfort and safety of the capital where his desk is officially located. He lives in a way that confirms that his place is on the field of operation.
More profound are the issues he has pointed out. The first being that, the ranks of farmers and herders have been infiltrated by criminals, merchants of deaths that have other plans up their sleeves other than tending crops or pasturing animals. Disagreements between the two camps traditionally would have led to seeking mediation and conciliatory compromises but the intrusion of criminals as noted by the COAS has led to bloodletting that requires urgent intervention. Part of such intervention must come from the stakeholders, who must, as sort of early warning system, alert military and security agencies, once they begin seeing unknown persons among them.
The other variable that falls to state and local authorities is the aspect of revisiting policies and state legislations that have sort of alienated or made some groups feel discriminated against. Revisiting these policies or laws in no way amounts to scrapping them but requires that the input of diverse groups are accommodated so that they can join in taking ownership of the law so agreed to. This will allow implementation in manners that do not lead to rancour.
Digging deeper, even when these policies and legislations have been mutually agreed for implementation, the team put in place for their enforcement must operate in manners that conform with the expectations of a civilized age. State authorities must refrain from inaugurating militias in the name of local squads for enforcing anti-grazing legislations, since these are in no way different from the herdsmen militia – deserters from the Libyan crisis – hired to counter perceived victimization of herders. Offending herders should be arrested with their herds and not killed or have their livestock rustled under any guise.
Not to be ignored is the imperative to avoid inflammatory utterances that tend to worsen the situation. The worry is that, such utterances come from key office holders in state government and socio-cultural groups, which tends to make the populace take them as fiats that must be implemented to the letter. A study would likely establish a connection between inflammatory remarks by leaders and spike in attacks on communities in their aftermaths. This is the reason that incendiary statements must be avoided in addition to the other prescriptions of the COAS.
Once contentious issues like these have been identified and thrashed out, it becomes easier to identify the criminal elements that are cashing in on the farmers/herders’ crisis to cause mayhem. It is only then that military and security agencies would make steady progress in apprehending the criminals and treat them as prescribed by law. It is then that the troops and equipment deployment would yield results since energy would not be dissipated chasing the wrong lead.
This perspective, which is no surprise coming from General Buratai, is commendable because what he has suggested holds the key to ending the bloodshed in Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Nassarawa and any of the neighbouring states to which the crisis has spilled. Military may clamp down on militias, rustlers and others but dousing the crisis from source is the winning formula.
When the crisis in these areas is conclusively addressed, resources would be freed for deployment to clean out whatever insurgency remains in the northeast and for once end the nuisance of Boko Haram. A further consequence is that, we can then, all focus on growing the economy, reducing poverty and evolving into a stronger nation. This is the wisdom of General Buratai and it is worth giving a dedicated try.
Agbese is a student of international humanitarian law and contributed this piece from Middlesex University London.