Like so many Nigerians around the world, I was deeply disappointed when Nigeria lost to Argentina at the FIFA World Cup in Russia. With that loss, Nigeria, a perpetually promising soccer powerhouse, once again crashed out of the foremost soccer competition.
As I made my way out of my house in search of anywhere I could get fresh air, I decided to return one of the calls that came during the game.
I called a friend in Texas who had floated the idea of inviting me to Dallas. Without the usual pleasantries, I said to him, “I hope you have good news for me because I am upset at the outcome of Nigeria’s game against Argentina.”
His response knocked me back to reality. In a brooding voice, he said Nigeria’s Super Eagles should not have played that game at all. Without waiting for me to ask why, he said in measured tone that they should have forfeited the game to bring the world’s attention to the killing two weeks earlier of more than 100 Nigerians in the span of a weekend in Plateau State, in the North Central region of Nigeria.
His idea made perfect sense to me. I felt ashamed that I had enjoyed watching the game, screaming and yelling in support of Nigeria while some families were burying mothers, husbands, teachers, priests and toddlers killed in another episode of the raging conflict between farmers and Fulani-herdsmen in the troubled North Central region of Nigeria called the Middle Belt. It is the region where the jihad started by the 17th century Fulani Islamic teacher and founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Usman dan Fodio, effectively ended following the British conquest of the territory today called Nigeria at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Like so many Nigerians, I have become so complacent with the killings going on across Nigeria over the recent years that I did not think it deserved such a drastic move to bring the world’s attention to it. Deep down, I know that this Fulani-herdsmen–farmers conflict is the most dangerous threat facing the West African country of nearly 200 million people. Yet, I hadn’t even shed a tear for the slain. Amnesty International last month stated that since January of 2018, 1,813 people have been murdered in 17 states in Nigeria, an increase of 919 from last year’s figure of 894 deaths.
The current crisis in Nigeria has all the ingredients of the last mass genocide the world witnessed in Rwanda from April 7 to July 15, 1994. In the Rwandan genocide, 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. Days after, the world wondered how we all could have missed the signs. And more importantly, political leaders like former US President Clinton at the time regretted that they did not do anything to help stop it.
If the world had paid attention to the history of Rwanda, the long conflicts between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the massacres, the small scale genocides and the legions of ethnic conflicts, the world would have known that genocide was imminent on the night of April 6, 1994 when an airplane carrying Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down as it descended into Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
The next day, the genocide began.
Since 1999 when democracy returned to Nigeria after decades of military rule and counter coups, a country with almost 300 diverse ethnic groups, ethnic tensions have flared up, mainly between the three major ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo and the Yoruba. Security analysts have all warned that Nigeria is on the road to Kigali. The emergence of the Boko Haram terrorist group in 2009, a Taliban and ISIS-inspired terrorist group added a global jihadist element to the conflict.
The inability of the past government to gain control of the deteriorating security situation with Boko Haram in the North East, large scale insecurity in the oil-rich Niger Delta region and others parts of Nigeria, led to the 2015 landmark election of an opposition party led by a former military strongman, Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari is Fulani, a descendant of a semi-nomadic cattle-herding people who were able to expand politically/territorially in the 1804 jihad, toppling the political structures of the Hausa and minority ethnic groups and replacing them with blue-blood Fulani rulers.
Founded or not, there is this fear in some quarters in the North Central as well as the South, that the new wave of Fulani Herdsmen conflict with farmers is a disguised modern expansionist movement. In that light, some leaders in the South openly talk about Fulani-herdsmen occupation goals and outright Islamisation drive. Watching the situation, security agencies across the globe are factoring in imminent outbreak of widespread violence in their security calculation about Nigeria. The British government last week warned her citizens in Nigeria to be aware of that possibility and to plan appropriately.
The past three years of Buhari’s government haven’t brought the security Nigerians sought. Instead of gaining control of the Boko Haram insurgency, Buhari’s emergence emboldened the Fulani-herdsmen in their long running conflict with farmers, a conflict that is exacerbated by climate-change and an exploding population. By 2050, Nigeria will replace the US as the third populous nation in the world. It just took over from India as the country with the largest population of poor people. If not managed well, ethnic and religious violence will rise.
Millions of mostly Christian farmers across several states in Nigeria are facing an existential threat: a force of mostly Fulani- entering their fields enmass and killing people with their guns and machetes, and leaving hundreds of bloodied corpses lying beside burnt houses and farmlands. Dozens of clergymen have also died in the past three years, many killed in assaults on their churches. These horrific killings have prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, President Trump and so many other world leaders to demand a stop to the killings of Christians.
The government’s response has been to blame the killings on criminals and foreign fighters from Libya who are being used by local politicians to destabilize the polity. In response to the killings, some states in the region passed laws banning open grazing of cattle. This prompted the government to set aside $500 million in its 2018 budget to establish ranches as an alternative to open grazing.
Recently, Gen. Theophilus Y. Danjuma, a 4-star retired general from Nigeria’s North Central region, who had been close to the corridors of power since the first military coup of 1966, broke ranks with the government by denouncing the military that he served for 19 years, accusing it of bias in favor of the Fulani-herdsmen against farmers. In a commencement address at a local university, he complained that the government has done little to provide justice. He warned his people to be ready to defend themselves or face extinction. He reiterated the determination of his people to defend themselves during his appearance at an event in the US hosted by the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), in collaboration with Heritage Foundation and 21 Wilberforce. “If chaos continues in Nigeria, refugees will flood over West Africa, then Europe and eventually America — whether you build a wall or not,” warned General Danjuma.
Last month, the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, debated the security situation in their former colony. Ironically, it was the UK’s colonial government that brought nearly 300 diverse ethnic groups under one geopolitical banner in 1914. The first deadly repercussions of that profit-motivated move had been a Nigerian-Biafran war that lasted from 1966–1970 and led to the loss of over 3 million Nigerians, mainly from the breakaway Eastern region. Intensifying in the last decade is a wider Fulani-farmers crisis playing out now in a nation that has never been unified, a nation that a UK Lord said last week could break out into a Rwandan-like genocide if steps aren’t taken to stop the killings.
With a military force of 181,000 men and women out of which only 124,000 are active forces, Nigerian military is not in a position to provide adequate security across 356.669 square miles of the nation or handle a genocide triggered by killings and revenge killings. During the kidnapping of 110 schoolgirls at Dapchi in February, the Nigerian defense headquarters openly stated that they did not have the manpower to deploy troops to protect all the schools in the North East. The security challenges facing Nigeria have proven to be beyond the scope of roughly 400,000 men and women in Nigeria’s police force that is undertrained, underequipped and poorly remunerated.
After I hung up the phone, I had a moment of silence for the dead, for the children of Plateau State and all those who feel the pain even though they are far away from the scenes of the carnage.
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo is the author of “This American Life Sef.”