Last Wednesday, the House of Representative’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, jointly led by Congressmen Randy Hultgren and James McGovern held a public hearing in Washington DC on Nigeria. The framing of the topic was a bit surprising. It was about violent conflict between “Muslim cattle rearing herders and Christian farmers in the Middle Belt”. I wondered why the term “Middle Belt” rather than the “North Central” zone, the official terminology we use in Nigeria. Of course they could have been using it in a purely geographical sense. I was also puzzled at the labelling of Muslim herders versus Christian farmers. Why not just farmers and herders after all the herders have identical types of conflicts with Muslim farmers.
The agenda became clear when we listened to the testimony of Dr. Elijah Brown, Executive Director of 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. He told the Commission hat there is an insidious campaign by “Muslim Fulani militants” to kill Christian farmers in the Middle Belt, drive them out of their ancestral lands, rename the seized territory with Fulani names and use the office of the Governor to transfer the lands to Fulani ownership. The significant Nigerian audience in the Public Hearing listened in shock as he gave the example of Agatu in Benue State where he claimed the “minority Christian farmer community” was sent out of their land and the Muslim majority State Government conspired to handover the land to the victorious Fulani murderers. His testimony was clearly not based on ignorance, it was the mischievous fabrication of falsehood and propaganda to fan religious hatred and present Nigeria to American institutions as a country engaged in genocide against Christians.
There were however three other presentations, all of which were more balanced and objective. Ms. Oge Onubogu of the United States Institute of Peace for example made an excellent presentation pointing out that tensions between nomadic cattle herders and settled farming communities have a long history in Nigeria and in recent years, what were once recurrent, low-level clashes have spiralled into a deadly crisis that is inflaming religious as well as ethnic hostilities locally and nationally.The drivers of the conflict, she explained, are linked to population growth and the expansion of farms, which have blocked many traditional grazing routes used by herders moving south as the Sahara Desert advances in northern Nigeria. Corrupt politicians have grabbed choice pieces of land. Environmental change in neighbouring countries, such as the shrinkage of Lake Chad, has sparked an influx of foreign herders whose lack of familiarity with Nigerian populations often sparks violent misunderstandings. She urged the Commission to focus on these objective drivers in understanding current dynamics.
She also pointed out that Nigerian researchers have produced evidence to show that there is no necessary focus on Christiansin understanding the the escalating conflicts. She drew attention to Zamfara state in the North West Nigeria, which has recorded an equal if not higher number of casualties from pastoral conflicts than the Middle Belt. However, the casualty figures in Muslim communities have not received the same level of media coverage within Nigeria because it is predominantly a conflict between Muslim farmers and herders, and does not fit into the prevailing local media stereotype of Christian-Muslim conflicts. The reality is that the combined effects of competition for land and water, crime, and poorly informed media speculations have resulted in a cycle of conflict with mass casualties suffered by both famer and herder communities.
She called for the strengthening of coordination between local communities and state justice and security actors, including the police and judiciary, to help state governments prioritize preventive measures to calm the conflicts. This coordination, she argued, can be used to establish new or strengthen existing local peace building and reconciliation mechanisms, especially within rural communities in areas most affected by this conflict. These efforts should also be complemented by support to state justice and security actors to strengthen their capacity to prevent, respond, and prosecute violent conflict. The two other presentations by the Search for Common Ground and the International Crisis Group made similar arguments and they, to my relief, completely undermined the propaganda by the Wilberforce Initiative.
There is a sense in which the public hearing was largely defined by the vacuum created by the inability of the policy makers in Nigeria to take proactive steps in addressing the lingering conflict between farmers and herders. Going forward, the expectation of Nigerians is for policy makers to take deliberate and concrete steps in addressing such problems in a way that creates confidence in all sections of the country that the Nigerian State is for all Nigerians.
I had gone to the United States with a number of civic leaders to engage essentially in citizen diplomacy with American Institutions, mainly the Congress, the State Department, academia and civil society in collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace. Our group was very much interested in countering the entrenched trends of sectarian, one-sided propaganda narratives against the Nigeria project. Cardinal John Onaiyekan devoted considerable energy explaining that Nigerians have real problems but that real progress is being made by Nigerians to address the problems and that Christians and Muslims are working towards improved understanding and learning to live together. General Martin Luther Agwai focused on the vast challenges faced by the military, which has been pushed into intervening in multiple theatres as the police have lost the capacity to do their job and the armed forces, which is not trained in policing duties are being forced to takeover their role. Professor Attahiru Jega focused his interventions on the importance of building institutions drawing attention to how INEC worked assiduously tosignificantly improve the integrity of our elections.
Dr. Usman Bugaje, a member of the group who was also representing the Sultan of Sokoto, emphasized the importance of improved communication between religious groups to improve understanding. He drew attention to the imperative of growing the economy and creating jobs for the youth to calm down tension in society.Y. Z. Ya’u was interested in creating spaces and opportunities for articulating the voices of ordinary Nigerians who are seldom heard. If we learn to listen more to the voices of the people, we improve our capacity to address the concerns of Nigerians. Ambassador Fatima Ballah focused her attention to the crisis in the North East and the plight of internally displaced persons calling for additional support to ease their suffering. Dr. Chris Kwaja was interested in promoting widespread utilization of conflict prevention mechanisms so that we build the capacity to nip violence in the bud. Dr. Nguyan Feese focused her advocacy on improving access to qualitative education and the promotion of critical thinking based on a revamped curriculum that focuses on both improving learning and nation building. Finally, I was drawing attention to the fact that Nigerians from all zones have their tales of marginalisation and people should be careful of jumping to the conclusion that this or that zone is marginalised. The reality is that rapacious elite has marginalised all the masses from all zones.
For all of us as civic leaders, we felt bonded on the principle that Nigeria is greater together than in pieces and we should focus on consolidating democratic processes so that no one feels excluded or marginalised. Peace building is crucial as Nigeria is witnessing multiple challenges of violent conflicts and nothing can succeed unless the level of violence is reduced considerably. Finally, our group is committed to the principle of challenging sectional, one-sided narratives about marginalisation of one group by pointing out that there are indeed multiple narratives of marginalisation and the issue is collective work towards inclusion for all Nigerians in the nation.The group, which has been working with the Northern Governors Forum to encourage and guide them towards improving governance in their states assured our American interlocutors that our focus is working within our own country but better understanding by international partners, is an asset we treasure.