Scapegoating the Fulani Dehumanises Us All, By Adewale Ajadi

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I spent most of my life fighting against racism internationally, as such it is unacceptable to now come to my own country and be part of the lynch mob against one tribe or ethnicity. There are no bystanders or observers in this situation; nobody can watch this pass. Nobody who has any right mind should keep quiet.

It is critical to speak out right now. I hope that I speak very clearly, not necessarily to win over anybody or gain support for my position. In fact, I’m very clear about it that this position is isolated and a very minority view in the debate that is playing genocide and going around the country. It is incumbent upon anybody who is habitual in reflection that the lessons to learn are clear. This is what happened in Rwanda. When you scapegoat a group and give them a name that dehumanises them, that reduces them in comparison to other ethnic groups; and by not granting them any individuality, it is the most degrading thing, not just for them, but for the entire country.

There is this habit that has evolved since President Buhari was elected, of turning the Fulani into herdsmen and herdsmen into criminals. Now, we no longer have to describe or explain what we mean when we say “herdsmen crime” or “Fulani herdsmen’. Most times, the sophisticated among us (and the greater the sophistication, the better) don’t even have to describe what they mean when they say “herdsmen”. The unfortunate thing is that this has now been adopted in the news reports we hear, such that Garba Shehu, the representative of President Buhari was trying to justify the response of the government by saying: Yes, herdsmen crimes were being punished. That word, that phrase, whatever it is, is the most dangerous and most despicable thing being offered to the Nigerian public. This process of institutionalising and scapegoating Fulani people or Northerners in this way will come back to haunt all of us.

The process of institutionalising these kinds of rhetoric, this thing that has become commonplace in Nigerian culture, is not a new thing, but it has become more insidious and more dangerous in these days, in a time when everybody now has a platform. Through social media, people project their views, and turn their prejudices into stereotypes of others and embody these in choices that have to be made in public policy. I am in my fifties; I have grown up to the tropes held in the South-West about the Fulani.

First, the notion of the ‘Jihad’, that the Fulani came into the country and swept from the North and tried to sweep everybody into the Atlantic Ocean to take over their land. It is a patently ridiculous take on history. It is a misconception of the facts and a misrepresentation of what happened. It wasn’t the Fulani who broke the Oyo Empire; it was a fight between the Alaafin and Afonja and that was after years of institutional conflicts within Oyo; so let’s put to bed this ridiculous notion.

The second trope is that the Sadauna of Sokoto was a tribalist and in the hegemonic fight for control of Nigeria, the Fulani had the upper hand because the British sided with them. It is an arguable point but to what avail? Which one of those people, including the much celebrated Chief Obafemi Awolowo or Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, was not a tribalist? The reality is that these people were not born into Nigeria. They were born into their different ethnic groups. Why does it justify to victimise the Fulani as if they are the only ones that commit crimes in Nigeria? Or that because some of them commit crimes, it means that the rest of them must be defined by the choices of the worst amongst them? Why don’t we go about saying: ‘bankers crime’ or ‘farmers crime’, and not just ‘killer herdsmen’? It is a patently vicious thing that is being done.

My experience of this anti-Fulani hatred is so full and varied, but I had never seen it that bad until then. Presently, it has gotten to another level, and it is heading towards genocide. All right-minded persons need to call this out.

Another trope is the notion that the Fulani have cornered federal power in Nigeria in a way that has denied other people access. The final story is that Buhari is a Fulani, and therefore a herdman, and part of the realisation of a hegemonic control over the rest of us. These things are bigoted lies and half truths.

In my own life, I have lived in different parts of Nigeria. I remember the first time that I would engage this notion of Fulani hegemony and it was to my advantage, shall I say. I had done my JAMB examination and was placed in the University of Jos as one of the top scholars, but somehow in my JAMB form I had mistakenly coded the state of origin, yet JAMB decided that I had done it wilfully and wrongfully. It claimed I was trying to take advantage of an educationally disadvantaged state and as a result, the body blocked my matriculation into the University of Jos.

The adults in my life rallied round. I had scored higher the year before and was arguably in the top 5 per cent, but unfortunately without all my O’Levels credits. Now this. My mother jumped on a plane with me to University of Jos and tried to convince them, but to no avail. My memory then was the outrage in my second choice, the University of Ife; that I had scored high enough for both Universities but that the ‘Northerners’ were keeping me out of the University of Jos on a technicality. So, you could say that I was a beneficiary of the anti-Fulani notion early in life. The reality is that as a Nigerian, I understood very clearly that certain states needed to be given preferential treatment, through a quota system of sorts, to ensure that the opportunities for education are widely spread across the country, and people are able to have access to the wealth that comes from education.

I have seen the incredible dangers of how this notion, that somehow the North and especially the Fulani have some kind of advantage, has blinded people who should know better into acting in insidious ethnic manners. I will highlight some of these points from my life. In my NYSC camp in Efon Alaye, then in Ondo State, we had a debate at a ‘civic night’ on the pros and cons of national leaders not being nationalists. One side had argued that Awolowo was no nationalist. That point sticks as a mob had then wanted to attack the Northern youth corp members who were of this perspective. It was a small group of us that stood between the mob baying for  blood and these young men. It was quite a very shocking thing to have been exposed to in my early twenties. I was 21 at the time, and I marvelled at how people I had lived with daily saw their collaegues as fair game for attack because they held a view that was different from theirs.

Decades after, I ended up working in the DAWN Commission in Ibadan, as pioneering Head of Planning and Strategy for the organisation. I remember that once we had an open or a planning day in Davies Hotel Ibadan, where I got into a serious contestation with some of my colleagues over this issue. It is disturbingly clear that the assumption is that the Fulani are not worthy of being Nigerians, that they are out to take everything from everybody and that they are a dangerous element in this political rivalry that has been created around ethnicity. I have never understood the virtue of the vilification of the other and their reduction into non-humans, in order to legitimise some sense of competition or rivalry with them.

What about the Fulani child? A child that by accident of birth was born into an ethnic group. What makes that child not worthy of the life that you want for your own children? What make it acceptable to stigmatise that child, not because of his or her conduct or character, but because of his or her accident of birth. Is this what we should apply to each other in 21st century in Nigeria?

Later on, when I was working in the Niger Delta, I experienced many people of great influence talk about the Fulani and how they own all the oil wealth and have been exploiting their people. My experience of this anti-Fulani hatred is so full and varied, but I had never seen it that bad until then. Presently, it has gotten to another level, and it is heading towards genocide. All right-minded persons need to call this out.

What about the Fulani child? A child that by accident of birth was born into an ethnic group. What makes that child not worthy of the life that you want for your own children? What make it acceptable to stigmatise that child, not because of his or her conduct or character, but because of his or her accident of birth. Is this what we should apply to each other in 21st century in Nigeria? This is totally unacceptable; with newspapers brandishing this, everyday and bombarding us with slurs such as: “herdsmen”, “Fulani people committing crimes”, “Igbo people commit crimes”, “Yoruba people commit crimes”. Individuals are no longer defined by their deeds. This is certainly not civilised behaviour or education. Now, the worst of us are coming out, drumming beats of war, looking for people to kill, and seeking to kill them at the slightest excuse.

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The reality is that the minute President Buhari was elected, I remember a very senior All Progressives Congress (APC) member saying that the Fulani would be emboldened by his election. This is not a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-APC thing; it is a Nigerian problem. It is a problem that we hold as a badge of honour – that the Fulani should become the scapegoat, the lowest of our people, so that we will find it legitimate to discriminate against them.

I spent most of my life fighting against racism internationally, as such it is unacceptable to now come to my own country and be part of the lynch mob against one tribe or ethnicity. There are no bystanders or observers in this situation; nobody can watch this pass. Nobody who has any right mind should keep quiet. Nobody who wants a future for his or her children should watch the future of other people’s children being taken away from them. It is despicable, it is horrible, it has to be called out.

We have just watched what happened in the United States with the murder of George Floyd. A country founded on white supremacy. We are going towards that in Nigeria, and when it happens here, it will not be because we were not warned, because we chose to stay neutral or even supported the popular victimisation and scapegoating that is ongoing. It is critical that we take a stand. The Fulani have their own diversity, as every ethnic group does. Anybody that says otherwise is a bigot. We need to stop using loaded terms like ‘herdsmen’ or lazily and hatefully lumping the Fulani together. Let us have a Police Service that we trust will catch criminals, a court system that will prosecute and punish the guilty, as our posterity deserves no less.

Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.

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