The herdsman of the year, By Sam Omatseye

To pick a person of the year is not necessarily an accolade. Sometimes it is. Some other times, you hold your nose as though retrieving something from a toilet bowl. The write-up skewers the choice. Sometimes, it is eminently neutral. The selection this year, for instance, of Donald Trump as Time magazine’s man of the year, could be seen as double-edged. The citation called him the “President of the Divided States of America.”

When The Nation’s editors picked EFCC chief Ibrahim Magu as the person of the year, it was out of no desire to bathe him in a perfume cloud, or to toss him in a sewer. The Nation saw the double-sidedness of his doing. While he became a sort of gadfly and nemesis to thieving elite, we also saw him as a messiah with specks in his eyes.

Time started this tradition over 60 years ago and described its pick as the person who has impacted the year the most “either for good or ill.” So, it is a verdict of impact, not about devilry or righteousness. The choice is not necessarily a hero or heroine, a Marquis de Sade or Mother Theresa or Idi Amin Dada.

My pick this year is a sort of humble fellow, whose narrative is arguably nothing about that. He is the herdsman. The year began with him and ended with that fellow, not literate, nor foppish, nor colourful, not individually a headline grabber. He does not read his story in the newspaper, nor sees television clips, nor surfs the web. He belongs to the lowest caste of the society, but he commands the loyalty of the elite, and sometimes the trepidation of the masters, the hem tugging at the helm.

At the beginning of the year, the northern elite cavilled at the adjective to the herdsman. They should not be called Fulani herdsman. They are not Fulani, merely a band of shepherds with blood in their eyes, masquerading as Nigerians.

Nothing characterises the ominous ambiguity of this nomenclature than the firebombs in southern Kaduna. The diminutive impresario and Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai waded in by saying the killings were engendered by a band of criminals, not Fulani herdsmen. Then he contradicted himself by saying they were actually Fulani herdsmen from out of the country.

He then morphed from governor to foreign minister, deploying envoys to Fulani communities out of the country to broker peace, even sending bribes to soothe their boiling spirits. He said the fellow was angry over killings of his folks during the 2011 polls.

Suddenly we are right to say Fulani herdsmen, but how does a reporter now characterise them in a news report? Non-Nigerian Fulani herdsmen? We have not been given one evidence that the marauders are indeed outsiders. General Martin Luther Agwai led a panel of enquiry that blamed the Fulani outsider but failed to parade a culprit.

El-Rufai or Agwai committee may be right. But they have to prove it first. That is why the herdsman story is so intriguing. Earlier in the year, they did not only call themselves innocent, they said they wanted state governments to give mammoth acres of land for grazing. Southern locals said it was brazen.

Yet the story arose of what is called cattle rustling, where individuals steal their cattle. This led to backlashes of rage. A man steals a cow, the herdsman amasses his fellows and they turn into a band of vengeance. They target not the thief or his family but morph into a barbarous horde in the whole community, slashing throats, raping women, burning down several houses.

On my television show on TVC on Saturday morning, a caller asked us to accommodate the Fulani because he does not forgive. I asked whether it was right to kill a hundred people and declare war on a community because of one bad egg. This is a nation of laws and not of men. If a person steals, it is not his brother or mother or neighbour who stole. Get the law to punish the person.

It becomes impunity when one sin waxes into a people’s original sin that must be punished on end as we see now in southern Kaduna. Several people die even when a curfew is imposed and soldiers are deployed. When I wrote a piece last year, the Fulani herdsmen’s leader called me and told me that the Nigerian Fulani herdsmen were responsible for the killings in some communities in Benue State over cattle rustling. He said further that he knew it was not right, but the Fulani never forgave. He explained that if you kill a Fulani man, the Fulani will kill a thousand in revenge. The law has no place for such malice. It punishes what is wrong. The murdering herdsman is not above the law.

At the time of writing, the President has not visited or made a comment on the southern Kaduna tragedy. His spokesman’s assertion that he cannot comment on everything makes light of the tragedy of scores of families dying and living in perpetual terror. The southern Kaduna affair is not a routine robbery in Oshodi. If President Buhari can soar into the clouds in his private jet to sit below the swaggering Gambian despot in his futile trip or go to Zamfara State in solidarity over stolen cows, why not at least issue a statement to condemn the killings? Why not call for arrests and hold his intelligence chiefs to ransom? The President should avoid the suspicion that he is silent because he tacitly condones them.

We saw the Ekiti State governor also hit headline by holding the herdsman to account. It is the only time the humble fellow was humble in character. The only time he looked as humble as his cow. Law upended hubris. Many, including a popular cleric, saw Fayose as defending his people.

Throughout the year, the herdsman was humble only in caste. But it was a humility of hubris. They kept the President in silence, turned a governor into a foreign minister, converted a community into a blaze of fire and stench of funeral pyre, confounded the definition of their identity, killed several people in the Southeast and no justice found for the killers. The victims though have found their graves and have been forgotten. Even a cleric, Enoch Adeboye, gave praise to Fayose on their account.

The humble herdsman was sought in spite of these. We sought the protein in the last Yuletide as well as during the Salah festivities and throughout the year as our eba and pounded yam had ‘accidents’ ploughing through livers, thighs, ponmo, etc.

The herdsman knows the country. He sees a wide spectrum of vistas, he walks through bushes, slaps his animals’ hides through highways, through sleepy alleys, arboreal retreats, and even the blinding lights of city centres. He touches the leaves and people, he hears the accents and inflexions, he eats, dances, plays, sleeps across the land. But somehow, he reminds me of the classic novel about the “beat generation” in the United States, On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. The main character travels throughout the country. He makes love, drinks, works, makes friend, parties but he does not take with him the soul of anywhere he travels. His is spiritually alienated. He has been in those towns and cities but those towns and cities have not been in him.

The same applies to the herdsman. He is everywhere in the country, but nowhere is in him, except where he comes from. He is peripatetic without empathy. Like Jack Kerouac’s American, the herdsman is always on the road, like a rolling stone that gathers no soul.

If we cannot describe him as Nigerian and have no evidence that he is not, and we cannot arrest him, how can we start a conversation of making the herdsman part of our community? How can we give him a grazing land?

It is this crisis of identity that has erupted into a crisis of deaths, destruction and disunity that makes him my person of the year.

Omatseye is a veteran journalist and Editor.

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