Ayobami Egunyomi is a Robina Franklin Williams intern for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. She received her BA in International Relations from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. She is a native of Nigeria.
Since the beginning of 2018, at least eighty people from Benue State (in the middle belt of Nigeria) were killed, and thousands displaced as a result of attacks by Fulani herdsmen on their farmlands and homes. These attacks have caused an outcry among Nigerians, especially people living in the Southern region, many of whom consider the killings to be as dire as the Boko Haram insurgency. At the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency during the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, now-President Buhari was a vocal critic, and rightly so, of Jonathan’s failure to handle quickly the insurgency until he faced international pressure. However, the inaction of President Buhari in a comparable situation, where the peace and security of a region is threatened, is similar to the behavior that he earlier criticized.
The president’s apathetic response to the conflict in the middle belt encourages the perception of many southern Nigerians and even a few northerners that Muhammadu Buhari is the “President of the North,” rather than of Nigeria as a whole. Early into his presidency, he stated that the constituencies that accounted for 97 percent of his votes (all located in the north) cannot be treated the same as those who contributed only 5 percent (southeast and south-south). A news report from October 2017 revealed that 81 percent of Buhari’s political appointees are northerners. The Igbos in particular are angry that the administration arrested the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which is a non-violent separatist movement, and deployed military troops to the region. The IPOB has not been linked to any deaths. The attacks by herdsmen, however, have killed over a thousand Nigerians but have not received anywhere near the same level of attention.
While it may be argued that the powers of the president are limited, in times past, President Buhari has proven capable of taking swift action and bringing down the full might of the government in the case of Boko Haram. It is therefore crucial that the government prioritizes the conflict in the middle belt as a threat to national security. Recently, the minister of Agriculture proposed the creation of cattle colonies in southern states. Nigerians in the south, however, have vehemently refused to consider seriously this proposal mainly because they do not trust northerners. The first step the presidency could take is to deploy law enforcement to affected areas to deter the herdsmen and to keep the peace. With the former minister for defense and military chief of staff, General Theophilus Danjuma, calling for Nigerians to defend themselves, this step is crucial to preventing anarchy. Also, the federal government could take concrete steps to encourage the herdsmen to remain in their region to avoid encroaching on farmlands in the South. A possibility would be the expansion of cattle grazing reserves to facilitate migratory cattle raising. Unless President Buhari takes some major form of action, he risks making the same mistake his predecessors made, being accused of tribalism, and bequeathing these problems to future generations as thousands continue to suffer.