Our ethnic fault line and the keg of gunpowder.

ERIC LAFFORGUE/ART IN ALL OF US

Ingratiating commentaries are profitable. I’m tempted to get on that gravy train. But sadly, it is not for me. By a cruel hand of fate, it turns out I am allergic to bull. I tend to serve my juice without sweeteners. And as everyone with a sweet tooth knows, juices without sugar taste anemic. Truth is vinegary. Bitter, in fact, in many circles. It is why you never see Alomo Bitters or Kasaprenko in State Houses. Only honeyed speeches to soothe itchy ears. 

But let me state, in case there is somebody out there willing to buy me a house on easy street; I do not detest being rich. I do not mind farting Chanel and sneezing Dior. I consider it not vanity to take my medicines with caviar and ease my gastric upset with lychee.  

The problem, of course, is my fingers.

They have a sense of being and a morality. 

When I want to write piffle, they disobey me. When I want to grovel and ingratiate, they get angry and type scriptures instead. 

God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this; that power belongeth unto God.

Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils… 

Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is not satisfied with their income. 

Pharisaical fingers.  

If I die broke, I want an autopsy. My fingers should be brought in for questioning.  

Right. To the heart of the matter. 

I find the reticence of the government on the rampaging herdsmen disquieting. Why hasn’t Mr. President addressed us? He has skin in the game. He is the Chief Security Officer of the country. He is also the Grand Patron of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria.

Unlike many people though, I don’t believe he is complicit in the bloodletting by the herdsmen. Rather, the man just hates the cries of “wolf, wolf” when only a few carcasses are strewn about.   

Because of the herdsmen, many people in the South probably hate Fulanis right now. That is threateningly inauspicious. It is akin to stuffing sticks of dynamites into our significant ethnic fault lines. I dread a kaboom. 

Ethnic fault lines.

A thin line when it serves our interest. A yawning gorge when it doesn’t. 

My old man – bless his soul – told me how he hid an Igbo chap under his bed at Ebute-Metta when the Civil War broke out. Nigerian soldiers went from house to house taking away ‘those treacherous Ibos’. 

My father didn’t know this chap. He had run into the compound. While it was risky, hiding the guy seemed like the right thing to do. 

The soldiers came into the compound but didn’t search the apartments. They only demanded to know if any Igbo lived in the compound. 

Well, the chap didn’t live in the compound, did he?

After the soldiers left, the bloke came out from under the bed, near kissed my father, and fled. My father hoped he made it. 

My old man was not a tribalist. But when I told him I’d found the woman I was going to marry, his first question was to ask me where she was from. 

Luckily, Ilesha passes muster. 

On the surface, my father’s question was innocent. But it was laden.  

You are safer marrying within your own tribe, whose ways we know. 

Ethnic fault lines.  

The killer herdsmen have made this fault line a gaping ravine that could swallow us all. The anger and hateful rhetoric is spreading.

Guy: Boko Haram and killer herdsmen are part of the Fulani agenda.

Me: Pray, tell. What Fulani agenda?

Guy: To Islamise Nigeria and perpetuate Fulani rulership.  

Me: Killer herdsmen are criminals. Nothing more. 

Guy: Really? Then why hasn’t the President – who is Fulani and head of Miyetti Allah – come out to condemn the killing? Why are Nigerian soldiers – who report to the President – beating up people who refuse to allow herdsmen graze on their farms? 

Guy: I don’t know what is going on in the President’s head. But this your theory of Fulani-ruling-forever is fanciful. How do you go from few herdsmen killing people to rulership by a tribe? 

Guy: It is ingrained in every Fulani. The commands of Uthman Dan Fodio and Ahmadu Bello. To Islamise Nigeria and perpetuate Fulani hegemony. By peace or by force. That’s what is happening with Boko Haram and the killer herdsmen. 

Me: I don’t agree. Boko Haram is a terrorist organization. Rampaging herdsmen are simply bandits and criminals. You can’t paint a whole tribe with a wide brush.

Guy: That’s the mistake you people are making. To treat Boko Haram and the herdsmen issue as isolated cases. They are not. They are from the Fulani playbook to perpetuate Fulani rulership over Nigeria. 

Me: You still haven’t explained how the killer herdsmen are part of a rulership agenda. 

Guy: It’s domination by conquest. First, they come to your territory ‘in peace’. They understand your weaknesses. The Fulanis don’t do wholesale acquisition. They gain ground piece by piece. Until they attain a critical mass. Then they act. Kill and maim and usurp power. Fear and violence are their tactics.

Me: So you are now an ethnographer? It is the alcohol speaking and half-baked knowledge. Nigeria’s problem is a stranglehold on the country by a ruling class that cuts across tribes. It’s not about tribe or religion. 

Guy: The base of that ruling class is Fulani. They’ve ruled more than any other tribe in Nigeria. You think that is by accident? It’s calculated. From inflated population figures to more local governments than any other region. The Fulanis are strategic. They are not ‘malo’ as we think. They put themselves in important places. Or why do you think before the recent appointments all the service chiefs were Fulani. The Attorney General was Fulani. The Chief of Staff was Fulani. The Secretary to the Government is Fulani. The Police IG is Fulani. The Chairman of EFFC is Fulani. Guy, wake up na. 

Me: Goodluck Jonathan surrounded himself with Southerners too. At that level, trust is key. You surround yourself with people you trust and that are loyal. 

Guy: Baba Iyabo made multi-ethnic appointments. He appointed different tribes into important positions. Not same with Buhari.  

Guy, see. We people in the South thrive on self-determination and free thought. For Fulani people, duty to the Fulani nation comes first. The words of their leaders have weight and force. It is here that you people remove the cap of the Obi or insult the Ooni. These guys still live in the shadow of Uthman Dan Fodio and Ahmadu Bello. 

Me: There is no “Fulani nation” that is above the Nigerian nation. Just as the “Yoruba nation”, “Igbo nation” or any other tribal nationhood cannot be above Nigeria. 

Guy: There is a Fulani nation. And to the Fulanis, it is far more important than the Nigerian nation. The Nigerian nation is nothing more than a product of the Scramble for Africa. Lugard melded different nations together for selfish British gains. Nations that have nothing in common. The Fulanis don’t care about the faux country called Nigeria. They only care about their own hegemony across West Africa. They’ll use the resources of one nation to develop the Fulani nation. Why do you think we are building a rail line to Niger Republic.  

Me: Well, I can argue that very few countries are made of homogenous people. Countries comprise different ethnic nationalities. The UK comprises English, Scots, Welsh and others. Switzerland is Germanic, French, Italian. The United States is, well, the world’s largest melting pot. That a people are not the same, does not mean they can’t be one country.” 

Guy: Remind me where Pakistan and Bangladesh came out from again? India, namaste. How many countries broke out from the old Soviet Union? 15! Russia. Ukraine. Georgia. Belorussia. Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan. Armenia. Estonia. Latvia. Lithuania, shall I go on? Do I need to remind you that South Sudan broke away from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011? Oh, by the way, Turkey and Lebanon were once thriving Christian countries. Levity turned them into Muslim countries. 

Me: How did a debate about herdsmen lead to breaking up a country and Muslim vs Christian? 

Guy: We are not one country. Simple. And it is really not about religion. We have Muslims in the South who do not agree with Boko Haram ideology and killer herdsmen. However, the Yoruba Muslim has more in common with the Yoruba Christian than he has in common with the Fulani Muslim.

Me: Out of curiosity, how many parts would you recommend we break up the country into? I suppose you believe the Niger Delta will go with the Igbos or the Middle Belt go with the Fulanis?

Guy: Look, it’s not about breaking up the country, as appealing as that sounds. It is about equity. If we can devolve to true federalism where each state or region controls its resources and destiny, Nigeria can work. But as long as the current structure continues, we are best going our separate ways jare.

Man, so much suspicion. So much bad blood. 

But the President can make it go away. In the interim, at least. 

He needs to speak to us. 

I have never lived in the North or amongst Fulani people. But in my experience, I know when we judge from afar, we judge wrongly. I know this from personal experience when I did my NYSC in Bayelsa State.

You see, many people in the country held ludicrous views about the Ijaw man.

“He is lazy.”

“He womanises.”

“He loves trouble.”

“He brushes his teeth with kai-kai.”

The Ijaw man does of course love his kai-kai. I came to love that tipple too. If you were a poor ‘Corper’ in rural and riverine Bayelsa, kai-kai quickly became Hennessy to you. But it was not the cheap and adulterated fare sold in Lagos. I’m talking about pure and flavourful moonshine crafted by nature herself. 

But I digress. 

Going to Bayelsa, I’d had an earful about the Ijaw man. This was not helped by the outbreak of the Odi crisis, which happened only three weeks before I left for Bayelsa. In fact, when I got to Mbiama Junction, the only land entry into Bayelsa State at the time, there was a heavy military presence.

So here was a funny incident.

I was coming into Bayelsa by bus from Port Harcourt. I’d arrived Port Harcourt in the morning via night bus. Chisco. Man, I loved those tall Volvo buses! Felt like you were riding on air.

At Mbiama Junction, we came upon the deployed might of the Nigerian Army. Roadblocks, armoured tanks, howitzers, military trucks and a gazillion soldiers. It could well have been Mogadishu.

They stopped our bus. A fierce-looking soldier came on board and asked – nay, demanded – to know if there were any ‘Corper’ on the bus. 

I didn’t acknowledge the call. My name was Jide, not ‘Corper.’ And I don’t answer to man, only to God. 

The soldier made this inquiry on three separate occasions. He seemed convinced that there must be Corp members on the bus because he didn’t leave.

Then a guy in Corp member uniform came on the bus. He was more congenial. He informed the passengers that if anyone on the bus was headed to the NYSC Orientation Camp at Kaiama, he or she best get down at the junction as the NYSC had moved the Orientation Camp to a new location. It was providing buses to take the new Corp batch to the new location. The NYSC was intercepting every commercial transport into the state to pass across this information.

Only then did four of us stand up. 

Everybody on the bus burst into laughter. Even the soldier laughed. 

“Why una dey fear?” he joked. “Una no be men?”

Dude, you see a penis on me? 

We got down. I shared cigarettes with the soldiers while we waited for other Corp members to arrive. I was going to enjoy this Bayesla all right.  

Needless to say, my time in Bayelsa was one of the best times of my life. I did one year solid without coming to Lagos. I was posted to teach in Koroama, one of the eight villages that made up the Gbarain Clan. Real NatGeo locale. No electricity. No pipe-born water. Swamps, crocodiles, iguanas, manatees. The Taylor Creek ran the length of the clan and merged with the monstrous Nun River at Polaku. I fell in love with the place instantly.  

Turns out that the Ijaw man is quite the affable chap. He treated me like one of his own. He provided for me. Protected me. Trusted me. So much so that on one occasion, angry youths in the clan invited me along to witness the disruption of the SPDC flow station at Etelebou.

Thanks, homies. I’ll just stay home and finish this roasted dirimowei. 

Dirimowei is some shiny black snake. Evil-looking thing. But tastes like heaven.

Roasted snake. Tortoise pepper soup. Peppered iguana. Crocodile stew. Grilled manatee.

Man, the stuff I ate in Bayelsa!

Talking about snakes. One day at the village center I was drinking with the powers-that-be. The kai-kai was bottomless and the spiels many. Then the son of the village chief stood up and addressed me

“Olade, let me give you something.”

For some strange reason, they struggle to pronounce “Alade” and instead called me “Olade”.

The dude went into the house and brought out a large gas jar. If you did Chemistry, you knew what a gas jar was. If you didn’t, the gas jar is a glass bottle with a narrow neck and a broad body. It is used for collecting gas. It looks something like a beaker but with a neck. It must have been purloined from some school.

The jar was half-filled with kai-kai and contained alligator pepper and some herbs. But inside the jar were also four snakes. All dead, of course. The kai-kai preserved the snakes. But they looked alive.

He poured me a drink from the jar. “Take,” he said. “Drink.”

He continued: “You have taken us as one of your own and we too have taken you as one of our own. You enter bush with us. You go to owugiri with us. You eat our food. Like our women. We give you this drink. When you drink it, if you waka pass anywhere snake dey, the snake go die. If any snake make mistake bite you, the snake go die. Take, drink. After, we go come baff you Egbesu water.”   

Drink fire!  

What kind of creepy witchery initiation is this? I drink snake kai-kai and snakes begin to die all around me! What kind of Nollywood voodoo is this? I’m cool with y’all but no way in hell I’m drinking some juju snake potion stuff. I got no beef with snakes, bruh. And egbesu what? The creek water is yummy. I’ll stick with that. 

I like to think of myself as a ballsy chap. But let’s not forget that I am still a Yoruba boy. Our bravery is skin-deep. 

Politely, I declined the drink. I made excuses.

They were pained. But they understood. Maybe they were rushing me. Maybe another time then. 

Yea, maybe another time. 

Oh, I enjoyed Bayelsa alright. It was marvelous. I could write a book about my experiences and it’ll be a best-seller. But that’s not the point of this blogpost.

The point is, our suspicion of other tribes are often misplaced. At heart, people are really simple creatures. 

Not that there are no bad people around. There are. But the sum is often better and stronger than its parts. A critical mass of good people will dilute out bad ones. That’s how I choose to see the herdsmen crisis. It’s not a Fulani agenda (I hope it is not!). It’s a criminal one that must de dealt with with a strong hand. It has festered for far too long. 

But the President has a big role in applying the balm. 

He’s gotta say something!

He’s gotta do something. 

  

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