News | The Nigerian Tragedy Of Getting Away With Mass Murder


There are special categories of crimes that threaten to sunder the fabric of the society, and undermine the very essence of the state. Their persistence negates the possibilities of fraternal coexistence and civic mutuality. They are like depth charges at the foundations of public order which if not defused, will detonate, bringing down society as a whole. These crimes should commandeer the moral attention of government and the full weight of its coercive powers.There are special categories of crimes that threaten to sunder the fabric of the society, and undermine the very essence of the state. Their persistence negates the possibilities of fraternal coexistence and civic mutuality. They are like depth charges at the foundations of public order which if not defused, will detonate, bringing down society as a whole. These crimes should commandeer the moral attention of government and the full weight of its coercive powers.

In the 1960s, white supremacist terrorism and an incipient black militancy threatened to push the United States into a racial civil war. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson recognised that racist violence and injustice against the African-American minority represented a crime against American order and they deployed federal power to enforce the civil rights of African-Americans, racial integration, the desegregation of schools and other principles to which racist local authorities were resistant. The same sociopolitical logic has led Western liberal democracies to develop a jurisprudential intolerance of hate crimes, hate speech and other infractions that are deemed capable of inciting group violence and undermining social order.
In Nigeria, successive governments have failed to recognise and act decisively against these crimes that polarise society and further devalue Nigerian life. The perverse principle that evidently overshadows both our politics and jurisprudence is that mass-murderers morph into political activists once they can define their crimes as motivated by ethnic, religious, or group considerations. While the killing of an individual by an individual is viewed as a prosecutable crime, the mass murder of groups by groups is seen as politics and therefore somehow justifiable.
Serial bloody violence in recent weeks involving herdsmen and farmers across Nigeria, notably in Agatu, Benue State, has brought this dynamic into sharp focus. The subsequent recrimination has keyed into the narrative of Nigeria as a nation fractured by deep sectarian cleavages. The federal government’s glacial reaction to the violence at a time when it is led by a Fulani president is enabling bigoted demagogues paint circumstantially-coherent conspiracy theories that dangerously fuel mutual distrust and paranoia.
To be clear, all diverse societies have their patterns of sectarian strife. The Nigerian state’s failure to act decisively against banditry is paving way for further violence. Her weak institutions enable violent communal self-help, whether in the form of armed herdsmen protecting cattle from rustlers or potentially the imminent formation of local paramilitaries to confront marauding herders. Hinterland communities increasingly resemble frontier societies like America’s Wild West; the reign of the outlaw has supplanted the rule of law and a vicious cycle of retaliatory violence and blood feuds could yet escalate into greater conflict. All this is happening while politicians that are so adept at using “federal might” to enforce their will during local elections are unwilling to deploy the same federal might to protect local communities from violence.
Groups resort to self-help for two reasons – either the arm of the state is too short to protect the citizenry from harm or where the state itself acts like a terrorist organisation and thereby erodes the legitimacy of its monopoly of violence. The disclosure that last December’s massacre of Shiites in Zaria by the Nigerian Army cost the lives of 347 men, women and children is an example of the latter. So too is the shooting in the same month of peaceful and unarmed pro-Biafra supporters in the South-East. The slaughter of over 300 civilians in an illicit military operation has yet to elicit any serious federal official response.
In a society with a higher valuation of human life, these atrocities would have triggered great public outcry, a high-level inquiry, the rolling of official heads, the termination of careers and criminal prosecutions of the culpable no matter their location in the chain of command. The government’s silence on these incidents tells us that mass murder is also permissible when carried out by agents of the state.
In Nigeria, such tragedies stir a few headlines in the news cycle which dissipate swiftly leaving behind lingering resentment within the injured groups and the sense that the only language the Nigerian state understands is violence. This has been the evolutionary trajectory of virtually every armed group – from victims of violence to purveyors of violence. The privatisation of violence stems both from the murderous overreach of state forces and the simultaneous inability or unwillingness of the state to secure the citizenry from malevolent non-state actors.
The state’s response to the privatisation of violence has been appalling. After the outlawed Yan Sakai vigilantes killed 26 Fulani herdsmen in Zamfara in late March, the state police command’s public relations officer was reported by the Blueprint newspaper to have claimed that “only 13 innocent Fulani herdsmen” had been killed in the attack. After the Agatu killings, the Inspector General of Police Solomon Arase insisted that the casualty figures were exaggerated although he failed to provide any figures of his own. This sort of dissembling is a long established tradition. In June 1986, after the police massacred protesting students of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, the Vice-Chancellor, Ango Abdullahi reportedly claimed that “only four” students had been killed to which an incensed Dele Giwa retorted, “One life taken in cold blood is as gruesome as the countless numbers that may go down in a pogrom.” The government’s habit of downplaying the number of casualties after incidents of violence raises the question of how many Nigerian dead bodies constitute a tragedy worthy of intelligent official reaction?
The federal negligence of its overarching duty of care towards all citizens has permitted the creation of a class of prey – “non-indigenes”, “infidels,” “settlers” and assorted categories of minorities – all of whom can be casually liquidated in any of those incidents often imprecisely described as “ethno-religious clashes” or “civil disturbances” but which are really bouts of terroristic impunity and mass mayhem by state forces and non-state actors.
President Buhari’s response (or lack thereof) to the atrocities committed on his watch has been grossly disappointing. From the perspective of national security considerations, it hardly makes sense to allow these clashes to snowball in the Middle Belt – a region with a heavy concentration of military veterans – and therefore huge potential for the escalated militarisation of the conflict. In political terms, the administration is guilty of self-subversive negligence. Buhari’s epochal victory last year rested on a grand coalition of which Benue was a part. Although historically a bastion of anti-Fulani populism in the Middle Belt, and long a theatre of strife between farmers and Fulani herders, the people of Benue defied the ethnic dog-whistling of rival politicians to vote for a Fulani as president. Self-aggrandising political considerations alone should have necessitated a more humane and intelligent response to the tragedy there if only to assuage the feelings of those that voted in this government. Instead, the presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, argued that the president did not have to visit Agatu, betraying a tone-deafness and emotional unintelligence flowing from the very top and which could yet prove to be Buhari’s political undoing.
The recurrent indictments of the army for these reckless lethal force incidents are particularly annoying. They come at a time when the dominant narrative about the military should be its valour and heroic sacrifices in liberating the North-East from terrorist rule. It is not so much a case of bad public relations as it is an example of how an institution’s most radiant feats can be eclipsed by its demons. At a time when we should be celebrating the courage of Nigerian troops, we are lamenting yet again the homicidal tendencies of some within their ranks.
And yet it is also true that during the spate of sectarian violence that plagued places like Kaduna in the early 2000s, many residents customarily sought refuge in the army base. When the Ezza and the Ezillo communities battled each other with feral fury in defiance of any mythical Biafran concord, it was the Nigerian army that was called in to restore order and prevent both groups from achieving mutual genocide. This is a manifestation of “federal might” with which most Nigerians can positively identify. The military can be a force for good when its leaders are not using it as a crude battering ram.
We should be applauding the security services for notable victories in the war against terrorism such as the recent capture of Khalid al-Barnawi, an internationally wanted terrorist and leader of Ansaru. Instead, we must grapple with the malign folly exhibited by the Department of State Services in accusing the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) of murdering five “Hausa-Fulani” residents discovered among fifty-five shallow graves of unidentified persons – an allegation made entirely without offering a scintilla of proof. The DSS statement offered no suspects arrested for prosecution, no interest in unraveling the far more urgent mystery of whose bodies occupy those fifty-five shallow graves and no evidence of the forensic methodology it used to identify “Hausa-Fulani” corpses from the scores of other unearthed bodies.
The agency seemed more interested in criminalising and demonising IPOB, even at the expense of an incendiary unsupported claim that could ignite retaliatory violence against Igbos in the North. Such irresponsibility requires questions to be asked at the highest levels of government regarding who sanctioned such a subversive statement capable of fuelling sectarian discord. This sort of ineptitude erodes public confidence in security agencies and the state at large.
To stem the tide of incipient anarchy, the Buhari administration must take certain decisive steps. First, President Buhari must discard his trademark stoic indifference to tragedies within his country and offer more emotionally intelligent responses to the sorrows of his compatriots. This calls for demonstrations of humanity rather than theatrical crocodile tears. A man who once wept publicly while campaigning unsuccessfully for the presidency is surely capable of more sensitivity and he must unearth this trait from wherever it is buried beneath layers of presidential aloofness and decorum. Demonstrating an impassive reserve for domestic catastrophes, while expressing profuse sympathies to foreign countries for their terror tragedies, is unacceptable. It was singularly obtuse when his predecessor did it and it still is. Empathy must begin at home.
A reform of the national security and law enforcement establishment is direly needed. The administration must demonstrate in word and deed that the era of justifiable and tolerable mass murder is over; that the untimely passage of even a single Nigerian life is not an acceptable abomination; and crucially, that murderers and terrorists will not be treated as religious, political or ethnic activists but simply as murderers and terrorists.
To this end, the administration should establish a serious crimes squad with state-of-the-art training and equipment to combat terrorism, militancy and ethno-religious clashes, facilitate local and communal policing initiatives that restore trust among local citizens, provide comprehensive compensation plan for victims of communal clashes, sectarian violence and terrorism; and initiate a national reconciliation and healing plan, while ensuring the teaching in our schools of religious tolerance and public demonstrations of religious and ethnic tolerance by public officials.
These measures are not beyond the government. They are, in fact, campaign promises which Buhari himself ran on and which can be found in the APC manifesto. The president and his party merely need to keep their word.

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