On Sunday 16 June, President Uhuru Kenyatta told a religious gathering at a stadium in Nairobi: “When they see me remain silent, they should not think they are threatening me. I will flush them out from where they are.”
A Reporter’s Diary in the Middle Belt – Day 6
In what has over time evolved into a norm, the main chief, the Ogomo Pengana, called a meeting with his Fulani counterpart, the Sarkin Hausa, who also acts as de facto head of the Muslim community. Both men then sat down with representatives of their elders’ council and resolved the disputes while relaying a message of peace and tolerance to their constituents. It’s a formula that has been repeated over and over again, for years.
On the surface, it seems a remarkably simple solution, but given the constitution of Jengre – one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the state – it isn’t. There are the Jere, Amo, Lamoro and other people there, a host of minorities in a state where the major ethnic groups are the Berom and Anga. Even though the Berom are predominantly Christians, there are some Berom Muslims in Jengre. It is effectively a microcosm of Nigeria, with it complex heterogeneity.
Cows, cows everywhere
So when the attacks of 21-24 June took place in Barkin Ladi, Riyom, Bokkos and a few other local government areas at another end of the state, the Jengre chiefs quickly called yet another meeting to ensure that the peaceful status quo remained. Since then, there has been no single protest or act of violence in the community.
Today – 18 July – I visited Jengre. On Zaria Road, the expressway leading to it, I could see herds of cattle grazing on both sides of the road at various points of the journey. There were small herds everywhere – on school fields, beside the expressway, just after police and army checkpoints, near untended farms. Everywhere. There were young boys and men calmly tending the cows. If they had weapons for self-defence, I could not see them. Some of them have relatives within the villages whose parents having said goodbye to a life on the road, settled down and are now fully integrated into the community.
With the help of an interpreter, I spoke to Rabiu, one of the descendants of the town-based Fulani who still own a few cows. Rabiu, a school dropout, speaks a smattering of English but mostly Hausa. “We all live peacefully here,” he says. “Nobody kill nobody. We take the word of our chief seriously.”
He also explains that anyone who gets into a fight with another resident of the community is forced to pay a fine in cash. If the fight leads to an injury, the penalty is stiffer: more cash or a cow as a fine. In concurring with this, a representative of the chief says the thought of losing cattle over avoidable fights has been key in keeping the peace for generations. Given the affinity of the herders for their cows, it has worked well.
Simon Walman, director of relief and rehabilitation at the State Emergency Management Agency, which says it is helping with interfaith resolutions, adds: “It is a common practice in certain communities in Plateau State. The chief takes a cow or goat from you so that it will pinch you and serve as a deterrent. You won’t want to use all your cows to pay fine.”
As a nationwide debate over cattle ranches continues, perhaps other communities in the state could adopt this peace process in the interim. The chief’s representative does not have a ready answer for this but nods anyways. The government’s plans for cattle ranches would see it allocate land to herders on what will likely be a lease rather than outright purchase. If the ranch plan is implemented, it will help to eliminate the contentious issue of cows grazing on farmland. But it could also alienate neighbours in communities like Jengre who have lived together, says the chief’s spokesperson. “We need their dung for our farms, and they sell us beef to eat. We have lived together for many years now. And even if other people cannot live as one big family, we can. Some of us have married Fulani wives.”
Money has no enemies
These are symbiotic relationships that further underscores the complex dynamics of herder-farmer relations in the lush vegetation of central Nigeria. Lydia Assabaru, a housewife and potato farmer, tells me she and her neighbours contribute weekly to adashi, a multipurpose cooperative society to finance the small-time needs of her and other village women. Some of the members are Fulani, she says. There are Muslims and Christians too, she adds. “Money does not know enemy. We don’t have the heart to fight, so we all relate as one. We do things together.” Last year, her 22-year old cousin, an Amo, married a Fulani man in the village. They are still together, she tells me happily.
Photo by Eromo Egbejule
Rabiu, a young Fulani resident of Jengre, Nigeria