Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has once again written an open letter to Muhammadu Buhari – barely two months after another open letter accusing him of harbouring a hidden ‘Fulanization and Islamization’ agenda. Last week’s killing of Funke Olakunrin, the 58-year-old daughter of Yoruba leader, Reuben Fasoranti, and the anger it elicited especially in the South-West, (together with the attendant claims and counterclaims of ‘whodonit’) , provided the backdrop for Obasanjo’s latest letter.
In the letter, which appeared more measured and conciliatory than the ones he wrote in the run-up to the February 23 2019 presidential election, Obasanjo warned that the country is “on the precipice and dangerously reaching a tipping point where it may no longer be possible to hold danger at bay.” He further contended that the “unfortunate situation is that the criminality is being perceived as a ‘Fulani’ menace unleashed by Fulani elite in the different parts of the country for a number of reasons but even more unfortunately, many Nigerians and non-Nigerians who are friends of Nigeria attach vicarious responsibility to you as a Fulani elite and the current captain of the Nigeria ship. Perception may be as potent as reality at times.”
Buhari was reported as saying that those who criticize him are not patriotic. However whether one believes that Obasanjo’s intervention was actuated by patriotism (as his supporters argue) or lack of it (as Buhari and his supporters claim) would depend on the person’s location in the fault lines and in the active controversies of the day. Suffice it to add that Obasanjo’s latest letter inflamed and mainstreamed – as never before – allegations of hidden agenda against Buhari which were quite commonplace in many parts of the South and the Middle Belt. Since identities that are perceived to be under threat are the ones most vociferously defended, many Fulanis and Northern Muslims, including those otherwise opposed to Buhari’s politics and modes of governance, feel unfairly profiled and duty-bound to defend their Fulani or Northern Muslim identity. Vigorously defending the government’s RUGA project (now suspended) seems to be one way of defending this identity.
There are a number of issues in the ‘Fulanization and Islamization’ controversies and in Obasanjo’s latest open letter:
One, the profiling of any group must always be condemned as it is usually the precursor to hate speech and ethnic cleansing. My feeling however is that much of the current profiling of the Fulani is directed at Buhari as a person rather than to the Fulani as an ethnic group in Nigeria. The late Shehu Shagari and Umaru Musa Yaradua were both Fulani and Muslims but I am not sure anyone ever accused them of ‘Fulanization’ or Islamization’ so I believe the whole seemingly anti-Fulani sentiments in the South are digs on Buhari and his mode of governance rather than an attack on the Fulani as an ethnic group.
It should be recalled that in his three runs for the presidency, Buhari was unable to secure 25 per cent of the votes in any state in the Southern parts of the country despite having an Igbo as his running mate in 2003 and 2007, and a Yoruba pastor, Tunde Bakare, as running mate in 2011. Buhari thus bucked the trend of Northern candidates of major political parties being competitive in the South, especially when it is a two or three horse race. In the South-east for instance where Buhari probably fared the worst electorally in his four runs, Alhaji Shagari Shagari was very competitive against the Great Zik in the 1983 presidential election in all the states in the South East then – despite the party’s obvious ‘mago mago’ during the election.
In addition to the profiling of the Fulani being probably a dig on Buhari’s politics (or is it a boomerang of that politics?), in Nigeria’s peculiar mode of alliance formation, the major ethnic groups in the country are traditionally profiled in turns and called ‘the trouble with Nigeria’. It is like a game of musical chairs- today it is the Fulani, tomorrow it will be the turn of another ethnic group. All ethnic groups are both victims and victimizers when it comes to profiling others.
Two, why is Buhari so much held in suspicion in the South? Some of the reasons for this are beyond Buhari’s control but several others are self-inflicted. For instance, in a polarized society like ours, where no individual or institution enjoys universal legitimacy across the fault lines, any regional hero is viewed with deep suspicion by other members of the society. Buhari did not make himself a cult hero in the North. However, that also means that others ‘naturally’ view him with strong suspicion (that he will be clannish or bigoted if given a public office). It is a major reason why he never was able to get 25 per cent in any of the states in the South until 2015 – when an alliance with the South West (helped by the Jonathan government’s marginalization of the region) made it possible.
Three, while being a regional hero means that Buhari came to office as a ‘suspect’, he made no efforts to consciously change perceptions of him in the South. For instance, for someone who knew he was held in ‘suspicion’ in many parts of the South, was it really politically smart of him to allow his initial political appointments to be heavily skewed in favour of the North? What would it have cost him to wait from making those appointments until he has found enough positions to give impression of ethnic balance in the appointments? Again for a man who was criticized heavily in the South for ‘cornering’ the country’s security architecture to the North, what would it have cost him to use the earliest opportunity to start redressing such (such as when the position of Inspector General of Police became vacant?). With the heads of the three arms of government controlled by the North, what will it cost him to use the initial appointments of his kitchen cabinet to counter that narrative? Rather than do so, the first set of 11 appointments he made in his second term only seemed to reinforce his critics’ perceptions of him.
Four, some of us have consistently criticized the government for not understanding the role of optics in governance. This was probably what Obasanjo meant when he accused him of mismanaging the country’s diversity. This includes knowing when to roll out policies that may be contentious. Take for instance the RUGA controversy: just a few days after former president Olusegun Obasanjo accused his government of Fulanization and Islamization agendas, the government announced that it has acquired licence to set up a radio to broadcast exclusively in Fulfude. The dust raised by this was still swirling up in the air when from nowhere the government announced it had acquired lands across the country to set up settlements for herdsmen (RUGA scheme). As if these were not enough, the increasingly radical Miyetti Allah threatened to set up vigilante groups in the South East. Now the intention behind these initiatives might have been noble, but were their timings right? While announcing these initiatives at the time the government did might be a way of signalling that it could not be bullied, they however, in a manner of self-fulfilling prophecies, reinforced the suspicions of the government in the Southern part of the country.
Five, in essence, Buhari’s unwillingness (or inability) to recognize the importance of optics in governance is largely to blame for the unfortunate state of affairs we have found ourselves in today. For instance while sending condolence message to Chief Fasoranti for the death of his wife, Buhari was reported to have said that she was killed by armed robbers, and not herdsmen. It is possible that he was right, but that quick exoneration of the group, even before investigation had properly started on the case, only reinforced the impression that he cuddles the herdsmen because he shares the same ethnicity with them. It was the same hasty judgment for those who concluded she was killed by Fulani herdsmen. It was reminiscent of what Goodluck Jonathan did on October 1 2010 when a bomb blast less than a kilometre away from the Eagle Square Abuja claimed scores of life. Jonathan was quick to exonerate the Niger Delta militant group MEND (which actually claimed responsibility for the attack). In contrast Obasanjo went hard on OPC in apparent show of tough love and the late Musa Yaradua did the same (overdid it rather) with a heady but largely non-violent Boko Haram in 2009 – in what some of us interpreted as a coded message to the Niger Delta militants who, at that time, had a deadline to accept or reject President Yaradua’s amnesty package. Showing tough love to the herdsmen can make a whole world of difference in the narrativization of the ‘Fulani herdsmen’.