Dissecting Malami’s Spare Parts Logic

According to Mallam Abubakar Malami, LLB, BL, the attorney-general of the Nigerian federation, minister of justice, senior advocate of Nigeria and member of the Nigerian bar, banning open grazing is the rough equivalent of banning trading in spare parts. Let me take that again. When you say herders and their cattle should be legally restrained from invading people’s farmlands, destroying people’s crops, ruining people’s livelihoods and pouring petrol on the inferno that is fast burning the nation’s delicate fabric, it is as good as saying people should stop selling spare parts in shops and markets. Do you understand Malami’s logic? You don’t understand it? Neither do I.

Reacting to the resolution of southern governors to ban open grazing as a result of security concerns, Malami said freedom of movement is guaranteed in the constitution and cynically asked the governors to seek an amendment. Listen to him, up close: “It is about constitutionality within the context of the freedoms expressed in our constitution. Can you deny the rights of a Nigerian? For example, it is as good as saying, perhaps, maybe, the northern governors coming together to say they prohibit spare parts trading in the north. Does it hold water? Does it hold water for a northern governor to come and state expressly that he now prohibits spare parts trading in the north?”

From where I am sitting, I can see at least a thousand and one flaws in Malami’s spare parts analogy. The fundamental one is a well-known fallacy called “false equivalence” in logic — a flawed reasoning also referred to as “fallacy of inconsistency”. We often call it “comparing apples and oranges” in everyday argument. It works by comparing two things based on a faulty criterion. For example, arguing that since it is illegal for individuals to have bombs, it should also be illegal to have Christmas bangers because both are explosives. A banger is not a bomb, for Pete’s sake! It is a desperate and disingenuous way of advancing an argument in which two disparate items are made to look alike!
In what ways would anyone liken open grazing to trading in spare parts? Open grazing means herding your cattle in locations that do not belong to you.

That means you are encroaching on private or public property without authorisation. It involves feeding freely on pasture that was not willingly donated to you. It also involves destroying people’s farmlands and ruining their livelihoods. How on earth can anyone compare that to selling spare parts in shops where traders pay rent? Do spare parts shops use free utilities same way cattle eat free grass unauthorised? Do spare parts sellers encroach on private or public property in the course of exercising their freedoms as traders?

If we are to advance a proper logical argument, we should compare those who operate in a similar field — animal husbandry. So, let us compare cattle farming with poultry and piggery. Those who run poultries and piggeries buy the feeds and the water and pay the rent if they do not own the land. They are no less of business people than the herders. They are no less citizens of Nigeria, with constitutionally guaranteed rights, than the herders. Why should herders be treated any differently? Open grazing is not only outdated, as we can see from modern global practices, it has become so politically explosive in Nigeria that anyone who loves peace will only seek a permanent solution.
Since Malami mentioned “constitutionally guaranteed” freedoms, I want to guess that he is talking about the right of every Nigerian to live and do business anywhere in the federation.

If my assumption is right, then his problem is bigger than I originally thought. Even a law undergraduate, much less a SAN, knows that there is no absolute right anywhere. Your rights and the rights of others have boundaries. Your right to do business cannot override my right to private property. John Locke, the highly influential English philosopher and “Father of Liberalism”, wrote in 1689: “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

While I have argued before, and will argue again, that southern governors cannot ban open grazing overnight, I also know that they did not just wake up one day to take the decision because everything was going well. It was not as if open grazing was winning gold medals for Nigeria and the governors decided to rain on the parade. We have a serious challenge that has unsettled everybody across the country, not just the south. Even northern governors issued a statement in February admitting that open grazing was no longer sustainable, promising to promote ranching. And unlike Malami, they did not suggest that spare parts trading was posing a similar challenge up north.

I was in a team of journalists that toured Jigawa state in 2005 when Alhaji Saminu Turaki was the governor. We were shown a ranch he was building, complete with something called “rain harvest”. During the rainy season, water would be stored in an underground system. Then in dry season, it would be pumped to nurture the pasture. Turaki said this would guarantee fresh pasture all year round and address the frequent clashes between the itinerant herders and farmers in the state. He imported cattle breeds, and I think it was an Argentinian expert that was managing the ranching project. That is how to solve a problem. I never heard Turaki complain about spare parts traders.

But banning open grazing “with immediate effect” — as the southern governors want to do — can only worsen our security challenges. That is my point of departure. You cannot make herders disappear overnight, neither can you change from an open grazing culture to a ranching one within the twinkle of an eye. We need to plan, to engage, to reach a consensus, to have timelines, to transition. Otherwise, there would be unintended consequences. This is no longer a pure agricultural problem but some significant political, ethnic and religious sensitivities which can explode in our faces if we do not apply wisdom. But then, the peerless Malami has suddenly emerged on the scene.

Aside his classic ill logic — “the herder has a right to do business; the spare parts seller has a right to do business; therefore, it is wrong to ban open grazing” — there are far more troubling undercurrents in Malami’s pronouncements. They give away a lot about mindsets inside the Buhari administration. Anyone preaching national peace and unity should be very disturbed. It would appear that as many Nigerians are trying to de-escalate the tensions in the land, some hardliners are trying to worsen matters. As the Mandators sang in 1988, ‘Some are trying to find solutions to all the problems we have/Some are making it impossible for the problems to be solved.’

I smelt, in Malami’s words, a trivialisation of the security challenges posed by the activities of the herders. Of course, I do not belong to the group of people who hold the herders responsible for every crime committed in southern Nigeria. I also do not believe in the conspiracy theories — the herders had been giving farmers hell (including up north) long before President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015. But no honest observer can deny that the activities of some herders have been a threat to national peace in recent years and the government has definitely failed to address the issue decisively. To compare herders to spare parts traders is to turn the whole thing into a joke.

Malami’s choice of “spare parts” as an analogy is an undeniable underhand reference to the Igbo who overwhelmingly control that line of business. The 17 southern governors are from the three geo-political zones and cut across ethnic groups and party lines. Malami’s preference for “spare parts” trading can only be interpreted one way: that he is picking on the Igbo. Is this a fightback at the framing of herders as “Fulani terrorists” since Buhari came to power in 2015? If this was Malami’s intention, I would say it was a poor one. A minister of the federal republic must resist the urge to play the ethnic card, no matter the temptation, no matter the urge. It is just too low.

While having prejudices and biases is only human, you need to summon all the restrain and maturity possible and rise above ethnic sentiments in your pronouncements when you occupy government positions. I find it difficult to understand how many people in government see themselves, first and foremost, as ethnic champions who are in power to defend the interests of members of their ethnic groups. This mindset, or line of thinking, is not only regressive and unhelpful, it is also very dangerous and harmful to the cause of national reconciliation, integration, peace and unity. Our inability to distill our emotions is hurting efforts to tackle challenges that are dragging us backward.

Malami’s pronouncements are all the more worrisome because ethnic champions usually begin to display their biases openly only after they have left government — not while still active service. We know many people who held top government positions and even aspired to be president but end up as leaders of one ethnic association or the other. You can guess that when they were in government, they must have been promoting one policy or the other meant to give advantage to their parts of the country. It could be in recruitment and promotion. It is normally after they have left government that they start wearing their ethnic badges everywhere. Malami cannot even wait for that long.

What Nigeria needs today is statesmanship. We need men and women who will say and do things that will reduce the tensions in the land, heal the wounds and chart a path to peace and progress. Although southern governors have controversially resolved to ban open grazing because of the crisis that has engulfed many communities, they also provided a leeway in their communique by saying the federal government should support “willing” states to develop an alternative and modern livestock management system. Federal government should take a more constructive look in that direction. Nigeria urgently needs problem solvers, not rabble rousers. We need peace, not war.

The death of Lt Gen Ibrahim Attahiru, chief of army staff, and 10 other military officers in an air mishap in Kaduna on Friday was so devastating. It is one of those things about life we can never understand. He was appointed army chief only in February — and three months later, he is gone. We must continue to ask questions about air safety in Nigeria. If military aircraft can be dropping from the skies at this rate — whether or not it is as a result of human error, bad weather, poor maintenance, whatever — the fact is that something is just not right. Attahiru had reinvigorated the war on terror and it looked like we were going somewhere. And then this. What a loss. Tragic.

Many of my friends were so worried — disgusted is the word — over the jubilant reactions of some Nigerians to the death of Lt Gen Ibrahim Attahiru, chief of army staff, on Friday. Twitter, in particular, was full of nasty trolling, with some falsely quoting him as saying over his dead body would Nigeria break up. While mocking the dead is disgusting, it is no longer surprising. It has become a new culture and should now be regarded as a stage in the post-humanity era that we are moving into, enabled by the social media. Unfortunately, those celebrating Attahiru’s death are still unable to see that it would not solve their problem, whatever their problem may be. Sickening.

Reports yet to be refuted indicate that Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, is finally dead. We are being cautious because he had been reported dead many times and he would do a video to laugh off the reports. He is said to have committed suicide after being attacked by members of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP), an offshoot of Boko Haram. Whatever the case is, we cannot celebrate yet. Shekau had reportedly become marginalised over the years, so his Boko Haram has not been our major headache in recent times. The real problem is ISWAP and they are believed to be the ones behind the banditry and kidnappings. Shekau is dead but terror is still alive. Vigilance.

As COVID-19 continues to devastate India, I have been very worried for Nigeria. It took a third wave for India to crack and the dead bodies are piling up badly by the day. We just have to take precaution and stop peddling fables that we have natural immunity in Nigeria. Some Nigerian pastors have blood on their hands as they continue to mislead their congregation into the path of ignorance, even though you have to also question how church members can so easily submit themselves to the manipulation. We don’t all have to take the vaccine since the anti-vax propaganda appears to have worked very well, but we can at least keep to basic safety measures. Caution.


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