Umar Labdo, a Professor of Islamic Political Thoughts is one of the leading voices in Fulani affairs in Nigeria and Africa. An academic of repute, who is a specialist in Islamic history, Muslim sects, Dialogue and Conflict resolution in Islam speaks on the fortunes, misfortunes and misrepresentations of the Fulani people in Nigeria. He says the Fulani have been pushed to the wall in Nigeria and are only responding to the situation even as he rebuked former President Olusegun Obasanjo for his “Fulanisation remarks” and regretted that the retired Army General had chosen the twilight of his life to dent his image as a nationalist. DESMOND MGBOH in Kano interviewed him.
President Buhari has just begun a new tenure. What is your general impression of his first term and what do you expect him to do in his second tenure?
Well, I expect Mr President to improve on his performance. Regarding his performance in his first term, I will say that his performance was fair especially in the area of the economy and in the area of security especially in the North East region. You know when the administration came in, Boko Haram insurgents were holding a number of local governments in Borno State as their own territory. Today, Boko Haram has almost been degraded and grounded now. Secondly, the economy is almost on the right footing because of this diversification, it is going well for the economy but I think because it will take a long time, that is why people have not been able to see its impact for now.
Concerning agriculture and food sufficiency, I think that the President should be commended. You know now that we have drastically reduced the amount of food that we import and this is a very big achievement. The only area however that I am not very satisfied with is the President’s social investment programme. We here in the North, we have not benefited commensurate to our population and also our contribution to the government. So, I will advise the President to improve on his social investment programmes. You know that poverty in Nigeria is very pervasive, especially here in the North. I think the President should bring in people who are closer to the masses, people with records, people who would not collect money for themselves only, people who from their disposition could spend their own money to help the poor. These are the kinds of people we need in this area at this point.
How would you react to the fact that though the President may not be obviously corrupt, same cannot be said of some people in his government especially in the last four years?
That is largely true. You know that finding credible people in Nigeria is unfortunately very difficult. They are very, very scarce and there have been criticisms that the President had surrounded himself with people of questionable characters. Some of these criticisms are true. For example, look at the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation. He was on seat when he got himself involved in the grass cutting scandal. So it is true that some of the men who are entrusted with responsibilities by the President, they are corrupt. And actually, sometimes I pity the President. He is well intended, but you cannot do all things by yourself alone. You need people to help you. Now those people who think in the same way as the president or who have the same idea like the President, they are very, very scarce. Everybody knows this. So what we should do is to help him with advice and with prayers. I think that he should not hesitate to drop anybody who has been found wanting. Buhari , by his nature, is very trusting. That is what people say of him. And when he trusts one and he is sure of your loyalty, he would continue to hold that person in that light. Now politics is not like that. The responsibility of Nigerians is on his shoulders and therefore he should not hesitate to do away with anybody who is found wanting.
You are saying he should be prompt in punishing people who have corruption issues?
Yes, he should be very decisive, very, very decisive….
So you also recognized that Buhari is not decisive on issues?
No, I am not saying that he is not decisive, what I am saying is that whenever this problem arises, he should be decisive in tackling them because the President is known for being slow in taking actions on issues. For example, if you would recall, it took him more than six months to appoint his cabinet in 2015, I don’t know if this is his nature or is a result of advice but sometime leaders need to act quick and I must say that there is a difference between being indecisive and failure to act on time.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is very popular for his blunt remarks. Recently, he raised the alarm that there is an attempt to Fulananize and Islamize Nigeria. You are one of the leading Fulani scholars. What would you say of his comment?
Well, I think that those comments, coming from a person like Chief Obasanjo, they are very, very unfortunate. Obansajo, looking at his standing, a two-time former President, a former Head of State, an elder statesman and somebody who fought to keep this country united; for him to come at the twilight of his life and destroy his records is very unfortunate, not only for Nigeria, but for him personally. So, he should be thinking about the legacy and history he will be leaving behind. Obasanjo is a very respected personality and he did a lot for Nigeria, even though he has his rights and his wrongs. But this mischievous comment coming from him especially at this critical time is very unfortunate. By the way, didn’t Obasanjo see Fulanisation when Fulani dragged him out from hiding and made him a Head of State? Didn’t Obasanjo see Fulanisaion when again , Fulani dragged him out of prison and funded his campaign, recycled him and got him voted in as the President of Nigeria in 1999? Why now I may ask? Because he has a personal problem with the President, then he would castigate the whole region. This is unbecoming of a leader. We know that he has disagreement with the President and that is very natural. But whatever wrong Buhari may have done to him , that should not make him condemn a whole region. I think Obasanjo should be better advised to be thinking twice, before he makes his outburst.
Let us remove Obasanjo as a person and focus on the remarks. Is there a special treatment accorded to the Fulani in the Nigeria affairs today?
No. I will rather say that the Fulani need more. Because the Fulani’s whole ways of life is in danger. Their livelihood is in danger. What happened is that for more than a decade now, Fulani were being dispossessed of their cows and cow is everything to a nomadic Fulani. Cattle rustling has been taking place for over a decade now and the government did not do anything about it. The nature of the Fulani is nomadic and they didn’t have a voice – here I must be honest to condemn some of our elites, we have elites who would have made it their responsibility to speak for their own kits and kin. But unfortunately they didn’t do anything but they are busy making money albeit from unlawful sources. Fulani are mainly at the receiving end and the more they are dispossessed of their cows, which are their own lifeline, the more they become desperate. This is one of the reasons you find them engaging in these crimes, in these acts of crimes.
Drawing from this is the issue of insecurity in the North. If you take away the Boko Haram insurgency, you still have crimes like banditry, kidnapping and on a number of cases, these crimes are linked to Fulani protagonists. Is this part of their desperation against the system?
Yes, the Fulani are known to be very peaceful people, very shy, introverts; people who mainly keep to theirselves and their businesses. That is how Fulani are known in the 70s, 80s and before then. But now with the situation they found themselves in , they are changing. Sometimes change is imposed on people. A Fulani who does not know anything in this world except the cow- the cow is the beginning and the end of his life , now you dispossess him of that cow, what do you think he would do? He didn’t have land to farm, he didn’t have education to seek for employment, he didn’t have company, he only has cows and now it has been taken away from him. So he would be mad, he would run crazy and he would do things unthinkable that he himself would never have imagined or dreamed of doing. You know survival, you know what survival is? That is how I see these things. The Fulani has been pushed to the wall and now they are reacting.
What do you think is the solution? How do we begin to manage the situation from getting worse than this, what is the way forward to stop them from being desperate because they are creating problems here and there?
This one is also a challenge because Fulani always lack voice. So, it is hard to know what is in their minds. The Federal Government considers Miyetti Allah as the only voice of the Fulani and I think that this is wrong. There are many other Fulani organizations, which some of them are even closer to the Fulani in the bush than this elites in Miyetti Allah. Miyetti Allah has many elites and when we mention elites in the Nigerian context you begin to perceive corruption is there, selfishness is there and greed and so on. I will venture to say that some of the members of Miyetti Allah are not working in the interests of the Fulani. The Federal Government should not be working with only Miyetti Allah, they should bring in other Fulani groups and organizations. They should aggregate the general views and then regard the summary as the views of the Fulani. That way, they would come to understand what is going on in the minds of the Fulani, how Fulani view these problems and what they think would improve their lives. Once they do that , the way would be clear.
There are too many Fulani voices and groups. Some do nothing other than issuing press releases and have no structure. How do we begin to manage all these voices to get to the troubled heart of the Fulani as we try to move forward?
Well, people are recognized by their records and I am sure that government is supposed to know everybody in Nigeria. When I told you that the government should bring other organizations, I have some in mind. These organizations are registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission, they have track records, they have been operating on the ground for many years. The government should know them. Even if they do not know them presently, they should make efforts to know them. With a small search, they would know those organizations. Because they are credible organizations which have track records, they are known to the state governments because they operate at the local levels but on the other hand, Miyetti Allah mainly operates at the national and regional level.
Recently, the Federal Government met with the leadership of Miyetti Allah as part of efforts to engage the Fulani. What is your take about the meeting. Of course, there is also the speculation that they gave them money. What do you know about the meeting and how do you react to it?
First, I will say that it is a good beginning because dialogue always is a good beginning for resolving problems. So I commend that initiative from the government. Number two, about the gesture of N100 billion, I don’t know whether that was given or it was promised or it was discussed. I don’t know about that. But I will say that N100 billion is a small amount … if we look at the loses of the Fulani, then you will see that that is a small amount. We, the Fulani, we are in support of settling the Fulani at a place – whether you call it colony, whether you call it ranches or whatever. It is time that the Fulani settles down. This life of roaming about, it cannot continue forever and it is not conducive to the modern time also, the conditions of the present time – the environmental, the population of human beings, all these things are against the culture of roaming about with the cows. Fulani should be made to understand that it is in their own best interests to settle down so that they can enjoy life. Now they don’t enjoy life- they make others enjoy life but they do not enjoy life themselves. How can you enjoy life when you live in the bush without a roof on your head, without mattresses under you? When they settle down, they would start enjoying these things that fellow Nigerians are enjoying. Their children would go to school, they would find healthcare, they would find clean drinking water and even their lifestyles would be improved with modern methods. And also their products would find ready markets and a simplified way of getting to these markets. And on the other hand, this would be good for Nigerians also, because it would remove the problems of the herders/farmers conflicts. If this problem is settled and everything is taken care of, it would create hundreds of thousands of jobs for Nigerians; both Fulani and non-Fulani and indirectly boost the agricultural sector.
The Federal Government has reportedly issued a license for the establishment of a Fulani Radio. How much do you know about this?
Actually, I read it in the press that the Federal Government is planning to establish a radio that would be broadcasting in Fulani language exclusively. But what I read is that this radio is not for Fulani alone. It is for farmers and fishery workers and herders and of course, you know that about 20 per cent of herders are not Fulani. We have other tribes who are also herders. The problem is that some people think that Fulani are treated differently –why not the government open other radio stations that would broadcast in other languages? But then, that would be childishness. If I am a father- the Federal Government, in this case, is a father- you don’t give all your children equal or similar things. You give each of them what they need. For example, if this one is four feet tall or is three feet tall, you don’t buy them dresses of the same size. So, it is for everyone, their needs. So Fulani now need to be enlightened, they need to be engaged, they need to be talked to and also encouraged to speak so that Nigerians would hear what is in their minds. Like I told you, they lacked voice, real voice. For me as a Fulani, I try to spend days in their settlements in both Nigeria and in Niger Republic so that I can acquaint myself with their situation. If I say that I would speak for Fulani and I don’t know how they live then I would be deceiving myself and misleading the public and doing a disservice to the Fulani. So I go there and spend time and speak to them from time to time. For the real Fulani voice to be identified, Fulani themselves should be encouraged to speak. Now this radio would serve that purpose.
Wouldn’t this radio engineer a new sense of tribal nationalism that can be offensive to the corporate existence of Nigeria and perhaps undermine their own Nigerianess? If the government says that they don’t need a Radio Baifra, they don’t need a Radio Afenifere, you don’t need strong regional nationalism, is this radio not a negation to these positions?
I think that without guidance, the radio could develop in the ways you are suggesting. It is quite possible. But if it is under the guidance of the government, I doubt if it would be allowed to walk that way. And you should not compare this radio with Radio Biafra. Biafra for example – IPOB- they have a very clear agenda and they don’t make attempt to hide that agenda. They are what they are but for Fulani, the way I look at them, they are innocent people, unsophisticated people
What about the gun wielding Fulani in the bushes, the one that is fighting and killing in different parts of Nigeria? Are they that innocent?
Innocent in the sense I used it, is that the Fulani people are too simple and they know very, very little about the world. That is what I mean by being innocent, innocent like that of a child. So they need guidance. They need somebody to take away their arms. As I told you, by their nature they are peace loving people. They are only made to be violent and that is instinctive and that is in every human being. Every human being, however good he is when you push him to the wall, you will see wonders.
How true is it, I am talking about the fear in many parts of the Southern Nigeria and in the Middle Belt that the Fulani is coming over to dominate and take over their ancestral land?
Well, I don’t know how they came about that narrative. The Fulani people are not interested in domination. If they are , they would behave differently. For you to dominate anybody, you have to be powerful. But the Fulani are not looking for power. At least the majority Fulani you are talking about, the bush Fulani, the nomadic Fulani have no agenda, they don’t know how to build or destroy something. All they know is that they are living and their only means of livelihood is their cow. I think that those who think that the Fulani are trying to go to the South to dominate them, maybe after two to three generations, are simply exercising an unfounded fear. I don’t think they have any agenda of dominating anybody and they don’t need to dominate. And they don’t need to dominate. You are talking about people who majorly don’t partake in modern life, people who are very low in ambition, people who are simple. And don’t think that the Fulani are connected. People have this wrong idea that if you see a Fulani in Kano, they are connected to the Fulani in Calabar . No, it is not like that. Only small units of Fulani families even know themselves. That is what I found out.
Yes they may not know themselves Prof. But they share the same sentiment irrespective of the geographical settings. One Fulani here is the same as the Fulani in London.
That is largely because they face the same problem. Problems unite people. If your problem was the same thing as mine, then we become comrades. That is it. It is not based on a desire to achieve something. Rather, the desire is to survive. How can we live? How can we ensure that our children would survive?
The concern of Fulani people is to survive in Nigeria. Would I be right in saying so?
As far as I can see now, the main issue before the Fulani is survival, their real survival is threatened. Imagine where somebody appears and people start shouting terrorists, terrorists, somebody is wielding a stick and he would be confronted with AK47 and so on. These people no longer feel secure, especially in certain places. I think you read just about some weeks ago that a number of Fulani were killed in Kaduna State. These are becoming so bad to the extent that Fulani are killed because they are Fulani, not because they committed any offence
Back to Chief Obasanjo, if you study his remark on Fulani you will see that it was not too different from General TY Danjuma’s remarks about a year ago. I have also read people like Soyinka say listen to Obasanjo. Could all these people be wrong and lying about the Fulani people?
Yes, they are lying because they don’t know them and I know them. So I know that they are not correct. What they are saying, either they are sincerely telling the world what they think and that is the extent of their knowledge. These people you mentioned if they are sincerely telling the world what they believe and this is the extent of their knowledge, then they don’t know anything about the Fulani. They need to be educated.