In retrospect, it has taken the killing of a daughter of the prominent Afenifere leader, Chief Reuben Fasoranti, in an ambuscade that has become tragically all too familiar, to move the Federal Government and its security apparatus to ratchet up their condemnation, if nothing else, of the spate of kidnapping and the armed pastoralist invasion that have turned vast swathes of Nigeria into killing fields and ungoverned spaces.

Funke Olakunri, 58, may not be the latest casualty of this barbarous conflation.  But she ranked among the most politically connected. She was travelling to Lagos when gunmen ambushed her vehicle and others near Ore, Ondo State, killing her on the spot and wounding her female aide.

Victims of this pernicious traffick in the Ondo-Osun-Ekiti axis, which now enjoys the dubious distinction of being Nigeria’s kidnap corridor, have included prominent academics, Christian clergy, Nigerians visiting from abroad and casual travellers.  Many of them survived to tell harrowing stories of their ordeal.

Some of the accounts seem vastly exaggerated, and some may well be outright fabrications.   But there is more than anecdotal evidence that something sinister has been going on largely unchecked in that corridor. Those who must ply that route now do so in convoys, or with private security guards, and always with a prayer on their lips.

The police have blamed Funke Olakunri’s killing on kidnappers, in a bid that went tragically awry.  But residents of the area have blamed it on “cattle herders” who frequently employ the same tactics but may be pursuing different goals.

In whatever case, the incident has heightened ethnic tensions and spread fear and loathing in an area that first attracted notoriety some four years ago when Chief Olu Falae, a former secretary to the Government of the Federation, and one-time presidential candidate, was abducted from his cocoa plantation by herders and subjected to abject torture.

Even in areas of national life more amenable to data collection, guesswork of the most uninformed kind often takes the place of vital statistics.  So, it is hardly a surprise that the number of deaths inflicted on innocent citizens by kidnappers and herders cannot be stated with certainty.  Estimates for the past two years range from the high hundreds to the low thousands.

Whether it is the one or the other, the figure is unconscionably high, more so when, outside the areas of the Boko Haram insurgency, the nation is not technically at war.  A sub-regional and even international dimension has rendered the insurgency more intractable outside a sub-regional and international framework.  Although that dimension also obtains in the carnage that now defines herder-farmer relations in Nigeria, it is less constraining.

What was regarded as an economic issue in the country’s Middle Belt has now burgeoned into a geopolitical issue that threatens to shake Nigeria right down to its fragile roots.

At its most elementary, it is a conflict between sedentary farmers seeking to secure their crops and farmlands and nomadic herders roaming all over the place in search of increasingly scarce grazing lands for their herds.

But in many parts of the Middle Belt where the conflict has been at its most  convulsive, the herders are for the most part ethnic Fulanis and Muslims, whereas the famers are for the most part members of other ethnic groups which subscribe largely to different religions or belief systems.

So, there you have it:  a highly combustible mix of economics, religion, and ethnicity, and politics.

As the herders moved southwards in search of more pasture and ever more disposed to employing deadly violence, these cleavages grew sharper, to the point that some have charged that Nigeria is witnessing nothing less than a campaign of “Fulanisation and Islamisation,” though it is far from established that all the herders are Fulanis and Muslims to boot.

The violence the herders often visit on farming communities and rural dwellers is totally at odds with the character of the Fulani herders that many Nigerians have lived with peacefully for decades.

There was indeed a time, not too long ago, when herders carried no lethal weapons.  Now, the sticks they slung across their outstretched arms then to fend off predators threatening their herds have been replaced by deadly weapons.  And the weapons are not just for deterrence; they have been employed again and again to lay waste many villages and sack entire communities.

The brazenness, the impunity with which they go about their grisly business is hard to fathom. They operate as a law unto themselves, with scant regard not just for consequences, but for the very concept of civil authority.  The safety and well-being of their herds is their greatest concern, and nothing appears too precious to be sacrificed to that end.

In many parts of Nigeria today, the fear of the armed pastoralist is the beginning of wisdom and Heaven help those who discountenance it, for they can expect little help from the Government.

In the midst of this slaughter of innocents, the authorities are yet to ask some fundamental questions.  Who are these marauders without borders, and where do they come from?

It is no answer to say that they are citizens of the Economic Community of West African States, and that its governing protocols guarantee the free movement of persons and goods within the zone.  Or that they are stragglers from Muammar Gaddafi’s defeated army.

Are their entry into and movement within Nigeria documented as required by law? In the case of ECOWAS citizens, does “free movement” imply the free flow of arms and the right       to trample with impunity on the laws, the property and the sensibilities of the host communities?

Deadly assault follows deadly assault on unarmed populations with benumbing frequency.  The authorities vow again and again to apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Most suspects escape arrest and prosecution.

This lassitude accounts for the widely-held view that the marauders enjoy protection in high places.

Even where it has been recognised that the unchecked activities of the herders constitute a clear and present danger to national peace and security, thinking on the way forward has been woolly, to say the least.  Though commendable in its sweep, RUGA, the latest proposal to deal with the menace, partakes of this woolliness.  In vain does one search the blueprint for the rigour of thought and of painstaking implementation that should inform it.

A new approach is clearly indicated.

A preparatory committee of accomplished agronomists, agricultural economists, veterinary scientists, rural sociologists, working with representatives of pastoralists, farmers, and farm labour should be set up to define the situation and prepare within six months wide-ranging   papers to guide discussions among the relevant audiences at a national summit that should conclude its deliberations and submit recommendations within six months.

The recommendations will be embodied in a Bill to be submitted to the National Assembly for ratification within six months.

The chances seem unpromising; yet, we must hope that it can bestir itself and accord any proposals before it great urgency even as its new members, with the backing of the Senate Chief Whip,  Dr Orji Uzor Kalu {APC (ha!) Abia North} carp about their poor – indeed penurious — compensation well before they can find their way around the precincts.

Meanwhile the beleaguered areas should be placed under a 24-hour joint military-police patrol as well as electronic surveillance.  Nothing less than that will assure traumatised residents that the authorities are looking out for them.  Given present circumstances, it might not even be out of place to declare a state of siege in those areas.

Time is of the essence.  That much is clear from the sabre rattling, the bellicose rhetoric that has been issuing lately from the Southwest, the Southeast, and the Delta, not forgetting the provocative taunts from sections of the North. There must be an unambiguous demonstration of political will at the top to end this national nightmare.

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