The Fulani has always roamed the West and Central African savannahs and coastal regions in search of greenery to feed its cows. The modern reality, however, is that large portions of said expanse no longer belong to everybody and nobody.”
A few days ago, Kaduna State governor and famously statesmanlike pacifist Nasir El-Rufai had a few sage words of wisdom for his colleagues concerning the Sunday Igboho vs Fulani herdsmen quagmire in Nigeria’s southwest. Preaching to his colleagues about the importance of maintaining peace in their domain as his record in his domain no doubt qualifies him to do, El-Rufai said the following: “I call on all Nigerians living in our State to respect law and order and the rights of all citizens to live in peace and security wherever they reside or work.”
Putting aside what Ibrahim Dadiyata or Mubarak Bala would think about El-Rufai’s solemn declaration in favour of inalienable human and constitutional rights, this would seem on the surface to be an admirable sentiment. After all, whether from Nigeria or even from Niger next door, the citizens in question do indeed have the right to move around Nigeria freely under Nigerian law and the ECOWAS treaty. Technically, no one has the right to stop an ECOWAS citizen from moving around an ECOWAS state as they wish.
There is just one tiny problem with this paradigm. “Freedom To” vs “Freedom From”
18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant was the first recorded thinker to make the distinction between so-called “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” The basic difference between the two is that while positive liberty presupposes the freedom to carry out an activity or exist in a certain state of being, negative liberty is associated with freedom from the activities or states of being of others. While positive liberty is often associated with groups, negative liberty is more often associated with individuals.
The ongoing Fulani Herdsmen kerfuffle provides a perfect case in point regarding the difference between positive and negative liberty. On the one hand, is a nomadic medieval culture that has managed to remain largely unchanged and impervious to the rapid change that swept Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. This culture centres its identity around its cattle which it rears in a nomadic fashion as it has done for hundreds – maybe even thousands – of years. It has always roamed the West and Central African savannahs and coastal regions in search of greenery to feed its cows.
The Fulani culture, like any other, is not intrinsically bad or good. It is simply the sum and total of every generation’s life experience passed down to the next over the course of centuries – experiences that centre around feeding cows, milking cows, walking cows, trading cows, protecting cows and every other cow-related bit of wisdom one can imagine. To the Fulani child steeped in his or her ancestral heritage, the freedom to continue in their forebear’s way of life is absolutely everything. Nothing else matters.
Whatever comes between them and this ‘freedom to’ is thus a mortal enemy that should be dealt with in the strictest manner possible. The problem with this ‘freedom to’-centred outlook is that as noted by British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, positive freedom often correlates with oppression and authoritarianism – the classic mob rule scenario. The Fulani civilisation’s age-old ‘freedom to’ states that they are free to wander endlessly through the vast African expanse which belongs to everybody and nobody.
The modern reality, however, is that large portions of said expanse no longer belong to everybody and nobody. Due to modern medical science and vaccines, Africa is no longer an underpopulated continent with an average life expectancy of 30 years as it was in 1800. Nation-states, however weak, now exist – 54 of them. Official land title systems – however flawed – now exist. There are a lot more people than 300 years ago. Each one of these people has a constitutionally guaranteed ‘freedom from’ which supersedes the Fulani herder’s ‘freedom to’ but does he know it?
Does the herder understand the farmer’s expectation to be paid for plant matter to feed the herder’s cows instead of marching them willy-nilly through the land that was once “Africa”, but is now a private farm? You could also mention that the farmer possibly does not also understand the Fulani herder’s aversion to paying for what his ancestors took freely for centuries, but there is little equivalence. The fact is the world has changed, and Africa with it – but the Fulani nomadic culture has not. Unsurprisingly, this can only lead to conflict.
The situation is the classic clash of civilisations described by Samuel Huntington, and it is one that requires firmness and diplomacy in equal measure. Diplomacy is needed in communicating to the Fulani nomadic civilisation that its freedom to follow in the ways of its ancestors is valid and something everyone has respect for. Fitness is also needed to communicate to said civilisation that Africa has changed irretrievably since 1695, and the practice of driving cows over long distances for no reason in particular now infringes on other people’s freedom from its fallout.
Several organs of the Nigerian state, however, have been hijacked by a tiny group of elite urban confusionists who nominally claim to be Fulani, but in fact, care very little about the long term well-being of the Fulani men and women trapped at the grating edge of a civilisational clash that will almost certainly wipe them out violently if it is allowed to degenerate. A few years before politicians like Nasir El-Rufai learned how to mouth insincere, hollow, and trite exhortations about the Fulani nomad’s ‘freedom to,’ they had no problem weaponising their nominal Fulani identity in a dangerous, polarising, and ultimately suicidal manner.
Instead of taking the only proper position on the issue which is to commit to transitioning the Fulani culture away from a peripatetic, impoverished pre-modern civilisation into a settled culture that understands the concept of private land ownership and territorial sanctity, the Nigerian state consistently chooses to play dumb and pretend that it does not have the facts or understand the situation. Instead of enforcing the law which upholds every Nigerian’s ‘freedom from,’ Nigeria’s government continues to blatantly stir the pot of brewing conflict by ascribing a false equivalency to the Fulani’s ‘freedom to’ and everybody else’s ‘freedom from.’
To put it very simply, the Nigerian state will have to take an unemotional stand against any continued expansionism or aggression in the name of a nomadic cow herder’s ‘freedom to.’ It will have to make it very clear to the nomad using all the powers of the state, that his or her ‘freedom to’ ends where another person’s ‘freedom from’ begins. Only by so doing, will the cow herder learn that Africa is no longer a blank slate on which to carry out an unlimited variety of ‘freedom to’s’, but is now a place where you have to buy cow feed if you want to rear cows. This is the only way to avoid further escalation of the existing conflict into a genocide level event.
Knowing Nigeria of course, absolutely nobody is listening.
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