As a boy, I was a fan of the western, or what we know here as the cowboy drama or movie. I did not only watch their heroics, I played them. I was Michael Landon who played Little Joe in the Family Cartwright show called Bonanza. Dan Blocker was too fat and impetuous for me. Lorne Greene was too old and hoary. When I didn’t play Little Joe, I eased into the equine razzle-dazzle of Buffalo Bill, Jr, starring Dick Jones.
I also gathered their picture cards attached to every chewing gum item I bought. I did not only admire the dynamics on screen, I also loved their names, including those I never saw on screen, like Bob Big Boy Williams. They spun tales of the west, of the good guys versus the bad, of horse ride fights, bull fights, gunfights on plains and craggy highlands, of bar brawls and chivalry. They had guns, rode horses and, lasso in hand, controlled a herd of cattle. Their fashion fascinated me. Their hats with the wide, floppy rims; their bandana, the boots, their tops that came across as a cross between a soldier and civilian attire. The good guys were often winsome like Little Joe.
I loved their confidence. The cowboy was debonair before he felled his foe. So, you saw him as a noble figure. The Indians were for the most part the bad guys, hooting, tactless, ungainly, their faces tarred, dark and ugly and inevitably doomed.
The image lingered in me for years, even after I stopped watching the westerns. It was at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife when I studied American history under Professor Richard Olaniyan that I came to understand that I was fed a myth by Hollywood. The story of the cowboy as hero and vanguard of high values was part of the American tendency to romanticise the past. I began to repaint the Indian in my consciousness and asked their forgiveness. I learned of President Andrew Jackson, who drew a trail of tears with the slaughter of Indians. His face is being replaced by Harriet Tubman, a black abolitionist, as part of the American quest to restore truth to history. From my studies, I knew that the cowboy was only a little different from the Fulani herdsman.
The herdsman wields a long stick and hides his head in a low-crowned wide-rimmed hat. His dressing is sparse. The American counterpart mounts a horse with stirrups and bridle and lariat. Both graze and move in sprawling expanse of plains and grasslands and travel miles under a benevolent sky and surly cloudbursts or dry heat.
But the challenges coincide. You don’t have the cowboy today in nearly the profile and dynamic of the 19th century, except as a symbol or romantic culture. They had problems of cow thieves, as the Fulani have. They fought to preserve and protect their animals. They had to fight locals along the way.
They provided meat for people and communities faraway. In the late 19th century in the aftermath of the Civil War, they travelled north where beef was scarce and expensive. It was big business. In Nigeria, the herdsmen travel south.
But the contrast begins here. Because the American cowboy confronted locals, they did not persist in fights of proprietary claims to grazing routes. They understood that the lands did not belong to them. So as communities sprouted, they adapted by charting new routes. Eventually, modernity caught up with them, and the open-range culture of grazing over wide swaths of territories became an anachronism. First, they took their cows to railheads. Later they had grazing reserves with stockyards and parking plants.
Two intertwined things happened in the American case. One, a respect for the rule of law. Two, there was no resort to impunity by insisting that a century-old path ought to be sustained in spite of modernity.
The American cowboy bowed to the rule of law. Another man’s farmland is not my territory. They also understood that the law would catch up with them if they insisted. Those who stole cattle also had to face the consequences of the law. No one, not the cowboy, or the land owner, had a right to take the law into their hands.
Today, Americans consume more meat than Nigerians, and if you travel through the country you won’t see men on horsebacks herding cows over long distances. In 1997, an American family, John and Denise Enssling, took me to the state of Wyoming to see The Cheyenne Frontiers Day, a show to dramatise the western, the sort I saw on television as a little boy. It was a great experience and I saw where myth met reality. I bought myself a cowboy hat.
Our herdsmen ought to come to the 21st century. They still walk about in the expired glory of a lost era. They are enchanted with the big sky and other people’s farmlands. To live in the past and kill to retain that past is no more than barbarism. That is what the herdsman represents today. Modernity has come. It is time for the state to stanch the blood flow and lust for the flesh of innocent women. Like Boko Haram, they now have access to sophisticated weapons. Here is the irony. They clack modern guns but act like old goons, plundering, maiming, raping, killing.
We cannot excuse the stealing of their cattle. They provide meat for everyone. But if one steals your cow, it is not an excuse to rape his wife or wipe out whole communities. The story of Agatu is important. The herdsmen say the Agatu people killed their herdsmen and the police did not do anything about it. Why did they not go to the court? The Gan Allah Fulani, which is the herdsmen umbrella body, justified the Agatu killings because it still does not understand that this is a country of laws. That society ought to be held to account by the Buhari administration. The promise to build reserves for them was only philosophical, only a sop for us.
Buhari ought to come out and condemn the herdsmen in clear and unambiguous terms. It is moral cowardice not to do so. People are dying, daughters are being defiled, families displaced. If Buhari could condemn El-Zakzaky and his Shi’ite men on television, we expect no less from him, especially since he is widely recognised as their patron. A policy statement can be anaemic if it lacks a moral tone.
It is a moral challenge to his administration. The promise of a grazing reserve is fine, but it cannot work if we don’t provide for meat packing plants. It was perhaps that example that spurred Obafemi Awolowo to propose transporting meat across long distances. The herdsmen are illiterate. They need to be saved from themselves and we need to be saved from them. The IPOB incident in killing seven herdsmen in Igboland cannot also be justified. You don’t kill criminals to make a point. It makes you a criminal too.
The absence of Buhari’s intervention and personal voice is interpreted as a tacit encouragement. If a patron keeps silence, the tyranny goes on. He needs to urgently counter this impression. I know he can. The world is waiting.