I don’t believe that hell is a place of fire. The scriptures are vivid enough. Hell simply means the grave or death. But it boils only in the fancy of those who view God as eternal terror, which negates David’s notion that “his mercies endure forever.”
This is no theological column and so would not pry into the interstices of scripture.
Believers of hell conjure a huge phantom fire, an inferno of justice that demonises our Maker. Even at that, we lack the patience to wait, so we make our own hell here on earth. John Milton who wrote Paradise Lost believed in hell but he also confessed to the seduction of human mythmaking. “The mind is its own place,” he sang, “it can make heaven of hell and hell of heaven.”
We have thus pre-empted the afterlife and fomented our own hell. Today, the incarnation of hell is one word: herdsman. The bad ones are the very nature of the devil – sly, wily, deadly. First they give us meat, then they make mincemeat of us. Their herds cannot speak, hate no one, are whipped about as they cry in pain in rain and relentless heat, are delicious, bought gleefully and greedily, lavish our feasts, nourish our body.
But the herdsman is often wordless in spare, nondescript subaltern wear, whip in hand, face without expression, sometimes stooped, or sitting watching the mammals munch away on verdant fields.
The sombre vista of caskets in Benue State last week signalled a Tiv funeral hour. The same happened in Taraba, as my friend Bala Dan Abu documented during a visit to the swaths of slaughter. At night they fell, were shot, slashed, in searing bonfire. But the Tiv and their leaders carried their dead, in brown boxes, laid them to earth, tears pouring down as though from cloudburst. The emotion was no less grim in Taraba.
But the herdsman does not want to be seen when it does ill. He is a barbarian with guns and machetes and a coward with murderous eyes. He does not strike in daylight because that is the province of the brave. His cowardly rapines rattle at night because his deeds are evil.
Like Mephistopheles, the herdsman concocts a reason to shed blood. They even deploy a grander word: rustle, even if it is the right word. For them, it is human blood for cow, homo sapiens funeral cries for the moos of cows. This is a perversion of exchange, a macabre tit for tat.
For believers either of the Koran or the Bible, this story contradicts the well-known divine exchange. In the two books, Ibrahim or Abraham loves his son but is poised to slaughter his son in divine obedience. But at the nick of time, the animal materialises. The maker says no to human sacrifice. He provides the animal for the slaughter. Ismail or Isaac lives. Man cannot go for ram or cow.
In traditional religion, it is animals, including fowls, that go for slaughter. In Achebe’s Arrow of God, a cynical priest feeds his family with the spoil. Even when humans are used for such sacrifices, we call it savage.
The irony of the human exchange for animal slaughter came up graphically in the novel, Museum of Innocence by Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk. A 12-year-old is forced to deal with the horror of a human struggling to survive a car crash on a day when all of Istanbul is a slaughterhouse of rams. The spectacle of a human sacrifice becomes so horrifying for a people who happily kill rams in the Feast of Sacrifice.
This herdsman’s logic is called false choice or equivalence. The debate is going the wrong way in this country. It should not be about justifying the killing of humans. Neither, too, should it be about playing down the criminality of cattle rustling. For sure, the stealing of cows is real. According to my investigations, the cows are ferreted away by a collusion that cartoons how our political and bureaucratic elite make away with our resources without ethnic or religious discrimination. To steal the cow, you need somebody very close, a Fulani who is not a herdsman. He works with a Hausa and a native of the middle belt village. In quite a few cases, a traditional ruler is the kingpin. The cows are “herded” surreptitiously to a waiting truck by these emergency herdsmen who are not often Fulani. The truck is manned and driven, not by a middle belt person but a southerner and the animals disappear.
Some traditional rulers have become rich, owning mansions and flashy cars. One of them was arrested and forced to release a truck of cattle whose heist he had organised. So, the story of cattle rustling can incite a man who travels miles on foot in heat and rain. But how does a cow stolen amount to human blood? Not just one human, but whole communities reeling in blood and tears. The rustling is a misdemeanour, but the murders are caveman cruelty. Murderers have no place in human civilisation. The rustler should be prosecuted and jailed. The murderer-herdsman should be sentenced to death, or life imprisonment.
The other level of exchange was the blame game. This was between Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom and the Nasarawa State Governor Tanko Al-Makura. Ortom said his neighbour governor Al-Makura was hoarding the goons. Ortom was nervy, teary and out of sync with reality. The same Awe Local Government Area that Ortom said the herdsmen were hiding is the same place Al-Makura is giving food, clothing and shelter to his fellow Benue citizens who escaped the Herdsmen’s noose. Ortom ran to Abuja to cry. Why didn’t he call Al-Makura and resolve the matter without the hysteria? A leader should be calm, especially aplomb, in times of turbulence. The Nasarawa State governor did not pay him back in his own brutal fantasy. Rather he is working with other governors and security chiefs to tackle the problem.
The other exchange was time. Call it grandstanding. Town crier Ayo Fayose gathered hunters to recreate the Ekiti Parapo brio in a 19th century throwback. The picture is like a scene in a period movie. But he roiled a martial spirit against what might or might not be an impending invasion.
An eye for an eye has pervaded the country because of failure of leadership. Agriculture minister Audu Ogbeh reflected the mindset called the pedagogy of the oppressed. He was thinking like his oppressor when he said we have not done enough for the herdsman. Ogbeh is too old to show such facile and infantile wisdom. His call for colonies makes no sense except he wants the people to colonise the areas. Some governors are not ready to give up their lands.
The problem can only be solved, especially in the middle belt, by following the Plateau model. Open grazing has shed much blood. But to ask the Fulani herdsmen not to graze does not solve the problem without a clear institutional framework. Otherwise, it is a declaration of war. But Ortom did not want war, and he shouldn’t. Before anti-grazing law we had violence. With it, caskets crawl. So, it is not about law, but alleviating distrust.
That was the point made by Plateau State Governor Simon Lalong, whose model has mellowed his own state. He brought every group together in a state of 53 tribes, including the Fulani, and they agreed on a cooperative formula. So, his goal is to stop open grazing but he wants to be sure other conditions are right first. He said the right thing, though misunderstood for emotional and partisan reasons. He said he advised – not warned – his fellow governor Ortom.
A state of war cannot resolve this crisis. Even if it does, at what cost? The herdsmen and the Miyetti Allah are not spirits. Why can’t they sit together with others and find a solution? This is where leadership comes in. Also nonsensical was the rhetorical levity from the Inspector General of police who dismissed the crisis as “communal.”
Leadership is absent from the centre. The presidency should learn from Governor Lalong and lay the template for cooperation, not distrust. Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Without a template, bloodbath will persist, and we shall continue to treat each other like the person who would not accept a gift shirt from a naked man.