I have written several articles calling attention to the ethical impropriety of conflating “Fulani” identity, “herdsmen,” and criminality. Most Fulani people are not cattle herders and, although most cattle herders in Nigeria are Fulani, there are cattle herders who are not Fulani. Most importantly, though, most cattle herders are NOT criminals or murderers. The fact that there are cattle herders who commit crimes does not make all cattle herders criminals.
The Nigerian media, however, have chosen to make “Fulani herdsmen” the lexical substitute for “criminals” or “murderers.” Even when the media are not sure who committed a crime, it is typical for the media to attribute the crime to “suspected Fulani herdsmen,” not even “criminals suspected to be Fulani herdsmen,” implying, in essence, that to talk of either “Fulani herdsmen” or “criminals” is to talk of the other.
This invidious, ethnically colored media narrativization about “Fulani herdsmen” and “murderous crime” has become so stable and so mainstream that most Nigerians have now been programmed to associate criminality with and murderous intent to any Fulani cattle herder. To get a sense of how unfair this is, imagine alternative scenarios involving other people. If a Baatonu farmer commits a crime, for instance, you won’t read a headline like “Baatonu farmer kills herders.” (I am Baatonu, by the way). You will never read a headline like “Ogoni fisherman murders farmers.” You will never come across a headline like “Yoruba mechanic slaughters customer.” Nor will you see a headline like, “Igbo spare parts seller kills man.” And so on so forth.
I warned of the dangers of ethnic and occupational stereotyping in news reporting in at least three columns (see links in the comment section below). Today, we woke up to the news of the brutal murder and burning of 7 innocent Fulani cattle herders by people who have been programmed to associate criminality with all Fulani cattle herders. Early last year, some man by the name of Apostle Suleiman told his church members to extra-judicially murder any Fulani person they saw. “And I told my people, any Fulani herdsman you see around you, kill him,” he said in a widely circulated video. “I have told them in the church here that any Fulani herdsman that just entered by mistake, kill him, kill him! Cut his head!”
He said this precisely because of the unreflective conflation of “Fulani herdsmen” and murderous criminals that the media has caused to percolate in the consciousness of Nigerians. A few weeks ago, a certain Sayo Ajiboye, who introduced himself as the President of the Redeemed Bible College and Seminary in Texas, called me after reading one of my columns on the unfair media portrayals of Fulani herders. He said until he read my article, he hadn’t consciously thought of the fact he also grew up with Fulani herders in his hometown of Ilesha in Osun State several decades ago and that Fulani herders kept his father’s cattle for him in trust—like they do elsewhere. He said they still live peacefully with their host community.
But the continuous demonization of “Fulani herdsmen” in the media had put him in a state of suspended animation. He wasn’t able to make the mental connection between the Fulani people he grew up with—and that still live peacefully in his community—and the demons the media reports on. If a highly educated man like that is only just now coming to this realization, imagine what everyday consumers of Nigerian news think when they see a Fulani cattle herder.
The vast majority of Fulani cattle herders are peaceful, everyday people with the same needs, anxieties, and hopes as the rest of us.