By Fisayo Soyombo
Is it actually true, as is being alleged from time to time, that the media is deliberately anti-herdsmen in its coverage of casualties on the side of farmers versus herdsmen? Is it true that attacks ON (Fulani) herdsmen are being under-reported in the media, while attacks BY (Fulani) herdsmen are being generously reported?
I will not rush into answering yes or no from start, but I will first share with my audience my personal field experiences — three of them — that may help them decide either in the affirmative or the negative.
When I first set foot on Plateau in 2013, I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know if the Fulani were the guilty party or the Berom. What I did: I traced newspaper reports of all the killings that had occurred in the 12 months preceding my reportorial adventure. In majority of the villages I visited, they often expressed shock that a journalist came over. “Journalists never travel these far into our villages,” they would say. Wherever I was asked that question, I replied with one of mine: If journalists hardly came here, how come the media reported the killings? The answers were uniform: after each attack, the villagers reported to the Police/Army, who then passed on the information to journalists over the phone. Now, here is the puzzle: if attacks ON herdsmen were reported by the villagers to the Police/Army, how come they never made it to the media? If attacks on or by herdsmen were passed on to security agents, it meant the media wasn’t directly in control of what side of casualties it reported. Could it then be that there were indeed no more attacks to report than then ones passed on to journalists by the Police/Army? Yes, no?
When I first entered Plateau, my guide, a resident of Jos, volunteered to take me to any village I wanted to visit. In fact, he didn’t bill me; he simply wanted to do the job. I paid him at the end of my 10 days there, but he never asked for a dime, never negotiated, never had an interest; he simply wanted to help. A very courageous yet soft-hearted man, he shed a lot of tears as villagers narrated their heartrending stories of attacks upon attacks, but he was ready to go anywhere regardless of the risks. Together, we endured a grueling 2-hour-14-minute bike trip to a village called Rawurum; and even though the bike rider who would be paid for his job wanted to turn back after a little over an hour, my guide never complained for a second. There was only problem: he said he would not accompany me to “Hausa-Fulani territory”. When he refused after I’d begged profusely, I asked him to stay back but give me the directions; still, he wouldn’t budge. “You want to enter Fulani Territory wearing a shirt and pair of jeans? I can promise you that you won’t survive up to a minute in that village before you are gunned down,” he said. I asked four other people but each of them cowered. Please note: I’m not saying it is impossible for any journalist to enter Fulani villages, but why is it such a life-threatening proposition? Does this say a thing or two about the peacefulness or bellicosity of the average Fulani herder? Does it help in answering yes or no to the question of why or whether casualties on the side of herdsmen are deliberately under-reported?
Finally, let me say it again: first time I entered Plateau, I knew no one. Someone sent me the contact details and name of the man leading peace talks for the Berom. That’s Rwang Dantong, younger brother of Gyan Dalyop Dantong, the senator killed in Riyom in 2012 during an attack on mourners at the mass burial, in Matse Village, for 63 of the over 300 people killed in an earlier attack. Remember that senator? The younger Dantong was very polite, spoke with me courteously, gave me contacts, took me round but never gave me a dime (before someone starts screaming brown envelope). In fact, I fueled his car when he drove me in it — because I wanted to be at liberty to write whatever I pleased after the trip. Meanwhile, I eventually got the number of the Mister spearheading peace negotiations for the Fulani. This Mister always sounded haughty and bossy on the phone but I was patient because I desperately needed to hear him, just for balance. The more I tried, the harder it looked; I couldn’t get him to sit down with me or take me to his people’s villages till I left Plateau. Finally, just before I went to press, I made a last-ditch attempt to make him grant a telephone interview. To my shock, he screamed at me, and warned that I was ‘disturbing” him. And this person screaming at a stranger-journalist was someone supposed to be spearheading peace talks? I couldn’t believe it. To be clear, this wasn’t a one-off event; it happened each time I conversed with him. Also, the significance of this event can’t be dismissed with a wave of the hand when the person in question is supposedly spearheading peace talks between one behalf of a group with another. When I eventually shared the experience with my guide, he made an I-told-you-so remark that I can’t remember right now. So, I ask again, can we really say the Fulani are under-reported, and can we really blame journalists? Yes or no?
Since I first publicly made these arguments, a few people have said my experiences aren’t representative of the entire picture. I have asked to be pointed in the direction of journalists who have set foot on villages of Fulani herdsmen, so I read their findings, learn and unlearn.
Why have I written this? Two reasons: (i) I am for peace, and I know this peace cannot happen if we don’t first tell ourselves the hard truth; and (ii) I see the herdsmen have recently been playing the victim; this is annoyingly misleading. Yes, there are reprisals — and any attempt to deny this is an assault on the sanctity of human life — but herdsmen are in most cases the aggressors; this newfound claim to victimhood is well and truly beyond their reach.