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Ondo State, presidency and its deadly herdsmen

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Oluwarotimi Akeredolu

Not unexpectedly, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu’s marching order on illegal herders and occupants of forest reserve in Ondo State has provoked controversy over the legality or otherwise of the proclamation. Simply, the issue is between section 41 of the 1999 Constitution, which guarantees the right of every Nigerian to move freely or live in any part of the country; and section 45 of the same Constitution, which circumscribes that right, through a law in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health. Besides, freedom to live anywhere in Nigeria is limited, under the same section 45, by a law enacted “for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.”

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And beyond propriety, the debate has sadly assumed ethnic and political colouration that is quite unwholesome from members of the same ruling party. Clearly, the law is on the side of peace and security of lives, and upon which this matter ought to be rested. This foundation should be devoid of legal technicalities. Nigerians can certainly do with less expression of primordial sentiments in dire security matters. Common sense dictates that no one can lean on a right of residency to commit heinous crime against the state. That would amount to putting something on nothing, a condition ultra vires before the law.

To all discerning Nigerians, the Southwest is fast becoming another epicentre of widespread insecurity where daylight robberies, kidnappings, raping and banditry are common lore. Farmers get ambushed and killed while at work in the forest. Commuters, including those accompanied by escorts, either get abducted or killed on popular Benin-Ore Expressway and Akure-Owo Road. The menace did not spare first class monarchs and eminent personalities in the state. Ondo and Oyo states have particularly recorded a high prevalence of attacks and casualties by roving criminal gangs that victims and survivors have often identified as Fulani herdsmen.

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Insofar as Section 14(2)(b) of the 1999 Constitution is concerned, it is sheer irresponsibility, if not complicity, for any government to sit-back while citizens are mauled and territories invaded by criminal gangs, whoever these may be. It was on that premise that Akeredolu, at a meeting with leaders of Hausa/Fulani and Ebira communities in the state, issued a seven-day ultimatum for herders to get registered with the government and those that have encroached forest reserves, without being registered, to vacate. Similarly, the state government placed a ban on night grazing “because most farm destructions take place at night;” movement of cattle within cities and highways and grazing of cattle by under-aged were as well outlawed.

Most Nigerians across ethnic and political divide have commended the move as expedient. But the presidency has spoken against the orders, citing section 41 without understanding the letter and spirit of the quit order, which is directed at only unregistered herders who exploit the forests to carry out evil acts. So, the presidency’s emotional attachment without seeking clarification from the Ondo State government is unfortunate in the extreme.

The rationale of the governor’s action is logical in the face of impending anarchy being orchestrated by the heartless criminals in the state. The plan ought therefore to be supported by all and sundry. Indeed, the 1999 Constitution (as amended) permits Nigerians to freely live anywhere in the country and without discrimination. But this cannot be a licence to violently conquer or desecrate the host communities.  A reaction by the Senior Special Adviser to the President on Media Matters, Malam Garba Shehu, suggested that Akeredolu’s orders were tantamount to eviction of herders from Ondo State, and therefore a violation of their constitutional rights. However, a state’s attempt to, for security reasons, identify genuine occupants, through registration, from criminal elements who hide in the forest, is not the same as blanket eviction of people from Southwest, where they have always been at home.

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Historically, the Hausa/Fulani have blended well in Ondo, and Southwest region generally, with their hosts. For almost 100 years, the village of ‘Sokoto’, near Owena, has been in existence, populated mostly by Hausa traders who are a strong force in the Nigerian kolanut trade. It is the same in all parts of the region where they have constituted large communities and elect their leaders freely. What is happening now is that criminal elements from far-flung places, including Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Sudan and Libya have taken the open-arm disposition for granted and hidden under ‘Fulani herdsmen’ and in rain-forest reserves to create territories-without-government, in 21st Century Nigeria.

As Akeredolu said at the meeting, “these unfortunate incidents are traceable to the activities of some bad elements masquerading as herdsmen. These felons have turned our forest reserves into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out other criminal activities.”

It is futile and against common law for the presidency to contest the fact that the right to freedom of movement and residence in any part of the country, guaranteed by Section 41 of the Constitution, does not vest in citizens, indigenous or non-indigenous, the right to trespass on private, communal or publicly acquired and controlled lands or forest. All plots of land in virtually all states in the Federation are owned by individuals, communities, villages, towns, sub-ethnic groups or the government, be it federal or state. Indeed, the lands that were acquired and controlled by the government, under the old Public Lands Acquisition Act or the extant Land Use Act were acquired from aboriginal and indigenous communities. That compensation was paid is an admission of government’s recognition that there are no free, un-owned, and un-possessed lands anywhere.

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Section 1 of the Land Use Act 1978 gives state governors the power to grant or revoke statutory rights of occupancy in any part of the state. Akeredolu can, therefore, in exercising those rights, issue the order he made against people seeking to hide in the bush and commit crimes.

Alternatively, a simple dialogue along party line could have been a commonsense approach to resolve emerging disputes, as both the presidency and the governor belong to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) with the same mantra of ‘‘change.’’ As governments saddled with the same constitutional duty of peoples’ welfare, peace and security, it is wise for sincere principal actors to clearly understand issues, concerns, deploy right strategies of separating good herders from infiltrating criminals and resolve the matter amicably without instigating avoidable crisis.

Insecurity is growing across the country, and responsible governors cannot look the other way or pretend that the issue is beyond them. It is bad enough that the President and his handlers are perceived as biased and advancing the Fulani agenda with the insecurity that goes with it. It is worse that the same presidency that has no workable solution to the problem of insecurity is thwarting pragmatic response initiated by a governor to secure his people. Both Ondo State and the Federal Government have constitutional duty to secure the lives and property of the citizens. Until the country is properly structured in a way that states can effectively police their domain, the presidency should support home-grown initiatives like Akeredolu’s, not antagonise them. That, in the main, is why all the state governors should work together to dismantle this evil and common enemy called unitary system of government that has failed to secure the people of Nigeria. That is therefore why restructuring of the federation to reflect organic federalism, we advocate weekly here should be supported at this time.

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