It all began some 21 years ago. That was in October 2000. The then governor of Lagos State, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, was the arrowhead of what was then called Southern Governors’ Conference. It was the first ever under the Fourth Republic. Lagos, the melting pot, hosted the governors.
This time, Asaba, the Delta State capital, was the locale. Governors of the 17 southern states had converged there on May 11, 2021. And the big story was the far-reaching decisions they took on a number of national issues. Prominent among them was the ban on open grazing in the southern region. Another was the call for the restructuring of the country in a way that would bring about state police and a review of the revenue formula in favour of sub-national governments. The forum also called for national dialogue with a view to addressing widespread agitations across the country, among others.
The Southern Governors’ Forum, chaired by the governor of Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu, was roused into action by the state of the nation. The governors are gravely concerned about the growing insecurity in the country occasioned by the incursion of armed herders, criminals and bandits into the southern part of the country. The activities of the armed militiamen have led to social and economic disruptions across the country. Farmers are being murdered in their farms by criminals who masquerade as herders. Women are randomly raped. Farms have been turned into grazing fields by herders whose impunity is crying to high heavens for redress. This has led to clashes, many of which eventuated in loss of lives. On a number of occasions, Fulani herdsmen have visited organised massacres on communities that resisted their murderous dance. In fact, the daredevilry of the herder has become a major source of discomfort in southern Nigeria and parts of the Middle Belt. It has brought about a new wave of insecurity never known in the history of the country.
Owing to the armed herder, farmers across southern Nigeria and the Middle Belt are afraid to go to their farms. It is feared that the situation could bring about food insecurity, if nothing urgent is done about it. The governors, like many other Nigerians, believe that the criminal indulgences of the armed herder will be brought under control, if cattle are not allowed to trek from north to south and if open grazing is banned.
The insecurity in the land has also reinforced the long-standing agitation for state police by some concerned citizens and groups. The Federal Government has shown lack of capacity or willingness to deal with the situation. It only pontificates about security while many are callously murdered on a daily basis. In Nigeria of today, life has become so cheap that it can be snuffed out at any time by armed marauders who now reign and rule, both in the jungle and in the streets. The country has become a huge minefield for bloodletting. It is reckoned that in the face of the failure of the Federal Government to secure the country, the states can, as a way out, operate their own police as it obtains in other federations the world over.
It is also noteworthy that various segments of Nigeria have been responding to the state of the country in different ways. One of the monsters it has thrown up is the agitation for self-determination. Before the advent of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, there was hardly any such agitation. But the nepotism and inequity, which Buhari elevated to the level of state policy, changed all that. Ethnic nationalities and groups now feel left out in the scheme of things. They feel abandoned by the country they should, rightly, call their own. The governors want the President to convene a national dialogue where this issue will be addressed.
Since the Asaba declaration took place, the preponderance of opinion on the issue favours the resolutions of the southern governors. Well-meaning Nigerians, including National Assembly legislators from the South, have backed the call by the governors. But worry is being expressed over implementation. It is one thing to outline action plans. It is another to convert them to action. Those who express reservations about the practicability of the southern governors’ declarations are really not to blame. Nigerians are in the habit of rolling out master plans that end up as good as the paper on which they are written. In Nigeria, talk is cheap but action is expensive.
Besides, as we earlier noted, southern governors, before the present crop of governors, took similar steps that tended towards a common southern position on burning national issues but nothing was heard thereafter. During the 2000 conference, 17 governors of the South met in Lagos and told Nigerians that their mission was to deliberate on issues of national importance, especially as they affect the South. They followed up with another meeting in Enugu State in January 2001. While in Enugu, the governors demanded the restructuring of the country. They asked for state police, resource control, new derivation formula and increased autonomy. They also deliberated on the Sharia fever that was taking its toll then on people’s arms and limbs, among others. Regrettably, the Enugu conference was the last we heard about such matters until the governors left office. Nothing was realized or achieved. Tinubu, as we earlier hinted, was the brain behind the southern agitation at that time. It was believed that his motive was to get a strong southern backing for the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency, which was then in dire need of consolidation. Whatever the motive, the fact of the matter is that the southern governors’ conference of that period achieved nothing. Looking back, the experience of the period under reference creates room for the pessimism that is being expressed in some quarters about the present effort of southern governors. But the times have changed. Nigeria of 2000 is not the same thing as Nigeria of 2021. The governors ought to be concerned, and it is reassuring to note that they are, about the existential threat southern Nigeria faces from armed Fulani invaders. The situation before them goes beyond tribe or ethnicity. It is also not a matter of political affiliation. It is about the survival of all concerned. The governors must, therefore, go beyond mere pronouncement. They must adopt implementable approaches that will bring about a positive change. The low hanging fruit among the three basic issues the governors raised is the ban on open grazing. It is within the rights and powers of the governors to give effect to this. Even if they achieve nothing else, they should ensure the full implementation of the ban. Already, the agitation for restructuring has reached fever pitch levels. The governors should continue to lend their support to this popular agitation. Nigerians must talk about their tomorrow. The present state of anomie is a great threat to the survival of the country. The President should, therefore, in line with the demand of southern governors, initiate a dialogue of critical stakeholders in Nigeria. The governors must not rest on their oars until something positive comes out of their quest. History will be kind to them if they make it happen.