By Omoniyi Salaudeen
There is no gainsaying that the decision by the Southern governors to outlaw the age-old open grazing system, as well as the call for restructuring of the country to address issues threatening national unity is a popular initiative. As already noted by many prominent stakeholders, it is a recipe for peaceful co-existence among diverse ethnic nationalities in Nigeria.
Beyond the applause it has received from across the various sections of the country, it has further affirmed the exactitude of the common dictum that power belongs to the people in a democracy. And, of course, in a dire situation like this, the very worst thing anybody in that position can do is to do nothing. Even doing nothing has its own consequences; after all, the primary reason people came together to submit their rights to the government is protection of lives and property.
For so long, farmers in the three geo-political zones of Southwest, Southeast and South-south have had to grapple with belligerent attitude of marauding Fulani herdsmen gallivanting, killing and maiming people in their own land in the name of archaic pastoral practice of open grazing of cattle. While the hues and cries lasted, the Federal Government turned a blind eye. At the high of the intrigues, a proposal for cattle ranching was raised as a lasting solution to the incessant clashes between herders and farmers. The then Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe, had argued that herdsmen had no option than to migrate southwards to find pastures for their animals due to starvation they faced in the North as a result of climate change resulting from global warming and desertification.
“Global warming, desertification and Boko Haram insurgency are some of the factors that forced the herdsmen out of the North down to the South to find grasses for their cows,” he had said.
In that proposal, the Federal Government had set a 10-year plan to establish ranches across the country, starting with Adamawa, Benue, Ebonyi, Edo, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Oyo, Plateau, Taraba and Zamfara states. The initiative which was to gulp N179 billion was, however, met with stiff opposition for fear that the planned acquisition of land for grazing activities could constitute a potential danger for the host communities. As a result, traditional rulers, youth associations as well as concerned farmers vehemently voiced out their resentment to the plan, insisting that ceding lands to herders, whose criminal activities had created panic in the land, would offend the sensibilities of the people, who had been victims of their heinous atrocities.
As Carrie Chapman Catt, an American women’s suffrage leader, rightly said, “when a just cause reaches a flood tide, whatever stands in its way must fall before its overwhelming power.”
As far as this matter of opening grazing is concerned, the people’s opposition to the Fulani impunity backed by the collective action of the 17 governors of the Southern region, who converged on Asaba, the Delta State capital, to pass the resolution, has undoubtedly reached a point of no return.
For the governors to have buried their political differences to come together to synergize on a matter of common interest, many analysts say, the future looks promising for political stability in the Southern region, nay, Nigeria. The big question now on the lips of most observers is whether or not they can sustain the new found relationship, bearing in mind that this is the first time there would be a consensus building initiative among the states in the region.
Although there is still conspiracy of silence in the presidency, it is generally believed that collective action of the governors would put an end to the threat of insecurity in the region. A renowned labour activist, Frank Okori, speaking in an interview with Sunday Sun, said that the power of the governors combined with the support of the lawmakers in the National Assembly would achieve the end.
His words: “I am happy that at the end of the day the three geographical zones were able to come together. That is the first time the three geographical zones would be coming together. So, I am happy about it. They should not stop at passing the resolution; they should pursue it with all seriousness because the situation of the country is very critical.”
To strengthen the capacity for enforcement of the ban on open grazing, he urged them to increase funding for vigilante groups in their respective states.
“I think the cardinal issue is that they have to protect their people. They should use their security votes to finance their vigilante groups to protect their forest. Buhari can’t come to your local government to oversee the security situation there. That is the business of the governor.
“Governors are very powerful. If they combine their powers with the National Assembly, they can do anything. They can change the constitution, they can do anything. Once they cooperate with the National Assembly, they can achieve it. Even the lawmakers from the North in the National Assembly are not in one bloc. So, obviously, they will get majority of the people to support them to change the constitution to achieve restructuring. If there is public hearing on the review of the Constitution, you will see that majority of the people are with the Southern governors,” he said.
While noting the opposition of some northern elders to the proposed reform, Kokori urged the state governors in the region to take their destiny in their own hand and work out modalities that would ensure a smooth transition to modern method of cattle rearing.
He added: “The Northerners too should do what the Southern governors have done so that the bandits will not overrun the whole country. The governors should take their destiny in their own hands. Do you know what they are passing through in the North? The governor of Niger State, Abubakar Sani Bello, is helpless; Samuel Ortom of Benue State is helpless; Zamfara State governor, Bello Muhammad Matawalle is helpless; Borno State, Babagana Zulum is helpless.; Katina State governor, Aminu Masari, is helpless. They are helplessly crying. If the Federal Government cannot provide them with security, they should take their destiny in their own hands.
“Apart from die-hard northern hegemony, everybody is on the same page on this issue of security. The whole country wants peace. Let anybody who does not want peace come out and challenge the situation, if he will not be stoned to death. There is danger more in the North than in the South.”
According to legendry legal icon, Prof Itsay Sagay, the only way to ensure affirmative action on the initiative is for the governors to follow up their resolution by making sure that their respective state assemblies pass into law enabling acts that will outlaw open grazing.
“As you know, under the Land Use Act, governors have control over the land in their states. If that is the case, all they need to do is for them to pass legislation that will outlaw open grazing, which is what Benue State has done,” he stated.
Regardless of President Muhammadu Buhari’s disposition to the issue, he said that the power to regular land use at the state level remained with the governors.
“They don’t need Federal Government’s approval to implement the laws that are within their competence. This idea of open grazing is totally archaic, totally at variance with the trend in developed countries,” he argued.
Speaking on the anticipated role of the National Assembly on the renewed quest for restructuring, he simply dismissed the public expectation on the ongoing review of the Constitution, saying: “The record of the National Assembly is not encouraging. All the alterations to the constitution they have passed so far are totally irrelevant and not coherent with restructuring.”
Similarly, Ebenezer Babatope, a former minister of Transportation, in his own submission to the raging debate, described open grazing as a travesty of justice.
He said: “We have to congratulate the Southern governors for having the courage to do what they have done. Whether they have legal right or not, it is another matter entirely. The legal right can be argued left, right and centre. But at least, they are in control of their states, and they have used their power to make some pronouncements on crucial national matter that will help the country move forward. Honestly speaking, we should give them a pat on the back.
“Open grazing is travesty of justice for some people to take laws into their hands and decide to ravage the land because they want to prove an awkward ugly point. We must get up from where they have stopped. I will appeal to them not to give up because they have started well and they should end it well. I will equally appeal to the Federal Government to give a hearing to what those governors have talked about because it is going to help all of us not only to arrest the security situation in the land, but also help the country to move forward.
“We should not see it from difficult position of North versus South. The issue has gone beyond that now. We should see it as a measure to arrest the growing insecurity in the country. What is important to us is the unity of this country because we have come a long way. They should have courage to ensure that the resolutions they have passed are implemented. The present insecurity is baffling and terrifying.”
Also, Chief Chekwas Okorie, noting that the resolution of the governors on open grazing had reduced the rising tension in the country, said that its implementation would rescue the nation from the precipice.
He argued: “The resolution of the Southern governor has become one popular initiative that has received applause from across the country. What they have done is most patriotic. It is aimed at dousing the tension in the country. There is nobody who means well for this country that will not agree with the resolution. There is tension everywhere, tension that can boil over any moment and becomes uncontrollable. Since the governors came out with the resolution, there has been reduced tension with the expectation that things might begin to get better across the board.
“Nobody is practicing open grazing any more. Anybody opposing it definitely has other intensions. It may not provide 100 per cent solution, but it will go a long way to move the nation forward because every part of that resolution is based on national unity and fair play. It gives a hope that Nigeria may dance away from the precipice.”
However, Tanko Yakassai, an elder statesman from Kano, when asked to comment on the initiative, bluntly declined, saying the governors were entitled to their opinion. “Every Nigerian has a right to speak his mind. So, they have the rights to say what they have said,” he posited.