By Tope Adeboboye
In the past several days, considerable tension has gripped some states in the South West over the activities of suspected kidnappers and the threats of reprisals by exasperated indigenes.
Right now, a thick cloud of uncertainty has enveloped some parts of Oyo State as well as communities in Ondo State, as Fulani herders and the natives prepare to lock horns.
The cause of the discord between Fulani settlements and their host communities in many parts of the South West is the belief by the natives that suspected kidnappers have the tacit support of and are being enabled by their Fulani kinsmen. They accuse Fulani settlers of failing to curtail the activities of kidnappers and report their criminal activities to the authorities.
Many also believe that the silence of the federal authorities and their consistent defence of Fulani interests indicate a bias on the part of government.
In Ibarapa area of Oyo State, angry youths were reported to have destroyed some buildings in a Fulani settlement following the expiration of an eviction order handed down to the Fulani by some Yoruba youth leaders.
It was learnt at the weekend that Oyo State governor, Seyi Makinde, and the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, have ordered the new Commissioner of Police in Oyo, Ngozi Onadeko, to arrest one of the youth leaders, Sunday Igboho.
And in Ondo State, an order by the governor that illegal herders should vacate the state’s forest reserves has also been causing ripples. The Presidency has condemned the governor’s statement, just as a number of northern leaders.
Ondo governor’s directive
The statement by the Ondo State governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, on Monday January 18, was unequivocal. He said all herdsmen that had turned the government forest reserves in the state to their abode without permission should vacate the forests within a week.
While giving the order, the governor noted that bad elements had turned the state’s forest reserves into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out other criminal activities.
At a meeting with leaders of Hausa/Fulani and Ebira communities in his office, the governor had stated: “All forest reserves in the state are to be vacated by herdsmen within the next seven days with effect from today. Night-grazing is banned with immediate effect because most farm destruction takes place at night. Movement of cattle within cities and highways is prohibited. Under-aged grazing of cattle is outlawed.
“Our resolution to guarantee safety of lives and property within the state shall remain utmost, as security agencies have been directed to enforce the ban.”
He asked those wishing to continue with their legitimate cattle-rearing business to register with the appropriate authorities within the next seven days.
The governor’s directive was heartily welcomed by millions of people within the state and in other parts of the South West where the activities of kidnappers, believed to be mostly Fulani, have now assumed a worrisome dimension.
But the Presidency was apparently not amused by the governor’s order. A statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, disagreed with the governor.
Said Shehu: “Governor Akeredolu will be the least expected to unilaterally oust thousands of herders who have lived all their lives in the state on account of the infiltration of the forests by criminals.
“If this were to be the case, rights groups will be right in expressing worries that the action could set off a chain of events, which the makers of our constitution foresaw and tried to guard against.”
The statement by the Presidency has since triggered off a chain of vociferous responses from all parts of the country. While some lawyers, Yoruba leaders and groups in the South West have expressed support for the governor, some individuals and groups from the North have pitched their tents with the herdsmen, encouraging them to defy the order by the state government.
Indeed, it is obvious that the forests in Ondo, Oyo, Osun and Ekiti have been occupied by criminals who kidnap victims nearly every day and keep them blindfolded for days or weeks in the forests while they negotiate ransoms with the victims’ friends and families.
In Ondo, a first class traditional ruler, Olufon of Ifon, Oba Israel Adeusi, was killed by gunmen in November, while the Deputy Registrar, Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA), Dr Amos Arijesuyo, was gunned down on Saturday, January 16.
Igboho’s quit notice in Oyo
Governor Akeredolu was actually not the first individual to have given a deadline to herdsmen to stop their illegal occupation. On Friday, January 15, an Ibadan-based Yoruba youth leader, Sunday Adeyemo, popularly known as Sunday Igboho, had, along with his supporters, stormed a Fulani settlement in Igangan, a community in Ibarapa North Local Government Area of Oyo State. At the place, he told the Fulani settlers and their leader to vacate the community and other communities in the area, accusing them of encouraging kidnappers and bandits who he said had been terrorizing the community. He gave the Fulani people seven days to vacate the area and vowed to forcefully remove them if they defied his order.
But Governor Makinde immediately assured the Fulani communities of their safety, asserting that no one could intimidate or force any law-abiding citizen out of the state. He also directed the law enforcement agencies to investigate the invasion of the Fulani communities and prosecute anyone that might be indicted in the episode.
However, on Friday, Igboho proceeded to Igangan in defiance of the governor. He was joined by a tumultuous crowd comprising thousands of men, women and youth.
At a large rally in the community, he reiterated his commitment to ridding Yorubaland of criminal herdsmen, who he said had been responsible for the abduction and death of many Yorubamen. He said the killing of a popular farmer, businessman and politician, Dr. Fatai Aborode, who was shot dead near his farm in Igangan area sometime in December, the murder of the son of the Igangan monarch and the killing of a popular businesswoman, Mrs. Serifat Adisa, in Ibadan, were all perpetrated by Fulani herdsmen.
Noting that he had the support of traditional rulers in the South West, he lambasted political leaders in the zone who he noted were keeping silent on the invasion of Fulanimen for selfish political reasons. He said he would be waiting for policemen and soldiers that might be sent to arrest him, asserting that he was ready to die for protecting his fatherland.
Claims and counter-claims
The two developments have spurred reactions and counter-reactions across the country. Those who backed Governor Akeredolu pooh-poohed the President’s spokesman for betraying a bias for Fulani herders, some of whom have been perpetrating criminality in many parts of Nigeria.
Senior Advocate of Nigeria and human rights activist, Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa, said: “I salute the courage of the governor. He displayed rare statesmanship and courage. I think it is a lesson for all governors to take hold of their territory and safeguard the lives and property of people.
“While it is herdsmen in the South, it is foreigners in the North. All of us are suffering.
I back the governor 100 per cent because the Constitution, in Section 14: 2, makes the security and welfare of the people the primary essence of governance. Any governor that cannot guarantee the life and property of the people does not deserve to be in office.”
Human rights lawyer, Abdul Mahmood, told the newspaper: “Every lawyer who specialises in environmental/conservation/forestry laws would laugh off the statement of Garba Shehu. If he had read the 1999 Constitution, Forestry Law of Western Nigeria, as applicable in Ondo State, National Forestry Policy 2006, or paid attention to the management of our forests since 1952, he would have known that only governors, pursuant to state laws, have the powers to direct, manage and protect forests and forest resources of their states. He should have known, even at the national level, that the power of the Ministry of Environment can only be exercised over policy.
“Is Akeredolu justified in ordering herdsmen out of Ondo forests? My answer is yes. The order has not deprived the herdsmen the right to move freely and to reside in Ondo State. The right to acquire and own immovable property is guaranteed by S.43 of the Constitution 1999.”
A former vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Monday Ubani, also agreed that the governor’s order was in order.
His words: “Based on the current situation of insecurity in the state, the governor asked the genuine herdsmen doing legitimate business in the state to register and gave ultimatum to unregistered herdsmen to vacate the state. So, I see no reason why that should become an issue between the governor and the Federal Government. Akeredolu has not infringed on anybody’s constitutional rights.”
Another prominent lawyer, Jiti Ogunye, said: “Ondo is right, Presidency is very wrong. Every herdsman occupying any part of Ondo State forest without lawful permit is a criminal. Why? Every inch of Ondo State’s forest is owned either privately, communally or publicly by the government. Invasion of these forests by non-indigenous herdsmen, therefore, is an act of criminal trespass.”
Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland and national coordinator, Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), Gani Adams, also gave total backing to the governor’s order.
In a statement, he regretted that the Presidency had failed to address the security situation across the country, describing the statement by Garba Shehu as a threat to the sanctity of the state, and a deliberate attempt to work against the government’s interest, especially on security.
Said he: “Garba Shehu/Presidency apparently doesn’t know the meaning of reserved forests. It’s not accessible except to authorised personnel/loggers. Apart from the place being a place for valued cash trees, it’s also meant as a haven of safety for protected animals.
“Herdsmen living in the forest are not only unauthorised, they would likely fell trees to make fire, and also kill animals for food.
“A reserved forest is not a place of residence for anyone, not even Ondo indigenes or farmers. It is most unfortunate that such a statement is coming directly from the Presidency, which, according to the Constitution, has the prerogative to protect the life and property of citizens.
“It is a pity the Presidency now looks for ways to foil the good plans and intentions of the state to rid bad elements masquerading as herders and pastoralists.”
And in a statement by its publicity secretary, Yinka Odumakin, Yoruba group, Afenifere also expressed support for Akeredolu.
“He must do all within the law to flush Ondo forests of all criminals. Other South West governors should emulate their chair and free our land from the Fulanis who have surrounded us with the shield of the Federal Government.”
The statement accused the Presidency of representing only Fulani interests against those of Yoruba, Igbo, Junkun, Ijaw and other tribes in Nigeria.
“Are Ondo forest reserves under Ondo State Government or FG and Miyetti Allah? We agree with the Ondo State Government that the insensibility of Garba Shehu violates the corporate existence of Nigeria. What has this government done to assure our people that it can protect our lives with the open murders of Mrs. Funke Olakunrin, the Olufon of Ifon and the deputy registrar of FUTA, among many others?”
Besides the statement by the Presidency, the Northern Elders Forum has also flayed the order given by Governor Akeredolu.
Speaking through its spokesman, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, the group said the action of the governor is provocative and unhelpful.
“If there are criminal elements among the Fulani who live in the state, the governor should take appropriate steps to identify them and deal with them. Similarly, the Fulani do not enjoy legal immunity in any part of Nigeria.”
Many social commentators have pilloried the presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, for an apparent lack of understanding of the issue. They also expressed support for any action that would rid the forests in the South West of criminal herdsmen who have turned the vast bushes into a large den of kidnappers.
Mr. Richard Akinnola, journalist, media law expert and founder, Media Law Centre, noted: “Every herdsman occupying any part of Ondo State forest without lawful permit is a criminal. Why? Every inch of Ondo State’s forest is owned either privately, communally or publicly by the government. Invasion of these forests by non-indigenous herdsmen, therefore, is an act of criminal trespass.”
While describing the statement by Garba Shehu as ridiculous, he added: “It is disingenuous to think that any attack on herdsmen involved in criminality in the South West is an attack on the North. The same way no sane person from South West would support any Yoruba armed robber in the North.”
Also speaking on the issue, Ibanga Isine, noted on a thread on Facebook: “Under the Land Use Act, Abuja has no right over an inch of forest in Ondo and cannot, therefore, issue any reasonable order on how a state manages that resource. Ondo has the power under the law to secure its territory and shouldn’t suffer illegal interference from Abuja. It is because Abuja is interfering in everything that things are not working well everywhere. Let Ondo be and let Abuja be and within the limits of power granted them by the law.”
Johnnie Eze, another commentator on social media, stated that: “One of the reasons why banditry and kidnapping have thrived this long is because of the improper use of ungoverned spaces. The forest reserves are not ungoverned spaces neither are they grazing routes. It is the responsibility of the state governors to secure and administer their land spaces. It is, therefore, immoral for Abuja to always jump into the fray each time matters involving herders’ misuse of such spaces comes up. The tacit support the herders get from the current lords in Abuja is what has emboldened them to act irresponsibly all over the country.
“By the last NBS inflation report for December 2020, food inflation was well above 19 per cent. When you do a deep dive on this matter, you will discover that two major factors are responsible for driving the food inflation figures northwards: the unchecked activities of bandits and the ruinous effects of herders destroying cultivated farmlands.”
Many analysts have argued that the Federal Government and the security agencies should wake up to their responsibilities and rid the nation of criminal elements.
“They should protect the lives and property of all Nigerians. They way they jump up whenever Fulani matters are mentioned has shown that the government is biased. That is not how to run a country,” Joel Adu, a journalist, told the reporter.