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Akeredolu sets the ball rolling

Undertow

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Last week, Ondo State Governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, bit the bullet by firmly stating during a meeting with Hausa/Fulani and Ebira Communities that herdsmen in Ondo would have to beat it from the state’s forest reserves if they would not be registered. Things had got progressively worse concerning the state’s security for years and someone needed to do something about it. As the state governor, the constitutional lot fell on him to take the bull by the horns. That was exactly what he did. For the herdsmen, it was only a matter of time so it is no surprise that when the state acted, they ended up with the short end of the stick, especially considering the rate at which they soaked up pressure and accusations pointing to their culpability in insecurity across the country. The recent kidnap and ransoming of a couple in Ondo State, and the police’s comical attempt to claim the glory for their rescue may have played a part in the governor’s recent decisive stance.

Firing the first shot, Akeredolu had said, “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. As the Chief Law and Security Officer of the State, it is my constitutional obligation to do everything lawful to protect the lives and property of all residents of the State… Our resolution to guarantee the safety of lives and property within the state shall remain utmost as security agencies have been directed to enforce the ban. In its usual magnanimity, our administration will give a grace period of seven days for those who wish to carry on with their cattle-rearing business to register with appropriate authorities.”

The governor’s statement was welcome by most of the southwest, especially Yoruba elders who already felt that it was only a matter of time before things came to a head in this manner. Yoruba elders in Ondo too have seized the opportunity to publicly express just how glad they would be to see the back of herdsmen in their lands. For a long time, many had been waiting for one of the governors in the Southwest to develop the right amount of spunk to do the needful. Governor Akeredolu’s policy, however, caught the eye and drew the ire of Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity. It remains unclear whether he read the governor’s statement in full before hastily cobbling together an ill-fated reply that not only attracted cavil, but one which left Nigerians short of imprecating many strange words at him under their breaths. Mr Shehu himself is not a stranger to controversy; his recent statements came on the heels of his claim last week that Nigerians were blind and only President Muhammadu Buhari could see something useful about the service chiefs. Neither the presidency nor Mr Shehu himself can deny knowledge of the security condition in these states, so trying to take Akeredolu to task on the issue was more of an attempt to buck the trend, before it had even started, of governors expelling unregistered herdsmen from their states. Indeed, Senator Shehu Sanni, public commentator and regular thorn in the presidential flesh, once piped up that herdsmen were being overprotected and pampered.

Nevertheless, some nuggets from the presidential spokesman: “Governor Rotimi Akeredolu, a seasoned lawyer, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and indeed, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, has fought crime in his state with passion and commitment, greater sensitivity and compassion for the four years he has run its affairs and, in our view, 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. We want to make it clear that kidnapping, banditry and rustling are crimes, no matter the motive or who is involved. But, to define crime from the nameplates, as a number of commentators have erroneously done- which group they belong to, the language they speak, their geographical location or their faith is atavistic and cruel. We need to delink terrorism and crimes from ethnicity, geographical origins and religion—to isolate the criminals who use this interchange of arguments to hinder law enforcement efforts as the only way to deal effectively with them.”

His statements have been roundly condemned as being just a sandwich short of a picnic and it is difficult to advocate for him against those who have taken exception to his position. There were more circumspect arguments he could have thought of, instead of the ill-fated reaction he could muster. In fact, he would have fared better if he had simply clammed up and looked the other way. But, he has done what he has done and has hopefully learnt to be less hasty in commenting on deep ethnic issues, a tricky area of nationhood capable of hanging, drawing and quartering even the more broad-minded. It is disturbing that he did not wait to sample public opinion before delivering his own. Where the presidency is the first to speak and the last to listen, there will anyone perceptive enough find a recipe for disaster. Even as far back as 798AD, it had become a common aphorism to observe that vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). How then, after all these years, with the many advances in the political theory of democracy, has that simple basic truth escaped Mr Shehu and the presidency he is believed to have represented by that statement?

Governor Akeredolu will not develop cold feet in the face of increasing adversity, instead he will dig his heels in and see to it that herdsmen, who are not registered, are banished completely from the state’s forest reserves. He has the law and the people on his side, and the people are angry, ready and virtually vindictive. The state’s Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Donald Ojogo, parried Mr. Shehu’s reaction and even followed it up with an indistinct counteraccusation of ethnic sentimentalism. He observed that, “Ethnic nationality and activism on the part of anyone hiding under the presidency or federal government is an ill wind. We need clearly defined actions on the part of the federal government to decimate the erroneous impression that the inspiration of these criminal elements masquerading as herdsmen is that of power. Our unity is threatened, no doubt.”

The state’s Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Gboyega Adefarati, recently revealed how the governor took recourse to the Land Use Act (1969) and the Trade cattle Tax Law of Ondo (2006). The right to freedom of movement alluded to by Mr Shehu is enshrined in Section 41(1) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, but is quickly derogated by Section 41(2) and Section 45(1) of the same Constitution. The herdsmen courted with this danger for a long time and had become persona non grata in Ondo state as far back as 2019. On September 22 that year, a mysterious thunder had been said to leave 36 cows dead in its wake. Some other reports said it was the lightening and not the thunder that did the cows in. Both theories have a strange diabolical romance to the avid believer in the potency of traditional Yoruba magick. Of course, no one knows the truth of the matter and the cows could have simply ingested some poisonous substance and perished for all anyone knows, but the rejoicing of many of the state’s indigenes over the matter should have served as ample warning to them that they were no longer welcome in Ondo. In fact, Ondo State’s approach to tackling the herdsmen crisis is not completely avant garde. In 2017, Benue State imposed a restriction on the movement of herders in the state upon pain of five years imprisonment should they default.

Perhaps resulting from Governor Akeredolu’s actions, Sunday Igboho, a self-styled Yoruba freedom fighter whose incendiary views often enjoy media coverage, also made his own moves. The livewire activist paid a menacing visit to the Seriki Fulani in Oyo state where he delivered a pointed ultimatum to them to put their affairs in order and kindly go away lest he be forced to do something that he would prefer not to do. According to Igboho, he had been invited after certain distressing kidnapping activities in the state appeared set to fade away without justice being done. Igboho is neither a state actor nor a member of any official security agencies so summoning him to help and his involvement in the matter tried the country’s 1999 Constitution a little. The circumstances surrounding his summons, however, and his narration of the affair call for more scrutiny. Igboho was summoned because the people had no faith in the police or other relevant security agencies. The cars and weapons he claimed to have discovered in the house of the Seriki, and the allegations that the same Seriki was part of a kidnapping outfit featuring herders also deserves to be looked into. He will not be happy that Oyo State governor, Seyi Makinde, perhaps trying to play the diplomat, effectually chided him in a broadcast preaching against anyone stoking ethnic tensions in the state. The governor is right, but perhaps a little too right. Some have accused him of sitting on the fence instead of taking an action as decisive as that of Governor Akeredolu. Chiding Igboho but taking the cue from both Igboho and Governor Akeredolu to impose workable restrictions geared at curtailing the mobility of suspected terrorists would have been more welcome. The governor had been tightly wedged between a rock and a hard place, as most other governors have been, on state insecurity. Governor Akeredolu has set the ball rolling; how many more will follow.


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