he Southern Governors’ Forum’s most recent meeting, held in Enugu on Thursday 16 September, is still causing a stir. The Governors of several states have exhibited rare bipartisan cooperation in addressing issues that they believe harm their states.
The absence of all Governors from the South East, except the host governor of Enugu State, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, was one of the most curious aspects of the recent conference. Each Governor who was unable to attend was represented by his Deputy. It seemed as if the Governors were following the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a controversial group that has recently been in the headlines, who had issued a sit-at-home order. It is worth noting that every state was represented, including those whose deputy governors were there.
Recent Nigerian gubernatorial elections have focused on two topics. One is the herdsmen’s problem. The most recent is a dispute over who, between the Federal and State governments, has the authority to collect money from the Value Added Tax (VAT), which has become a hot topic of debate. Although these issues have legal ramifications, they are ultimately political issues that our leaders must handle.
Our country appears to have made a definitional blunder in dealing with the perennial issue of the herders. Rogue herdsmen, predominantly Fulani, have been accused of committing significant crimes in recent years, including mass massacres and kidnappings. The majority of these crimes took place in Jos Plateau, as well as in Niger and Benue Valleys. The armed insurrection of Boko Haram terrorist organisation has been exacerbated by these renegade herdsmen. Even though all evidence points to the herdsmen’s evil characteristics, the Federal Government, which is controlled by the governing All Progressives Congress (APC), has been hesitant to designate them terrorists. A new feature was introduced in the North-West of Nigeria, particularly in the states of Katsina, Kaduna, Zamfara, and Sokoto, with bands of rampaging bandits assaulting one hamlet after another and kidnapping inhabitants, particularly women and children, by the hundreds. Hundreds of civilians have been forced into slavery or serfdom, yet the Federal Government has refused to label them a terrorist organization. Rather, it characterizes them as bandits. Bandits! Whose bandits are they, and where did they come from?
As part of their proposals for dealing with suspected criminal Fulani herdsmen, the Southern Governors unanimously banned open grazing. The major issue in this debate is how to distinguish the criminals from the herdsmen’s routine work. The meddling impertinence of the Miyetti Allah group and other non-state players, who, for political reasons, seek to claim ownership of all Fulani activities, even the criminalities of the suspected herders, muddied the waters. What has aggravated the situation is the presumed indifference, if not outright collusion, of some powerful figures close to President Buhari, who is suspected of sympathizing with the Fulani herdsmen’s operations.
It is a well-known truth, however, that every Nigerian ethnic group is represented in crimes, just as it is in the National Assembly. Armed robberies and other violent crimes increased following the Nigerian Civil War. Some claimed that the crimes were committed by members of the now-defunct Biafran army who had access to illegal weapons. The police, led by Inspector-General of Police Alhaji Kam Selem and his deputy, Chief Theophillous Fagbola, went in to apprehend the culprits. When the suspects were apprehended, it was determined that every Nigerian ethnic group was represented, with the Yoruba, such as Ishola Oyenusi and Babatunde Folorunsho, likely being at the top of the list. In 1971, Babatunde Folorunsho and two of his gang associates, Williams Oyazimo and Joseph Ilobo, became the first convicts to face the death penalty at the Bar Beach. The Fulani may once again be at the top of the crime list, but they are far from being alone in the lucrative crime business.
The Governors, on the other hand, are correct in concluding that there may be a direct link between open grazing and criminality. The Governors must wrestle with the practical question of how to deal with other citizens who are in the legitimate business of herding with their new resolution. The Fulani make up the majority of herders because they know how to do the job better than anyone else. Many Yoruba in the cattle and other husbandry sector recruit Fulani to help them care for their animals.
The truth is that the Fulani would not simply disappear with their animals on their heads. Now that open grazing has been made illegal, the Governors must provide an alternative until the herdsmen can afford to build ranches or find other ways to make a living. State-owned ranches can potentially be revived to provide temporary respite to the herdsmen. When open grazing must terminate in each of the states, a suitable date should be decided upon in consultation with the herdsmen. It should not be a one-size-fits-all law like the Federal Government’s gas flaring regulation.
There is also the issue of rogue herdsmen who have abandoned livestock herding in favor of something more lucrative, such as kidnapping. We all know that kidnappers, murders, bandits, ritual killers, rapists, and terrorists are not all Fulani, but many Fulani are claimed to be involved in these criminal enterprises. The Governors have not mentioned so explicitly, but the right to self-defence is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a practical thing. Every community, particularly in troublesome states such as Ondo and Edo in the South and Kaduna, Zamfara, Benue, and Plateau in the North, should be empowered to protect itself. This is not a novel situation. Following the Civil War, state administrations encouraged many towns to form vigilante groups to combat the rising flood of armed robberies. It worked in the past, and it will work again in the present to save the future of the nation.
What strikes me as odd is the various states’ apparent unwillingness, or incapacity, to prosecute kidnappers and other suspects in their custody. We have heard about arrests. We have heard about search and rescue efforts. Prosecution and punishment, on the other hand, are not mentioned. How many people have been successfully prosecuted in Benue State, for example, despite all of the heat? While the police may have assisted in the apprehension of suspects, the prosecution is a state responsibility. If someone commits a crime, they should be punished. The prosecution and sentencing of these alleged offenders would give citizens confidence that the Governors are not attempting to play politics with security.