By John Asemota
THE Edo State House of Assembly recently did a volte-face on the Anti-Grazing Bill sponsored by a member of the House representing Ovia North East II Constituency, Hon. Bright Osayande. After subjecting it to a heated public debate, the leadership of the House seemed to have developed cold feet about a bill they had been most enthusiastic. They threw it out completely without trying to make amendments based on suggestions at the public hearing.
The ease with which the House backed out of the exercise implicates them as having acted under duress because the bill had enjoyed the support of 21 members of the 24 member House at the second reading, before it was subjected to a public hearing.
The public hearing was primarily intended as an avenue for members of the public to contribute to the debate so as to enrich the proposed piece of legislation to regulate the activities of itinerant cattle rearers who recently gained notoriety for criminal trespass, wilful destruction of farm crops, rape, murder and other vices under the cover of moving their cattle to graze from one place to the other all over the state.
The bill had appeared as an antidote to the reprehensible conduct of the herdsmen who are mostly of the Fulani tribe from outside of the State. The reception it got on the floor of the House at second reading was an attestation of its relevance to curbing the herdsmen’s criminal excesses which no extant laws adequately address.
However, its publicity in the print and electronic media had caused a gale of controversial reactions. This forced the House to subject it to a public hearing. The public hearing, as stated earlier, was intended to harness public input, in furtherance to passing the anti grazing bill into law.
The bloody acts of the Fulani herdsmen had before then sparked anger amongst members of the public, many of whom became blinded to the merit of any kind of official regulation through legislation.
The bill for public assessment had focused on, among others things, the mandatory establishment of ranches or grazing lands by the owners of the cattle; a census of cattle owners and workers; a department in the Ministry of Agriculture to supervise grazing activities within the law; registration of ranches, specific sanctions for violation of the law, and the prohibition of indiscriminate movement of cattle in undesignated areas. These provisions no doubt if implemented would be of immense benefit to the state government and the general public that presently live in apprehension of the mindless herdsmen who strike fatally without warning.
Expectedly, interest groups, whether out of ignorance, malice and ego on the one hand had raised objections to the passage of the bill. The voices of reason, on the other, were however not in short supply. Interestingly, the prior media debate had prepared the fertile ground for a constructive public hearing. And when the hearing came, in the midst of thoughtless rejection, suggestions were made to help the House of Assembly come out with a very good law.
At the end of the public hearing, however, a weighty lone voice that spoke through its agent, seemed to have dictated the ultimate direction the House of Assembly would take in spite of the plethora of sound advice and suggestions.
At the public hearing, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice had spoken against the bill not so much for its defect but for the fact that it had not emanated as an executive bill. The implication of this was that the state government was not in support of the idea. This apparently was a case of playing to the gallery or riding on the crest of vocal selfish interests.
Many members of the public that had been against the bill were, by and large, motivated by the fact that in the recent past the state governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki had mooted the idea of providing grazing reserves for the cattle rearers in the eighteen local government areas of the state. This had been seen by the public, as a way of giving the foreign herdsmen a licence to permanently occupy large areas of the state, which portends adverse political and religious implications. But these conditions were not in the bill under consideration, that had passed second reading on the floor of the House and was being discussed in the public domain.
The government, which had been severely condemned for harbouring such disingenuous thought, probably saw the public hearing as an opportunity to redeem itself. Thus, it went all out to throw its weight behind those who were opposed to its consideration and passage.
After the public hearing, it went further with its opposition and compelled the leadership of the State House of Assembly to discontinue further action on the passage of the bill. The House leadership which has never shown any resistance to the instruction of the executive, went on to announce that it had decided to throw away the bill due to adverse public opinion.
Now having once again done the bidding of the executive, the Edo State House of Assembly has sadly left Edo people without any legal protection from ruthless herdsmen – a protection which the bill would definitely have guaranteed. With its abandonment, neither the state executive nor the House have proposed any option.
It should be noted that Edo State House of Assembly was neither the first to initiate such a bill nor would have been the first to pass it into law. Before they had attempted to do the needful which, alas, they were forced to abandon, Ekiti and Benue States had taken the lead. Now just after the abandonment in Edo, the same anti grazing law has been passed in Taraba State. So what reasonable excuse is there really for the Edo State House of Assembly? They have practically, as it said, thrown away the baby with the bathwater.
This display of cowardice in the face of executive arrogance has regrettably been the trademark of the Edo State House of Assembly since the APC took over the state government and the House of Assembly.
In the past eight years, they have lost the vibrancy they were once known for when the likes of the present Deputy Governor, Philip Shaibu was a star voice even as a minority member and the PDP led House under Zakawanu Garuba had the guts to negotiate with the executive arm. Today the House, for being a rubber stamp, has been swallowed up in anonymity.
Their penchant for dancing to the tune of the governor brings to mind how this same APC controlled House in the time of Adams Oshiomhole reversed itself to deny the House of Assembly financial autonomy under the Constitution of the federal republic. They had then shamelessly and sheepishly voted at the behest of the then governor, against what would have been in their own interest and that of democratic governance.
With the ongoing Constitutional amendment initiated by the National Assembly, and the State Houses Assembly granted financial autonomy, the opportunity has come again and all eyes will be on them to see if they will continue to tie themselves to the apron strings of the executive.
In the meantime, there remains a yawning gap on the issue of regulating the activities of the herdsmen who, if continually let to roam about, constitute an eternal threat to lives and property in Edo State. Unfortunately for their victims there is a lacuna upon which they seem to be treated with levity according to law – that is where they fail to escape justice altogether.
In conclusion we may want to ask this big question: when disaster strikes again, will the State House of Assembly join the rest of us in needless lamentation, having failed to do the necessary to save the situation? Surely time will tell.