By Johnbosco Agbakwuru, Peter Duru, Davies Iheamnachor, Luminous Jannamike & Olayinka Ajayi
Notable socio-political organizations across the country yesterday expressed their support for call by the governor of Ogun State, Dapo Abiodun on the Federal Government to take decisive action to rid the nation’s forests of criminals.
Governor Abiodun at the weekend had stated that several forests especially in the South West have become the habitation of criminals and asked the Federal Government to take steps to tackle the challenge.
Some of the groups that support the governor’s position include Pan-Yoruba group, Afenifere; Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF; Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF; Middle Belt Forum; Northern Elders Forum, NEF; Benue Tribal Leaders amongst others.
Speaking to State House correspondents, after meeting behind closed doors with President Muhammadu Buhari, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, weekend, Governor Abiodun said though there were people who legitimately reside in the forests, they have also become the habitation of criminals stoking ethnic tensions around the country.
He admonished local northern traditional leaders (Serikis) residing in the state to keep registers of farmers, so as to determine when undesirable strangers infiltrate their ranks.
Abiodun urged the Federal Government to initiate concrete steps to tighten the nation’s borders to prevent influx of foreigners, who engage in criminals activities and flee to their countries afterwards.
He said: “We’ve enjoined all our Serikis and farmers to keep a list of those that live on their farms in registers, so that when strangers come in, they will know who the strangers amongst them are.
“It is our hope that the Federal Government will also now look at how to better secure our borders, so that people don’t just cross over, cause crimes and run away.
“We must do something about these forests that harbour criminals,
“We know there are people that live in the forest legitimately, but there are so many people that live in those forests illegitimately. We must definitely do something about them.
“These are some of the things that we found to have aided this violence and escalated it and we believe that if the right steps are taken, we can manage the situation and we can live together as brothers and sisters, as we’ve always lived for so many years.”
Abiodun faults ethnic profiling of criminals
The governor blamed the escalation in tensions on what he said was the ethnic profiling of criminals that is occurring, noting that people in the state find it difficult to distinguish between peaceful Fulani herders and criminal cattle rustlers.
He explained: “I must say that the Fulani have lived with us in Ogun State for hundreds of years. The Seriki Fulani from that particular corridor speaks better Yoruba than I do because his father was born there.
“Part of the problems we realised we had was ethnic profiling. Criminals are criminals and criminals abound everywhere. There are criminals in Yorubaland, there are criminals in Igboland, there are criminals in the Niger Delta, there are criminals in the north and we see that even in the north, in the northeast, in the north-central, we see that there are criminal activities.
“The governor of Niger State spent a night with me, by the time he got back to Niger State, 50 people had been kidnapped and we cannot be profiling them based on ethnic grounds and be saying, ‘oh the Fulani have kidnapped Fulani or Hausa men in Niger.’
“Our people have had a problem with drawing a line between peaceful Fulani people, who are traditionally herdsmen, and bandits who are cattle rustlers, who will steal cattle, take the cattle to farmlands belonging to people, attack them. Now farmers and indigenes carry out counter attacks against innocent people that have been living with us.”
To form Joint Stakeholders Committee
On the efforts of his administration to ease ethnic tension and build trust among residents, he said: “We rose up from that stakeholders meeting with a few conclusions, one of which was to form a joint stakeholders committee that’s composed of the Fulani, the herdsmen, the farmers and government. That has since been put in place. That committee is going to be sworn in, I think sometime this evening.
“We made available pickup trucks, motorcycles, telecoms equipment, for the joint security patrol team to further strengthen security along the areas where these incident had occurred in the last few weeks.
“I’ll like to say that my colleagues further demonstrated their commitment by actually donating to all sides; to the farmers and to the Fulani community.”
On President Buhari’s response to his brief, Abiodun said: “I must say the president was very impressed with how we’ve dealt with the matter.
“He particularly commented that the steps we’ve taken are steps that he has always recommended; that we must have the joint stakeholders’ committee that has farmers, herders, traditional rulers and government and that this committee should meet like once a month.”
He added that Buhari commended the manner Ogun State has dealt with the ethnic crisis in the state.
Afenifere, PANDEF, Middle Belt Forum, ACF others react
Pan-Yoruba Socio-Political organization, Afenifere, Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF and Arewa Consultative Forum said the call by Governor Abiodun is in order.
Speaking on behalf of Afenifere, the Publicity Secretary, Yinka Odumakin maintained that criminals should be fish out without hesitation. “Why must you go to Buhari to seek his consent on criminals in our forest? Are you not the chief security Officer of your state? Why must you seek the President’s consent to get rid of criminals in our forest? Moves to get rid of them should be immediate.”
National Publicity Secretary, Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, Ken Robinson said: “It shows that people should defend their own territory. It is proper that people should be vigilant. We encourage our people to be vigilant. People should know who they sell land to and the stranger that comes into their community.
“The issues of herdsmen is not just terrorism, it is about expansion. It is an expansionist agenda. Primordial interest should not be allowed over the interest of Nigeria.
“The call is in order. Every Nigeria citizen should be very careful dealing with strangers. Community people should be aware of who is coming into their community. They should profile their visitors to know their intentions and mission before accepting them into their community.
National Publicity Secretary of Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF also backed Governor Abiodun’s position. He said: “In the light of our current security challenges, we vote for the two suggestions. We believe they will help secure our lives better.”
The National President of Middle Belt Forum, Dr. Bitrus Pogu said the forum agrees with the call by the Ogun State governor, adding that the registers should concentrate on fishing out foreign herders.
Dr. Pogu who spoke to Vanguard in Makurdi said: “We agree with the call by the Ogun state Governor, Dapo Abiodun. Let me tell you why. The Middle Belt Forum has cried out over the years on the influx of foreigners into this country and we believe that many of the attacks that happen in the country are aided by foreigners.
“We disagree that these foreigners just come in. We believe some people bring them in for some purposes. And we also believe strongly that the government is not telling us the whole truth.
“Then, when the Ruga and cattle colony and all those came up, we opposed it not because these programmes are bad in themselves. We opposed them because firstly nobody knows how many foreign Fulanis are on Nigerians soil. So we insisted that every community know their local Fulani. That is the starting point, so that we don’t just give community land to people who are not Nigerians.
“But the government didn’t want to listen, so we believe that the government has a hidden agenda in that whole process. That is why we opposed it. We are in agreement with the Governor but we are saying that the farmers are known, it is the herdsmen who come in that are not known.
“It is those people who are not known, whose numbers and whose movements should be curtailed and known. If we know all the foreign Fulani that are coming in then we will know how to handle them because I believe that many of them already have Nigerian Identification Cards.
On his part, the Chairman of Benue tribal leaders and President General of Mzough U Tiv worldwide, Chief Iorbee Ihagh, said the call by the Ogun State governor was apt.
Ihagh said: “the federal government must have to work with the state Governors to open up the forested communities where these criminals have found safe haven and launching pad to attack innocent Nigerians.
“The Federal Government can act fast by constructing access roads through most of the forests. Also these forests can be harnessed by opening them up and converting them to government owned mechanized farm areas.
“This will create jobs for people who will moved into these farms. They would be provided houses and security as well. This is something that can be done if the government is willing to listen. Convert the forests to farms and you will be surprised that it will enhance food security in this country.
“On the issue of communities keeping registers to fish out strangers. That is a laudable idea. The register should contain names of the local Fulanis that are known to the people and whenever unknown herdsmen are noticed in the communities’ security agencies would be alerted without delay. That would help to ensure the security of the people in our various localities and communities,” he said.
NEF also backs Gov Abiodun
The Northern Elders Forum, NEF, also gave its support to the call by Governor Abiodun.
In a statement, NEF’s Director, Publicity and Advocacy, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, said: “You cannot fault the call for a solution to a problem that affects all citizens. Our forests are assets, but the crimes and the criminal have turned them into sources of fear, making them major threats.
“It will be reassuring to know that the call is made for all forests, rather than those that are alleged to be a problem because they are linked to Fulani.
“The North has vast forest resources, but these have been taken by bandits. We hope the federal government will do what it needs to do even in those States which claim that they have exclusive jurisdiction over some forest reserves.”
The forum also noted that the real cause of Nigeria’s insecurity rested with the manner the issues of security and welfare of citizens were hitherto designed and managed.
“The country should address policing and additional powers to federating units as a matter of survival.
“In the meantime, it is important to continue to treat forests as economic assets that should be made accessible for lawful activities including herding,” the Forum said.