By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
And that was the benign picture. Someone said he saw a bigot. Another saw an ethnic jingoist.
My grandmother had warned us not to prattle. That way, we could hide our ignorance from the world. That way, we would not soil ourselves in public with bitterness in our hearts.
Now Malami, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, thinks that a ban on open grazing is akin to a ban on sales of motor spare parts. And he said it, gesticulating like Aristotle. Tomorrow, those naughty Ghanaians will start mocking Nigeria again.
I had once told a few friends to spare Malami, cut him some slack. Brilliant people can suffer stage fright. We had watched him during the first senate screening. Tense, rigid, voluble and loud. His composure and elocution were that of a clumsy secondary school student floundering in a debating competition, lobbing jargons and ill-fitted sentences at his audience. An amateurish and futile eagerness to come across as intelligent. That day, I stood by Malami and reminded my friends he was a learned Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
There have been occasions when these friends came back to mock me. They knocked me the day Malami sweated profusely and mopped his brows with his bare hands while being badgered by a house committee investigating the smuggling of human contraband, Abudulrasheed Maina, back into the civil service. They ridiculed me when Malami started chasing Magu with the kitchen sink. Now they are back at me.
That Malami’s motor-spare-parts performance on television was like a child appearing at a party, dancing excitedly with his shoes mixed up, on the wrong feet. Ebullience without grace and rhythm. He could have quietly sent one brilliant young lawyer to convey his ethnic bias. Ministers and Governors have many of these special assistants who cover their asses. Someone praised Malami for being himself. An adult doesn’t try to be himself by baring his anus to the world. Okay, take away the animosity for the Igbo hidden in the “motor spare parts” analogy. What shall we do with the puerility of his logic.
Malami appeared like a representative of Miyetti Allah, overcome by emotions. A Chairman of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association might be forgiven for thinking that the state governments cannot regulate the movement of cattle. I have heard some of them say it’s their culture. Their ancestors might have misinformed them that the forests belonged to them. But I am optimistic that even Miyetti Allah wouldn’t liken open grazing to the sales of motor spare parts.
Because the sales of motor spares should be the equivalent of sales of cattle and onions. Miyetti wouldn’t make such pedestrian arguments. Miyetti should have the experiential knowledge that marching around thousands of kilometers on foot with cattle in 2021 is inhuman and degrading punishment for the herders and cruelty to the animals. A knowledge that might be lost on even a former cattle herder who has come by buttered living.
Malami sleepwalked on television. The constitution guarantees the right of freedom of movement. That right is for humans. And not for chickens and goats. But even that human right is not absolute. That right can be abridged for the right reasons. The right reasons include the attainment of stated national security or public health goals. Every cobbler knows the government can regulate the movement of persons for the right reason.
Our governments routinely restrict movements on election days. Governments can place curfews. Governments locked down entire nations during the COVID pandemic. Malami should know that the constitutional freedom to move from place to place isn’t absolute, inviolable freedom. That was why watching Malami discuss basic constitutional rights like a novice made a hard watch.
The southern governors placed a ban on open grazing. The states would enact local laws to enforce the ban. The role of a peeved federal Attorney General would be to challenge the constitutionality of those laws in court. Nigeria is a federation. Cattle do not enjoy the rights granted to humans under the constitution. If they did, we wouldn’t be killing and eating them as we like. The proposed ban on open grazing by the southern governors is moral and lawful because it is a non-discriminatory minimum measure necessary to achieve a stated public security objective.
Malami had watched open grazing occasion massacre after massacre. He didn’t flinch. He forgot that as the nation’s chief law officer, he had a duty to promote and protect justice, justice for those who were being slaughtered. Perhaps, he didn’t know that prevention of crime is justice. Open cross country grazing has fostered cattle rustling, the militarization of cattle herding, the proliferation of militias, clashes and massacres with a wanton waste of lives and property. Where has Malami been? What were the Justice Minister’s answers to the Criminal Justice questions asked by open grazing?
The open grazing ban didn’t fall from the sky. Northern governors proposed an open grazing ban in the south three months ago. They did it to safeguard national unity while Malami was slumbering. The Attorney General’s office should have grazed on the relevant jurisprudence and saved the Attorney General from the constipation he suffered in public. Many of our lawyers detest philosophy and often march around the field of legal theory with mental handicaps.
But this wasn’t complex. Okadas have been banned in many places for many good reasons. Street hawking has been banned in many well-run cities to curb road traffic accidents, crime and littering of public spaces. These didn’t need constitutional amendments. Cows are cows; they are no Sacred Cows.
The constitution aside, Malami’s hypocrisy is startling. Malami knows that alcohol movement has been prohibited in many places in northern Nigeria. The reason was to service religion through sharia. Malami knows there are no compelling reasons for that particular ban. That ban is therefore unconstitutional. But the ban has stayed. Why hasn’t Malami told the northern governors and their Hisbah commanders destroying beer bottles that they needed a constitutional amendment to deter bottles of beer from flowing from place to place? The alcohol ban is unconstitutional, yet he allowed it. Open grazing ban is constitutional, yet he is conjuring inane bigoted analogies to oppose it.
A chief law officer doesn’t need brilliance to be sensitive. The country is tense. Yet, Malami chose a childish and divisive analogy that could pass for a dog whistle. His gesticulations made him look like he was warning the south to desist, or a certain southern ethnic group associated with plying the spare parts trade could be chased away from a section of the country. Sometimes ignorance could be criminal. Malami’s wayward analogy made him sound like an advocate of trouble.
And what could be worse? Now adept at scoring own-goals, the federal government has lost the initiative to the governors. Akeredolu, a Senior Advocate Of Nigeria, chairman of the southern governors’ forum, who belongs to the same party as the Attorney General, described Malami’s logic as embarrassingly shallow. Ordinarily dogs don’t eat dogs. And Alsatians should never eat Alsatians. I feel for Malami. I wish there were a way he could say he was quoted out of context.
The southern governors must pay no heed to Malami. Not to his ignorance, not to his mischief, not to his belligerence. Open cross-country grazing is antediluvian. Malami doesn’t understand the times. Law is interpretive. But suppose anything in the constitution is misconstrued to support Malami’s beer parlour logic, that provision of the constitution will fall into immediate abject redundancy in the south because the people have already moved on. Yeah, half of the country has moved. No open grazing!