By SOLA EBISENI

AROUND the end of February 2016, officials of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, came to my office while I was serving as the Ondo State Commissioner for Environment, during the administration of Dr. Olusegun Mimiko as Governor. For the umpteenth time, they complained of illegal grazing within the premises of the Akure Airport with obvious dangerous implications for aviation activities.

This was one report too many. Having been inundated with several distressed reports also by farmers and other residents on the activities of herdsmen, the Ministry summoned a stakeholders meeting involving government, herders, cattle dealers, farmers and some selected traditional rulers.

The issue with the airport which we handled first, believing it would be more easily resolved than others, was actually the opening of the pandora box. The airport officials, farmers and the chiefs recounted tales of woe on the destruction of farm lands, including provocative removal of yam and cassava tubers from the barns in Itaogbolu communities by herders to feed their animals.

An official of the Ministry, a lady and an environmental health officer, who spoke flawless Hausa language, was readily on hand handling language interpretation for the herdsmen and cattle dealers. What appeared a blanket condemnation prompted the head of the cattle dealers to distance his group from the activities of the herders.

In surprisingly flawless Queen’s English, this dark complexion man insisted that his men, who are Hausas, had no business with the farm lands as they don’t rear animals but only buy cows from the herders, and then lead the animals to the cattle market where they are sold to Yorubas who thereafter take the animals to the abattoirs.

Feeling isolated, the leader of the Fulani herdsmen (no one was talking about Miyetti Allah then) after listening to whoat was being being interpreted to him, suddenly broke out in a fit of anger, speaking Yoruba laced with occasional Akure accent, blamed the indigenous Akure people for the problems.

According to him, the lands where the Fulani cattle have been grazing, from Ekiti through Iju, Itaogbolu, Akure to the Ifedore local government areas, had been taken over by the indigenes either for farming or buildings for commercial or residential purposes. According to him, it was the search of new and more grazing lands, in view of their increasing cattle heads, that drove the Fulani herders to Obaile, Airport, Iluabo, Uso, Owo road and the grazing on the Airport territory.

To the surprise of the traditional rulers and Chiefs of the Akure speaking areas, this leader of the Fulani cattle men said the solution to the crises was for government to compel the indigenes to vacate the grazing routes and also cease further occupation of the land for whatever purpose.

Asked by the Ministry officials how the herders came to seize the said grazing routes and lands, he said they were the first to open the forest almost 20 years earlier. Of course, the Chiefs and their teeming youths outside were enraged and threatened hell.

The chairman of the Agricultural Commodities Association in Ondo State, Akin Olotu, who led the farmers group at the meeting demonstrated so much restraint and called for a proper synergy between the states in the federation and the Federal Government in establishing cattle ranches for the benefit of Fulani nomadic herdsmen.

Technocrats in the Ministry and the FAAN officials assisted us in calming the situation, particularly the youths, who could not comprehend the audacity of the herders in their very strange claims on land acquisition and ownership. The following day, March 4, 2016, the media, both conventional and social, were awash with the resolutions at the meeting with different headlines. The most common, among the titles was: “Ondo Bans Activities of Fulani Herdsmen”.

Of course, that was not entirely true. In the communique at the end of the meeting, cattle rearing in cities, towns and villages were prohibited; there would be no night grazing and anyone caught would be treated in the language they would understand, to borrow President Buhari’s now popular Biafra phrase. It was also resolved that cattle owners would be registered with each animal bearing the registration number of its owner for easy identification for diverse mutually beneficial reasons.

Ultimately, the suggestion by the farmers on ranching was agreed as the befitting solution. Some of the immediate lessons from the meeting and most relevant in present hot debates, particularly on open grazing, is that cattle business, like other enterprises, is a private endeavour which practitioners should pursue as such.

When the Federal Attorney General was busy, the other time, comparing animal husbandry with car parts trading, he must realise that the latter do not just pounce on people’s lands. They acquired land legitimately for their businesses. In the same Akure, the capital of Ondo State, the entire central business area, spanning Oba Adesida, Oyemekun, Arakale and Hospital Road, are dominated by the ubiquitous South Easterners where they acquired land legitimately and they are not treated as members of IPOB.

In the vast lands of the Akoko and Owo in the northern parts of the State, and in the Akure areas, farm lands are acquired by the Ebira, Igala, Agatu who are so mixed with the indigenous population that you hardly could distinguish them. They participate freely in all activities as free citizens, including the politics of the National Union of Road Transport Workers and Okada businesses.

Generations of Urhobo and Ibibio nationalities are fully entrenched in the southern part of the State in the oil palm and rafia palm businesses respectively, while we all grew up to know the Hausas in their Sabo in all cities and towns. It must be emphasized that the resolutions at the stakeholders meeting were in tandem with the provisions of the environmental laws of the State. A more elaborate and comprehensive forestry law, within the purview of the Ministry of Natural Resources, existed since the Western Region government.

The decision of the present Akeredolu government ordering illegal occupants out of the state’s forests reserves is perfectly within the ambit of the law and we support him. The decision of state governments banning open grazing and transportation of animals by foot are firmly rooted in the Constitution and the Land Use Act which enjoys constitutional status.

It will therefore be interesting to see how the President and his officials, who are busy talking down on the elected Governors, will employ federal might to dig up archaic gazettes to reopen grazing routes all over the country without breaching the 1999 Constitution which the President and his officials love so much and say is immutable.

It has been suggested by many well meaning citizens that the President, rather than flexing muscles with the states to create special federal territories for the Fulani, local and foreign, in the guise of grazing routes, grazing reserves, RUGA or Cattle Colonies (they are the same) in states, such energy is better deployed at dislodging terrorists and bandits from the Sambisa in the North East or other forests in the North West states, extending to Niger and Kaduna in the central region, which have become havens for terrorists activities where they even keep kidnapped citizens, including school children.

It is amusingly contradictory that the President, who insists that there is nothing wrong with the 1999 Constitution to warrant the agitation for restructuring, would seek to brazenly violate the said Constitution and the Land Use Act, which shares equal status therewith, by the illegal braggadocio of exercising powers over land use which is the exclusive reserve of the states. By the said Constitution, in which President Buhari is most well pleased, the land in every state is vested in the governor thereof to hold in trust for the people of the state.

The grazing routes law, which was applicable only in the defunct Northern Region and being now romanticized by the President, was ironically made under the 1963 Constitution loathed by the President, though an era when the President agreed law was being obeyed.

Even among the 19 states of the North, no such law exists any longer or is enforceable, except as determined by the people through their governor and their representatives in the House of Assembly of the relevant state. For necessary but laughable political effects, we were told over the weekend, that the Federal Government claimed to have discovered old grazing routes in one or two Yoruba states.

The patriotic views of our governors and their colleagues at the Asaba Declaration are very well known. In any case, the powers of governors over land use is not absolute. The acquisition of my family land, at Motoro, can only be for the overriding public purpose of a road from the Alape lagoon to the Atlantic at the Ondo State coastline.

*Ebiseni is the Secretary General of  Afenifere

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