By Omoniyi Salaudeen
As an annual ritual, this year’s Democracy Day celebration provided yet another opportunity for government at all levels to give accounts of their stewardship in the last two years of the present administration
For President Muhammadu Buhari who has been in a long silence over some knotty national issues fueling separatist agitations, many had expected that he would use the occasion to provide some soothing relief to the frayed nerves.
Characteristic of his seeming obstinacy, however, he failed to give any assurance of possible peaceful resolution of the incessant conflicts between farmers and marauding Fulani herdsmen in his terse address to the nation on June 12.
Instead, he told anyone who cared to listen that he would restore the old grazing routes from the North to the South, apparently pre-empting the resolution of the 17 Southern governors banning of open grazing of cattle.
He further added that he had directed the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, to do the needful.
As for the unending agitations for restructuring, his answer was rather evasive, as he passed the buck to the National Assembly.
Either way, the speech is a metaphor for confusion. It is inherently fraught with inconsistency. On one hand, the administration is aggressively campaigning for diversification of the economy to mitigate the effects of dwindling oil revenue, and on the other hand, it wants to drive the process using outdated and unproductive old practices.
Apart from its threat to food security and national stability, the traditional practice of open grazing is archaic, primitive, and antithetical to modern techniques of pastoralism. It is the primary cause of the soaring food prices the ordinary people have had to grapple with in recent times.
According to the latest report by the World Bank, the high inflation rate caused by rising food prices as well as other services has pushed additional seven million Nigerians below the poverty line, contrary to the self-comforting assessment by President Buhari that his administration had lifted 10.5 million people out of poverty. “As of April 2021, the inflation rate was the highest in four years. Food prices accounted for over 60 per cent of the total increase in inflation,” the report stated.
By projection, agriculture is expected to remain at the forefront of Nigeria’s diversification plan. Yet, Fulani herdsmen’s invasion of people’s farmland still remains a major threat to the sector.
Expectedly, Malami has been under severe attack for providing wrong legal advice to the Federal Government on the issue of open grazing. Some notable legal experts, who spoke to Sunday Sun, argued that the Minister failed to realise that the Land Use Act had overtaken the relevance of the so-called gazette on old grazing routes which was promulgated by the military decree in the early ‘60s.
According to them, the power to control land in the states rests solely with the governors.
In the last six years, the policy strategy of the Buhari administration, both latent and manifest, has been largely skewed in favour of a particular section of the country. And it is one of the reasons there have been unending separatist agitations, which the president dismissed as a dot in a cycle in his recent interview.
But to some concerned elders, ignoring agitations for self-determination is like sitting on a keg of gunpowder.
Technically, the president’s declaration of intent to remap and restore the old grazing routes has been described as an open declaration of power conflict against the 17 governors of Southern states who had collectively resolved to ban open grazing as a way of ending incessant herders’ attack on innocent farmers.
A former Chairman of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja branch, Ebun Adegoruwa (SAN), while dismissing the declaration, said: “The president has not told us the law he is relying upon to make this declaration. Under the respective laws governing lands in Nigeria, the president has no right to issue such declaration because the Land Use Act came into being in 1978. And in the Land Use Act, all lands are vested in the governor of a state on behalf of the people. In that regard, it is only the governor of a state that can make such a declaration on land.
“The president has no such power and he cannot usurp the powers of the governors, especially the governors of the Southern states who have already made open their own declaration against open grazing. We have been waiting for him to tell us the authority from which he made such declaration.
“I am beginning to see that the combination of the office of Attorney General with that of the Minister of Justice is allowing political consideration to influence professional decisions. And that is becoming a challenge. I cannot say that the AGF has no basis for his opinion, but all of us as lawyers we will always ask for the authority, whether case law or legislation, which the AGF is relying upon for his declaration of support for open grazing when the governors have said no. A time people just make a political declaration to show support for those who are in power. As I speak to you now, there is no law in support of open grazing in Nigeria. So, we are waiting.”
The Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee on anti-corruption, Prof Itsay Sagay, also corroborating the same argument, maintained that the power to regulate land rests with the governors of the states.
“As you know, under the Land Use Act, governors have control over the land in their states. If that is the case, all they need to do is to pass legislation that will outlaw open grazing, which is what Benue State has done.
“They don’t need Federal Government’s approval to implement the laws that are within their competence. This idea of open grazing is totally archaic, totally at variance with the trend in developed countries,” he stated.
A woman rights activist, Ankio Briggs, while lamenting the unprovoked aggression of the Fulani herdsmen, blamed the president for not acting in the overall best interest of the nation.
She said: “Fulani herders go out of their ways to invade people’s farms in their homeland and destroy their means of livelihood from Middle Belt to the Southeast, Southwest, and South-south. The threat that is supposedly made by people who called themselves Fulani jihadists has been denied by another group. For me, this is one threat too many. The fact that the president is not addressing the issue of invasion and killing of innocent people across Nigeria is not in the best interest of the future of this country.”
She, therefore, charged the governors to remain steadily firm on their resolution and ensure the safety of lives and property of the people who elected them.
She added: “I see no reason the governors will not be able to stand firm on their resolution and the decision they have made rightly in the interest of the states they govern. That is what they have sworn to do as governors. I don’t see any force standing against them from implementing that resolution. It is their right to protect the lands in their custody. This is not an authoritarian government, it is a democratic government. Buhari cannot intimidate the 17 Southern governors because when the Northern governors met in the interest of Northern Nigeria, nobody intimidated them. Nobody intimidated them when they decided to do Sharia law in the Northern states. I don’t think abuse of power will be allowed to stand.
“One is constrained to ask under what law is the president threatening to restore the old grazing routes. The old grazing routes he is referring to is a First Republic law applied only to Northern Nigeria not Southern Nigeria at that time. Today, there is no law the president can use to restore what does not exist anymore. The Land Use Act has already vested all the rights of lands in the governors of the state. So, unless the president is claiming to be president of Nigeria and governors of the 17 Southern states, he has no right and has no law to back up such declaration. I want to suggest that the Federal Government should go to court to challenge the law the Southern governors are using to ban open grazing. He should go to court instead of all the threats that are coming from the president referring to people as a dot in a cycle.”
Briggs maintained that it had become imperative for the president to review his stand and bow to the pressure for restructuring of the country.
“The people are demanding for restructuring of the country. It doesn’t matter how far the president wants to distance himself from the call for restructuring, it is the only way to pull Nigeria back from the precipice. This country has to be restructured. Everybody has said it. We demand a restructured Nigeria and the president cannot be bigger than the people that voted for him. Resisting the call for restructuring is showing very clearly that the president and people that govern this country do not regard the desire of the people,” she posited.
Also speaking in the same breath, a former aide of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Gbolade Osinnowo, insisted that there must be power devolution as well as state police to guarantee security at the state level.
His words: “There must be devolution of powers to the states. At this point in time, I believe that is the only way to go. They must make the governors de facto chief security officers in their states. They must be able to call the shots and actually protect their people as the constitution demands.
“There is absolutely no reason for us not to have state police at this point in time. It is appropriate that we should have state police or even local government police. But the Federal Government wants to aggregate powers unto itself and does not want to devolve power. It is no longer escapable.”
He further described the move to restore the old grazing routes as a backward approach to the issue.
He argued: “I think it is anachronistic and anti-development. We can’t keep going back to the past. Open grazing is no longer fashionable in modern civilization. To be talking of old grazing routes ignores the demography and the development of Nigeria. When the grazing routes were done, what was the population of Nigeria? The present population of Nigeria has made it untenable. In any case, why is the government insisting on a primitive form of cattle rearing when we can do the modern form of livestock keeping? It is very disappointing that the president wants to take the country backward. That is what is fueling insecurity in this country.”
For Sagay, the record of the National Assembly is not encouraging as to entrust them with the responsibility to restructure the country.
“All the alterations to the constitution they have passed so far are totally irrelevant and not coherent with restructuring,” he declared.