By Ojo Oyewamide
By January 2021, criminal activities of some herdsmen had become worrisome and insufferable in Ondo state. Farmers shunned their farms to save their lives and limbs. This was because the herders and their cattle had taken over. They destroyed crops with impunity. Cows were herded along and across highways, disrupting vehicular movements and causing auto-crashes. Who dared the invaders paid with their lives, limbs and blood.
The worst of the situation was that armed robbers and kidnappers among them veneered their criminal activities with the antiquated method of animal husbandry, open grazing. They rendered roads in the state unsafe and made travelling a nightmarish experience. They robbed, abducted, raped and killed their victims. The state forest reserves were turned to their sanctuaries, where the long hand of the law could not reach them. Peace took flight and the people of the Sunshine state started shouting and crying for help.
No responsible and responsive government would wink at the disturbing level of savagery. On January 18, Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu decided to take the bull of insecurity by the horns. He banned open grazing, under-aged grazing and night grazing of cattle in the state. He also gave herdsmen a seven-day ultimatum to vacate the state forest reserves. Those among the herders who wished to continue with the business of cattle-rearing were asked to register with the state government. These steps were taken to stem incidents of kidnapping and other crimes.
Governor Akeredolu had said in a statement he personally signed: “These unfortunate incidents are traceable to the activities of some bad elements masquerading as herdsmen. These felons have turned our forest reserves into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out other criminal activities. As the Chief Law and Security Officer of the state, it is my constitutional obligation to do everything lawful to protect the lives and property of all residents of the state.”
The action of the governor raised a furore. But despite the dust, he sticked to his guns. He believed in the rightness of his action. He could not fold his arms in the face of the prevailing insecurity and animalistic tendency of a group of people. The target of his action was not any ethnic group. Rather, the target was the criminals who were making life hellish in his state.
Some days after the banning of open grazing in Ondo state, southwest governors prohibited the practice across the zone. The decision was taken at a security stakeholders meeting which was held in Akure. Also at their last meeting in Lagos, Southern governors resolved to set September 1 as the deadline to begin the implementation of the anti-open grazing law in the region.
As the ultimatum neared its end last week, Governor Akeredolu signed the state anti-grazing bill into law. A statement by Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Donald Ojogo, said the law was “aimed at stemming needless instances of skirmishes, conflicts as well as infractions on the enviably peaceful disposition of the good people of Ondo State.” To allay any fear from anywhere, Ojogo added: “It is very pertinent to aver and indeed, reiterate that the Law shall rather, engender a more cordial, mutually benefiting relationship amongst residents of the State irrespective of ethnicity, religion or creed. For emphasis, no particular group of persons is the target.”
The speed of the process of enacting the law underscores the seriousness of the state government about addressing the problems of farmer-herder conflicts and insecurity in the state. On February 11, the bill to outlaw open grazing was approved by the state executive council. It was immediately forwarded to the State House of Assembly. In July, the House passed the bill, and On August 31, Governor Akeredolu signed it into law, completing the enactment process.
Reacting to the development, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) issued a subtle threat. Its secretary-general, Usman Baba-Ngelzerma, asked Governor Akeredolu to learn from Benue state.
“So, we will wait and see how this law is going to be implemented but I will like to draw the attention of Ondo to Benue where a law has been put in place. Go and appraise the Benue law, has it succeeded in bringing peace to Benue? It has never succeeded in bringing peace to Benue. Rather, it has further aggravated the situation to becoming worse, day in day out,” he said during a programme on Arise Television.
For long, Benue has been swimming in the blood of her innocent citizens. If that is what Baba-Ngelzerma wishes for Ondo state, may God not let him fulfil the wish. The people of the Sunshine state were quick in their responses to his wish of death and blood. “Ondo is different,” they said in unison.
Yes, Ondo is different. Open grazing was banned in the state in January. Since then, farmer-herder clashes have drastically reduced. People no longer shun their farms because of the fear of attacks by herdsmen. Incidents of kidnapping have decreased. The state is now enjoying relative peace. We have the state security outfit, Amotekun Corps, to thank for the atmosphere of peace. So, Ondo is Ondo. It is different because of the admirable peculiarities of its people. This fact must be realised by Baba-Ngelzerma and his MACBAN.
Another group, Gan Allah Fulani Development Association (GAFDAN), described the anti-grazing law as an invitation to anarchy. The national secretary of the group, Mallam Ibrahim Abdullahi, however, said the association would not opt for violence. “We are challenging this in court. Despite the provocation, we want to be law-abiding,” he said. This is a reasonable and civilized path to follow. If the legal action is taken, we hope it will contribute to the search for solutions to the problems caused by the animal husbandry practice of open grazing.
Those who think the anti-open grazing law will be a toothless bulldog in Ondo state should hear this from Ojogo: “While it is the hope of Government that all residents would take an ample advantage of this Law to enhance our socio-economic wellbeing in Ondo State, compliance of same shall be given the utmost attention. Government shall pursue with vigour, through lawful means, to ensure strict compliance.”
*** Oyewamide is Senior Special Assistant to Governor Akeredolu on Media and Publicity