By OBINNA EZUGWU
Either by coincidence or design, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, has triggered a battle for the soul of Nigeria. And as the country’s all important 2023 general election approaches, it’s no longer just a race to elect another president, but a showdown between the core North and South; an election that could prove a defining moment in country’s chequered history.
Accused of pursuing unbridled nepotism, the kind many say they never witnessed in the country, the Buhari government has been an eye-opener; a sudden reminder that Nigeria is still a country in transition and not a settled secular state. Ethnic and religious tensions are at all-time high; instigated, many say, by the president himself, who has shown, in appointments and everything else, clear preference for people of his religion and region.
“The President has blatantly pursued nepotistic agenda and policies that show very clearly his preference for men and women of his faith,” Matthew Kukah, Bishop of Catholic Diocese of Sokoto told US Congress Commission on Thursday.
“For the first time in Nigeria, the people heading the three arms of government – President, Senate President, Speaker and Chief Justice – are all Muslims. These are all fine gentlemen, but that is not the point. The level of rivalry between Christians and Muslims has worsened. This kind of situation has never happened before.”
The presidency has, meanwhile hit back at the Catholic clergy, accusing him of promoting division; while insisting, in a statement by presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, that the constitution of Nigeria does not say there must be a balance between Muslims and Christians in appointments.
Since Buhari took office on May 29, 2015, he has ensured that virtually all strategic position in government are held by people of his religion and region. At the moment, from key revenue generating agencies of the government, such as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA); to key security agencies such as the Army, Police, Civil Defence, State Security Service, National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), etc., are head by individuals from the North, just as people from the region make up the bulk of the staff in the agencies.
Nigerians on social media now joke about how visiting EFCC or NPA office in Lagos feels like being in Kano.
The above, in addition to the fact that all three arms of government: Executive, Judiciary and the Legislature, are headed by people of the same region, first time in Nigeria’s history, have caused ripples in the polity. Accusations of Buhari pursuing northern agenda keep getting validated, it would seem, by the president’s actions. And ahead of 2023, many say, the stakes are much higher.
“If you look at what the president has done, it’s all about cementing ethnic hegemony,” said Abuja based lawyer and analyst, Chidi Ezeugo “His idea is to ensure that his people not only take over the country politically, but also physically.
“By his appointments, he has since ensured that politically, his people have taken over. Now, to also ensure that they take over physically, he has been pursuing Ruga, grazing reserve, Water Resources Bill among others. Imagine that Nigerians allowed Ruga for example, it means that they be able to export their people and change the entire demographics of the country.”
Indeed, Buhari’s quest to create settlements for herders in all the states of the federation, through Ruga, had triggered national outrage, forcing him to suspend the project. Had the programme scaled through, there would have been settlements for cattle herders of Fulani stock in every locality in the country, on lands gazetted by the federal government, and therefore theirs forever. Yet, the quest to create settlements for wandering herders did not start with Ruga, neither did end with it, if indeed it has ended.
It had, of course, started with the introduction of the infamous grazing reserve bill sponsored by Senator Zanaib Kure from Niger State, but it was killed in the 7th Senate when it was introduced. It was yet reintroduced in the 8th senate, sponsored by Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso (Kano Central), among others, as “National Grazing Reserves Agency (establishment etc) Bill 2016 (SB.292.”
Described by many as the most obnoxious bill ever introduced in Nigeria’s upper legislative chamber, the bill sought to map out vast areas of lands in all the states of the country as grazing areas for herders. It generated outrage. Many alleged it was a ploy to seize lands from indigenous Nigerians and hand them over to Fulani from all over west Africa to settle in possible bid to alter demographics. The outrage caused the Senator Bukola Saraki led senate to throw the bill out.
Buhari yet in 2017 presented another controversial bill to the National Assembly, the water resources bill, which sought to transfer the control of water resources from states to the Federal Government.
Among other things, the bill proposed that water usage be subjected to licensing provisions and that the licence may be cancelled if the licensee “fails to make beneficial use of the water.”
The bill also stated that all landlords must obtain a driller permit before sinking a borehole in their homes, and directs persons who have excess supply of water to cater for their domestic needs to reduce the quantity to what they can consume.
According to the bill, only authorised personnel may carry out routine checks to inspect water usage or water disposal on properties with the production of their identity card or other instrument or certificate of designation if so required.
By its provision, the federal government will get control and power of licencing of all 267.3billion cubic metres of surface water and 51,9 billion metres of groundwater, including all 200 damns storing up to 11 billion cubic metres of water in Nigeria. It would also include control of boreholes, control River Niger, Oguta Lake, Lake Chad, Lullemeden Aquifer System, Tano and Keta Aquifer System and Lake chad, among others.
Expectedly, it generated outrage. Many alleged it was yet another ploy to secure water bodies and surrounding lands for herders, and owing to the outrage, the eight senate threw it out.
However, Chairman of the House Committee on Rules and Business, Abubakar Fulata, moved a motion on July 23, 2020, calling for the reopening of 11 bills, including the water resources bill, not passed by the eighth Assembly.
Fulata had prayed that the bills be withdrawn from the committees they were referred to and considered by the Committee of the Whole, as the panels had failed to meet their deadlines. The motion was unanimously adopted. And an interview on September 7, Fulata described the passage of the bill as a done deal, saying the process would not be reversed.
When the public got wind of it, many called for its withdrawal, with Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom describing it as “evil bill,” while vowing to lead protest against it.
When the matter eventually came up on the floor of the house on Tuesday September 29, 2020, members of the House from the core North and their counterparts from the South and North Central engaged in a shouting match. Members of the House, mostly from the South had raised various legal and procedural issues on the bill, arguing that it be withdrawn a properly gazetted for debate.
But their argument was opposed by members from the North who insisted that passage of the bill was a done deal and could not be reversed.
The clash began when a member from Benue State, Mr Bem Mzondu, raised a point of order, under Order 6 Rule 1(2) and (3), alleging that his legislative privilege was breached as the bill did not follow the due process and that a copy was not made available to him.
Ruling on the matter, Gbajabiamila pointed out that matters of privilege were not meant to be debated, but he allowed comments due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The Speaker had recalled how accelerated passage of the controversial Control of Infectious Diseases Bill was met either stiff resistance by members of the public, forcing the House to reverse the process and subject it to a public hearing.
The latest water resources bill controversy had yet come after Ruga, which was announced in July 2019, as a programme for the establishment of settlement for herders in every state of federation, a move that immediately sparked furry, coming at a time allegations of ‘Northernisation’ and ‘Fulanisation’ agenda had become rife, fuelled also by the administration’s seeming unwillingness to reign in on the same herders carrying out killings of genocidal proportions in parts of the country, mostly in the Middle Belt region.
Amid the criticisms, Presidential spokesman, Mallam Garba Shehu further stoked the fire. He issued a statement calling those opposing the move of playing “politics” and “howling,” while describing their comments as “unhelpful” and insisting that “the plan to stop roaming of cattle herders with the attendant clashes with farmers.”
He had said, ‘“Ruga Settlement’ that seeks to settle migrant pastoral families simply means rural settlement in which animal farmers, not just cattle herders, will be settled in an organized place with provision of necessary and adequate basic amenities such as schools, hospitals, road networks, vet clinics, markets and manufacturing entities that will process and add value to meats and animal products.”
Shehu’s statement triggered yet another round of anger. Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos, His Eminence, Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie described his claim that the Ruga settlement was to solve “farmers herders clashes,” as “insolence” and an insult to Nigerians.
“It amounts to a gratuitous insult on the intelligence of those who know the history of this country to say: “RUGA settlement that seeks to settle migrant pastoral families,” Okojie had said. “Our history, especially in the pre-colonial era, shows how such “settlements” for “migrant pastoral families” have been used to dispossess people of their ancestral land, used to disturb peaceful co-existence in our multi-ethnic country. Have we not been told in recent memory that if we want peace we must give land to violent herdsmen?”
Foremost Ife monarch, the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi and Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, in a joint statement told Nigerians to defend their lands against any attempt to cede them to anyone for Ruga settlements. Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, Gani Adams described it as an “Afonja scenario,” vowing that the Yoruba will never forgive any governor who accepts it, while Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere, PANDEF, Middle Belt Forum, among others, vigorously opposed the move, and eventually the government announced its suspension.
But the suspension failed to assuage anger. Taraba State governor, Darius Ishaku insisted that Ruga was a form of colonialism that must be cancelled outright. “Ruga is colonialism; it is not about cattle; it is not even about grasses. It should not only be suspended, but it should also be cancelled completely,” he had said.
Gradually, attention shifted from Ruga National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) which the government subsequently inaugurated to replace Ruga. Again, the plan was opposed by many who saw it as another form Ruga.
Soon after details of the plan became public knowledge, Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF) issued a joint statement in Abuja saying that the plan didn’t make any economic sense, even as they alleged that there was an agenda behind it.
“Meeting restates the rejection of SMBLF to the use of the collective resources of Nigerians to convert herdsmen, majority of whom are non-Nigerians, from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles while doing their private business that has nothing to do with the rest of us beyond being their market. It is akin to government making budgetary allocations to Coca Cola to produce drinks to sell to Nigerians,” the statement had said.
Benue State stakeholders also rejected the plan, alleging that its details show that it is nothing but Ruga settlements labelled with different name.
Water Resources Bill Returns:
Last week, it emerged that President Buhari has re-submitted water resources bill, with some activists asking Nigerians to be vigilant.
Indeed, while speaking at a ceremony for the commissioning of the Zobe Regional Water Supply Scheme in Katsina State on Thursday, Buhari called for a speedy implementation of the bill, as according to him, his administration will work towards ensuring that all Nigerians, irrespective of location in the country, have access to adequate potable water supply and sanitation facilities as enshrined in the SDG target.
He said, “This is where the need for quick passage of the National Water Resources Bill that made provision for the National WASH Fund, as well as regulatory environment for private sector involvement in the sector, become relevant.
“I therefore call on the National Assembly to give attention to the Bill towards its passage into law as soon as possible.”
Opposition to the move is again mounting. Some observers insist that the president has hidden agenda.
Speaking in an interview at the weekend, Ortom once again asked lawmakers to oppose the bill, insisting that it is evil, and an evident that the Buhari government doesn’t mean well for Nigerians.
“Now everyone can see clearly that the APC led administration does not mean well for citizens of this country, the Water Resource Bill that was resisted by Nigerians and even the National Assembly has been reintroduced, for what?,” he wondered.
According to him, the bill is only meant to replace RUGA settlement for herdsmen, cattle colony, as well as encourage open grazing.
Similarly, former managing director of the Daily Times, Chief Tola Adeniyi, told Business Hallmark that the, “water resources bill is nauseating.”
Adeniyi warned that, “If governors from the South and Middle Belt cannot talk, it is their funeral. If members of the National Assembly from the South, the Middle Belt and Northeast, fail to stop it, then it is their funeral. That’s all I can say.”
He alleged that there is a tiny section of the country trying to run roughshod because they are united, while wondering why others cannot also come together to save themselves.
“A tiny section of the country is riding them roughshod because they are united, but if they (other groups) want to sit back and watch it happen, they they should bear the blame.”
That unity appear to be what is crystallising ahead of 2023 polls, as different groups in the South and Middle Belt appear to be bonding to resist what many interpret as an agenda of the Buhari north to dominate the country; a scenario that has now pitted the two sides against the other going into election.
For the first time in Nigeria’s democratic history, governors of 17 states in the South have formed a forum to take common position on issues that affect the country, and after their meeting in Lagos a fortnight ago on June 5, issued a communique, asking, among other things, that in the interest of equity and fairness, power should return to the South.
“The Forum reiterates its commitment to the politics of equity, fairness and unanimously agrees that the presidency of Nigeria be rotated between Southern and Northern Nigeria and resolved that the next president of Nigeria should emerge from the Southern Region,” chairman of the Southern governor’s forum, Rotimi Akeredolu, read in the communique.
The governors’ position was backed by the Southern and Middle Belt Forum, as well Benue governor, Ortom, from the North Central Region, who also expressed support for their decision to ban open grazing in the region, among other groups and individuals in the South and Middle Belt.
But it has attracted backlash from the North, with groups such Northern Elders Forum (NEF) and Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) arguing in opposite direction.
NEF through its spokesman, Dr. Hakim Baba-Ahmed insisted that Northerners will not allow their right to choose who they want to govern, to be constrained by anyone.
Similarly, former secretary general of the ACF, Anthony Sani argued that there is no justification for insistence on Southern presidency, as according to him, zoning is only party affair, and not provided for in the constitution.
The battle has officially begun with the electoral act amendment bill recently passed by the National Assembly. Events of the past few days have rattled many. It had emerged that the senate introduced total ban of electronic transmission of votes, a key aspect of the amendment in the electoral process canvassed by Nigerians with a view to checking fraud often associated with collation of results.
Electronic transmission of results was the major source of controversy in the electoral system in the 2019 presidential election. The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, had maintained that by results transmitted electronically, they won the presidential election. But the APC and the electoral body insisted that no votes were transmitted electronically, as there was no law permitting the process. In the end, the Supreme Court upheld Buhari’s victory at the polls.
Prior to the election, an electoral act amendment bill passed by Saraki led eight senate, presented to Buhari, which had provided for electronic voting and electronic transmission of results, was sat on by the president who claimed that the election had become too close at the time and that signing the bill into law could distort the process.
The president’s refusal to assent to the bill, eventually provided the loophole that allowed for what many believed was the manipulation of the 2019 polls. And with the attempt to remove electronic transmission of vote in the new bill, observers say the APC and Buhari may be plotting to retain power by the same token in 2023.
“There is no doubt, with what is happening, that the APC is planning to rig the election in 2023, to retain power irrespective of how Nigerians feel,” said Chief Abia Onyike, spokesperson for Alaigbo Development Foundation. “But my take is that they won’t be able to the because the APC is not united. Who are they going to rig the election in favour of?”
“The Nigerian people want a situation where the electoral process can be more open and more democratic. The people in the national assembly who are agents of the hegemonic forces in Nigeria have blocked the passage of the electoral bill which has provided for electronic transmission of results. But they will one day regret their actions.”
On Thursday, lawmakers spent more than three hours considering over 100 clauses of the bill, and the majority of the senators succeeded in empowering the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to determine the electronic transmission of electoral results.
The legislation is seeking to repeal and re-enact the 2010 electoral act, which has been under consideration for years.
During the clause-by-clause consideration of the bill, Sabi Abdullahi, deputy senate whip, proposed that the NCC must certify that national coverage is adequate and secure, while the national assembly must approve before the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) can transmit election results electronically.
But Albert Bassey, senator representing Akwa Ibom north-east, kicked against the motion and said the initial proposal made by the committee should be retained.
“The commission may transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable,” section 50 (3) of the report reads.
This led to a rowdy session which lasted about 20 minutes, after which the senate eventually retained Abdullahi’s amendment after a 52-28 vote.
Twenty-eight legislators were absent.
While the ‘NO’ vote was to empower NCC determine e-transmission of electoral results, the ‘YES’ was to retain the aforementioned section 50(3) as recommended by the committee.
All APC senators on the floor voted “NO,” while all PDP senators voted “Yes.”
The opposing senators, who are presently facing backlash from Nigerians, were said to have been lobbied by the presidency to reject the electronic transmission of results, with assurances that state resources would be deployed to ensure their reelection in 2023.
This is even as INEC, through its spokesman, Festus Okoye, has said it has the capacity to transmit results from even the remotest parts of the country.