Rotimi Akeredolu
Art Image of Rotimi Akeredolu, convener of Southern governors from meeting

OBINNA EZUGWU

Compelled by growing pressure occasioned by unrestrained attacks by bandits and sundry non-state actors, fast gaining a foothold in a region that once thought itself immune to terrorism, governors of Nigeria’s southern states, last week, in a move that may well be a turning point in the country’s chequered journey to nationhood, met in Asaba, Delta State capital.

After nearly five hours of deliberations, they threw away the niceties of formal political discourse, and came up with a bold, definitive communique that has continued to rattle the country’s political space.

The three-page communique signed by governors of all the 17 states of the country’s south, including Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo, Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu, Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos, Dapo Abiodun of Ogun, Willie Obiano of Anambra, Nyesom Wike of Rivers, Emmanuel Udom of Akwa Ibom, Seyi Makinde of Oyo; others were Hope Uzodinma of Imo and Ben Ayade of Cross River, who sent representatives, addressed contemporary issues in the polity. Gov. Gbeyega Oyetade of Osun state was away on lesser hajj.

It made bold calls that have widely resonated with a populace that had begun to lose confidence in their elected leaders amid a barrage of attacks by criminals identified mostly as Fulani herdsmen. But, at the same, it time incurred the rage of Nigeria’s core Northern constituency, which, understandably, saw the move as an attack on its interest. It has set up a debate that many say, could define Nigeria’s future.

“Southern governors have made us proud! I commend and salute their courage! This is the first step on the road to freedom, equity and justice,” declared former minister of aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode. “This is the beginning of a new Nigeria and a signal to the world that the South can no longer be taken for granted and has come of age.”

Of the recommendations in the said communique, two have stood out. The ban on open grazing by herders in the entire region and demand for restructuring of the country, both of which have generated heated exchange between the South and the North.

The governors had said they, “observed that the incursion of armed herders, criminals and bandits into the Southern part of the country has presented a severe security challenge such that citizens are not able to live their normal lives including pursuing various productive activities leading to a threat to food supply and general security. Consequently, the meeting resolved that open grazing of cattle be banned across Southern Nigeria.”

They noted that “development and population growth has put pressure on available land and increased the prospects of conflict between migrating herders and local populations in the South. Given this scenario, it becomes imperative to enforce the ban on open grazing in the South (including cattle movement to the South by foot),” while recommending that “the Federal Government should support WILLING States to develop alternative and modern livestock management systems.”

On the thorny issue of restructuring, the governors were unequivocal, even as they called President Muhammadu Buhari out on the lopsided appointments that many say, has characterised his administration since inception in 2015.

According to them, they “agreed that the progress of the nation requires that urgent and bold steps be taken to restructure the Nigerian Federation leading to the evolution of state police, review of revenue allocation formula in favour of the sub-national governments and creation of other institutions which legitimately advance our commitment to and practice of true federalism.”

They thus, “recommended that in view of widespread agitations among our various peoples for greater inclusiveness in existing governance arrangements, the Federal Government should convoke a national dialogue as a matter of urgency.”
The state chief executives further recommended that, “in deference to the sensitivities of our various peoples, there is need to review appointments into Federal Government agencies (including Security Agencies) to reflect federal character as Nigerias overall population is heterogenous; and resolved to foster cooperation among the Southern States and the nation at large.”

The governors’ meeting, first of its kind, is significant on many fronts. It is the first time political leaders of the South will be coming together to present a common demand of Nigeria, a suggestion, observers say, that courtesy of Buhari’s expressly pro-North policies, and his perceived unwillingness to reign in on Fulani bandits perpetrating criminal activities across the country, the South in general, and more importantly, the region’s two most populous groups, the Igbo and the Yoruba, who have historically been political adversaries, have been compelled to close ranks, a scenario they believe, presents huge threat to the existing status quo of Northern domination of the country’s political space.

“If Buhari had not been president, if his incompetence had not been exposed to the uninitiated, Nigeria would have continued its zigzag path. The one-step-forward, two-steps-backwards trajectory would have continued unabated,” wrote Rudolf Okonkwo, Nigerian-American columnist who teaches Contemporary African Diaspora literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, in a now viral article. “Thus, Buhari helped the unrestructured Nigeria to confront its foreseeable future. That is Buharis first legacy.”

Okonkwo argued that it would be impossible for the Nigerian state to fight, successfully, the Yoruba and the Igbo at the same time, and for him, Buhari’s greatest legacy is that he has brought Nigeria to a point where it cannot fight the two groups at the same time.

“Anyone with functioning ears can hear the splitting threads from miles away. High above the deepest part of the valley, Nigeria barely holds on to Buharis back. Two things will happen: Either Nigeria loses its grip on Buharis back and falls into the valley of death, or the rope rips and both Nigeria and Buhari plunge down the valley. Either way, death is the expected end,” he noted.

“The only miracle on the horizon is to get Nigeria to a place where it cannot fight the Igbo and the Yoruba nations simultaneously.

Angered by what they perceive as Buhari government’s nepotism, and a general feeling of hidden agenda in the president’s seeming unwillingness to confront bandits killing, kidnapping, raping and displacing communities, separatist tendencies is widely growing across the South.

In the South West where any talk secession could have been stringently rebuffed five years ago, quest for a separate Oduwa Republic, spearheaded by elder statesman, Prof. Banji Akintoye, is fast gaining momentum.

Yoruba nationalist, Sunday Adeyemo, alias Sunday Igboho, who achieved prominence earlier in the year for confronting herdsmen accused of perpetrating criminality, particularly in Oyo communities, have since metamorphosed into a separatist activist, leading protest marches to rally support for Oduduwa country in various cities of the South West.

Southern governors forum
Southern governors during their meeting in Asaba, Delta State, Tuesday, May 11, 2021

On Saturday, he was in Oshogbo, the Osun State capital, where he told hundreds of supporters that Oduduwa was not negotiable. According to him, the Yoruba were ready to have their own country, are not intimidated and will not participate in subsequent elections in the country.

“I can’t be cowed or intimidated. They said I would be arrested. Who would dare do that? We are no longer part of Nigeria. We won’t have anything to do with them again. There is no election again in Yorubaland until we have a Yoruba nation. Those in authority initially thought we were joking when we demanded an independent Yoruba nation,” Igboho declared.

“All our governors are with us. From Oyo, Ogun and Ondo to Ekiti, Lagos and Osun, they are supporting us, but they can’t do it openly. Allocation they give them in Abuja may stop if they do it openly. So, don’t abuse them again. Governor (Gboyega) Oyetola was informed I will be in Osun and he allowed us to come here. All our monarchs are with us.

“We are also demanding an immediate end to the prosecution of OPC men that were arrested in Ibarapa land. That is part of the injustice we are talking about. They are still locked up. They didn’t commit any crime. They only stopped and arrested criminals. All the heads of the military, paramilitary and police are Fulani men. We won’t have anything to do with them again.”

In the South East, the quest for a separate state of Biafra has remained prevalent since the early 2000s. A wing of the agitators under the guise of Eastern Security Network (ESN), a branch of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), have since taken up arms, ostensibly to drive away criminal herdsmen inhabiting forests and bushes in the region, from where they launch attacks on communities.

Both groups have since closed ranks. And with separatist agitations gathering momentum in both regions of the South, observers say it would be nearly impossible for Nigerian state to confront both at the same time, even as the move by the governors is understood to be a desperate attempt to seek to address some of the underlying issues in order to avoid the worst.

“In a one-on-one fight, Nigeria may defeat any of its components. Nigeria may defeat the Igbo. Nigeria may run over the Yoruba, argued Okonkwo. “Nigeria cannot defeat the Igbo and the Yoruba at the same time. In a fight between Nigeria on one side and an Igbo-Yoruba alliance on the other, many ethnic minority groups will take the side of the alliance.”

As may have been expected, however, the governors’ resolution is has continued to attract backlash from some individuals in the North, even as they have continued to receive support from the South, in what has since turned into a North versus South brickbat.

Former vice president and presidential hopeful, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, from Adamawa, North East, was more statesmanly in his response. In a statement on Sunday, he pointed noted that the underlying reasons for the governor’s meeting was understandable, as he admitted that the country was fast drifting, but argued that they cannot solve the problem by promoting ‘region’ as opposed to ‘national.’

“Governors representing some states have met. And I completely understand the necessity of their meeting and the wisdom of their decisions. But no matter how much you try to clap with one hand, the vibrations will not be the same as when you clap with two hands,” Atiku said.

“We have a national challenge. And as Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” These problems were created by those with a regional mindset, and will not be solved by those with a similar mindset.”

The former vice president, who ran a presidential campaign under the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 2019 on the plank of restructuring, has however, received backlash, by many who pointed out that he never preached same message to Northern governors who had been meeting and taking positions on national issues for ages, and never thought it necessary to speak up when the Buhari government decided to back Dr. Isa Pantami, Nigeria’s Communications Minister, busted for showing support for terrorist groups.

“There has been Northern gov’s forum since I can remember. Just one southern gov’s meeting and you’re sewing thread,” said Twitter user, @_Soludo

“Atiku and his selective opposition tweets. When @DrIsaPantami was exposed for his extreme views, he was silent,” pointed out another user, Adetutu Balogun, @Tutsy22.

But other individuals from the North been more confrontational in their response. Last week, Borno South senator, Ali Ndume, insisted that the ban on open grazing could not stand, as according to him, The governors are deviating from the matter. The problem is not about open grazing. The problem is security. Most of the insecurity problem confronting Nigeria is not in the bush.”

Prof. Usman Yusuf, former executive secretary and chief executive officer of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), insisted that the governors cannot take a decision on open grazing without consulting the herders.

In a statement on Thursday, the apex Northern socio-political group, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), in a statement by its spokesperson, Emmanuel Yawe, while agreeing with the ban on open grazing, argued that the call for restructuring was tantamount to asking for the breakup of the country.

Speaking to journalists in Keffi, Nasarawa State same Thursday, Chairman, Senate Committee on Agriculture, and former governor of the state, Abdullahi Adamu, accused the governors of betrayal and of playing to the gallery with their demand for restructuring.

“The recent meeting of the Southern Governors Forum is an act of betrayal of the trust Nigerians reposed in them. Each governor pledged and swore to an oath and they emphasised loyalty to the sovereignty of this country. They also pledged their loyalty to the President of the country. Thats their oath of office,” said Adamu.

“While we accept the fact that we have freedom of association and freedom of expression as citizens, they have failed to express their views through the right channel. They are members of the National Council of State. Every governor is a member of the NCS. It also included former presidents who are still living.

“There is no better forum at their level to take a joint decision than such a forum. The fact that they have taken a decision as a divisive move does not speak well of their intention. I feel it is a betrayal of trust. I think they are just playing to the gallery.”

Same Thursday, Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, while speaking to state house correspondents, insisted that the governors were wrong in advising Buhari to restructure the country, when, according to him, they have not allowed restructuring in their states.

Lawan went on to advise the governors against joining the agitations for secession or calling for restructuring of the country.

“The call for secession or the call for restructuring many are genuine calls even though I never believe that someone who is calling for secession means well or is a misguided person,” he said. “But I believe that when somebody calls for improving the structure that we have is a genuine call.

“I want to advice here, I believe that as leaders those of us who were elected must not be at the forefront of calling for this kind of thing because even if you are a governor you are supposed to be working hard in your state to ensure that this restructuring you are calling for at the federal level you have done it in your state as well.

“This is because what you may accuse the federal government of whatever it is, you may also be accused of the same thing in your state. So, we are supposed to ensure that we have a complete and total way of ensuring that our systems at the federal, state and even local government work for the people, and that we allow people to participate in governance so that whoever feels that he has something to offer to make Nigeria better does so freely without any hindrance.”

The Senate President had since gotten a dose of his own medicine from his fellow lawmakers, notably from the House of Representatives, who reminded him that the country could not continue to do the same thing and expect a different result.

Lawmakers from the South, notably Southern senators, have also thrown their weight behind the governors, part of a growing solidarity in a region seemingly determined to make its own case in faltering union, gradually caving to mounting insecurity.

In a statement on Wednesday, jointly signed by its Chairman, Opeyemi Bamidele (Ekiti); Secretary General, Matthew Urhoghide (Edo) and Publicity Secretary, Chukwuka Utazi (Enugu), Southern senators forum, consisting of senators from all political parties from the region, hailed the governors “for ruminating on the expediency and the need for speedy restructuring of the highly lopsided Nigerian nation, saying this will also help to remove the venom that had permeated the land on account of alleged neglect of certain sections of the country.”

The senators noted that pursuing equity and justice, will wipe out ethnic tension, restore peace and stability and ward off agitations for secession that are now gaining tractions across the land.

The senators equally noted that the deft and unanimous policy of the ban on open cattle grazing would help in reining in those hiding under cattle grazing to unleash terror of kidnapping and killing on the residents of the region. They applauded the step taken by the Governors, saying it would serve as a buffer to wanton destruction of farmlands, kidnappings and carnages.

The Senators lamented how the Southern farmers were losing hundreds of millions of Naira to plundering of food crops through encroachments on farmlands and exposing the region to famine and acute food scarcity.

“At this critical point of our national life when the economy was being bedeviled by galloping inflation, youth unemployment and insecurity, food security is very crucial to mitigate the effects of these diverse evils on the citizens,” the senators said.

“Available records have shown that attaining food security status would remain a mirage in the south owing to ravaging effect of outdated livestock grazing policy being unleashed on farmlands by some unscrupulous herders.

“Most appalling were the seemingly unabated kidnapping, raping and killing of our people by suspected herdsmen, who have become bandits heating up the system.

“With this uniform resolve by our Governors to initiate no-open grazing policy, the region will return to its peaceful and agriculturally self -sufficient status it had assumed even long before Nigerias amalgamation in 1914.”

Support also came the way of the governors, from their Benue State counterpart, Samuel Ortom, whose state, as well the rest of the Middle Belt, has witnessed most attacks from the herders. Ortom who was the first governor to ban open grazing, stated that his southern colleagues had made the right move, while arguing that those opposing their decision, have hidden agenda.

Support have equally come from the apex Igbo socio cultural group, Ohanaeze, and leading Yoruba group, Afenifere, including such other groups as Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF) and the Coalition of Southern Groups (CSG).

Speaking at during Afenifere meeting held at his Ogbo residence in Odogbolu Local Government Area of Ogun State, the group’s leader, PA Ayo Adebanjo, said Buhari should ensure Nigeria is restructured before the next election, as according to him there must be a country before an election.

The governors’ resolution, has further emboldened the South, and escalated the debate on Nigeria’s future. Still, amid the backlash that has greeted it from the North; the governors say it’s only the beginning and that their resolution is sacrosanct.

“The meeting has started, and it’s going to go ahead.” Declared Ondo State governor and convener of the forum, Akeredolu, while appearing in Arise TV on Friday. “What we said is very clear, that in all Southern states, there is a ban on open grazing. We will do a former letter to Buhari.

“We are also discussing with our legislators, we want to build elite consensus. Buhari has to listen to us. The number of governors involved is not something you can push aside.”

Speaking on Saturday, at a civic reception organized in his honour by the Ogoni Ethnic Nationality of Rivers State in Bori, headquarters of Khana Local Government Area on Saturday, the state governor, Wike said the decision ban open grazing was cast in stone, maintaining that Southerners cannot be second class citizens in Nigeria.

“Look, I have been in government, I am in opposition, nobody can cow me. Magnus (Abe), they know, their government cannot cow me. I will say what I will say and I will do what is right for my people. Nobody will anything to me. I will die the day God says it is my day. Nobody can take my life when it is not time for me to die. So, let nobody be afraid,” Wike said.

“Let me also use this opportunity to say, all those who are saying why should Southern Governors ban grazing – I have taken further steps to fulfill what the Southern Governors said in Asaba. If anybody wants to die, go and die and hang yourself on electric pole.

“We have taken a position and we are not going back. Enough is enough; we are not second class of citizens of this country. We also own this country and we must partake in what is happening in this country.”

Similarly, Delta governor, Okowa, while addressing party members in Asaba at the weekend, maintained that the ban was sacrosanct, even as he said their for devolution of powers was most in order.

“Yes, I’ve heard a lot about the southern governors meeting. We thank God for that meeting. We thank God for bringing us together. The things that we said aren’t new. We’re only re-echoing what our people have been agitating for,” Okowa said.

“But unfortunately I read that somebody said we ought not to talk about certain things as elected people. If the voice of your people is out always and as an elected person you shy away from giving further voice to their voices, then you ought not to be in the position you occupy.

“So, I thank our people in the House of Reps who have responded to the speech made by their colleagues,” he enthused.

Okowa argued that there was no reason for any region or individual to be afraid of the governors’ stance as a non-issue relating to dismembering the country was discussed at the forum.

“As I did say, there’s none of the things we’ve discussed that’s against the unity of this country. We believe in the unity of our country as elected leaders. But we also went ahead to advance for some things that must be done to give strength to the unity.

“We talked about restructuring which has been on the table for too long. Both the voices of the PDP and the APC have been on restructuring.

“And restructuring is all-inclusive and all-encompassing. We all have different views on it. But when we all sit at a round table, we’ll agree on what’s best for us all.
“The conversations have started and our people are talking and when we do not give backing to their voices, then we’re giving room for further crisis.

“Other leaders should thank the southern governors for giving further voices to the conversation which can bring about a country with fairness, equity and trust among the people,” he concluded.

Also affirming the stance, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia at the weekend, reiterated the state’s commitment to enforce the ban on open grazing of cattle in Abia.

The governor who spoke during a zoom meeting with newsmen of Abia extraction under the aegis of Abia Media Forum, said that a bill was already in place to enforce the ban and to check the activities of criminal elements disguising as nomads.

“We are now at the point of making sure that we enforce and implement it and even in doing that I must also share what I see as a challenge to the enforcement of that law,” he said.

“The law is in place and we are taking steps to enforce it. It has become imperative that we enforce that law strictly because we just noticed that we have big time trouble in our hands.

“We have those that we refer to as criminal herdsmen; they are different from the ordinary herdsmen that we have been living with all these years. We now have in our mist bandits that have infiltrated from the rest of West Africa and other parts of Africa and their assignment is to come here rape, kill and kidnap people for money. It is now very imperative that we enforce that law,’’ he added

 

CORRECTION: The quote from Rudolf Okonkwo’s article, published by People’s Gazette, was initially attributed to Prof. Akinyemi Onigbinde, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, in error. We apologize for this mix-up.