By Salihu Moh. Lukman
Progressive Governors Forum
The section of our manifesto – APC – An Honest Contract with Nigeria, outlined our challenge as a nation bordering on whether “we have the will and courage to unite to radically reform, modernise and move our nation forward – not looking backward to the failed policies and practices of the past. It is no longer a question of choice but of will and courage!” With all the different manifestations of many of the problems facing our dear country, Nigeria, requiring demonstration of both the will and courage by our leaders, which as our manifesto rightly emphasised, is not ‘a question of choice’, our leaders at all levels and across all the divide, are responding and taking initiatives in different ways. Unfortunately, the more initiatives are taken, the more some Nigerians wrongly interpret those initiatives in divisive vocabularies.
This is clearly what is at play since the statement issued by His Excellency, Rotimi Akeredolu on Monday, January 18, 2021 asking herdsmen to vacate Forest Reserves in Ondo State within seven days as well as banning night-grazing with immediate effect. The objective of the Ondo state government was well articulated, which is to ensure that the forest reserves in Ondo State are disallowed from being used as hideouts for kidnappers, bandits and other criminals.
No Nigerian, or indeed any rational person, irrespective of nationality, can oppose this laudable objective of the Ondo State government. Mallam Garba Shehu wouldn’t have disagreed with the objectives as expressed in the statement of Governor Akeredolu. But somehow, from all the media debate going on, this is hardly the case. The response to the statement of Governor Akeredolu by Mallam Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the President (Media & Publicity), on January 19, 2021, is generating all manner of debate, which is completely at variance with the intended objective announced by Governor Akeredolu. The debate also completely departs from Mallam Garba Shehu’s ‘call for restraint on both sides and urge the state government and the leadership of Fulani communities to continue their dialogue for a good understanding that will bring an urgent end, the nightmarish security challenges facing the state.’
Since the release of the statement by Mallam Garba Shehu, the usual divisive politics has been activated. Afenifere, Arewa, Christian groups and many Nigerians are engaging the issues, sadly in ways that may only compromise or distract our leaders from being able to summon the courage to ‘reform, modernise and move our nation forward’. Ensuring that Forest Reserves, and indeed all forests, not just in Ondo State but in every part of the country are prevented from being used by kidnappers, bandits and all criminals, which as Mallam Garba Shehu correctly indicated should be given every urgency given the ‘nightmarish challenges’ it poses. This calls for courage on the part of our leaders to be able to initiate any viably effective reform.
It is also very clear to any rational observer that any proposal for reform may be interpreted along divisive lines and many public commentators, may prioritise debating matters of interpretation rather than the substantive proposal for reform. This necessitate that our leaders should be able to demonstrate higher decree of caution in making public statements about policy proposals, especially those that could potentially activate our national divisive fault lines. Without therefore attempting to pass any judgement on our leaders, one would have wished that in the first place, Governor Akeredelo, rather than issuing a public statement on the matter, invite the leadership of Miyetti Allah and all other groups and directly engage them on strategies of enforcement of initiatives to secure all Ondo State forests, including the ban on night grazing. In which case, what may likely come to the public should have been agreement between Ondo State government and the groups on matters of implementation of reform initiatives.
On the other hand, if Ondo State government was unable to engage groups and its decision to initiate reform as announced by Governor Akeredolu portend the possibility of violating provisions of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution as amended, given the powers of the Federal Government, rather than a public statement of caution by Mallam Garba Shehu, one would have rather recommend that the appropriate agency of the Federal Government invite the Governor, discuss the matter and agree on the best way to achieve the laudable initiative of the Ondo State government and accordingly inform Nigerians about the way forward. To make a public statement of caution suggest some disagreement between the Federal Government and Ondo State government about the desirability of reform as announced by Governor Akeredolu, which is not likely the case.
Most of the frenzied media responses on both sides is really not about achieving the laudable objective of arresting all the criminal activities going on, especially kidnapping and banditry, in every part of the country. Most times, once our divisive fault lines are activated, our emotions and sentiments, religious, ethnic and all rest, take the best part of us. Our disposition speed off the tracks of all rational considerations. With hardly any exception, both ordinary citizens and leaders behave in the same way. We need to recognise that, no matter what, the kind of criminality going on in the country require that we are united as citizens to be able to resolve it. Criminality thrives in every part of the country with the active support of local community leaders across all ethnic and religious divides.
As things are, every Nigerian should recognise that we are in emergency situation. The false divisive notion of any group initiative independent of others resolving our security challenges can only worsen the situation. “We vs them” public debate, which appears to dominate our national conversation today, especially regarding our ‘nightmarish’ security challenges is unfortunate. We must caution ourselves as Nigerians to rise beyond our sentiments and emotions. Above all, we must also appeal to our leaders to be much more circumspect in engaging these issues. Rather than making public statements, which can activate our fault lines, our leaders should be able to develop stronger strategies of engaging all Nigerians, especially our organisations in order to contract and mobilise implementation of agreements.
Every time spent debating in divisive terms on problems of criminality in the country, which doesn’t discriminate our identities, means lost opportunity to contract or mobilise implementation of agreement. In fact, it may even mean some levels of protection for the criminals as all public attention is diverted away from the criminals to engaging the false issues of what our identities represents. In the particular case of the intended reform to secure Ondo State Forest Reserves as announced by Governor Akeredolu, since the commencement of the unhealthy debate about whether it means expelling Fulani groups from Ondo State, every specific initiative in the proposal may have been suspended. It is most likely that no direct discussion has taken place between Ondo State government and Federal Government. This will then mean that rather that exploring areas of stronger collaboration between the state government and Federal Government, we have inadvertently created some dichotomies, real or imagined.
Somehow, it is almost impossible to avoid asking the question whether both politically and legally, other agencies of government shouldn’t have stepped in to resolve the issue? Partly, because of the strong campaigns for restructuring in the country, the temptation is to argue that this is another proof why our constitution is faulty and only restructuring can correct it. In this particular case, we as citizens, are the problem. All the debate going on now, has nothing to do with the provisions of the constitution or any law of the federation. Rather, it is all about our fabricated mindsets.
As a believer and campaigner for restructuring based on the need to make our governments functionally responsive, the challenge that reduced reform initiatives of governments to problems of activating our fault lines is simply a reflection of the inability of government officials – elected and appointed – to discharge their responsibilities without fear or favour as provided in the provisions of our constitutions and other statutes. While it is possible that initiatives are already taking place to resolve the issue between Ondo State government and Federal Government, to the extent that rather than announcements of resolutions of how initiatives to prevent and arrest crimes are hardly the case, confirms high degree of weakness in addressing national challenges. Instead, most of the public debate is about which group we want to support. Is there any Nigerian today who is not disturbed by the high rate of kidnapping, banditry and similar crimes? Such a Nigerian is either directly or remotely involved in kidnapping, banditry and all the crimes taking place.
Nigerians need to wake up to the reality that preventing or arresting criminal activities such as kidnapping and banditry cannot be achieved by massaging our ethnic and religious sentiments. These are criminal activities that can hardly succeed without the collaboration of community and religious leaders. In fact, there are also strong allegations of even collaboration of security officials. We therefore need to forge stronger national unity in the country to be able to initiate the kind of reforms, which can produce the expected outcomes. In addition to forging stronger national unity, we should include the issue of stiffer sanctions for both the criminals and their collaborators, much more than what is provided in our current laws. There is no reason why we should not consider the introduction of death penalties for both the criminals and their collaborators, for instance.
The easy temptation is to politicise the debate. Luckily, on this matter, both Ondo State and the Federal Government are controlled by the APC. This simply confirms the liberal atmosphere in APC. APC controlled state government is not constrained to disagree with APC controlled federal government. Put differently, APC controlled federal government is not shy from publicly disagreeing with initiatives of APC controlled state government. On a matter as grave as the issue of kidnapping, banditry and other criminal activities, it will not be treated in APC as a family affair when it affects APC controlled state government but differently with state governments controlled by other parties.
The issue is about responding to a national challenge. It is about Nigeria, which is why our leaders must exercise restraint when making public statements. If a statement is made, which potentially breach provisions of our constitution, any statement capable of activating our fault lines must be avoided. When we need to correct possible challenges arising from statements issued by our leaders, it mustn’t be a case of double jeopardy. Two wrongs will never make a right. At all times, our leaders and all of us, must carry the burden of national unity such that statements and proposals for reforms should inspire Nigerians to respect each other and recognise the incontestability of supporting initiatives from every part of the country in order to prevent or arrest crime, no matter its strength. As our party manifesto rightly emphasised, ‘It is no longer a question of choice but of will and courage!’
This position does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum