Akeredolu and security in Ondo forests

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•Governor Rotimi Akeredolu

ANYONE who does not know that, in addition to Boko Haram insurgents, kidnappers, armed robbers, rustlers, and, yes, herdsmen have contributed immensely to insecurity in Nigeria is either deceitful or lives in a bubble, where he or she is screened away from reality.

Similarly, any Nigerian living in Nigeria should have known by now that the distinction between these categories of molesters of lives and deprivers of livelihoods has become blurry, partly because they are all armed and partly because they operate in similar ways. Besides, the effects of their operations on lives and livelihood are about the same. As a shorthand, I will henceforth use the term bandits to cover these categories.

Given the high profile operations of these bandits in Ondo state since the kidnapping of Chief Olu Falae and the destruction of his farm multiple times, it is more than baffling that anyone would blame any Governor, who operates within extant laws, for taking necessary steps to defend the lives and livelihoods of the people in his or her state.

For a brief illustration, let me recall the killings by bandits at various times within the past eighteen months of (1) Oba Adegoke Adeusi, the Olufon of Ifon, a first class traditional ruler in the state; (2) Mrs. Funke Olakunrin, the daughter of Chief Reuben Fasoranti, the leader of the Yoruba sociocultural group; (3) Professor Gideon Okedayo, Professor of Mathematics and Acting Dean of the School of Post Graduate Studies at the Olusegun Agagu University of Science and Technology; and, very recently, (4) Dr. Amos Arijesuyo, a Deputy Registrar and Head of the Guidance and Counseling Unit at the Federal University of Technology, Akure.

As these killings were going on, major roads and expressways across Ondo state became increasingly dangerous-Sagamu-Ore road; Ore-Benin road; Ore-Ondo-Akure road; Ilesa-Akure road; Ikare-Owo road, Owo-Akure road; and Owo-Benin road, to name a few.

On top of insecurity on the roadways, farmlands and forests became more and more insecure. Even unfenced compounds in cities were turned into grazing areas for herdsmen. The increasing incursion of herdsmen into people’ compounds, farmlands, and, especially, regulated forest reserves became a serious cause for concern. The sheer size of the reserve poses problems for supervision and patrol, which is why Governor Rotimi Akeredolu ensured that farmers and loggers in the reserve were duly registered. It is within this context that Governor Akeredolu mandated those who wished to carry on with their cattle-rearing business to register with appropriate authorities within the next seven days or risk evacuation from the forest.

Against the above backgrounds, it is unfortunate that Governor Akeredolu’ instruction generated controversy. In order to fully grasp the furor that followed his instruction, it is important to probe into why the controversy occurred at all. There are three major reasons.

First, the press was not helpful in reporting what Akeredolu said. Nor did anyone probe into the underlying reasons for the position he took. Rather, many reporters went for sensational headlines and inflammatory reportage, focusing on the ultimatum rather the substance of the order.

Second, rather than seek clarification, the presidency, or at least its media department, inflamed matters by tilting its statement in defence of the herdsmen. For example, it was Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, who brought “language”, “ethnicity”, “geographical origins”, “religion”, and “language” into the discourse and implied that Governor Akeredolu might be unilaterally “ousting” herders from his state. Again, in reporting the statement by Shehu, the press focused on the implied negativity of his statement than on reporting Shehu’ attempt at a middle-of-the-road position.

While many observers were surprised at the presidency’ immediate reaction to Governor Akeredolu’s statement, I was not, because it has become standard practice for this presidency to sprint to the press, either in self defence, in defence of sacred cows, or in defence of its nebulous position that the unity of the country is non-negotiable. With regard to herders, we have seen the presidency time and again drag its feet on matters affecting herders, even where it was clear that some of them committed criminal acts.

Third, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) understandably rose in defence of the herders. They acted more in reaction to press reports than to the substance of Governor Akeredolu’ statement. Understandably, the MACBAN would privilege herders over other groups in defence of their business.

It is refreshing that, at the end of the day, when of the Governors Forum, including the Governors of the tri-state area of Ondo, Ekiti, and Osun, met with delegates of MACBAN the other day, it became clear that the controversy was unnecessary after Both parties agreed that illegal occupation of the state’ forest reserve should be condemned and banned. In addition, night and underage herding were banned across the Southwest.

Nevertheless, the controversy was useful as it allows for clarification of Governor Akeredolu’ statement and for expert opinion on the legality of his order to the herders (see especially Festus Ogun’s “Akeredolu’s vacation order to herdsmen is legal and constitutional”, The Guardian, January 26, 2021).

The controversy also allowed Nigerians to appreciate the support for Governor Akeredolu’s order in the South, especially the Southwest. True, Governor Akeredolu was sometimes an outlier on some issues, but the people of Ondo state in particular and the Southwest in stood with him on this one.

There is also a lesson for state executives in communicating with the public and with our run-quickly-to-the-press reporters. Matters that have serious policy implications should not be presented casually or without sufficient preamble that would contextualize the policy. Governor Akeredolu had enough background to share with the press and the public when he gave the order for the herders to register like other users before using the forest reserve. He should have done so.

Nevertheless, the focus on the forest reserve should not take the focus away from insecurity in the state as indicated at the beginning of this article. It is heartening to note that Governor Akeredolu has begun to cast a wider net beyond the forests, by beefing up security measures across the state.