Following the mounting resistance to the federal government's proposal to establish cattle colonies as a panacea to the conflicts between herders of cattle and farmers that have led to several deaths in the country, President Muhammadu Buhari Thursday said that the proposal was not meant to colonise any part of the country as widely alleged.
Buhari also debunked allegations of bias levelled against him over his appointments since he assumed office almost three years ago, but again promised that he would take a second look at issues pertaining to the federal character principle when a compendium of all government appointments are eventually submitted to him.
Buhari made a similar promise late last year.
The president, who spoke on the cattle colonies and his appointments when he received members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) led by Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama in the State House, Abuja, also explained that he had not deliberately marginalised any ethnic group in the country.
Instead, the president, according to a statement by his Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, explained that government's intention with the proposed policy was only meant to create grazing locations for cattle rearers, pointing out that the proposal has been misconstrued as another form of colonisation.
The statement said Buhari expressed regret that what was conceived as a well-thought out policy, after wide consultations with stakeholders, had been largely misunderstood by a section of the public.
It added that Buhari assured the Catholic bishops that the federal government would continue to explore all opportunities and support initiatives to ensure that peace and stability prevail in restive areas.
Adesina also said Buhari condemned the recent spate of killings in Benue, Adamawa, Taraba and Zamfara States, pledging that security operatives would ensure that the perpetrators and all persons caught with illegal arms in the affected areas are prosecuted.
The president was quoted to have said: "The impression created that I was sitting in an air-conditioned office and at home, enjoying myself while these things happened, is dishonest.
"At every step, I have tried to foresee these problems because I have the experience as a former military officer who commanded three out of the four divisions of the Nigerian Army, in Lagos, Ibadan and Jos.
"I am quite aware of the problems we have and I am doing my best to get law enforcement agencies to be on alert."
The statement added that Buhari told the Catholic bishops that he would not be tired of recounting the remarkable progress recorded in the areas of security, the economy and the fight against corruption.
The president was confident that his government "has done very well in security in the North-east in comparison with what the situation was before we came in and what it is now".
"On the economy, particularly agriculture, I am very pleased that God answered the prayers of Nigerians who prayed for a bountiful harvest.
"People have taken advantage of the federal government policies and programmes to return to the farms and they have not regretted," Buhari was quoted to have informed his audience, adding that government would be guided by the laws of the federation in the investigation and prosecution of all graft-related cases.
"People are being prosecuted systematically with evidence. If a permanent secretary has five houses in Abuja, two in Kaduna and one in Borno and Sokoto and he can't account for the property and there are bank transactions linking him to the property, the prosecuting agencies will not have difficulties making progress on the case," Buhari was further quoted.
According to the statement, Kaigama, in his remarks, pledged that the Catholic Church in Nigeria would continue to support the government of Buhari and make its contribution to nation-building through prayers, admonitions and assistance to needy Nigerians.
"As the voice of the people, we shall continue to highlight the plight of our people and play our prophetic role of sensitising the government, thus promoting good governance, national unity and cohesion," Kaigama said.
He, however, admonished that the goodwill of the president was fast depleting because of failure on the part of his government.
Kaigama said as spiritual leaders, they have a moral responsibility to tell the president the truth.
The bishop said they work with the people at the grassroots and this gives them first-hand information about what they are going through.
"There is no doubt that when you came into office, you had an enormous amount of the goodwill of Nigerians, since many saw you as a person of integrity who would be able to bring sanity into a system that was nearly crippled by endemic corruption," the CBCN president said.
"Nearly three years later, however, one has this feeling that this goodwill is being depleted by some glaring failures of government which we have a moral responsibility to bring to your notice, else we would be failing in our duty as spiritual fathers and leaders.
"We work with the people at the grassroots and therefore have first-hand information about what they are going through," he added.
Kaigama said there was too much poverty in the land, noting that it looked like the country was under siege of many negative forces appearing to be keeping a stranglehold on the population, especially the weaker and defenceless ones.
"Your Excellency, there is too much suffering in the country: poverty, hunger, insecurity, violence, fear... the list is endless," he said.
"There is a feeling of hopelessness across the country. Our youths are restive and many of them have taken to hard drugs, cultism and other forms of violent crime, while many have become victims of human trafficking. The nation is nervous.
"Just as we seem to be gradually emerging from the dark tunnel of an economic recession that caused untold hardship to families and individuals, violent attacks by unscrupulous persons, among whom are terrorists masquerading as herdsmen, have led to near civil war situation in many parts of the country.
"We are saddened that, repeatedly, innocent citizens in different communities across the nation are brutally attacked and their sources of livelihood mindlessly destroyed. Lives are wasted and property worth billions of naira, including places of worship, schools, hospitals and business enterprises are torched and turned to ashes.
"We are still more saddened by the recent massacre of unarmed citizens by these terrorists in some communities in Benue, Adamawa, Kaduna and Taraba States which has caused national shock, grief and outcry.
"The silence of the federal government in the wake of these horrifying attacks is, to say the least, shocking. There is a feeling of helplessness among the people and the danger that some people may begin to take the law into their hands.
"We therefore earnestly urge the government to take very seriously its primary responsibility of protecting the lives and property of its citizens and ensure that such mindless killings do not reoccur. Herdsmen may be under pressure to save their livestock and economy but this is never to be done at the expense of other people's lives and means of livelihood.
"We would like to add our voice to those of other well-meaning Nigerians who insist that a better alternative to open grazing should be sought rather than introducing 'cattle colonies' in the country.
"While thinking of how best to help cattle owners establish ranches, government should equally have plans to help the other farmers whose produce is essential for our survival as a nation," he added.
Kaigama further noted that daredevil kidnappers that have had a field day, with a feeling of invincibility, must be made to understand that there is a government in the country.
"Government should invest more in equipping our police force with modern high-tech devices that will help them track down and arrest these criminals and make them face the wrath of the law," he said.
Also on the federal character principle, Kaigama reminded the president of the relevant section of the Constitution that provides for the fair and even distribution of appointments and resources in the country.
"The federal character principle is enshrined in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria: The government of the federation or any of it and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or in any of its agencies (Section 14, Sub-section 3-4).
"Disregard for this principle in some federal government appointments as well as the perceptible imbalance in the distribution of federal amenities has created the loss of a sense of belonging in many parts of the country, hence the constant cry of marginalisation, agitation for secession and calls for restructuring.
"These and many more such problems are, in our opinion, grave matters that should be worrying all political leaders in our country today, rather than any bid for re-election," Kaigma stated.
State Police Gets Osinbajo's Nod
Even as Buhari met with the clergy Thursday, the much-anticipated National Security Summit hosted by the Senate was convened in Abuja Thursday during which Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo threw his weight behind the creation of state police and community policing as a way of tackling rising insecurity in the country.
He equally said that the federal government's failure to ensure security, which every Nigerian is entitled to, was not a deliberate act, but caused by the complex nature of the security challenges and the obstacles faced by security agencies in the discharge of their duties.
Osinbajo, in his address at the summit, listed some of the issues that had diminished the ability of the state to adequately secure its citizens to include an inadequate police force, inadequate funding of the security infrastructure, complexity of the security challenges, and the proliferation of small and light weapons magnified by the fall of the late Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
"For a country our size to meet the one policeman to 400 persons, according to the UN prescribed ratio, we would require almost triple the number of our current police force.
"Far more funding for the military and security agencies is required. We cannot police a country the size of Nigeria centrally from Abuja. State police and other community policing methods are clearly the way to go," he said.
Osinbajo stressed that every Nigerian was entitled to adequate security from government for their lives and livelihoods.
"Government fails in that responsibility often, but I must say never deliberately. Every killing demeans us as a people. Every killing undermines the authority of the state.
"The failure to protect the lives of the innocent is inexcusable and we cannot rationalise and diminish that failure of the security apparatus of government in any way," Osinbajo added.
Despite the challenges that have constrained the security agencies, they have performed creditably well, the vice-president maintained and listed the degrading of Boko Haram, arrests of criminal kingpins and others, among the successes.
The vice-president also defended his principal, President Muhammadu Buhari, who has been criticised as being slow in responding to the killings resulting from herdsmen and farmers' clashes, because he is a Fulani man.
"In any event, the herdsmen and farmers' clashes resulting in deaths have been on for at least two decades. I have worked with him for three years now and I do not know of any one issue that has given him more concern, on which he has spent more time on security issues, as this particular issue," Osinbajo said.
He assured Nigerians that the executive was working in collaboration with several states to implement workable solutions to the constant clashes between farmers and herdsmen, and to work out plans for cattle breeding and cattle rearing that may include some temporary methods.
To this end, Osinbajo disclosed that about 13 states had agreed to allocate 5,000 hectares of lands for livestock production.
He, however, reiterated that land would not be taken forcefully to create ranches or grazing areas.
"All insinuations to that effect should be disregarded. Instead, it is our view that states that are willing should co-operate with willing investors to set up commercially viable and government-supported ranches or livestock production centres for commercial use," he said.
He, however, stated that in several states, especially in the north, there were duly designated grazing zones and grazing reserves which had been degraded and left without pasture or water especially in the dry season.
The grazing routes leading to these reserves must also be secured, Osinbajo said, for the reserves to operate effectively and operate as ranches for livestock production centres on a commercial basis, with essential services to boost animal care.
Osinbajo cautioned against giving a religious or ethnic colouration to the herdsmen-farmers' and other clashes across the country.
Speaking earlier, the President of the Senate Bukola Saraki called for the political will to tackle the level of insecurity ravaging Nigeria.
"I daresay the political will is what is required; and it is my hope that we shall marshal it as a legitimate instrument against this problem. Indeed, there is no reason why that should not be the case.
"This is not a summit to trade blame - in no way is this a blame game. Neither is it convened so that any person or entity can take credit. We just want solutions. Solutions only. That is all Nigerians require of us," Saraki said.
He pledged the commitment of the National Assembly to work with the executive to tackle the hydra-headed monster of insecurity.
"The sharp increase in murderous violence over and above the relatively manageable level of insecurity that has plagued our country for some time jolted us out of any last vestiges of complacency or denial. There can be no denying the horrific reality in many parts of our country today.
"People who should be neighbours are turning on one another and taking up arms. These attacks and reprisals are an intolerable cycle of hell that must be broken.
"Killings, kidnappings, mayhem and general lawlessness cannot be the new normal. We must take this country back and restore order," Saraki said.
Saraki also urged Nigerian leaders as well as the security agencies to stop playing politics and trading blame over the killings in the country.
He explained that no one organisation or arm of government can single-handedly tackle insecurity in the country, noting: "What our country needs at this time is leadership that will work to douse the flames and reduce tension in the land.
"It is essential that we lower the barriers in our actions and rhetoric, and refrain from playing politics with a crisis situation in which Nigerian lives are being lost tragically and needlessly on a regular basis.
"To the executive, I say this: you cannot do it alone - and this is why we are all here to join efforts. It is all hands on deck. No one person, organisation or arm of government can single-handedly tackle the hydra-headed monster of insecurity.
"The Constitution makes it clear that the safety of lives and property of citizens is the responsibility of government. We in government must therefore do everything in our power to ensure that Nigerians are safe from harm and their livelihoods and belongings protected."
The first day of the two-day summit took place at the NAF Conference Centre, Abuja, and is aimed at providing solutions to the security challenges in Nigeria.
The summit brings together a wide spectrum of stakeholders including: political leaders, security policy makers, governors - who are chief security officers in their states, security and intelligence chiefs, key persons in the nation's security architecture, regional and socio-cultural groups, traditional rulers, civil society organisations (CSOs) and others.
It continues on Monday.
Nigerian Air Force Base
Meanwhile, with the Nigerian military intensifying efforts to end the spate of killing in some states in the Middle Belt region, where herdsmen and farmers' clashes have continued unabated, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Thursday said it will soon establish an operational base around the Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba axis.
The Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, stated this during a public lecture at the National Defence College (NDC), Abuja.
Abubakar spoke on the plan when he delivered a lecture to participants of NDC Course 26.
Participants of the course were drawn from senior officers of the Armed Forces of Nigeria and those of sister African countries, senior officials of other security agencies in Nigeria as well as those of the ministries, departments and agencies of government.
Elaborating on the base, the NAF Director of Public Relations and Information, Air Vice Marshal Olatokunbo Adesanya, said the plan by the air force is to establish a Forward Operational Base (FOB) in Taraba State as part of plans to further tackle the incessant conflicts in the Middle Belt.
The lecture afforded the CAS the opportunity to share his thoughts with the participants on how the National Defence Policy prescribes the way NAF should be employed.
NAF had earlier announced plans to establish FOBs in Akwa Ibom and Cross River States as part of its commitment to combat emerging security challenges in those parts of the country.