Abuja, Kaduna and Akure — Herdsmen will not be allowed to operate in Ondo State's forest reserves without permission, the state government insisted yesterday.
The insistence came against the backdrop of Tuesday's caution by the presidency against the seven-day ultimatum the state Governor, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN), gave to herders to quit the forest reserves.
The presidency's intervention stoked the controversy over the quit order as the pan Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere and the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), which supported the governor, clashed with the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) that opposed the decision.
Some senior lawyers have also endorsed the constitutionality of Akeredolu's decision.
In a statement in Akure yesterday, the state government, in a tacit repudiation of the presidency's intervention, said no herdsman will graze on the forest reserves in the state without permission.
The state Commissioner for Agricultural and Rural Development, Mr. Adegboyega Adefarati, said in the statement that over 50,000 farmers have been registered to engage in various agricultural activities in the state's forest reserves and no herder will be permitted to graze without going through the same process.
It said: "We have registered over fifty (50,000) thousands of farmers who engage in different forms of agricultural activities in Ondo State Government Forest Reserves. With this, we regulate their activities and reduce criminality as we interface daily with farmers.
"Love it or leave it; farming is farming, be it crop production or animal husbandry. If any Nigerian irrespective of his/her state of origin desires land for farming in Government Forest Reserves, he/she must apply to Ondo State Ministry of Agriculture and pay the normal fee for the required hectares of land.
"It is illegal for herdsmen to encroach on the Ondo State Government Forest Reserves without permission and graze on the farms, many of which will be destroyed."
However, the various groups disagreed on the reaction of the presidency to the governor's decision for the herdsmen to quit the forest reserves.
While NEF and ACF called on Akeredolu to rescind the seven-day ultimatum to herdsmen to vacate the forest, PANDEF and Afenifere condemned the reaction of the presidency on the issue.
Reacting to the quit notice in separate statements issued yesterday in Kaduna, ACF and NEF asked the governor to follow the provisions of the constitution in handling the issue, adding that the constitution guarantees freedom of movement of all Nigerians.
NEF, in its statement, described the governor's action as provocative and unhelpful in the quest to address the security challenges.
A statement signed by NEF's Director, Publicity and Advocacy, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, said if there are criminal elements among the Fulani in Ondo State, appropriate steps should be taken to identify them and deal with them.
NEF stated that the Fulani are not above the laws and must obey all laws and regulations as well as respect the communities in which they live.
The forum noted that Akeredolu as a senior lawyer should know that the constitution does not give him the power to deny any Nigerian the right to live where he chooses, if he does not break the law in the process.
"We call on Governor Akeredolu to rescind his order on the Fulani or clarify his position in the event that he is misunderstood.
"He has a responsibility to protect the rights of all people in Ondo State, including the Fulani, and he will be well advised to engage them towards improving security in the state instead of treating all of them as criminals without rights or protection under the constitution," it added.
In its reaction, spokesman of the ACF, Mr. Emmanuel Yawe, urged the governor to follow the provision of the constitution in addressing the issue.
According to him, the constitution guarantees all Nigerians the right to live within the country, stressing that if any Fulani in Ondo State has committed a crime, he should be fished out and prosecuted according to the law.
The ACF said every offence has its own punishment "and our forum has not seen a law, which says a Nigerian should be denied the freedom to settle anywhere and pursue legitimate business according to the law."
But PANDEF called on President Muhammadu Buhari to call his media aide, Malam Garba Shehu, to order over his comments on the one-week ultimatum given to herdsmen.
PANDEF spokesman, Mr. Ken Robinson, in a statement yesterday, also asked other governors, especially in the South-west to speak out on the matter.
"The callous and barbaric deeds being perpetrated by supposed herdsmen, should not be allowed to continue, anywhere in Nigeria," it said.
PANDEF described as irresponsible and unfortunate the statement credited to the presidency, saying Shehu has now become the mouthpiece of herdsmen.
Also reacting, Afenifere advised the five other governors in the South-west to emulate Akeredolu and flush out herdsmen from their respective states.
National Publicity Secretary of Afenifere, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, in a statement yesterday, stressed the need for all Yoruba to stand by Akeredolu and other South-west governors in their bid to rid the zone of the excesses of the herdsmen.
"All true-born Yoruba should stand behind Governor Akeredolu in these trying times. He must do all within the law to flush Ondo forests of all criminals. Other governors should emulate their chair and free our land from the Fulani who have surrounded us with the shield of the federal government," he stated.
SANs Back Ondo Gov
Some senior lawyers have also endorsed Akeredolu's decision.
Human rights lawyer, Mr. Ebun-olu Adegboruwa (SAN), faulted the presidency over its response, saying that the governor was right to have ordered herders to vacate the forest reserves in the state.
Adegboruwa said the presidency misinterpreted the constitution.
He said: "While it is herdsmen in the south, it is foreigners in the North. All of us are suffering.
"The constitution that the presidency is referring to is being misconceived and misinterpreted. Section 43, which grants people the right to own properties anywhere in Nigeria, cannot be construed as taking other people's properties.
"When you get to a forest, it rather belongs to an individual, a community, or government.
"So, if you want to come to occupy a forest as a stranger, you must obtain the consent of any of the owners. You are a trespasser and any of them can activate a process to forfeit your trespass. This is what the governor has done by giving notice."
A former boss of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Professor Epiphany Azinge (SAN), said a governor, being the chief legal officer of a state, can take actions or "wield the big stick" if and when it is necessary for the peace, order and security in the state.
Azinge noted that the move by Akeredolu did not violate constitutional provisions of Nigerians to settle down in the state but was aimed at ensuring that there is peace and order in the state.
"When a group of people settle in a particular location and they live there peacefully, nobody can ask them to leave but when you now foster and promote criminality among others, or you are in a situation where it is difficult for peace to reign in a particular community because of your presence or attitude, the governor as the chief law officer of that particular state reserves the right to ensure that law is maintained at all times and peace and order is in that particular environment," he stated.
But another senior lawyer, Mallam Ahmed Raji (SAN), noted that the issue goes beyond ownership of land which he acknowledged, is vested in the governors.
He explained that ownership of land is one thing while the capacity to maintain security on the land is another.
"The issue calls for a delicate balance between security and individual rights of citizens or aliens. Security should be paramount because if security is absent, individual rights to property, live, association and movement may be a mirage.
"The government has a duty to strike the right balance. And this calls for collaboration among all the tiers and arms of government," he said.
For Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), the Land Use Act of 1978 has since laid the issue of who controls land in Nigeria to rest with Section 28 of the Act empowering governor to revoke rights of occupancy in the overriding public interest.
"It is within the powers of the state government to exorcise occupants of lands within its territories if it is in the overriding interest of the public. Governor Rotimi Akeredolu can, therefore, in exercising the rights granted to him by virtue of his position as governor of Ondo State, issue the order asking herders to vacate the forests reserves within seven days, simply on the ground that the reserve belongs to the state government," he said.
He, however, said the governor lacked the powers to sack the herders from the state because the order breaches the citizen's right(s) under the 1999 constitution.
"Legally speaking, the right channel available for Governor Akeredolu is for the governor to file an action at the Federal High Court, stating the reasons as to his request to oust the herdsmen from the forest reserves and vacate his state," he said.
Deji Elumoye, Alex Enumah, Adedayo Akinwale, John Shiklam, James Sowole