Criminal gangs vs Ondo: Akeredolu will stand firm

Rotimi Akeredolu: Ondo State Governor

By Olatunbosun Oladimeji

Events this past week across the South West Nigeria again pointed to the urgency for institutionalisation of a stronger security architect to rein crimes and criminals without regard to ethnic or religious backgrounds of the perpetrators of all hues if we don’t want the country to go up in flames as we selfishly pander to our emotional or social-cultural attachments.

The week began with the needless, wrong-footed controversies over otherwise straightforward instruction by the Governor of Ondo State, Arakunrin Oluwarotimi  Akeredolu , to vacate the states’ forest reserves within seven days or to register with the local rulers within their communities if they want to continue to do business in the state.

However, before the end of the week, developments in Oyo State, especially the revolt of the people of Ibarapa against the herdsmen believed to have been complicit in the recent killings and kidnappings by Fulani gangs in the area have nearly pushed the Ondo case off media headlines. Even more vexatious was a newspaper report of the ordeal of some communities in Ogun State who out of frustration of perennial destruction of their farmlands and their livelihoods by cows, had asked the Fulani herdsmen grazing in their area to look for pasture for their animals elsewhere.

Consequently, on the return of the herdsmen, they were accompanied by soldiers who proceeded to brutalise the villages for daring to complain about the unsavoury activities of the people being forced on their communities by the soldiers.

Yet, we must return to Ondo State for a deeper understanding of the insecurities now posed to the people of the Southwest region by these rampaging Fulani gangs. Indeed, the problems of the criminals masquerading as herdsmen became an issue of concern in the South west when Chief Olu Falae, a former presidential candidate and secretary of the Federal Government on his farm was kidnapped from his farm in Ilu Abo, few kilometers outside Akure, the state capital in September 2015. The uproar generated by the abduction did not stop the kidnappers from demanding N100 million as ransom for his release, but the Elder Statesman was eventually released on the 24th of September, after the payment of N5 million ransom.

A criminal gang made up of Fulani youths were also fingered in the July 2019 fatal shooting of Mrs Funke Olakunrin, daughter of Afenifere leader, Chief Reuben Fasoranti and the killing of a first class traditional ruler, Oba Israel Adeusi, the Olufon of Ifon in an ambush at Elegbeka, few kilometers to his town last November. Same day, Mrs Olubunmi Ale, wife of the Chief of Staff to Governor of Ondo State, Chief Gbenga Ale was kidnapped at Owena, along Ondo /Akure highway. On the 16th of January, 2021, Dr. Amos Arijesuyo, the deputy registrar of Federal University of Technology Akure, FUTA, was also killed along Ilesa-Akure highway by bandits when he was returning from Ibadan to Ondo State.

Of course, there have been scores of unreported incidents of kidnappings, sometimes with the victims ending up dead as a result of inability to meet up with ransoms of their abductors over the years.

I, Olatunbosun Oladimeji was also a victim alongside two others on the 22nd of March, 2020; while journeying along Ore-Omotoso-Lagos Expressway. We spent three days as captives of the Fulani criminal gang during which we were subjected to a lot of hardship and threatened with death.

From my experience, I can boldly testify that these Fulani criminal gangs have mastered the geography of our forests in Ondo State. These are young individuals who are heartless and inhumane – they smoke different  substances, take drugs, beat up anybody who is unfortunate to fall into their hands day and night in order to make them put pressures on their families to meet their ransom demands. Many who cannot endure their atrocities end up dead in their custody. I hope to do an exclusive on my experience when psychological fit.

Asides from the kidnappings by the Fulani gang, the herdsmen have also been indicted in the destruction of the livelihood of our farmers through unrestricted grazing of animals that ate up farm produce. The famous up cocoa farm settlement in Ujugbere area of the state is now partially abandoned because of bad experiences of the three of the farmers, led by Prince Adebo Ogunoye, who were kidnapped and released after ransom was paid in August last year. During last week’s protest in Akure, a farmer recalled how his wife died two days after she was raped in her farm by Fulani herders recently.

Many farmers are already abandoning their farms either out of fear of being kidnapped or realization that their efforts will come to naught at the end of the day with cows eating up the crops. Unfortunately, the Police have not been able to respond to the security challenges posed by these Fulani gang due to their well-known limitations in terms of personnel and resources.

As the security officer of his state, Arakunrin Akeredolu cannot afford to stay idle, watching while criminals are having a field day kidnapping, maiming and killing his people. Hence, the Governor championed the establishment of the vigilance network, Amotekun as the Chairman of the Southwest Governors’ Forum, even standing his ground to defend the initiative against forces that seemed determined to stop its realisation.

Now, Amotekun is working in Ondo and most of the other states of the Southwest. So far, the Amotekun Corps have helped in the rescue of kidnapped victims and even, helped to recover cows stolen from herders carrying out their legitimate business in Ondo State.

The recent order by Governor Akeredolu that herdsmen should vacate all government forest reserves in the state within seven days during an interactive meeting in Akure with the leadership of the Hausa/Fulani and Ebira communities was also a step in this direction. The Governor had also banned night grazing in the state and the movement of cattle within cities and highways. This was in addition to outlawing grazing of cattle by children.

In issuing the directives, the Governor had noted that criminal elements have turned forest reserves in the state and across the South-west into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out other deadly activities.

He also noted that security reports and debriefings from victims of kidnap cases pointed in one direction traceable to some bad elements masquerading as herdsmen. There were no records that the Governor’s assertion was faulted by any of his guests. And there could not have been given the fact that forest reserves were primarily established for the purpose of conservation of the indigenous plants and fauna and not for cattle grazing. In any case and contrary to the slanted reporting of the directive, the Governor never asked herders to leave Ondo State, but the forest reserves.

As the governor of his State, Akeredolu also has the right to make laws about the forests in his state, outside of the influence of Aso Rock presidential villa. The ban on night grazing as well as grazing of cattle by under aged children are also obviously meant to stop destruction of livelihoods of farmers by herders and the attendant deadly  conflicts.

Many States across the country have implemented similar steps to stop invasion and destruction of farmlands by cattle and except for the mischievous, should actions meant to protect lives and livelihoods should not attract any form of fear or condemnation. The Governor of Ondo State indeed deserves all the support that can be given him to avoid turning our forests in Ondo State into a den of bandits and kidnappers who will come out occasionally to kidnap for money, robbery, rape, pleasure and kill villagers and commuters in scores as we are witnessing in other parts of the country.

Efforts of the Governor to revitalize the economy of Ondo through attraction of industries into the state are already yielding fruits. A secured environment is needed if the state is to continue to be an attractive investment destination as well as for the overall development of the State. This is why the Governor has been passionate about efforts directed at safeguarding security of lives and properties, a fact also acknowledged by the Presidency.

As a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, former President of Nigeria Bar Association Akeredolu is well aware of his rights and constitutional responsibilities as a state governor. He also knows that the constitution has placed the task of security lives of all in his domain, including the Fulanis and other dwellers on his shoulders.

As the seven-day grace given by the government to the herdsmen to vacate Ondo forest reserves   lapses, I know that this is a task the Governor will not shy away from in spite of the deluge of negative reactions and veiled threats by closet anarchists and enablers of crimes. I pray that almighty God will keep watch over him, the people, the state and our nation.

Time will tell!

Olatunbosun Oladimeji, a Senior Special Assistant on Publications to the Ondo State Governor writes from Akure