BY REUBEN ABATI
On Tuesday, May 11, 2021, 17 Governors of the Southern States of Nigeria met in Asaba, Delta State to discuss issues of common interest. They came up with a 12-point communique in which they raised key issues about the future of Nigeria and the Southern region. This was not the first time Southern Governors would meet under the same roof. They are all members of the Nigerian Governors Forum –a pan-Nigeria Forum for all CEOs of Nigeria’s sub-nationals. There is also the Progressive Governors’ Forum which is the umbrella body of the Governors of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the ruling party in Nigeria. There is the Northern Governors Forum. Nigeria also has the North East Governors Forum. The South West Governors Forum. The South East Governors Forum. And the PDP Governors Forum.
But the meeting of the Southern Governors attracted special interest for a number of reasons: the symbolism of it, the timing (at a time of serious existential crisis in the country), its bi-partisan character and the weightiness of the outcome. The 17 Southern Governors comprise 9 Governors of the Peoples Democratic Party, seven Governors of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and one Governor of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). Two Governors were absent – Ben Ayade (Cross River, PDP) and Gboyega Oyetola (Osun State, APC). The Governors of Imo and Akwa Ibom were represented by their Deputies. As far as meetings go, it was a successful outing, nonetheless, and one week later, there has been no voice of dissension – the Southern Governors seem to be united on all the 12 points that they raised. That there has been such unanimity of purpose is in part responsible for the furore that the statement by the 17 Southern Governors has generated.
Their submissions can be divided into two parts: the non-controversial and the controversial. In the former category, we can group such declarations as the expression of commitment to the unity of Nigeria on the basis of justice, fairness and equity – that is more or less a familiar cliché from official quarters; co-operation among the Southern states – that is understandable; strategies needed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic – of course, yes; the need to address the security challenges in the country – that is obvious enough, the need for the activation and establishment of ports in other states of the Federation to create new jobs and promote socio-economic activities – with Nigeria’s unemployment standing at 33.3% according to the National Bureau of Statistics, it would be difficult to fault this proposal. The problem, however, is with the controversial observations and resolutions of the Southern Governors Forum, beginning with their declaration of a ban on open grazing of cattle in every part of Southern Nigeria, their call for the convocation of a national dialogue; their demand for restructuring (state police, review of revenue allocation formula in favour of the sub-national units, and practice of true federalism) and their resolve that appointments into Federal Government agencies must be reviewed in line with Federal Character.
The meeting of the Southern Governors’ Forum has been regarded as an affront by many Northern stakeholders. This has thrown up ethnic and geographical sentiments – a veritable indication of the fault lines in Nigeria and the inherited culture of mistrust that has been the bane of the country’s development process. The Leaders of the North and the South first met together in Ibadan in 1950. Northern Governors have been holding meetings since 1959. Even if that has not at any point translated into any concrete benefits for the Northern masses, at no point did leaders of the South query the right of Northerners to discuss issues of interest in their region. A Southern Governors’ Forum was announced and hell literally broke loose! The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) says the meeting of the Southern Governors is “a call for secession” and that the Southern Governors are “confused and mischievous”. Northern Leaders – Tanko Yakassai, Professor Usman Yusuf, Senator Ali Ndume and curiously enough, the Senate President, Senator Ahmad Lawan – have also faulted the position of the Southern Governors.
The sub-text of their argument is that the Southern Governors should have consulted their Northern counterparts because the issues they addressed at the May 12 meeting were of national interest. But when have the Northern Governors ever consulted Southern Governors when they take decisions about security, education, the Sharia and the development process in the North? There is an independent forum for the meeting of all Governors and that is the Nigeria Governors Forum. Governors across the country have been meeting on a regional basis and that is why we have the North East Governors Forum, and the South East Governors Forum and the South West Governors Forum, because every region has its own peculiar concerns within the Nigerian Federation. To condemn Southern Governors for meeting in that context would amount to a sheer display of intolerance and pretentious censorship. And what gives anyone the audacity to think they can dictate the format of a meeting of any concerned stakeholder-group in Nigeria?
Further, the presence of the Southern APC Governors at the meeting was considered an act of rebellion against the President of Nigeria and disloyalty against the ruling party. How? The Southern Governors asked for the support of the Federal Government to develop alternative and modern livestock management systems as a way of ensuring the ban on open grazing is upheld as declared. How is that an act of rebellion against the President? Southern Governors also asked for a review of appointments into Federal Government agencies in line with Federal Character. They are more or less in that regard reminding the President that the Federal Character Principle is enshrined into the 1999 Constitution: Section 14(3) thereof. It is common knowledge that the Buhari administration has been criticised heavily by other Nigerian stakeholders for gifting key positions in government to persons from his own ethnic group.
Most recently, the people of the South East protested that a decision to introduce yet undisclosed security measures in that part of the country was the outcome of a meeting which had no person of South Eastern extraction in attendance, who could have at least expressed an opinion and have an idea of the secret measures targeted at the people of the South East. The point needs to be stressed that being an APC Governor is not a wilful submission to slavery or mental lobotomy. Bi-partisanship is a civilized, public-spirit mode of politics. Membership of a political party should not turn politicians into zombies without a mind of their own. The President of Nigeria is not a monarch, even if the 1999 Constitution gives the impression that he is. Even members of his own party should be at liberty to criticize his government. Southern APC Governors attending the Asaba meeting should not be vilified. They should refuse to be intimidated. Since the Asaba meeting, I have seen reports that APC Governors in the South are being summoned to meetings, ostensibly to whip them into line. It is shameful that this is the kind of politics we play.
The decision of the Southern Governors to ban open grazing, already a matter of law in some of the states: Oyo, Ondo, Ekiti, Ebonyi, and elsewhere has been described as illegal and unconstitutional to the extent, so the argument goes, that it is a violation of the Land Use Act and Section 41 of the Constitution and therefore a derogation of the fundamental human rights of the cattle herder. A notable academic of Northern extraction, a good friend of mine, has also argued that before the Southern Governors can ban open grazing of cattle, they must first of all give land to the Fulani herdsman, otherwise they would be violating the Land Use Act. But this is incorrect. There is nowhere the Constitution of Nigeria talks about the exclusive rights of cattle herders. If a cattle rearer says he is entitled to land in the Southern part of Nigeria, can a farmer or fisherman make a similar claim in the North? Section 1 of the Land Use Act vests the ownership of land, in public trust, in the Governor of a State. Not even the President of Nigeria can control land in the states. He can only do so in the Federal Capital Territory. There is no law that makes the President of Nigeria and/or his kinsmen owners of the Nigerian territory. By the same token, Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution is clear enough.
Section 41 talks about the right of every citizen to move freely throughout Nigeria, to reside in any part thereof, and not to be expelled from the country or refused entry or exit therefrom. The Constitution in Section 41 does not grant the right of free movement to cattle. It refers to human beings. What the Southern Governors are opposed to is the free movement of cattle on foot, a phenomenon that has created herders and farmers conflicts with grave implications for national unity and stability. The impression that the President of Nigeria, a patron of the Miyetti Allah, and himself, a cattle owner, is biased in the matter is the key problem. In defining the emergent conflict as North-South, it is however noteworthy that some key voices in the North also agree with the Southern Governors. Umar Ganduje, the Governor of Kano State, Bala Mohammed, his colleague in Bauchi state, former Governor Saminu Turaki of Jigawa State, now, Deputy Chairman of the Justice and Equity for Peace and Unity Initiative (JEPUIN), and the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) think that the Southern Governors are right. The peripatetic movement of cattle from the North to the South and backwards is not a matter of tradition or culture or ethnicity. It is more about commerce and the best way to maximize returns on investment. The Southern Governors are therefore, calling for modernization, progress and stability. It is again a function of where we are as a country that this has been reduced to the politics of ethnicity.
The Southern Governors are also calling for a national dialogue and restructuring and this is considered rebellious? There is no harm in having a dialogue. We can talk from now till 2023, but from our experience, how many people pay attention to dialogue or are ready to have a conversation? Nigeria, most unfortunately has reached a point where persons, groups, constituencies, or communities believe that their own version of reality is the only possible interpretation. For a country that gained independence and emerged as a Republic through dialogue and negotiations, this new reality is tragic. Communal leaders have lost control. The government has lost the people. The people have lost trust in government. The country has lost direction. Non-state actors have filled the vacuum. Nigeria is now at a point where non-state actors can declare openly that there will be no elections in 2023 because they will not allow it to happen in parts of the country. Bandits and terrorists now share palliatives to the people and they are enthusiastically embraced. Thugs have become local heroes. Pastors no longer preach hope and endurance. They preach anarchy and ask the Congregation to have a Plan B. Citizens in successful countries do not have Plan B. They are committed to the land of their birth. Nigeria falters. It has become fragile, because it is a country in search of committed citizens. To worsen matters, the word restructuring has become a cliché in popular parlance. It means too many things to many people.
On the question of national dialogue, what does it matter if people insist that they would rather talk than fight? But notably, one major objection to the idea of another round of national dialogue as currently shaped, came from the South. Mike Ozekhome, SAN holds the viewpoint that there is no point spending so much money organizing another national dialogue when the last one in 2014, of which he was a participant, had already raised all the cogent points that the Southern Governors believe will move the country forward, to wit: the devolution of powers, review of revenue allocation formula, state police and the need for restructuring. Ozekhome defends the outcome of the 2014 National Conference. He believes it could have marked a new beginning for Nigeria and the search for a new way forward.
It is unfortunate that the same conference gathers dust in the people’s memory. Nobody should be surprised if the paper on which it is written is now being used by road side hawkers on the streets of Abuja to sell roasted corn and groundnut. The reason has nothing to do with the common good but the politics of ego and difference. Whatever is wrong with Nigeria is well known and had been debated before now. The courage to do what is right by the people is what we miss.
The organizers of the Southern Governors Forum can pat themselves on the back, despite it all, that they got the attention they wanted. What do they expect? All the Governors of the Southern part of Nigeria coming together under one roof is in itself enough “act of provocation” and surprise, in the eyes of those who understand that the country is truly at a precipice. What is required is a little push and yet nobody wants to go down in history as the catalyst for such an end-game moment. All of a sudden, even the National Assembly is divided. Southern lawmakers have all aligned behind the Governors of their part of the country. Northerners are supporting their own region as well, with the exception of a few. Not even before the Civil war (1967 -70) was Nigeria this clinically polarized along geographical lines. This proves a point: Nigeria is in need of redemption, rescue, and leadership. Those who think otherwise are enemies of the people.