By Owei Lakemfa
HUMANITY was given the earth as a sustainable security. Our entire lives depend on it. However, human beings constitute the greatest danger to earth. In realisation of this, strategic thinkers developed the idea of establishing forest reserves to stem the earth’s destruction and try to preserve life as we know it. Forest reserves are state-protected areas where commercial activities of any kind are prohibited in order to preserve biodiversity and protect endangered species. They are special areas of conservation and research from which the general public is prohibited.
These measures have been quite inadequate to protect the forests from human ruination. Only 30 per cent of earth is still forested and even that is fast disappearing. Nigeria loses 350,000 – 400,000 hectares of forest annually to the extent that the Lake Chad Basin which used to provide sustainable existence for millions of people, has largely given way to the advance of the desert.
In Nigeria, it was the British colonialists who established our forest reserves, beginning from the 19th Century. By the 1930s, we had 30,000 square kilometres of such forests, and in the 1970s, we had 93,420 square-kilometres of forest reserves. To make matters worse for us, these forest reserves have become ungoverned spaces where terrorists, kidnappers and bandits roam freely.
Many of our forest reserves like the over 66 square-kilometre Akure Forest, the 561 square-kilometre Idanre Forest, the 829 square-kilometre Oluwa Forest and the 144 square kilometre Okeluse Forest, are in Ondo State. However, today, the primary concern of the state government that has constitutional rights over all the lands in the state, is not preservation, but security of lives.
On Monday, January 18, 2021, the state governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, a former President of the Nigeria Bar Association, ordered all herdsmen to vacate the forest reserves in the state within seven days. His reasons and motives are unambiguous and as clear as day light. He said: “Today we have taken major steps at addressing the root cause of kidnapping, in particular, and other nefarious activities detailed and documented in security reports, the press and debriefings from victims of kidnap cases in Ondo State. “These unfortunate incidents are traceable to the activities of some bad elements masquerading as herdsmen. These felons have turned our forest reserves into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out other criminal activities. As the Chief Law and Security Officer of the State, it is my constitutional obligation to do everything lawful to protect the lives and property of all residents of the State.” In light of the foregoing he issued some orders which included that: “All Forest Reserves in the State are to be vacated by herdsmen within the next seven days.” He also banned movement of cattle within cities and highways, under-aged grazing of cattle and night-grazing “because most farm destruction takes place at night.”
In the first place, occupying a forest reserve is illegal; so the herders should not have been there. Also, given the Federal Government’s inability to govern many of our forests like the Sambisa Forest from which the Boko Haram terrorist have operated for over a decade, it makes sense for such a basic security step to be taken. What any reasonable and patriotic person or group should do is either to support such a fundamental security step, or if they disagree, to seek further explanation or dialogue, not to issue threats.
However, in its characteristically Trumpian style of twisting facts, issuing threats and causing division amongst the Nigerian people, the Muhammadu Buhari government claims that the governor has decided to expel herders from the state even where Akeredolu specifically mentioned forest reserves! The Presidency said Akeredolu “will be the least expected to unilaterally oust thousands of herders who have lived all their lives in the state on account of the infiltration of the forests by criminals”. This misrepresentation which gives the impression that Akeredolu expelled herders from the entire state is a deliberate attempt to stir up ethnic conflicts just as Trump tried to carry out an insurrection in America after falsely claiming the elections were rigged.
The government had similarly twisted the 2020 Christmas message by Bishop Hassan Matthew Kukah. The priest had said: “Every honest Nigerian knows that there is no way any non-Northern Muslim President could have done a fraction of what President Buhari has done by his nepotism and gotten away with it. There would have been a military coup a long time ago or we would have been at war.” Buhari’s government deliberately misrepresented this statement as the Bishop: “Calling for a violent overthrow of a democratically-elected government.” Riding on the back of this misrepresentation, an illiterate who claims to be a professor, said the statement is an attack on Islam, so the Bishop must be expelled from Sokoto. The Presidency that had set the stage for the attack on Bishop Kukah then issues a tongue-in-the-cheek statement saying Kukah, like all Nigerians, has a right to live in any part of the country he likes. But it made no moves to bring in those calling for the Bishop’s head.
Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State, was like Akeredolu, a sitting governor, member of the ruling All Progressives Congress and a supporter of President Buhari. But once he took administrative steps to regulate the activities of herdsmen, the Presidency attacked him and he chose to leave the party. The same tactics is being played on Akeredolu, giving him the option of either standing like a man for the protection of all Nigerians living or passing through Ondo State, or surrendering to the strong arm tactics of the Buhari government.
If the Buhari administration cannot engage in civilised dialogue with Governors Akeredolu and Ortom, and would not tolerate the views of Kukah, a man wedded to peace, with whom can it dialogue? Is it with the motor park touts who are now gaining political power; the cultists who are waxing stronger; the bandits who run substantial territories; the kidnappers who are the kings of our highways or the Boko Haram terrorists whose ‘defeat’ has been announced so many times since 2015 that it has become the butt of jokes?
With the military’s inability to clear the Sambisa forest of terrorists, bandits controlling large parts of country, it is in the self-enlightened interest of the country to rally round states like Ondo which want to ensure that our forests will never be sanctuary of terrorists, kidnappers and bandits. It will make no sense to allow the rest of the country fall under the control of criminals. But if the Buhari government thinks otherwise, it is the duty of other strands of government to take a stand in defence of the general citizenry.