“If I were to remain silent, I would be guilty of complicity” – Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
“The fact that the southern Niger Republic is greener than parts of northern Nigeria should suggest to us that our approach to environmental management is defective” – Nnimmo Bassey (Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation – HOMEF).
The above two quotations are apt for the real reason why this article was written. The first one was from the fertile mind of the late renowned 1921Nobel Prize Winner in Physics, German-born Albert Einstein, “a theoretical Physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics.”(Wikipedia).
The second one was excerpted from an article in EnviroNews Nigeria (January 14, 2018). It is an omnibus online magazine that covers environmental, climate change, human settlement, sustainable development, water & sanitation, renewable energy, science, and technology issues in Nigeria and around the world. The said article titled: “Benue massacre: Ending the season of heady herders” was written by Nnimmo Bassey whose employment identity is disclosed above.
Be that as it may, this writer wants to draw the attention of readers to the ongoing national discourse in Nigeria on the proposed bill by the Federal Government to create cattle colonies throughout the states of the federation by invoking the “power of eminent domain” to acquire land in each state for the sole use by a few compatriots who are pastoralists (cattle rearers) from certain ethnic group, to the detriment of other compatriots who are mainly peasants engaged in subsistence farming as their means of livelihood.
Since the Federal Government intention was made public, the polity has been heated to the boiling point causing a barrage of caustic commentaries, vitriolic, diatribe, hate speeches, provocative newspaper articles, and TV discussions all laced with fury and ethnic or religious sentiments from both sides of the divide, that is the pro and con agitators who are for or against the idea being mooted by the Federal Government. Regrettably, it has caused violence traced to the Fulani herdsmen to escalate in some sections of the country.
Many innocent lives have been lost to the orgy of violence and drums of another civil war are being beaten by the aggrieved.
Benue State, in particular, was the major victim where scores of her indigenes were mercilessly massacred by the rampaging Fulani herdsmen. The social media is replete with gory and offensive pictures of women and children brutally macheted and decapitated. The ugly incident has been labeled “genocide” which means that we are slowly walking the road to Kigali, Rwanda, the consequence of which is better imagined than experienced.
How do we find ourselves in this avoidable and pitiable situation as a nation? Lethargy is number one reason. Two, we always indulge in playing the proverbial ostrich. Three, we often fail to plan and collaboratively plan to fail. This writer is an unrepentant critic of the government’s lackadaisical attitude to planning most especially environmental and physical planning, as pivotal as these two issues are. We constantly abuse the environment to the detriment of our health, the cities, regions and the country as a whole.
We set up a gamut of a lame duck and cueless institutional apparatus and regulatory bodies whose impacts are never felt by the citizenry regarding their functions and sundry responsibilities under their purview. Nnimmo Bassey was unequivocal about these shortcomings as encapsulated in the opening quote above and went further to indirectly intone that we leave leprosy (which is more harmful to human) to treat ringworm a less harmful disease. Put in simple word, bureaucracy is a national malaise. The Government lacks priority. It treats any matter of national urgency with tardiness and sometimes with levity until it snowballs to a national crisis. The herdsmen-farmers’ incessant crisis is a living and trending example.
It is a cumulative effect and abysmal failure of environmental management on the part of the Federal Government and lack of a land use inventory as a precursor to the preparation of national physical and environmental plans, which are long overdue in Nigeria. Quoting Bassey again, he said regarding our vegetative cover and water resources, “we tend to see our environment as capable of self-regeneration irrespective of how rabid our rate of consumption of Nature’s gifts to us…The result is the reality of desertification in northern Nigeria that we characterise as the downward march or spread of the Sahara Desert.” He added a poser, “if the desert were marching down so mercilessly, how come Niger Republic (a country closer to the Sahara Desert) has not gone completely under the sand?”
In the light of the debate about the perennial clashes between the herdsmen and local farmers around the country, I want to lend a voice rather than remain silent, to avoid being guilty of complicity as Albert Einstein opined. Albeit there have been series of suggestions on how to resolve the age-long national conflict, the rigid positions that are being taken by the various commentators and ethnic affiliates cannot and will never solve the problem. We need to be flexible and amenable to whatever position we take. First, the Federal Government approach needs to be reconsidered. Its use of the “power of eminent”( the power of Government to take private property and convert it to public use) is being wrongly applied in this case. There is no legal defense for the intended action of the government to take land from one group of people and hand it over to another set of people for personal business.
Pastoralism is a commercial business which anybody can engage in and not the exclusive business of a “particular ethnic nationalities nor region.” The cattle colonies are not for public use, which contradicts the letters of the eminent domain law. The Federal Government errs in law by robbing Peter (landowner-farmer) to pay Paul (the pastoralist) for the conduct of the latter’s private business.
In a Supreme Court landmark judgement in 2003 over a suit instituted by the Lagos State Government (LASG) against the Federal Government to determine which of the two governmental entities has the constitutional authority for planning, the apex court ruled in favour of LASG based on the premise that planning is a residual matter in the Nigerian constitution, which falls under the purview of the state. The Supreme Court ruled that the only area which the Federal Government could exert its power of authority on land use is within the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) including Abuja, the nation’s capital city. The land within the FCT can be subjected to any use as the Federal Government pleases in cognisance of the territory’s master plan. In a nutshell, the Federal Government cannot be too overbearing in the use of its power contrary to what the supreme law(constitution) of the land allows.
Land is a platform for development. It is the prerogative of each state to determine what and how it wants to use the land under its jurisdiction for developmental purposes. The establishment of cattle colonies could be the priority of the Federal Government, whereas mechanised agriculture could be a state’s priority. The two choices have one thing in common: they are both consumers of huge land. The states would be reluctant to release a large chunk of land to outsiders for a venture where they cannot reap any benefit for the good of their indigenes. It is an injustice. Like the late American civil rights icon, Martin Luther King pontificated, “an injustice anywhere is a treat to justice everywhere.”
The short-term solution is more engagement and dialogue with all warring parties to douse the tension of more violence. Furthermore, the Federal Government should aggregate all shades of opinions and technical recommendations volunteered by professionals and choose the best options to ameliorate the looming crisis. The use of Federal might through the enactment of a protective law that unjustly favours one ethnic group against the others is a recipe for national anarchy.
By Yacoob Abiodun (Urban Planner, Planning Advocate, Hayward, California, USA)