The days ahead will certainly pitch the Federal Government under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari in a battle of wits with the seventeen governors of Southern States of Nigeria over the issue of open grazing of cattle.
In early May 2021, the Southern Governors had gathered in Asaba, Delta State to deliberate on many issues of common interest among which was the vexed issue of continuous attack and killing of southern farmers and other innocent people by nomadic Fulani herdsmen who are usually armed with sophisticated weapons such as AK47 rifles.
Prominent among the several resolutions contained in the communique of the Governors which has now famously been known as ASABA DECLARATION, is the ban on open grazing of cattle in any part of the southern states.
To that effect, legislative assemblies in the states have commenced the process of giving legal backing to the Governors’ resolution so as to make it a crime for anyone found openly grazing cattle any where in the states.
Soon after the declaration was made public, some Nigerians of northern extraction took swipe over the decision and went to town criticising the southern governors even though some discernible northerners were able to see the southern governors’ stance as a wake-up call for their northern counterparts to embark on ranching as a modern way of breeding cattle without incurring the anger of farmers who currently suffer more in the hands of the herdsmen and their cows.
Regrettably, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice (AGF), Abubakar Malami, a Nigerian of northern extraction did not hide his misgivings with respect to the ban on open grazing by southern governors.
He went extra mile to declare from his Olympian height that, should the Governors make good their decision, the northern states would also ban spare parts dealers of Southern extraction trading in the North.
Pained in similar manner like Malami; President Buhari short of using exact words like the AGF, tried to take an easy route by ordering Malami to begin the process of recovering lands from persons perceived to have converted cattle grazing route for their personal use.
In giving this order which he openly spoke about in his interview with ARISE Television early June, Buhari said he had given approval for the return of open grazing practiced during the First Republic where herdsmen used designated grazing routes to move cattle to several parts of the country.
Following this presidential statement, more issues have continued to emerge as some Nigerians contend that no grazing routes were known to law in the First Republic but rather grazing reserves.
Nigeria is said to have had a total of 415 grazing reserves in 21 states out of which 141 only were gazetted with just only two southern states Oyo and Ogun being part of the 21 states.
All the grazing reserves cover a total of 4,275,326 hectares of land and the National Grazing Reserve Law is of 1965 with no law on grazing routes in any part of the country. Findings revealed that the law on grazing reserves is the only state law recognised in 1999 Constitution which actually criminalises open grazing. Same as Reserve Law in Northern Nigeria which criminalises open grazing.
In the light of this non existence of law on grazing routes, some Southern interest groups like Afenifere, a Yoruba Social Cultural body has advised the Federal Government to jettison the attempt on grazing routes as the needed solution to herdsmen farmers clash would not come from such.
Similarly, prominent lawyers of southern extraction such as Femi Falana; a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) have accused Malami of using his position as the AGF to mislead President Buhari on the assumed existence of grazing routes in Southern Nigeria. Malami had said that open grazing was backed by law and gazetted.
In all of this, it is glaring that the AGF has connivingly aligned with the President to assume the law on grazing reserves to be the law on open grazing and grazing routes. However, whether their intentions would be perfectly conveyed in the construction of a new law to back up their position, is a matter that holds no certainty as the Southern Governors and their state assemblies are not relenting in their decision to outlaw open grazing.
In the days ahead, if the Federal Government goes ahead to create a new law by fiat to give legal teeth in promoting open grazing or grazing routes and the Southern States remain committed in pushing their ban on open grazing, there would surely be a stalemate that will ultimately lead to litigation in the courts of the land.
With a stalemated position whereby neither the Federal nor the Southern States would have their way, the Supreme Court may be the last resort to give a ruling on the matter and one cannot be sure of how long the matter may take to be decided.
However, we need to point out the fact that if the Federal Government goes ahead to seek an injunction restraining the Southern States from enforcing their ban and allowing the status to remain, chances are that the states may resort to self help whereby reprisal attacks against the marauding helmsmen would be unimaginable.
We would therefore advise the federal government to apply some caution in trying to legal grazing routes in the southern states when it is already clear that the states do not want movement of cows and their herders in a manner inimical to the safety of their citizens.
We hasten to suggest that the Federal Government should pay more attention in setting up ranches in the grazing reserves of the North for the breeding of the cows and let dealers from the south come to buy from them to meet their needs.