On the Asaba Revolt by southern governors

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Simon Kolawole

If you are a keen observer of Nigerian politics, or should I say politicking, you must have noticed many unusual things about the meeting of the 17 southern governors in Asaba, Delta state, on Tuesday. In the first place, that the southern governors met at all — and, mind you, every single governor was present; none was represented by a deputy — is one of the most unusual occurrences since the dawn of this democratic era. While the 19 northern governors meet regularly, the last time southern governors met as a bloc, from my records, was in October 2017. And that was after a 12-year hiatus. The first meeting was hosted by then Lagos governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, in 2002.

Another unusualness is the “solidarity”. I have always argued that unlike the north that pursues common interests with a single mind no matter the partisan divide, southern politicians traditionally lack a sense of solidarity. Not only are they divided along party lines, the dominant ethnic groups, Igbo and Yoruba, are eternally at each other’s neck, bickering over who owns Lagos and who doesn’t, and spitting bile over the £20 token compensation for the Biafran currency after the civil war. There is also a feeling in the south-south that the south-west conspired with the north to chase President Goodluck Jonathan out of office in 2015. Thus, the Asaba gathering is noteworthy.

It is also unusual, I would say, for the current set of southern governors, apart from Rivers Governor Nyesom Wike, to openly criticise Buhari. Although many governors privately grumble about the president’s lopsided appointments and inaction on many issues, they say something else in public, like sycophants. It’s as if they fear or idolise Buhari so much that they cannot criticise him. This was unlike the case of President Jonathan whom most governors used as toothpick when he was in office. I believe some of the governors who signed the Asaba communique did so reluctantly and I wouldn’t be shocked if they secretly called Buhari later at night to explain themselves remorsefully.

The Asaba Revolt, if you permit that rather strong expression, is all the more manifest in the resolution of the governors to demand a ban on open grazing and physical movement of cattle “across Southern Nigeria” — the keyword being “south”. The incursion of “armed herders, criminals and bandits” into the south, the governors said, “has presented a severe security challenge such that citizens are not able to live their normal lives including pursuing various productive activities leading to a threat to food supply and general security”. Open grazing has become a touchy political and ethnic issue in Nigeria since the escalation of herders/farmers conflicts in the last four to five years.

Restructuring — the southern cudgel — expectedly featured in the communique, but the southern governors were more specific, or narrow, unlike the regular agitators. They specifically demanded (1) evolution of state police (2) review of revenue allocation formula in favour of the sub-national governments (which will favour all the 36 states and 774 local governments, by the way), and (3) the creation of other institutions which legitimately advance commitment to and practice of “true federalism”. Of course, the governors know that Buhari cannot grant any of these three demands. They are clearly constitutional matters to be handled by federal and state lawmakers.

What do I think, generally? To start with, I do not want to pre-empt the governors on the proposal to ban open grazing as the details are still sketchy. My preliminary comment would be that you cannot ban open grazing overnight. It has to be well planned. You are dealing with millions of cattle, millions of jobs, millions of families, vital protein nutrition and a multibillion-dollar chain. You cannot disrupt this in one day. There would be unintended consequences. The insecurity will grow beyond crimes — which you may even expect the security agencies to tackle — but will extend to untold economic and nutritional crises, disrupting the livelihood of even southerners in the lengthy value chain.

Many are unaware that it is not just the herders that benefit from the cattle business. In fact, they are just a dot in the long line. All they do is breed and sell cattle. By the time the beef lands on your table, values have been created along the line through trading, banking, butchering, processing and vending. Cooking will invite a mesh of ingredients into the pot and Nestlé knows that. The food seller’s business is nothing without the beef, which is still the cheapest animal protein in Nigeria. The cow dung is manure for farmers. The bones are used to make chinaware. You know what? Millions of southerners benefit from the chain and probably make more money than the herders themselves!

To be sure, northern governors had also admitted in February that “the current system of herding conducted mainly through open grazing is no longer sustainable in view of growing urbanisation and population of the country”. This was a major shift, coming in the wake of the ethnic tension generated by the quit notice issued to northerners in some southern states over the activities of criminals believed to be herders. Unlike the Asaba resolution, however, northern governors spoke about a transition process, announcing that they had resolved “to aggressively sensitise herdsmen on the need to adopt new methods of herding by ranching or other acceptable modern methods”.

If southern governors are to ban open grazing and physical movement of cattle, there must be a programme of action which will include transportation and resettlement. One of the best ways of making an ineffective law is to make a law that cannot be obeyed. The end result is more chaos that can only stoke fire across the country. You cannot make herding disappear overnight. The good thing, I think, is that the hardliners in the north have moved from saying “open grazing is Fulani culture” and have now come to accept that things cannot continue like this. The socio-political consequences have damaged Nigeria and only an enemy of progress will insist on the status quo.

Luckily, there are vast lands in the north where the herders can be resettled. I have heard a lot about how Kano Governor Abdullahi Ganduje is making tremendous progress in creating large grazing reserves in the state. That, to me, looks like problem-solving in place of rabble-rousing. Transitioning from open grazing to ranching has to be methodical. It is not a communiqué issue. Since it cannot be enforced overnight, the order will be difficult to obey and the southern governors will only end up giving more ammunition to the Sunday Igbohos and Nnamdi Kanus to continue their ethnic campaigns. The consequences may not spare any part of Nigeria. We need to pause and think.

The southern governors asked President Muhammadu Buhari to respect “federal character” in his appointments. This was a bit shocking to me. I used to think southerners see “federal character” as a dirty phrase to be despised and avoided. I have always argued that those who wrote “federal character” into our constitution were not stupid — they wanted to avoid domination by any part of the country. The only way to ensure fairness and promote a sense of belonging in a multi-ethnic federation is to make sure significant federal appointments reflect our diversity. Some analysts believe that a part of the current tension in Nigeria is fuelled by Buhari’s pattern of appointments.

I was on the phone with a southern governor recently. He said northerners were systematically replacing southerners in positions “zoned” to the south: finance ministry, FIRS, NIMASA, etc. “The president, a northerner, is the minister of petroleum. The NNPC GMD is a northerner. Most agencies under the petroleum ministry are headed by northerners,” he lamented. One southern minister said he did not want to renew the tenure of a “disloyal” agency head (they are from the same state) but had to rethink “because they may go and bring somebody from Katsina state to replace him”. The rascal in me quietly jested: didn’t these guys say federal character should never matter?

While I am not trying to downplay the worries and demands of the southern governors, I am more interested in how they can work with Buhari to tackle this crippling insecurity and stop the bleeding in the land. Open grazing needs to stop, I agree; strategic federal appointments must reflect our diversity, I don’t dispute that; Buhari needs to talk to his citizens to calm their nerves, I accept; we need to restructure Nigeria, I concur (although my own ideas are about socio-economic restructuring rather than disguised balkanisation). But, most importantly, what Nigeria needs urgently is first aid. Nigeria is bleeding so profusely that the incurable optimists are worried.

I sympathise with the southern governors: they are under pressure from the streets to say or do something, otherwise they will soon be unable to leave the government house. In 1999-2003, governors of core northern states were under similar tremendous pressure from the streets, with the influence of clerics, to declare Sharia. This is politics: if you don’t eat, you will be eaten. But let us keep this in mind: we need to tackle this insecurity decisively and immediately. All other issues, including open grazing, practising “true federalism” and Biafra, will only be relevant if the prevailing anarchy does not consume us all. Nigerians need to be alive first; other things can always follow.

And four other things…

Like Magu, Like Hadiza

For those who keep saying they can go into government and make a positive impact, I would advise them to take it easy and learn from Ms Hadiza Bala Usman, the suspended MD of the NPA, and Mallam Ibrahim Magu, the sacked boss of the EFCC. Nigeria will kill your spirit. Though far from being perfect (who is perfect?), they both put in decent shifts in tackling the Nigerian rot. Hadiza has been touching the untouchables who think they can get away with anything in Nigeria. Sadly, Hadiza and Magu erroneously thought they had the full backing of President Buhari. I think the signals to forthright people in Buhari’s government are very clear: you are on your own. Unfortunate.

Pastor’s Plan B

Pastor Paul Adefarasin, the senior pastor of House on The Rock, trended on social media when he asked his church members to have a Plan B out of Nigeria — even if it is to flee to Cameroon — because of the current situation. You can pardon Adefarasin, who happens to be one of my favourite pastors, because he is an elite pastor speaking to his elite gathering. The elite will always take care of themselves. In fact, many have multiple citizenships. But let us spare a thought for over 150 million Nigerians who cannot even afford to pay visa fees much less buy flight tickets. And, sadly, they are the most-hit victims of this dysfunctional Nigerian state — with no possible Plan B. Tragic.

Remaking Nigeria

I just got a copy of ‘Remaking Nigeria: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices’, edited by Chido Onumah. It is a book of essays by a diverse collection of writers and thinkers Nigeria can boast off, all discussing the present and the future of Nigeria. Among the contributors are: Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, Adebola Williams, Doifie Buokoribo, Amina Salihu, Dike Chukwumerije, Ruona Meyer, Zainab Usman, Idayat Hassan, Chris Adetayo and Yemi Adamolekun — to name but a few of the array of writers who have consistently contributed to nation building in their spheres of influence. The diagnoses and prescriptions are there and well-articulated. The will to transform Nigeria is the next step. Vital.

Crude Igbohoism

Chief Sunday Igboho, the so-called Yoruba rights activist, made uncharitable comments on the death of the son of Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the general overseer of RCCG. His grouse is that Adeboye has not been using his pulpit to support the agitation for Oduduwa Republic. That Igboho, a veteran political thug, has become a revered leader among the Yoruba is one thing, but that a Yoruba would be hailed for mocking the death of anyone at all says a lot about where the values of Oduduwa descendants are headed. Igboho, whose own family is reportedly in Germany, can continue to beat the drums of war but the comment on late Dare Adeboye is totally distasteful and disgusting. Crude.

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