By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
I read the story with some disbelief, praying that it will soon be rebutted and denied as one of those social media stunts. But alas! The police authorities in Ondo State later confirmed that Chief Olu Falae was indeed attacked in his farm around Oba Ile area of Akure, by suspected herdsmen. How could this happen, with such bravado, for the herders to set parts of the farm on fire, destroy the crops and hope to get away untouched? Not long thereafter, the tension was stoked again with the cold-blooded murder of Mrs. Funke Olakunrin, daughter of Pa Fasoranti, frontline statesman and prominent Yoruba leader. And as if these were not enough, we woke up one day to learn that a frontline Pastor of the Christ Apostolic Church and Deputy Registrar of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, was killed by men masquerading as herdsmen. Then the unthinkable happened, when a first class traditional ruler, the Olufon of Ifon, was gunned down on the expressway, whilst the criminals eloped into the Ogbese forest. It was then clear to all, not the least the people of the South West of Nigeria, that something had to be done, urgently.
Generally speaking, land belongs to God, from the perspective of the holy scriptures, where it is stated that the land and all that are in it, are owned by God. God has however been generous to put man in charge of the land, while man has in turn put the government in charge, to hold the same in trust for the people. This is the purport of the Land Use Act, which is now protected by the Constitution, being one of those special laws inserted into the Constitution to protect them from undue amendments or outright repeal. Land comes in several categories, most of which is virgin land not occupied physically. Between 1985 and 1989, I joined my Uncle to traverse the length and breadth of Ogbese River, abutting the expansive but rich Ogbese Forest, in search of timber, for commercial exploitation. Since my Uncle dealt at length with the Forest Guards, I had to follow him to attend most of the meetings, during which I became familiar with the workings and operations of the Forestry Departments, in Ondo, Edo, Delta, Ogun and Lagos States.
Perhaps unknown to herdsmen and the Presidency, there is an existing law in Ondo State, enacted as far back as 1st February, 1938, for the creation, preservation and control of virgin forests in the State. That law has created some layers of ownership and control of forests in Ondo State. The government of the State, has by that law, reserved certain forests for the cultivation, growth and preservation of timber and rubber, in certain locations within the State, with restricted access to members of the general public. At certain stages of development, some of these forests are handed over to the authorities of the local government in their domain and at times, the host community. But in all cases, the forests have been acquired by the government and christened Forest Reserves. The Ogbese Forest Reserve is one of the largest and richest in Nigeria. It is very massive indeed, spanning over several hectares of land, making it an easy target for criminal-minded elements as a suitable location and hideout, to plan and execute criminal actions of robbery, kidnapping, etc.
Ogbese Forest Reserve is very rich in vegetation, given that no one is permitted to farm or cultivate therein without the express permission of the authorities, granted in writing. Under and by virtue of section 45 of the Forestry Law of Ondo State, whoever uproots, fells or otherwise damages any protected tree of over two feet in girth, commits an offence and is liable upon conviction, to be sentenced to a fine or imprisonment or both. The same goes for illegal grazing and trespass. In some portions, Ogbese Forest Reserve shares its boundaries with Edo State, around Owan area, Ofenitebe Village and some other locations, along the very narrow but violent Ogbese River, which has been left to feed the reserve. That river flows down from Owan area to Nikrogha, Gelegele and other towns in Edo State, criss-crossing Ekiadolo, Iguobazuwa and other locations. We do normally wait for the rainy season when the river is full and flowing, trailing along with the current for the movement of logs to Nikrogha where they are rafted together and towed to Lagos State with a tug boat. So, from personal experience, I know that Ogbese Forest Reserve is very massive and rich in vegetation. It is very difficult to traverse the entire forest, even in a whole week, which is why it is easy for criminals to convert it to their hideout. But the fact is that it belongs to the State government, at least by law.
So it was that the governor of Ondo State, Arakunrin Rotimi Akeredolu, handed down a seven-day ultimatum to all herdsmen to vacate all the forests of Ondo State or face prosecution. Is His Excellency entitled to this notice? By law, yes. Section 12 (2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) makes the security and welfare of the people of Ondo State the primary focus of his government. This means that security and welfare should be the basic pursuit of the government of Ondo State. The Forestry Law of Ondo State has reserved all forests in the State and they are thus excluded from private ownership or individual acquisition. Whereas section 43 of the 1999 Constitution allows every citizen to acquire and own land in any part of the Federation, such acquisition or ownership can only be done in line with due process of law, such as buying land from communities or the government, but certainly not for herdsmen to jump upon land and then occupy it, without the consent and authority of the appropriate authorities.
How and why did Akeredolu return? The Governor has a date with history, given his background, generally. He is a product of Great Ife, that is University of Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University), where the spirit of Aluta – progressive students’ unionism, was born in him. He carried this into his private legal practice, by identifying with the masses and the less privileged, deploying his resources to secure justice for the poor and vulnerable. Akeredolu built a massive building in Ibadan, where he offers free accommodation for new lawyers, to start their legal practice to enable them find their feet and later stand on their own. Then he extended his influence to the national politics of the Bar, when he was elected the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA. Without doubt, he re-ignited the Alao Aka-Bashorun era of progressive Bar leadership, as he was a no-nonsense President, always speaking truth to power. And true to his origin, Akeredolu is from Ondo State, where the masses resisted successfully, an attempt to impose a governor on them in 1983, when common eggs turned to fire and rockets, to burn houses and even guns and bullets. He was domiciled in Ibadan, the headquarters of Yoruba politics. And he is from Owo, if you know what I mean.
So when he became the Governor of Ondo State, the expectations from him were high indeed. But as a typical politician with his eyes on the second term, His Excellency maintained the politics of diplomacy. But that did not stop him from launching the Amotekun Security Network in his State, as was earlier done by his fellow Governor, Ayodele Peter Fayose, some years back. Against all odds, Governor Fayose signed into law, the anti-grazing law of Ekiti State and proceeded to implement it. Some herdsmen who tested his resolve were rounded off, tried and promptly convicted. That sent the right signal to the marauding herders, who thereafter embraced the law and have been at peace with the people of Ekiti. It is gratifying that Governor Kayode Fayemi has sustained that momentum, for the good of the people. It is no news that Governor Akeredolu enjoyed the backing of the Presidency to secure his second term in office, through constant visits to and consultations with Aso Rock Villa. So, many of us began to watch him, to see his reaction to the spate of killings being perpetrated by herders in his State. And he responded courageously, by issuing a 7-day quit notice, for them to vacate the forests of Ondo State.
Without proper legal consultations, the Presidency responded with a statement that showed its contempt for the principle of federalism, in seeking to control the Executive Governor of an autonomous State, created by the Constitution. For good cause, forestry is within the concurrent list in the Constitution, the consequence of which is that only States can legislate on it, as has been the case in Ondo State, with the enactment of the Forestry Law of 1938. Thus, from the point of view of law, Governor Akeredolu was perfectly entitled to enforce the extant provisions of the Forestry Law of his State, being the chief security officer thereof. In the absence of a valid permission by the government of Ondo State, herders operating in the forest reserves of the State did so illegally, as trespassers. What they are entitled to is a seven day notice to quit and cease from further acts of trespass. What the herders should do is to approach the appropriate State or Local Government authority in charge of their location, to negotiate the terms of occupation and use of land.
That process will acknowledge, recognize and define the roles of the parties to the agreement, the location, duration and terms of occupation, as well as penalties for breach. It is such lawful acquisition that is envisaged by section 43 of the 1999 Constitution, not compulsory acquisition of land by force, which is prohibited under section 44 of the Constitution. So, it is gratifying that Akeredolu has indeed returned, daringly and resolutely. He should sustain the momentum, embrace dialogue when offered and leverage that to determine the parameters of the activities of herdsmen in Ondo State. Other Governors should now take a cue from Akeredolu, to save their people from criminals, murderers, rapists, kidnappers and thieves, hiding under a banner of grazing, to wreak havoc on the natives. So, I say welcome back, Aketi.