Barr Aloy Ejimakor, the special counsel to the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, in this interview with CHINEDU AROH, says the Eastern Security Network is formed to checkmate ‘terrorist herdsmen’ and not those doing legitimate businesses in Eastern Nigeria. The excerpts.
From your observations, is ESN against all kinds of grazing in the southeast?
From what I know as of Counsel, the ESN is not interested in law-abiding Fulani herdsmen. The distinction is clear. Their intention is to flush out violent-prone Fulanis and others that live in forests. When you come into a community to graze on their land, if your intention is pure, you will not live in forests. Come out in the open so that people can know who you are. Even if you want to live in forests, why not go to traditional rulers, local government chairmen, vigilante leaders and youth leaders to state your reasons. But here, the herders excommunicate themselves and become hostile to their host communities. What do you want the people of that area to do? They have to take action. In my understanding, that’s what ESN is all about. In theory, it may be misunderstood but in practice, it is merely a confluence of local vigilantes, all geared to the making of a regional outfit that caters to Eastern Nigeria under a central command.
In my time as a child, I have seen Fulani herdsmen grazing in my community and mixing peacefully with people. They were all well known to their hosts. They have families and don’t live in forests. As we speak, cattle are still being moved across Nigeria. Let us not pretend that we don’t know the segment of Fulani that is causing the problem. There are good and bad ones. And the North itself has said that the bad eggs amongst or the terrorist elements are mostly foreigners from the upper Sahel. ESN, Amotekwu, and other regional security networks are only concerned about the terrorist elements. So, I think such initiatives deserve commendation instead of the hostility that you see coming from the authorities.
Many people miss this important point that a substantial number of these herdsmen are not from Nigeria. What happens to our sovereignty as a people? They probably moved into Nigeria without a visa. They are therefore illegal immigrants that forcibly or surreptitiously breached our borders. Not just that, they graze on somebody’s land without permission, and are prepared to kill their host if he dares resist such brazen criminal trespass, and then they think they must live in your backyard forest and you are not supposed to say anything. All these transgressions just because the federal government of Nigeria chooses to say nothing, do nothing! I have not seen any targeted policy of the federal government to help these farmers that are the victims of these terrorists. But if herders get in trouble with local communities, that is when you hear the FG say something, and it’s often in favour of the terrorist herders. That’s unfair because you are stoking a situation where communities in Nigeria are propelled to constitute themselves into self-defence groups. That is exactly what ESN has done even without legislation, which was not forthcoming. Yes, in the West they have legislation, but legislation or not, both are the same because they are aimed at the protection of their vulnerable communities and locales. So, to this extent, ESN should not be perceived as an offensive outfit.
What is the position of the law on open grazing?
I speak from the standpoint of what is extant. Before you can graze, it means one must be a cattle rearer or a herdsman. The herdsman would have to enter another person’s land. If the herdsman is grazing on his own land, it does not implicate any legal issues because it is his land. But when you go upon another man’s land to graze or do anything without his permission, you are committing trespass, in which case open grazing is not an exception. There is no provision for herders to enter into another man’s land without permission. And trespass can either be civil or criminal. Many think that trespass is only a civil matter where you go to a civil court to claim damages, and have the trespasser expelled from the property. It is much more than that. And because these herdsmen are coming from northern Nigeria, I will give you the specific law of Northern Nigeria on point. Section 342 of the Penal Code, that is applicable to all the states of northern Nigeria from where these Fulani herdsmen came, provides as follows: ‘Whoever enters into or upon property in the possession of another with intent to commit an offence or to intimidate, insult or annoy a person in possession of that property, or, having lawfully entered into or upon that property, unlawfully remains there with intent thereby to intimidate, insult or annoy such person or with intent to commit an offence, is said to commit criminal trespass’.
Criminal trespass is punishable by arrest, arraignment, prosecution and imprisonment. This is northern Nigeria where these herders are coming from. There are other laws that border on malicious destruction of property or those that speak to disorderly conducts that can be enforced as a check on open grazing.
Additionally, people have cited the 1969 ruling by Justice Adewale Thompson. That ruling, as far as I know, was never set aside or varied, hence it is still the law of the land. The ruling was made in the context of farmer-herder crises. That is what we used to have then. What we have now is herder-terrorism. Anybody calling it crisis is downgrading it. Adewale’s court heard that it is the custom of the Fulani to move cattle from place to place, and graze openly. The judge ruled that if that is the custom, it is a bad one because it is against public policy; that the custom has the tendency to lead to breach of law and order and unconscionable destruction of another’s property.
That judgment is sound because it is consistent with the common law of Nigeria that says that any custom that is against public policy shall be set aside. A custom is not cast in stone. Nigerian laws only allow good customs. Bad customs like killing of twins are no longer allowed. That something is a custom does not automatically make it legal.
In the Fulani herders’ case, the judge ruled that the custom is repugnant because they are not grazing on their land, but on another man’s land, and it is causing problems between them and the owners of the land. That is a judicial pronouncement against open grazing and it still good law.
I have not seen any situation or news around Nigeria where police went into a land where herders were grazing without permission and expelled them from there. That is why citizens are now inclined to what the law calls ‘self-help’. Everybody in Nigeria has a right to self-defence. It is a universal right, including in Nigeria where it codified in our laws.
If a herder is in the process of attacking you, or your loved ones, or destroying your property, you have the right to use equal force to expel that person from your land. That right is inalienable. The law does not expect you to sit and be killed by your assailants. If he is assaulting you with a gun, the law gives you the right to repel him with a gun if you have one. The law didn’t tell you to stay, pray and die.
Most cases where herders got killed happened in an atmosphere of self-defence. In general law, there is what is called causation: what led to the violence in the first place. They call it farmer-herder crises. That is a lie. The farmer does not go to the herder; it is the herder that goes to the farmer. My point is that if the herdsman did not leave his location from wherever and came to the farmer’s land, there won’t be any Fulani herdsmen’s terrorism. It is terrorism because their activities have made the world declare them the fourth deadliest terrorist organisation in the world even though the Nigerian government is not following up to do that.
But if they stay in their locale and graze upon their own land or upon the land allowed by the government or individual owners of the land, there won’t be any crises. The crisis is fed by herders leaving their territory and breaching upon another person’s land, either in northern Nigeria or southern Nigeria. The moment they stop doing that, there won’t be any more crises.
What is the way out?
The solution is simple. If the government wishes, it can step in just like it is already giving help to the agricultural sector or it can leave it to be regulated by the free market. It can create ranches for the herders. Think of the Obudu Cattle Ranch built by Dr Michael Okpara way back in the 1950s. Herders can ranch in northern or southern Nigeria if they want. They should buy land or seek allocations from state governors for ranching. Lands in Nigeria are either bought, leased or allocated by state governments under the Land Use Act. When the government is not telling or forcing them to do that, but allows them to roam wild, it creates a situation where citizens would assert their right of self-defence. People that do genuine businesses do not live in forests. They rent places and conduct their businesses with the appropriate leave and licence. Herders should not be an exception.