Former Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing Alhaji Lateef Olufemi Okunnu is known for his firm and unbiased comments on issues of national interest. The Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) rarely talks, but when he chooses to do so, he does not shy away from saying it as it is. He spoke with TAJUDEEN ADEBANJO on the Western Nigeria Security Network (WNSC), codenamed Operation Amotekun.

Some people are linking Amotekun to the farmer/herders crisis. Do they have anything in common?

A lot! Amotekun, as I understand it, is what the Southwest people see as an answer to the danger caused by herdsmen who ravage people’s farmlands, not only in the traditional areas but also in different parts of the country. It’s an answer to that danger; the danger of insecurity caused by the herdsmen. Insecurity of life and property; especially landed property.

Now growing up in Nigeria in the 40’s and 50’s, the herdsmen mostly from the North, but some of them are from Mali and Niger with their rams, cattle to sell. They used to take their cattle into Nigeria through the northern border to sell and people didn’t mind. In those days, herdsmen were never armed. What they carried was their sticks to direct cattle but in recent times, the herdsmen are armed because people started to resist the invasion of their farmlands.

They invade people’s farmlands and kill the owners of the farms. A friend of mine has just told me that the herdsmen invaded his own farm at Ilah, a few miles from Asaba in Delta State and they’ve driven away the people taking care of the farm. So, nobody goes to the farm any longer. That’s the problem; it’s not just the problem of Northwest and Southwest; it is now a national problem. Now, why should the herdsmen still continue to do what they are doing? Every Nigerian under the constitution has the right to life, the right to own landed property; it’s all entrenched in the constitution. It is wrong for herdsmen to invade my farmland with guns, threatening my life and ravaging my farm products.

What went wrong, because these herdsmen have been around over the years?

Whatever made them to spread throughout the country, the danger is that they are carrying arms. The population is growing and more cattle are being reared, so they need more areas to feed the cattle. So, it’s not just the traditional routes now, it’s all over the country but the menace is in their carrying arms. Unfortunately, majority of these herdsmen are not Nigerians; they come from outside the country. The government has the responsibility to control their movements, but has failed in that regard. They carry arms; the government has not disarmed them. They are not licensed to carry arms. These herdsmen are not in the armed forces, but they carry arms at will. Buhari’s government has failed in that duty to disarm them. Buhari’s government has failed to stop them from invading people’s farmlands and people have been attacked. They once attacked Chief Olu Falae, who was a senior officer in my time in government but later became the Head of the Public Service of this country. They went to his farmland, occupied it and the Federal Government did nothing. Many other Nigerians have suffered the same fate, but government has nothing to stop them.

Would you say that is a justification for launching Amotekun?

Now I’m coming to the Amotekun initiative; it’s the duty of the government to provide security for lives and property. Admittedly, the Federal Government is in full charge of the armed forces and the police. There has been agitation for the state police. I have been opposed to the idea of state police for many years, but I have been converted to the outcry or demand for state police because the federal police have failed to provide security for lives and property. People need their lives and property to be secured. In the past, we used to have the federal police, regional police and even local government police. But, it was later eradicated after military coup and we now have only the federal police.

Now that the Federal Government has failed to police the country and safeguard the lives of people and their properties, some states government have come together and said they will have a security outfit called Amotekun and they have provided some vehicles and so on for free movement to help to secure the lives and properties of the people. Mind you, the governors are also in charge of security in their respective states. So, when people cry out against the invasion of their farmlands by herdsmen, what do you want the governors to do? What do you want the people to do?

Herdsmen have no right to come to my farmland. The farmland which I have spent money to plant all sorts of crops. Not even these days when oil is not providing sufficient money for the economy of this country. These days when the government itself is advocating return to agriculture. The Federal Government said we should go back to farms. People are going back to agriculture but encountering insecurity and the same government is not providing adequate security. Now, the state governors in Southwest decided to secure their states through Operation Amotekun, the same Federal government is saying it is illegal. You see the contradiction.

There is another element to it. It seems that President Buhari, being is a Fulani is protecting the Fulani ethnic group, even those who are not Nigerians. Finally, the institution of herdsmen in this day and age, people trekking miles with their herds to feed on people’s farmlands and to sell to people is archaic. It is a feudal system and this day of social media and technology advancement, you still find people trekking for miles, to feed on people’s farmlands. It is a feudal system which ought to be abolished. Give these people education. Let them go to school; that is one area the northern part of Nigeria, especially the Fulani are backward. Apart from Kano State where the governor was reported that there will be free education from primary school upwards, none of the northern state governors has come out with such bold initiative to educate their people. If some of them are herdsmen, they should stop being herdsmen; they should go to school or be given proper employment. What Nigeria needs to do today is ranching, since selling cattle is a business like trading. They should also enter the business of ranching. Go to any governor who is prepared to give you land, set up your ranch and let there be peace.

What is the way forward?

The way forward is to ban open grazing of cattle, for agriculture to take over from oil as the engine of the economy. That is the only way agriculture can take its prime place, for cocoa to grow and sell, for cotton, for palm oil, for rice to grow and be sold to the foreign market. Herdsmen menace should be dealt with. It does not guaranty progress for agriculture.

The Attorney-General, I don’t know what he is talking about. We are talking about life, security of lives and properties, he is talking nonsense. What I suggest to him as a senior of the Bar is first for him to initiate measures, persuade the Federal Government to ban open grazing of cattle. What he should concern himself to is protection of people’s lives and their lands. Not the protection of Fulani ethnic group because that’s what he is doing. If the Attorney-General can ensure that they disarmed all herdsmen, there will be no cause for Amotekun to come into existence.

Not just herdsmen, remember what I said about state policing. There is huge insecurity in the country. Even in the President’s hometown, they are battling with bandits and armed robbers. Those who don’t want Nigeria to exist want to finish this country. The Federal Government should pay more attention to all these things.

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