Herdsman’s Liberty To Swing His Fist Ends Where Farmer’s Nose Begins

By Isaac Asabor
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It is not an exaggeration to say that not few Nigerians were flabbergasted penultimate week ago when a Fulani group that calls itself the Fulani Nationality Movement, (FUNAM) unarguably stoked ethnic nationalism in Nigeria with its claims of Fulani ownership of the country and giving notice of planned conquest of the entire territory. It would be recalled that in 2018 that the same FUNAM made a similar provocative statement on the trail of Benue massacre by herdsmen.

The foregoing sentiment is not exclusive to FUNAM as the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) towards the end of January, 2021 told Fulani herdsmen in Ondo forests to snub Governor Rotimi Akeredolu‘s ultimatum to leave forests in the state, and reject any move to label them criminals. By their statement, they impliedly told the herdsmen that the forest was neither owned by Ondo people nor Akerodolu, hence the herdsmen should remain in the forest. What temerity and audacity!

This was contained in a statement by the forum’s spokesman, Hakeem Baba-Ahmed. He asked Governor Rotimi Akeredolu to cancel the ultimatum given to herders to vacate forest reserves in the State.

According to the statement, the Ondo governor’s ultimatum was provocative and unhelpful. The forum noted they would not accept unfair treatment, and asked the Governor to separate criminals and treat them as such.

Baba-Ahmed said Governor Akeredolu as a senior lawyer should know that the constitution does not give him the power to deny any Nigerian the right to live where he chooses, so far as he does not break the law in the process.

Without wasting time to reply Baba-Ahmed in this context on whether Akeredolu was right or wrong by issuing quit notice to herdsmen in Ondo state few weeks ago, it is logical to ask, “If the entire land in the southern part of the country is “No Man’s Land”, and that it belongs to everyone, why are lands then sold in the Southern part of the country, and which may have seen some Northern elites being the buyers in some cases?” It is expedient I buttress the foregoing view with the quote that says that says, “Nemo dat quod non habet”, which literally means "No one gives what they do not have". It is a legal rule, sometimes called the “Nemo dat rule”, that states that the purchase of a possession from someone who has no ownership right to it also denies the purchaser any ownership title. It is equivalent to the civil (continental) Nemo plus iuris ad alium transferre potest quam ipse habet rule, which means "one cannot transfer to another more rights than they have". The rule usually stays valid even if the purchaser does not know that the seller has no right to claim ownership of the object of the transaction (a bona fide purchaser).

On the strength of the foregoing, who told the leadership of FUNAM, Miyetti Allah and Baba-Ahmed as a lawyer, that the entire land in the southern part of the country is “No Man’s Land?”

At this juncture, it is expedient to reiterate the view in this context that freedom of movement does not merit debate as been done at the moment. Rather, it exists with conditions to regulate it, and not to be abused. This is because a citizen's rights end where another citizen's begin.

Against the foregoing backdrop, it would not be misnomer to say that nothing in this world is absolute. Historically, various scholars and thinkers from a variety of professional backgrounds have described rights and freedoms as legal concepts with inherent limitations.

The famous poet Alfred George Gardiner in his work "Pebbles on the Seashore", summed up this conundrum most beautifully. A person's freedom ends where another man's freedom begins. This fact has been affirmed from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to John Stuart Mill and Abraham Lincoln.

However, in a complex social structure, such as the one Nigeria has, courtesy of our diversity, delineating these boundaries is a herculean task. In addition to this complicated affair, one must also consider the emotional aspect as well as educational differences. When not wisely handled, it can easily lead to ethnic crisis, across the lands, so to say.

In as much as this writer is not pleasantly disposed to make this argument, it is expedient to say that there are historical and ancestral evidences to support the fact that lands are owned by individuals, community and even by communities in Nigeria. It has never been free to anyone as the herdsmen and their drummer brothers, who are invariably elites, have been postulating, and in that process been misleading some gullible herdsmen, who are by that emboldened.

It is expedient to note in this context that it is not Nigeria alone that is facing the challenge of freedom of movement. All around the world, efforts have being made through the centuries for the protection of people’s right to move freely, and to ensure that it is not an absolute one. If not so, there would have been situations where people will with impunity offload tipper loads of sands and gravels on someone’s plot of land and start building with the erroneous impression that we are all in a “No man’s land”.

Thus far, human rights such as the right to freedom of movement have been a privilege accorded to citizens of each nation based on their laws and Constitutions. They must flow from the law and be regulated in accordance with the law with respect to each nation's specific circumstances. Therefore, practices which apply to one nation may not suit another.

Liberal thinking in its purest form presents an idealism that is aspirational, given the current conditions in the world. Absolute freedom and uniform application of laws and customs across nations is a challenging affair to achieve, to say the least.

Against the foregoing backdrop, there is no denying the fact that recent developments with herdsmen have no doubt brought to light this age old debate. At this juncture, the question to be asked would no doubt be in the similitude of “What is federalism?” “What is the power of a governor in the face of herdsmen occupying people’s farms and forests?” Should there be limits on freedom of movement, and if so, what are the parameters for deciding that limits have been crossed?

The Nigerian Constitution, no doubt, answers some of these questions, and various court cases by the Supreme Court of Nigeria probably might have at one time or the other made clarification on different nuances of our fundamental rights, despite which, the ideological debate on herdsmen continues.

Without sitting on the defensive side of the fence, I am in this context calling on Fulani elites to call the herders among them to order as not doing so may create a hydra-headed security challenge that may make the problem already posed by Boko Haram look like a child`s play. There is no denying the fact that the reason behind the foregoing expressed fear cannot be farfetched when the sanguinary activities of the herdsmen are circumspectly and dispassionately looked into.

In as much as the South-East Zonal Chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), Alhaji Gidado Siddiki, in Enugu on Monday, February 15, 2021, stated that members of the Association were not interested in land grabbing, and would never contest ownership of land with any host community, it is obvious from their body language that his defensive statement is not true.

Without any iota of exaggeration, it is expedient that Fulani traditional rulers, Fulani sons and daughters who belong to the class of our contemporary political elites call their Kinsmen to order in their own native tongue. After all, Dr. Nelson Mandela of blessed memory was quoted to have said that “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”

It is expedient to say that the tone of this is sounding this way in the bid to avoid the danger that is inherent in some African proverbs that say “If the keg of palm-wine is not quickly snatched from the hands of an exuberant drunk, he may drink himself to stupor.” A similar proverb has it that “If an overzealous child is not assisted by his elders when roasting yams in the farm, he may innocently set the farm and the hut ablaze”.

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