A bill to establish an agency for forest guards to man federal roads and highways scaled second reading in the House of Representatives on Thursday.
The piece of legislation seeks to charge the agency with the responsibility, among other things, “to detect and prevent crime, banditry, kidnapping, terrorism and violence.”
More so, if passed into law, the potential paramilitary agency would have the mandate to apprehend offenders, preserve law and order and protect lives and properties “strictly within all forests lying 100 metres adjacent to all federal roads and highways in Nigeria,” Usman Shiddi (APGA, Taraba), the sponsor of the bill, said.
As of 2015, although its lowest in 25 years, Nigeria had a forest coverage of 7.68 per cent of its land area.
The Food and Agriculture Organization rates a forest as a land spanning more than 0.5 hectares (approximately 5 acres) with trees higher than 5 metres and a canopy cover of more than 10 per cent or trees able to reach these thresholds.
Mr Shiddi, who represents Ibi/Wukari federal constituency, said this swathe of the country, for being unmanned strategically, has served as a haven for criminals.
The opponents of the bill, however, said some states like Enugu already have forest guards, and having a federal agency to that effect is a duplication of efforts.
However, those who believe the bill is needed argued that combining both state and federal might to fight criminality makes such fights fiercer.
But, amidst dwindling federal earnings, establishing a new agency, when existing ones could be rewired to guard forestlands, would take a great toll on FG’s revenues, the former believe.
Although, due to the government’s inability to secure the nation’s forests because of their huge size, their lack of personnel and poor surveillance technology, a number of these forests have been overrun by criminals.
Sambisa Forest, for instance, about the size of Belgium, sprawls across four states and extends into bordering Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
In 2013, due to the government’s inability to protect the large swathe of land, Boko Haram invaded the forest, making it one of its operation centres.
So are Idu and Gwagwa forests in Abuja and Kabakawa forest in Kaduna which have been identified as notorious bases for criminals who regularly mount roadblocks to attack travellers and rob people living in the areas that border the forests.
Nonetheless, security operatives have on a series of occasions made arrests through raids and ambushes on crime syndicates that use these forests as hideouts.
“Special security forces, trained to work in this terrain, must be deployed,” he wrote in his findings.
“The government must also invest in technology – like CCTV surveillance systems – to monitor criminal activity. Taking these basic steps will act as a deterrent, and perhaps put a stop, to some of this activity.”
The bill, before it can become law, is still subject to public hearing, concurrence with the green chamber and the president’s assent.
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