By Paul Mumeh
Hate or love him, what has remained incontrovertible since his election as governor of Benue State in 2015 is that Dr. Samuel Ioraer Ortom has provided leadership albeit cohesion in the state. His posture or physique does not present him as a warlord but like a leader whose domain is constantly under threat of invaders, he has two options; either to throw his hands up in surrender or confront the invaders for his people’s preservation. Unarguably, Governor Ortom opted for the latter, to wit; swim to safety with his people.
Needless to recap the circumstances that necessitated his jumping ship from the then octopus party; the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to the All Progressives Congress (APC) and back to the PDP but suffice it to submit that Ortom is politically savvy. He possesses the mental capacity to read the political barometer correctly.
From the Agatu invasion by the alleged expansionist tendencies of the rampaging Fulani herdsmen to Logo, Guma, Buruku, Apa, Konshisa, Katsina-Ala, Ado, Otukpo local government areas, virtually all the communities in Benue State have had the traumatic experience of the virulent attacks. The situation has complicated issues for the Ortom administration. He has a huge burden to care for thousands of citizens forced into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, lost a good number of hitherto productive citizens and has to contend with food scarcity.
His resolve to defend his citizens against the marauders threatened his ambition to return as governor of the state in 2019. But for Ortom, the lives of his people matter more than the luxury of the plum office. He damned the consequences, dumped the APC and returned to the PDP’s waiting hands. His political brinkmanship paid off when he won overwhelmingly under the PDP platform in 2019.
He has not also failed in terms of infrastructure development. For example, Benue State under his captainship has constructed numerous classroom blocks and rehabilitated comprehensive medical centres in Guma, Logo and Agatu local government areas amongst others. Skill acquisition centres have been established across the 23 local government areas of the agrarian state.
Beside the over 50 primary healthcare centres constructed across the state, the administration has procured referral (pool) vehicles and essential drugs as well as consumables for hospitals in the local government areas. Solar-powered and hand pump boreholes have also been provided in different parts of the state.
Not to deviate from the point of this discourse, that for inexplicable reasons, Benue State became the epicenter of alleged Fulani herdsmen invasion. Scores of citizens were killed and hundreds of thousands rendered homeless and turned refugees in their homeland. The marauder’s attacks got to its climax in 2018, when the terrorists attacked a catholic worship centre (St. Ignatius Quasi Parish) in Ukpor-Mbalom community, Gwer-East Local Government Area of the State, killing 19 persons, including two priests.
The militia herdsmen who ransacked the entire village around 5:30am also set ablaze over 80 houses and destroyed foodstuffs and household utensils. It was outrageous, heartbreaking and expectedly condemned by all right-thinking members of the society.
To curtail, if not totally eradicate the farmers/herdsmen clashes, the Ortom-led Executive Council then proposed the now famous Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, which promotes ranching as against the former. It was duly enacted by the State House of Assembly and has since been accented to by the governor. Its implementation has taken full and uncompromising effect. For the avoidance of doubt; this is the global standard for livestock rearing.
Even as far back as April 17, 1969, the Hon. Justice Adewale Thompson’s judgment on open cattle grazing; suit no AB/26/66 at the Abeokuta Division of the High Court had ruled against open grazing.
In Justice Adewale Thompson’s words: “I do not accept the contention of defendants that a custom exists which imposes an obligation on the owner of a farm to fence his farm whilst the owner of cattle allows his cattle to wander like pests and cause damage. Such a custom, if it exists, is unreasonable and I hold that it is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience and therefore unenforceable…in that it is highly unreasonable to impose the burden of fencing a farm on the farmer without the corresponding obligation on the cattle owner to fence his cattle.
“Sequence to that I ban open grazing for it is inimical to peace and tranquility and the cattle owners must fence or ranch their animals for peace to reign in these communities.”
There was no appeal against this judgement, so it is law; hence any open grazing is a violation of the law.
No doubt, the enactment of the open grazing prohibition law in Benue State seemed to have ushered in albeit temporary fragile peace until recently when armed men suspected to be Fulani herdsmen attacked and killed scores of people, including a lawyer and his wife, at Agboghul, near Makurdi, the state capital.
It is not debatable that Benue State is one of the most troubled states in the contemporary history of Nigeria. From some internal conflicts amongst some communities to the invasion by Fulani herdsmen in Agatu, Ukum, Apa, Otukpo, Guma, Buruku, Gwer-West, Logo, Kwande, Gwer-East, Katsina-Ala, Ado, Gboko, Makurdi and Tarka local government areas of the state, leading to the death of over 3,000 people and the stagnation of development, especially in the agricultural sector, it’s just trouble too many.
So many IDP camps established by the Benue State Government to cater for the affected families due to the attacks have caused the state unquantifiable monetary loss. It has had more than its fair share of the security challenges facing the nation.
Only recently, the intractable crisis has compelled the Ondo State Governor, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu, to give a seven-day ultimatum (on Monday, January 18, 2020) to the Fulani herdsmen to vacate the forest reserves within the state.
Interestingly, the Nigeria Governors Forum, under the leadership of Ekiti’s Kayode Fayemi also agreed to adopt the open grazing prohibition law as a panacea to the security challenges in the country.
Politics aside, Ortom vows that the battle to protect the citizens of Benue State is non-negotiable. For him, “being the Chief Executive Officer of Benue State would be worthless if I cannot provide security and welfare for my people.”
He said in no unmistakable terms that, “no part of the land belonging to Benue State would be ceded to invaders no matter the conspiracy or intimidation.”
A few weeks ago, what would have degenerated into another conflict in the state was averted through the government’s proactive crisis management approach. The Hausa/Fulani community had concluded plans to install their own traditional ruler in Otukpo community; the Sardauna of Otukpo. But the indigenes viewed this as an affront and a direct attack on their sensibilities and likely to distort the historical record of the people.
They protested against the development and the state government rose to the occasion and halted the move.
The burden of leadership is huge but hate or love him, Ortom has demonstrated capacity for leadership. He stands with the people. And a leader who stands with his people under the rain or sun never falls. He was once a lonely voice in the wilderness but now the rallying point to end the intractable security challenges in the land. Ortom is the man who saw tomorrow.