Samuel Ortom as the Governor of Benue State
Samuel Ortom as the Governor of Benue State

For every nation, there comes a moment when it can reference it as her moment of truth, a turning point. And for Nigeria, the putative Giant of Africa, that moment is now, standing, as we are, at the most critical junction of our national history.

Never in her chequered history has Nigeria been so assailed by centrifugal forces as she now is. Only a few days back, the Senate, remarkable for its political correctness, had to join the lament: declaring that the “country is besieged.” This is, indeed, Nigeria’s Epiphany, her moment of truth, and the Samuel Ortom Model offers a floundering Nigeria a shining light out of this darkening darkness.

With the whole country now accepting that ranching is the way to go, all that is needed is to see how the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Law can be strengthened for better, win-win outcomes.  Like David Mark’s Doctrine of Necessity not long ago when Nigeria found herself at a critical junction, this may yet be Nigeria’s turning point.

The ominous signs are all here: an intractable, Islamic insurgency; the mushrooming of separatist movements country-wide; the surrender of national obligation and responsibility, the ominous gathering of dark clouds and the objectivization of rogue, non-state actors. But the biggest of these centrifugal forces hacking at the taproot of national unity is the menace of killer-herdsmen.  (And I use killer-herdsmen most responsibly because the herdsmen we knew yesterday did not wield Ak-47 rifles. It is instructive that the government says they are not Nigerians, but bandits from the boiling Sahel and the restive Levant).

And some forces are said to be at play here. Climate change, which has been devastating in the Sahel, is advanced as the culprit in the herdsmen invasion. The ferment in the Middle East/Maghreb/Levant is also reported to have a hand in the dangerous influx of armed immigrants. So, there is Climate change and there is also the political crisis. But not a few believe there could be politics in the mix too. And they ask: “Why do the armed immigrants enter Nigeria so easily when the borders are equally manned by her armed personnel?” “And why are they focused on the Benue Valley as though the Valley inhabitants precipitated the climate crises or the ferment in the Maghreb or the Levant?”

However, the real danger is not really in the invasion of the Libyans, the Malians, the Guineans and the Chadians – no: the veritable danger is that these foreigners are fiercely intent on uprooting native populations and taking over their ancestral lands for keeps. And it doesn’t help matters at all that these strategic and systematic displacements are being carried out steadily, and with seeming impunity.

With the benefit of hindsight, some of these ills predate the present dispensation. For instance, Nigeria has in the past seen the rise of puritanical, jihadist movements, but she had always summoned the will to crush them. Today, Boko Haram and ISWA continue to menace our security forces and mock our territorial integrity by hoisting their flags!

And yes, there was a secessionist attempt in the East, but drawing from the huge reserves of national unity, Nigeria managed to resolve the Biafra secession in 30 months. Moreover, it was only one Region, the East, out of the four. Today, however, there are sustained and burgeoning separatist-movements in the North-East, South-East, South-South and South-West geo-political zones, with matching rhetoric; and this, in spite of the obvious treasonable implications.

Furthermore, the issue of herdsmen has been a developing challenge, imperilling peace under succeeding governments, but never before has it appeared, from all indications, to seize Nigeria by the jugular, hacking furiously at the taproot of national unity and birthing counter-reactions in the forms of Amotekun, Eastern Security Network and the rest.  Wherever one looks now, it’s the plaintive story of intimidatory rhetoric, threats, mayhem, sackings, kidnappings and continual killings. And the presidential advice to natives to give up ancestral lands or be ready to die only heightens feelings of helplessness.

And nowhere is this feeling of helplessness more poignant than in Benue state where two successive governors have come under attacks by herdsmen: Suswam and Ortom. If executive governors, with all the paraphernalia and the appurtenances of security around them can come under such attacks, one can only imagine the sorry fate of unarmed natives, some of them far removed from the urban areas and, hence, media attention. Till today, there are places in Benue state like Moon in Kwande local government that are no-go areas for dispossessed natives.

In 2015, as the rainy season gained ground, from nearby Nasarawa state, herdsmen reportedly resumed attacks on bordering Benue communities. But rather than cooperate with Gov. Ortom to mitigate this cross-border terrorism, Alh. Tanko Almakura, a fellow-APC governor like Ortom, defended the arrested suspects as “international hunters!”  True, Nasarawa state has 41 forest reserves covering 145 ha, and might need hunters, but the coincidence of their arrival and the spiking of insecurity in adjoining Benue state raised serious posers.

Almakura’s defence instantly threw up important questions: Who facilitated their entry into Nigeria? Who registered and issued them hunting licences? How long were the licences supposed to last before they returned? Did their licensees extend their hunting grounds to neighbouring Benue? From which country or countries were these “international hunters” imported? If they were hunters of international status, why did they come to hunt in the rainy season? And, perhaps, most importantly, why did their coming worsen cross-border raids into Benue, with accompanying mayhem and trails of blood? These are the questions Nigeria ought to have asked Gov. Tanko Almakura, but because the carnage was in Benue, even newspapers felt it didn’t merit sustained coverage.

It was against this sad backdrop of virtually daily carnage in the state that the Benue state government and people, under the courageous superintendence of Gov. Samuel Ortom, enacted the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Law on May 22, 2017. Here, the contributions of patriots like Terence Vembe, Sam Abah, Fr. Solomon Ukeyima, Nat Apir etc cannot be over-emphasized.

However, to show good faith and to continue discussions with stakeholders, the law did not go into immediate implementation until November of that year. The objective was clear: to enhance peaceful, socio-economic intercourses. But from Day One, it consolidated hostility against the governor, government and people, almost roundabout; with both low-grade and high-grade killings going on unabated in Agatu, Guma, Logo, Gwer-West, Makurdi, Katsina-Ala, Kwande etc.

But the climax was the Jan. 1, 2018 blood-chilling butchery of 73 villagers and displacement of scores of others! It was indeed a dark New Year for Benue. From the Plateau, Gov. Lalong, after meeting with the President, thoughtlessly told State House Correspondents: “I warned Ortom about this law!” There was neither empathy nor sympathy, although Plateau was equally in the same grip of herdsmen killings.

Then, on 11th January, the Benue State Government conducted a mass burial for the victims of cold-blood massacres. But on the eve of the burial, the State Commissioner of Police, Alh. Bashir Makama, said something very professional: he told Premium Times that arresting the killers was not a police priority, but the return of peace!

His words: “Let there be peace. Let there be calm. Then, the suspects can be followed and arrested.”

The government has maintained that these killer-herdsmen are foreigners who kill and disappear. Now, here was a Police Commissioner saying the police would let things settle down, and then go after the suspects! It is not clear how many suspects the police subsequently arrested!

What is clear is that two days after the mass burial, the national vice president of Miyetti Allah Cattle Herders Association, Alh. Hussani Yusuf Bosso, granted a media interview in which he warned Benue to expect more bloodshed if the governor did not scrap the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Law altogether!

Nigerians opened their mouths in shock, expecting a formal reaction to this chilling confession and brazen threat. Some people’s mouths are still open more than three years after!

It does appear hopeless, especially with the sudden passage of the Chadian President, Field Marshal Idriss Deby Itno, and this is why a floundering Nigeria must now go beyond platitudes, sophistry and equivocations to embrace the Ortom Model, and give it the spread and backing it deserves.

To be continued.

*** Simon Imobo-Tswam, a retired newspaper editor, sent this piece from Lokoja.

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