For several months, suspected Fulani herdsmen unleashed terror on communities in Benue State with over 1000 killed and several thousand displaced. In this interview with Ibanga Isine, the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, begs the federal government to take decisive action to stop the continued invasion and occupation of the state before the people resort to self-help.
PT: There are reports that Fulani herdsmen have consistently been attacking communities in the state. Could you please tell us what the situation is now?
I commend you for coming here to let the world know about what is happening in Benue State. I have said that Benue State is under a siege. We are completely under siege by Fulani herdsmen. We’ve heard the herdsmen accusing our people of killing their cattle which is not true. But even if it were true, does that give them the right to go about killing innocent people? Two wrongs can’t make a right. We have been telling our people that there is no need going after Fulanis or their cattle. We are farmers and very enterprising. There is no way a herdsman will come into Benue without encroaching on somebody’s farm. There is no way grazing and farming can go together.
PT: But security agents have been deployed to many parts of the state. Why are the herdsmen still attacking and occupying communities?
We have been appealing to them and we have given them (security agents) all the support they need to restore peace and order. But it is unfortunate that up till today, there is no time the security men came and told me that one arrest has been made. No herdsman or their militia has been arrested. I cannot understand how we could live in a country and people come in to invade others. They go about it freely and there is no sanction against them. The level of impunity exhibited by the herdsmen is very worrisome. I know that the herdsmen need help and we need to educate them and give them an enabling environment to tend their cattle. I have always said that the way out of the problem is through ranching. That is what is done globally. Our population is overgrown and human activities have escalated and the only way we can breed cattle in our society is when we learn to ranch.
PT: How has this crisis impacted on the state which is said to be the country’s “food basket”?
The result is that most of our people can no longer go to their farms. They are being killed but the most unfortunate thing is that these people who are being killed and displaced in their various localities are not involved in cattle rustling. We know that cattle rustling is done by Fulani herdsmen and some criminal elements in our society. These are people who do not have respect for life or the rule of law and should be treated as criminals. But unfortunately, when cattle rustlers come in a particular settlement, the militia of the Fulani herdsmen will come after innocent locals. They don’t ever go after the rustlers. They rather go against people who are in those communities. Most times, the rustled cattle are taken to other parts of the country and not kept within the immediate vicinity. It is a big challenge. We have made appeals to the federal government and we appreciate Mr. President who graciously approved that the military, the police and civil defence should always be there to help our people. Despite that, the crisis has persisted.
PT: Are you saying the situation is still very ominous?
Yes. There is need to do more. Today, several parts of the state are no longer inhabited by our people. The herdsmen have taken over many communities in the state. They have taken over homes, food and the land of our people. Like you said, Benue State is the food basket of the nation. Now that we are talking about diversification of the economy to other sectors, what readily comes to mind in Benue State is agriculture. This is where we have comparative advantage. And it is unfortunate that the herdsmen are not allowing our people to go back to farm. It is a big challenge to me as the governor of the state. Since we depend on farming for survival, I want to say that they only way we can go out of this problem is for cattle to be ranched. If that is not done, then they will be no land to graze and farm at the same time. I hope that Nigerians would rise up and support Benue State in this very difficult time.
PT: We were in Moon Ward in Kwande Local Government Area and found that the last time pupils went to school there was in October 2013. Are you not worried about the future of these children?
What has happened has tended to wipe out almost an entire generation of our children from gaining knowledge and that is why I have been crying to the federal government and all those that care about the future of the people of Benue State to come to our aid. I wish it is possible to go around to appreciate the magnitude of the destruction, killings and stealing that are taking place. But the truth of the matter is that apart from Moon, there are several other communities that have no opportunity of getting their children back to school for several years. There are people who have been barred from going back to their homes for several years. I strongly wished that the federal government would collaborate with us to find lasting solution to this problem. As I speak, our people are in extremely distress situation and what is happening in the state today is worse than what is happening in the North-east where Boko Haram has ravaged the area. I have, through the media and other information channels appreciate what is happening in other places. But here, our people are completely displaced and they have no opportunity of going to school. They have no opportunity of going back to their farms, they cannot go back to their homes. They are no refugees without any support from the federal government and aid agencies unlike victims of Boko Haram attacks. It is terrible to begin to think about what the herdsmen are doing to our people. It is unimaginable that this could be happening in Nigeria. We used to think that things like this cannot happen but it is happening right here. There is urgent need to check it because if the people begin to feel that government cannot give them protection and they resort to self-help, it would be disastrous. For a long time, we have been appealing to them to be peaceful and they have respected us. As Nigerians, we must work together to restore lasting peace to the state.
PT: Some displaced persons from Logo, Guma, Ukum, Kwande and even Makurdi said they no longer have confidence in security agencies. They say while herdsmen are allowed to graze freely in their farms, security agents don’t allow them move freely even where they are taking refuge? What do you say to this?
It is regrettable that with all the support I have given to the military, the police and the civil defence, I have not heard of any arrest from any of the security services. I must also admit that the security men are overwhelmed with the violence and destruction that herdsmen have unleashed on the state. I know they are human beings and are also trying to protect themselves. But I am also aware of complaints against the police and the military. The militia used by the herdsmen are well-trained and they are really sophisticated. They are conversant with modern technology of destruction. This is the more reason I have said that the federal government should take a decisive action against these herdsmen and their militia that are terrorizing and killing our people. I am aware of situations were security men are sent to combat this militia but they don’t have the kind of weapons needed to contain the militia. This is something that we need the federal government to take a decisive action against the militia and the killer herdsmen and also implement appropriate sanctions to deter such criminal conduct. Of course, I do not control the military, the police and even the civil defence because all of them are federal agencies. That is why we are appealing to the federal government to give our security agencies the necessary support ranging from finance, weapons and other things that they require to deal with the challenge.