In this interview with reporters Musikilu Mojeed and Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, Governor Samuel Ortom chronicles his ordeal as chief executive of Benue, saying the instability in the north-central state is deeper than herdsmen-farmers clashes.
The second part of the interview will run later this week.
PREMIUM TIMES: We observed that it has been politically turbulent in your state for a while. What is really going on?
Samuel Ortom: Well it’s unfortunate. What is happening here wouldn’t have been an issue in civilised society. But in Nigeria, it’s like we are challenged. When you stand to say the truth, when you stand to fight for equity, fairness and justice, it becomes a challenge to several people and that is what is playing out in Benue today.
The whole thing is a result of fighting for my people; looking for justice. Equity and fairness are all that I demand. [I have] No intention to fight the powers that be or fight any individual.
I came in 2015 and, of course, you are aware that the killings in Benue and other parts of Nigeria had subsisted for several years. From 2011 in Benue for instance, these killings were going on, branded to be what is called herdsmen-farmers clashes.
Of course you have seen that of recent it is deeper that what we call herdsmen and farmers clashes. So for us, we look at it on the surface as herdsmen and farmers clashes and we decided to do some thorough work. We tried to analyse the issues and we concluded that if it is about herdsmen and farmers, what is it that is obtainable in South Africa, Switzerland and Kenya that you don’t have this kind of crisis? Globally, there is farming activities and cattle rearing but we have not witnessed this kind of destruction, killings and stealing that has been going on in Nigeria.
So we looked at it globally and we concluded that, in the 21st century the modern way of animal husbandry is through ranching and we felt that Benue State shouldn’t be an exception. We looked at it, we went through due process; presented an executive bill, went through the House of Assembly, public hearings were conducted and because of the sensitivity of it, apart from doing it in three senatorial districts, we did it in four, just to capture everybody.
PT: Four districts?
Ortom: We did it in four places: three senatorial districts and then we did it in the state capital so that makes it four, so that all the people will be captured and we did enough enlightenment. Eventually when the bill was approved by the House of Assembly and sent to us, before signing we also did a lot of advocacy and campaigns to educate the people. It was signed publicly before a stakeholders meeting and a lot of people received it with jubilation and this…
PT: But there was opposition from Miyetti Allah…
Ortom: Of course, but the stakeholders here received it with jubilation because we felt that this will solve the problem of herdsmen and farmers clashes. And of course if all these were about herdsmen and farmers clashes we wouldn’t be having problems again because it is a win-win law that was meant to regulate the activities of farmers and even herdsmen. You ranch your cattle, don’t move them out to stray and destroy people’s farm, which is the main cause of these clashes.
PT: So what was their own complain about if this is all you are trying to do?
Ortom: What they said was that that thing (law) cannot be implemented
PT: Who said that?
Ortom: The Miyetti Allah. That it is their right to move with their cattle all over the place, that nobody can stop them.
PT: And you were proposing ranching?
Ortom: Ranching, yes! You do ranching, you restrict your cattle, provide feeds and water for them so they don’t stray and go to anybody’s farm.
PT: But you said this is deeper than farmers/herdsmen conflict, what is it?
Ortom: Yes, that is where I am going. We signed the law on the 22nd of May 2017 and by June, Miyetti Allah came out with a press statement that that law can never see the light of day. That they will not accept it. That it is obnoxious and that they can never restrict their cattle. That they will move with them anyhow and anywhere. That their members will be mobilised not to obey that law. So, I immediately wrote to the presidency, and followed it up with a visit, wrote to security agencies that look these people are threatening and that, as far as I know them, when they give threats they still come for the people and so I even called for the arrest of the leadership of Miyetti Allah, who issued this press statement. Later in the year, another Fulani socio-cultural organisation also wrote that they were out to enforce jihad in this country.
PT: They wrote to the state government….
Ortom: They issued a press statement. They called it FUNAM. They did a press conference and it was widely circulated on the social media and all that. I got wind of all these, so I made copies of all these and attached. Others came to say that it is not about cattle rearing, it is about occupation. That this land where we are today in the Benue valley belongs to them. That it is their land, their forefathers were here so we are strangers here. That they are coming to occupy and take over their land. But others say its jihad, that they are mobilising Fulani from all over the place, they will come and fight with guns and also money, mobilised resources to come and sponsor and ensure that they occupy this land whether we like it or not. So these were the issues and I felt they were life-threatening and the security agencies should come. I wrote to the security agencies and I also followed it up with a visit and letters of reminder to the presidency.
PT: Apart from these letters did you hold meetings with the president?
Ortom: I did. I said I did a follow-up visit to the president. I told him that these are the threats that are coming and they told me they will act on it but nothing came until 1st of January when eventually after we started implementation on November 1st because we signed this Law on May 22nd, 2017 but decided again to give a grace period for those who were not ready and even went to provide some incentives to most of these people. We said once you can do something that can control the cattle from moving about and destroying people’s farms, we are willing to accommodate you, and for those who were afraid of moving out their cattle, in case they don’t want to ranch they were free to find alternative states where they can go and do their open grazing.
But we woke up on the 1st of January while people were celebrating the New Year to hear about the attack from the herdsmen. They came and burnt down children, women, anyone they saw they would just kill and even after shooting people dead they still used their swords to machete them and cut them into pieces. Eventually I reported this and the president directed that the IG should relocate to Benue State to ensure that this did not continue, but it continued. The IG came in for one day and relocated to Nasarawa State so it was a big challenge and we kept calling for reinforcement from the police, the army, the civil defence and the SSS. They came forth and to a large extent, they were able to control this but it continued, the killings continued. Eventually Exercise Cat Race came. We had thought initially that they were coming to give support but when it was tagged an exercise I tried to make inquiries from the Chief of Army Staff who told me it wasn’t a full operation, it was more of a training for their new recruits, but that in the course of doing it, they were going to contend with criminals from both sides, whether they are natives, herdsmen or mercenaries, if they are found they would be dealt with. They did that. I know a couple of arrests were made. But it was not as a strong as an operation so it was a little bit of a challenge but one thing that happened again during the exercise here was the so-called attempt to make peace between herdsmen and farmers and inviting herdsmen to come, they even produced a pamphlet.
PT: You mean the Army?
Ortom: Yes! They produced a pamphlet that was trying to mediate between herdsmen and farmers that they should come and live together. So that gave encouragement to a lot of cattle that came into Benue State and they were not firstly against them so they formed shield to host the machineries that they had and these killings continued. When Mr President came on a condolence visit we told him that we appreciate the presence of the Exercise Cat Race but it was not really meeting up with the challenge of these killings that we had and so we appealed to him to send a full operation and I tell you until Operation Wild Stroke came here, we were at the mercy of these mercenaries. This is a combination of the security agencies in total, it is coordinated by the defence headquarters.
PT: So that has helped?
Ortom: Yes, this is what has really helped us.
PT: During that Operation Cat Race, there was a time the Army said they arrested your security adviser and accused you of sponsoring militia.
Ortom: You know those are the issues. It’s a matter of giving a dog a bad name to hang it. I am not into the business of militia. Everybody that knows me and the people of the state know. When I came in 2015, the first assignment I did was to disarm people with illegal weapons because assassinations, killings, kidnapping all those things were the order of the day. I organised that and was able to retrieve all the arms that I could lay my hands on. When these latest attacks started coming, I was blamed by my people for collecting arms from the natives. The inspector general of police came here, and I told him where these people were camping and launching attack on Benue State.
PT: You told him?
Ortom: I told him and he said okay he would go there and see. He went to Nasarawa State, and announced for several days that he was going to the place but by the time he got there he made mockery of what security agents should be doing, asking people around, ‘where are the militia?’ Who will tell him that? That was something that needed proper work to be done. These are some of my issues with the inspector general. Initially he did not even believe that these killings were anything. He said it was a communal clash, until he met with the stakeholders here in Benue. They told him to his face that it was so disappointing for an inspector general of police to tag this a communal clash when the real issues are clear, and he had been given prior notice that these people were coming to attack.
PT: So those militia that they said were associated with you where are they now?
Ortom: I don’t know! That is the thing! Even me when we started the amnesty programme for those criminals we launched it in two folds. First was the carrot approach. We said ‘look, bring back arms, whatever illegal arms you have bring it to us, we would even give you something for bringing it back’. We paid for those things, and as many as possible brought it back just to give them some compensation. This was what we discussed in the security council meeting.
When the carrot approach expired, the next one was to go after them, using the security agencies to retrieve these arms forcefully wherever they are and this was a directive that the state security council gave to the security agencies and this too recorded a lot of successes. If you ask the SSS, you ask the police they apprehended some of these criminals and retrieved those arms so when they came with the story that we had 6,000 militia I said how? If I have 6,000 militia armed with AK47 why should my people be killed like chicken? What is the essence of having militia? Have they told you anywhere where a Fulani man was killed apart from one incident in Gboko which was addressed. These were not even Fulani people. They were labourers going to do farm work in the west and some hoodlums approached them and said they are Fulani, and started beating them, and killed them and burnt them. We went there and directed that the security men should arrest them. So where the 6,000 militia was, up to today I don’t know.
PT: So you don’t have an appointee…
Ortom: No Tishaku is a different thing, I am coming to that. Tishaku I inherited him. I didn’t employ him. He was in the employment of the Benue State Government that I inherited and he was brought in here by a former deputy inspector general of police to support the then government, to ensure that the issue of Fulani herdsmen do not escalate. So I came, I inherited him and he was working with Fulanis, he was working with indigenes and all that in this place and he was said to be a repentant Boko Haram member.
I inherited him with a number of youths that he was working with to ensure that there is peace for farmers and herdsmen in the state before the enactment of the law. When we enacted the law, the law makes provision for livestock guards. So we now said okay instead of going to recruit other people from outside since these people were already working and there were Fulanis alongside with the indigenous people let them be turned into livestock guards. We didn’t need to go out to employ people. That was what happened.
Even when Mr. President came here he (Tishaku) spoke and narrated how he was a Boko Haram member but later repented and became a good citizen. That he was even supported by the current National Security Adviser when he was framed up and detained. That it was him (NSA) that pulled him out. That he was brought here by then a serving deputy inspector general of police before I became governor. So it was not that there was anybody arming somebody. He is a known person, even far before I came here. They are just trying to change the narrative and push it back to me but the real issue is that the people who are there are not happy with me for enacting that law.
PT: I recall that the Presidency even issued a statement at a time saying that your enactment and implementation of the law worsened the crisis in Benue.
Ortom: Well, when you hear a minister of interior saying that, when you hear a minister of defence saying that, when you hear an inspector general of police saying that, when you hear the chief of army staff saying that, you understand why I am in trouble. But let me ask you this: if you say it is the enactment of the law that has caused problem in Benue, how about Zamfara? How about Adamawa? How about Taraba? How about Plateau? Is there any law in Plateau? How about Kaduna? Is there any law in Kaduna? These are the issues. The main thing is what these people (Fulani organisation) are saying. That it is not about grazing or rearing cattle. It is about occupation, that is the truth.
PT: Are you saying the federal government is supporting external forces to occupy Benue?
Ortom: Well I don’t know. But that is what they have said, it is not coming from me. When they said it is Jihad it is not me that is saying it’s Jihad. It is they. Those group that are saying that this is what they are coming to do and they are still coming.
PT: Before you enacted the law, did you sit with the president or did you receive any security report to say this thing you’re going to do is likely to be a problem?
Ortom: At no time did I receive any security warning. And the presidency was duly informed about this law too. When we were doing the processes, these things were very clear. These were issues that were discussed at security meetings. The SSS, the police and other security agencies are also part of the security meeting; they are aware.
PT: You seem to be alleging a gang-up against you and Benue? Why will anyone gang up against you?
Ortom: Maybe they can explain why it is like that. But as far as I know, this law we enacted wasn’t my own making. Of course I am a democratically elected governor and my understanding about democratic governance is about doing what the people want and as far as I am concerned the people were being killed, not just from 2015 when I came in. Right from 2011 towards 2015, the people were crying. Every year, hundreds of people were being killed from Agatu to Makurdi to Guma, where I come from.
In 2013, when I was serving as minister this people came one day, burnt my farm, my rice farm of over 200 hectares, burnt the entire village, killed 53 people and burnt my ancestral home and several other homes that were around and left. So it was a pain to every single person in Benue state. If you’re not affected directly, your niece or uncle, someone related to you was affected. Economically, camping IDPs is a big burden to a lot of our people. So this is the issue and we had to do that law and everybody was aware of this. Nobody told me whether by security report, because these things were discussed in our security meetings, and I am sure that the people operating in the state here, they give their reports to their superiors in Abuja. Nobody came out with anything and in all that I did I made it known in my interviews, in my meetings and all that.
PT: Were you targeting Fulanis with this law?
Ortom: There is no mention of Fulani in the law. We are talking about herdsmen.
PT: Do you have natives who are herdsmen?
Ortom: Of course we have them. We have them. Even in my farm I have cattle.
PT: So you are a herdsman too?
Ortom: I’m a herdsman, yes!
PT: Are you complying with the law as a herdsman?
Ortom: I have complied with it already. If you go to my farm in Makurdi it is ranched. Until the attack on my village I have a ranch in my farm. So, this is something I have been doing long ago, and of course globally that is what is obtained.
PT: The Fulani are arguing that open grazing is part of their customs and tradition. Did you consider that argument in the making of the law.
Ortom: Your culture should not be at the detriment of any other person. If your culture is inconveniencing people. I know that in our own culture, Tiv culture, we used to smoke native tobacco. The odour is not pleasant to anyone .We could not have continued like that. We used to walk barefooted, we are no longer walking barefooted, just for the convenience of others and all that. Our culture is that is that you stay for one month or even more without taking a bath, and if you see an elderly man coming the whole environment would be polluted with some kind of odour. So, there are several cultures of the world, not just in Nigeria that as the population is growing the world is civilising more you try to do without it. Those who talk about open grazing is our culture, yes that would have been accommodated in the 1950s that is when people give analysis of cattle areas and grazing routes and grazing reserves, and they go further to talk about those of them that were gazetted and those that were not gazetted. Those designated but not gazetted and all that. But that was in the 50’s. Ask yourself, in the 50’s what was the total population of Nigeria? Less than 40 million people. In 2017 what is the total population of Nigeria? Close to 200 million people. Now what is the land mass of Nigeria? In the 50’s it was 923,000square kilometres, the same thing as at 2017 but even less because of the ceding of Bakassi to the Cameroon. The desert encroachment also have made the land to shrink into a smaller size but you have to contain with 200 million people compared to in the 50’s when you have less than 40 million people. So you see that there are several activities, human activities; settlements, road network, hospitals, schools and all, they have taken over all this land.
One of the things that added to our promoting ranching was because Benue State is known as the food basket of the nation. We are a civil service state, actively supported by agriculture, peasant farming. So the land is no longer there. In the 50’s we are talking about I wonder if we were up to 500,000 people but today we are approaching 8 million people. So, the whole land is occupied. My policy as a governor in 2015, when I came and inherited over N69 billion in arrears of salaries, pension and gratuity and I knew I cannot cope, one thing I did was to say ‘look let everyone go back to the farm’. If you don’t have salaries at the end of the month at least you have food on your table. Your children don’t come crying. So actively we have encouraged the people to go back to farm, all the civil servants are farmers. I am a farmer too. We are all into the farming business. So, the land is no longer there to say that people will do open grazing. There is no one kilometre you take that you have empty land somewhere for people to do open grazing, they will encroach into people’s farm and then there will be crisis.
TO BE CONTINUED… PART TWO WILL RUN THIS WEEK. THERE, THE GOVERNOR SPOKE ABOUT HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH SENATOR GEORGE AKUME, HIS BATTLE WITH ADAMS OSHIOMHOLE, THE CORRUPTION ALLEGATION AGAINST HIM, THE REAL REASON HE LEFT APC, AMONG OTHER ISSUES.