Benue killings beyond grazing – Ortom
The Governor of Benue State, Dr. Samuel Ortom, speaks on the herdsmen killings in the state and why he assented to the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, among other issues. PHILIP NYAM reports
There have been allegations that the implementation of the anti-open grazing law is responsible for the killings in your state. How would you respond to that?
I will tell you the truth because the Bible says you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. We have no business being where we are today. We would have been far ahead of where we are today and it is just because for a long time, we have suppressed the truth. But the truth is that I have decided to offer myself, if it would require me to pay the supreme price for saying the truth, I am ready to do it because time has come in this country that we must stop promoting sycophancy and mediocrity. We must promote the truth; respect the constitution and the rule of law.
The constitution and the laws of our land is the only thing that can guide us to greater heights; it is the only thing that can lead us to where we want to be; it is the only thing that can promote and project us to rank with other countries that are doing well. Was it not just yesterday that we said “Ghana must go?” Why is it that on African soil today or the whole world, Ghana has become a reference point against Nigeria?
And at my age and having been privileged to work at the local government and state levels as well as working as a cabinet minister and now back to my state as a governor; what have I contributed, what can I make to add value to Nigeria’s development? This is the challenge I have, this is the pain that I share and today for the persecution I am going through, for doing what is right, I have become a target for saying enough is enough. Stone Age laws should be repelled because they will not help us.
But, two key officials of the Federal Government made the allegation…
The truth is that I felt so sad when the Minister of Defence and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) were acting the script of the Miyetti Allah instead of doing their jobs for which they are being paid from collecting tax payers’ money. How can you say that it is because of the prohibition of the Open Grazing and Provision for Ranching Law of 2017 in Benue State that has brought those killings? The killings did not take place in 2011, but have there not been killings from 2012 to date. This law is a necessity arising from the killings. And for us, we sought to bring a permanent solution with the perennial problem of herdsmen and farmers clashes. We did our research and adopted global best practice, which is ranching for all types of animals.
So it is amazing for anyone to assert that it is because of the law that the killings were carried out. But in any case, is this law in Adamawa State, how many people did we hear were killed there? And almost everyday people are killed; do we have a law in Plateau State, do we have a law in Kaduna State, do we have it in Nasarawa State? We already have more than 10,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Nasarawa State camping in Benue State. Do they have this law in Edo, Ondo, Bayelsa or Rivers?
So it is not about the law, it is deliberate and we live in a country where people will come out in the name of Miyetti Allah and issue a threat that they are coming to attack, that they will mobilise people to invade and take over the land and even when you report to the authorities, no action is taken and they expect you to keep quiet when you are a leader elected by the people and they are looking unto you for protection. I should speak and of course when I speak the media is able to alert the whole world and today the whole world appreciates the magnitude of the problems that I am going through. How can you be in a state and you have seven IDP camps hosting more than 100,000 people and 60 per cent of these people are children who should be in their schools, they are being denied of their legitimate rights which we as leaders are supposed to give them because of non-performance of people who are saddled with sensitive responsibilities in this country to provide security for lives and property.
How would you react to the various claims by the security agencies on who is actually responsible for the killings?
So, it is painful and really unfortunate and I expect that those who are responsible for enforcing the laws of our land and ensuring security for lives and property are the ones demonstrating incompetence because of what is going on. Take for instance, the President directed the IGP to relocate to Benue State to ensure that these killings stop, but he came one day and left and he is sitting in Abuja and he has chosen to send his public relations officer to be insulting me for doing what is right. This is unfortunate and it is like there is a general disconnect amongst even the security agencies.
Today, one would say it is a terrorist organisation from West Africa that is coming to attack. Tomorrow, they will say it is because of the law, next tomorrow they will say that we have succeeded in blocking the water from flowing, so the herdsmen can do and undo. And we have repeatedly called on the security agencies to arrest Miyetti Allah who are sponsors of these militias. The Fulani militias are in their numbers with AK47 riffles all over. Even when they were coming to attack people in Benue they boarded two boats, they were more than 200 heading to Benue. They filmed it and released it on social media for people to see their mightiness yet the IG of police will say that it is Benue people that have arms to attack. It is unfortunate.
But you were accused of recruiting and arming militias…
If I have 6,000 militias for God sake with AK47, will my people be massacred in the manner as it happened on January 1? If I have them, will I still be crying to the police and to the President every day that my people are being killed? Since after the burial of these people, there is no single day that one or two persons are not killed and the security men are not even spared. Policemen have been victims, they have been killed in the course of trying to promote peace and arrest these persons. There was an attack by these herdsmen on mobile policemen in Logo Local Government Area. Three of them were wounded, they are in the hospital and four of them are missing, we hope that they will be rescued.
There are several reports and write-ups that this is not a normal thing. It is not about grazing and some who should be taking action are not doing it. They are talking about jihad, about ethnic cleansing, about taking over the land and about the struggle for Benue valley, which they claim is their own. I have submitted to security agencies names of those behind all these, they are known, they are in Abuja where they call press conferences. So, which hate speech can be more than killing fellow human beings? I hear of so many plans to frustrate me here and there, plots to tarnish my image, they sponsor people to write hate speeches against me, but as a man who trusts and who God brought on this seat, l leave my fate in Him.
What is your reaction to the belief that some powers that be are angry over the mass burial your government organised for victims of the January 1 killings, which they see as a deliberate attempt to paint them black?
I work with my people who elected me and I always do their bidding. And this law prohibiting open grazing and making provision for ranching is the product of the people themselves. We did work with them, they asked for something that can solve this problem, so we brought the law. The law is a win-win one for herdsmen and farmers. So, it is a very popular law. You can go out there and do some opinion poll and see whether that law is unpopular because we have suffered between 2011 2017. People were angry and they felt that government should do something. And so we did our research and it was the popular view of Benue people to enact this law. When we started the implementation on November 1, 2017, everything was peaceful, herdsmen were doing their own and we did not even require them to do standard ranching. Even where they were not able to gather sticks and confine their cattle, they were able to restrain them from straying to peoples’ farm and we were okay with that.
When Miyetti Allah gave their threat, we reported but no action was taken and on January 1, these people were killed because of the insensitivity of the security agencies. So, it was the collective decision of Benue stakeholders irrespective of party affiliation that we honour these people. Today, the grave yard is separate from any other grave yards in the state and it has become a monument for all those who are victims of enactment of this law, that was why we chose to honour them and it will serve as a monument.
We are going to put structures there, we are going to put pictures of other people killed there with time because we couldn’t bring them down for burial here so that our children will know that once upon a time, there was this challenge and we rose to tackle the matter headlong and we held the bull by the horn and said the only way we can live in peace is to ranch and that is global best practice because the land is not expanding. By the ceding of Bakassi to Cameroon, the land mass is no longer 923,000 square kilometers, but the population is growing.
Some people have argued that in the 50s, there were cattle routes and grazing areas, all these things have been encroached upon as a result of population growth. What was the population in 1950? Less than 40 million, today we are told by projection that we are over 200 million people, so where is the land? We are talking about diversifying from oil economy to other sectors like agriculture, solid minerals and for us in Benue State, agriculture is one area where we have comparative advantage and everyone is encouraged to do it.
At a time that we cannot even pay salaries as and when due, we have encouraged all the civil servants, during cropping and harvesting period; we give Fridays off for those who are not on essential duties to go and do farming so that if salaries do not come as expected, at least you have food on your table. This is a strategy we introduced since we came in 2015 and it has worked for us.
The January 1, invasion of Benue communities resulted to over 100,000 IDPs. Now, there are Cameroonian refugees crossing into the state and that gives close to 200,000 refugees. How are you coping with that considering that you just mentioned the issue of salaries?
The challenge is there as you rightly said. Today we have seven camps in Benue State housing the IDPs and two camps in Kwande Local Government Area hosting the refugees from Cameroon. It is a difficult thing, when it comes to human life as you definitely have to suspend other things and give room no matter how tight it is.
But, honestly I am a human being, the condition where these people are living is not enough to say that we have been able to provide minimum provision for them to live in those camps, at least minimum comfort, it is still not there. But we have appointed managers in all these camps, the seven of them for the IDPs and the two for the Cameroonian refugees making nine camps, they are being managed. We have had a couple of support from good spirited individuals and groups and government to assist us to provide non-food items and food items to these people, with the support from Benue state government too, we have been doing our best to ensure that they have minimum support. We have also mobilised health workers from primary healthcare board that are supporting them in health facilities but that is still not enough, that is a very big burden on government; we are still calling on good spirited individuals, groups and organisations and the international community to come in and support us because this is about humanitarian crisis, we never envisaged that we will have this at this time. Even where these people are being hosted, it is not a good sight.
Some people believe that you have left the All Progressives Congress (APC) in spirit as a result of the development in Benue State. Do you have any plan to return to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)?
I think it is not a problem to me, at least, for now. When these killings took place and I looked at the magnitude and I saw how people were running all over the place, my local government was affected, my ancestral home was affected, my farm was affected, everybody and more than half of the local government have left, you see them living in Makurdi or they have found refuge somewhere or they are staying in IDP camps. Then the dead people were not even buried, I decided that this is something that would require the entire Benue people to come together and work to ensure that we have a way forward, for peace to return and let our people go back to their ancestral homes.
I also decided that I will withdraw from all political activities and that is where I am now. I am still a member of APC, but for now, I have withdrawn from all political activities, including campaigns. I am no longer talking about that for myself or any other person until I am able to resolve this because that would bring distractions and that would also send some people who are supposed to make inputs so that we resolve this matter away from me.
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