CEPHAS IORHEMEN reports that Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State appears to be the hero of the anti-open grazing campaign, following the recent declaration by southern governors on the issue
When the governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, began the fight against militant herdsmen, who were then attacking and killing innocent citizens of the state, many Nigerians thought he was fighting a personal battle to safeguard his people. But Nigerians of like minds knew he was benevolent in his approach to the issue.
Ortom, then on the ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC) had on in his inauguration as governor on May 29, 2015, promised to do everything possible to contain attacks on the people of Benue state by criminal gangs and killer herdsmen.
The promise was captured in his working document tagged: “Our collective vision for a new Benue.”
The governor stemmed his pledge on the fact that Benue, popularly known the “Food Basket of the Nation,” is purely an agrarian state, with the greater percentage population of the state as predominantly farmers. His words then: “We will do everything possible to contain attacks on our people by criminal gangs and herdsmen.
We will through appropriate legislation, encourage those with livestock in the state to keep them on ranches as a way of forestalling incessant clashes with farmers. “We will also move decisively against those of our youths and their patrons, who have chosen a living out of unbridled acts of terror and thuggery.
Government will no longer be a shield for these youths and those who patronize them. Whoever they may be and no matter how powerful, they will be brought to account.
“We call on all unlawfully armed persons who have been terrorizing innocent citizens to immediately surrender their arms, be free and get integrated into our reform programme, or we shall pursue them down to their holes. “In agriculture, our expected outcome is to extend our calling as ‘Food Basket of the Nation’ to include processing of agro-products.
We will do this by developing the sector through the introduction of simple technology driven systems and targeted interventions involving agro-processing, improved marketing channels, inputs and rural infrastructure.”
Apart from the challenge of how to pay the state’s teeming workers and pensioners their wages due to the excruciating economic down turn at that time he assumed office, the issue of herdsmen attacks on farmers in the state constituted a major humanitarian burden on his shoulders.
It is on record that shortly after Ortom settled down to face the task of governance, suspected armed Fulani insurgents made incursion into the state and killed hordes of peasant farmers including women and children, a development that threw the entire state into mourning.
Most developmental programmes embarked upon by the governor to uplift the state to enviable heights were dwarfed because foreign investors, who would have been attracted to such programmes were scared away due to the activities of the herdsmen.
There were other pockets of attacks after that 2018 pogrom in several local government areas including Kwande, Katsina-Ala, Ukum, Logo, Tarka, Makurdi, Gwer, Gwer West, Agatu, Buruku, Gboko, Ogbadibo, App, Otukpo and Guma, the governor’s homestead among others. Again, women were raped, schools and homes destroyed.
This forced many citizens of Benue to become refugees in own state. Leaders of various Fulani groups in the country, especially, Miyetti Allah Kauta Hore and Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), rose up and claimed responsibility for the attacks, citing the validly promulgated Anti-open Grazing Bill passed by the state House of Assembly as a reason for the attacks.
The Fulani groups told the world that they are the owners of the richly endowed Benue Valley and that the green vegetation that could help them in no small measure to feed their cattle is been occupied by farmers.
Against this backdrop, Governor Ortom had no option than to sponsor and forward the Anti-Open Grazing Bill to the State House of Assembly as part of measures to stem the killings and allow farmers continue with their activities.
Speaking at the occasion of the 3rd anniversary of the Benue Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law 2017 in Makurdi, the governor said between February 2013 and May 13, 2017, the state experienced 46 attacks by suspected Fulani herdsmen during which lots of people were killed.
The governor, particularly, said the attacks resulted to the death of over 1,541 people as well as massive destruction of property including schools, hospitals, residential houses, churches, farmlands in 15 out of the 23 local government areas of the state.
The governor who spoke through the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in the state, Mike Gusa, put the value of the property lost during those violent attacks on Benue farmers at a conservative estimate of over N400 billion.
“The excuse given for the attacks included reprisals for cattle rustled and killing of herdsmen during conflicts arising from the grazing of cattle. People in several communities in the affected places were living in perpetual fear, many vacated their ancestral homes for fear of been killed by suspected herdsmen.
“To put an end to these incessant attacks, the Benue State Executive Council headed by the governor sponsored a bill to State Assembly to enact a law prohibiting open grazing and establishment of ranches for the rearing of livestock in general,” he said.
He added the bill included the establishment of the Benue State Livestock Guards to assist the security agencies to enforce the law, and that on May 22, 2017, he assented to the law but directed that the implementation be delayed for six months to give owners of livestock time to adjust to the new law.
He recalled that one week after the bill was signed into law (May 30, 2017), Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore under the leadership of Alhaji Abdulahi Bodejo and Engr Alhassan Sale, president and secretary, respectively, addressed a press conference in Abuja and vowed to resist the law.
According to Ortom, “they (Bodejo and Sale) vowed to mobilize their members nationwide and beyond to resist its implementation.
The group also made spurious claims of being the original inhabitants of the Benue Valley, concluding that the planned attacks were a struggle over the resources of the valley. Several other Fulani groups including the Fulani Nationality Movement issued similar threats.”
The governor further said the herdsmen made good their threats on January 1, 2018 by attacking innocent and defenceless citizens of the state in Guma and Logo local government areas and this led to the death of over 73 people and destruction of property worth several billions of naira.
“After these killings, leader of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN) in Benue State, Garus Gololo, while speaking on BBC News pidgin English said the killing of innocent and defenceless Benue citizens on New Year day at Gaambe-Tiev, Ayilamo, Turan in Logo, and Tse-Ako, Tomatar near Tse-Abi in Guma was an act of self-defence,” Ortom added.
However, he maintained that despite the legion of opposition to the law and the resultant loss of lives and property, the Benue State Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, 2017, has recorded milestones, majority of which is the reduction in the rapidity and number of attacks on communities by suspected herdsmen in the last two years as compared to 2016/2017.
The Benue governor revealed that out of over 400 herdsmen arrested for violating the law between November 1, 2017 and October 27, 2020, 261 have been convicted, 21 discharged, while 36 cases are still pending and the investigation ongoing in other cases.
“Most of the convicts were able to pay fines and were released while many who could not were sent to jail ranging from six months to two years,” he disclosed, adding that within the period, 7,629 cows and 210 sheep as well as other livestock were impounded. He further noted that the law has also witnessed the arrest, arraignment and conviction of five cattle rustlers.
“The convicted rustlers were of Fulani extraction, who confessed to the crime in open court. Besides, the law has ensured the arrest and arraignment of people irrespective of their ethnic groups or religion,” he further noted.
Ortom regretted that in spite of the huge success recorded by the law, hundreds of indigenes of the state, who were displaced by the herdsmen, are yet to go back to their ancestral homes despite the military’s Operation Whirl Stroke (OPWS) in the state.
While Ortom has been praised for the matured way he handled the crisis, his firm stand against repealing the law as well as his efforts at catering for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the eight designated camps in the state, it is not yet Uhuru for the safe return of the IDPs back to their ancestral homes due to renewed skirmishes.
For instance, two communities within Makurdi metropolis; Tse- Tyohemba and Tse-Angbande recently received fresh doses of violent attacks, which led to the death of six people seven others badly injured. New Telegraph gathered that at Tse-Tyohemba, the invaders killed a man and his wife, while at Tse-Angbande, head of a family, one Emberga Akwa and three others were felled by the bullets fired by the herders.
Governor Ortom, who swiftly visited the scene of the attack alongside top security personnel, condemned the brutal attack and killing of the farmers. “I got information that there was an attack on this village by Fulani herdsmen and they killed four people, seven others who sustained varying degrees of injuries are in the hospital.
“This is a repeat of what happened last week when they (the herders) came in this manner without cattle but fully armed and killed a husband and wife and security men were alerted and they went after them and arrested three of them with AK-47 guns.
“This time around, they killed four people; the house head was killed with his brother and son and one other person. Seven people who were injured are in the hospital. “These are poor people struggling to live their lives with what they earn from their farms and now these Fulani herdsmen will not allow them to have even what to eat, then what is the future of this state and country in general,” he said.
Also recently, the herders attacked the Abagena IDP camp, where the killed seven displaced persons. The invasion and killing prompted a protest by youths, who blocked the Makurdi-Lafia road with the dead bodies. Reacting to the incident, Ortom described the attack as “inhuman, barbaric and unacceptable.”
The governor called on President Muhammadu Buhari to live up to his responsibility of protecting Nigerians. The governor also called for urgent action against the activities of militia herdsmen across the country.
“If the Federal Government had taken the issue of militia herders seriously, it wouldn’t have escalated to this level,” he said. There was an attack on the governor himself at his farm along Makurdi-Gboko road.
In all these attacks, leaders of Fulani groups reportedly claimed responsibility, a development that compelled Ortom to call for their arrest and prosecution.
Surprisingly, none of these groups have been arrested or quizzed, even as they vowed that Benue will continue to witness bloodshed if the law is not reversed. But the governor insists that no external forces will compel his administration to repeal the law since it was promulgated due to popular demand by the people of the state.
Ortom, who commended security agencies for doing their best to contain the incessant attacks on communities in the state, had also stressed the need for dialogue with the Federal Government to see what can be done to end the carnage.
The question on the lips of every Benue person over the developments in the state is: Where has Governor Ortom gone wrong in the enactment of the law to protect his people and ensure food sufficiency to further justify the status of the state as the nation’s hub of food production?
The Benue governor has challenged every Nigerian with a superior argument and a better way of ending the herders/ farmers impasse than the one he has put on the table to also bring it forward to help solve the intractable issue once and for all.
It is the feeling of an average Benue person that President Buhari, who swore the country’s constitution to protect the lives of the citizenry, should not only rise to the security challenge but fulfill his N10 billion promise to the state as Federal Government’s contribution to rebuild ravaged communities to ensure safe return of the IDPs back home.
While the gesture is being expected, it is also the expectation of Benue people that the Federal Government pushes for the Benue grazing law to be replicated in all the 36 states of the federation as the modern method of animal husbandry to end cases of herdsmen attacks on farmers in the country.
It is against these backdrops that the Forum of Southern Governors’ ban on open grazing in all the 17 states of southern Nigeria has not only been commended by many but has been seen to have vindicated Governor Ortom.
The governors had in their resolution during a recent meeting in Asaba, the Delta State capital, also recommended that the Federal Government should support willing states to develop alternative and modern livestock management systems.
They also called on President Buhari, to as a matter of urgency and importance, address Nigerians on the frightening state of insecurity across the nation and convoke a national dialogue.
The governors, who were united in their resolve to make Nigeria work, did not betray partisan sentiments, but agreed among other issues that the President addresses Nigerians to restore the peoples’ confidence.
The governors, who explained the rationale for the ban on open grazing, said “development and population growth has put pressure on available land and increased the prospects of conflict between migrating herders and local populations in the South.
Given this scenario, it becomes imperative to enforce the ban on open grazing in the South, including cattle movement to the South by foot.”
They also identified the incursion of armed herders, criminals and bandits into the southern part of the country as being at the root of the “severe security challenge such that citizens are not able to live their normal lives in the region.”
In a 12-point communiqué read by the Forum’s Chairman and Governor of Ondo State, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, the Southern governors expressed displeasure with the worsening state of insecurity and noted that the situation revolves around agitations over restructuring, but affirmed that that the people of Southern Nigeria remain committed to the unity of Nigeria.
The governors stressed that the unity of the country should be “on the basis of justice, fairness, equity and oneness and peaceful co-existence between and among its peoples with a focus on the attainment of shared goals for economic development and prosperity.”
The communique further read: “The progress of the nation requires that urgent and bold steps be taken to restructure the Nigerian federation to berth evolution of state police, review of revenue allocation formula in favour of the sub-national governments and creation of other institutions, which legitimately advance commitment to and practice of true federalism.
“The Federal Government should convoke a national dialogue as a matter of urgency, based on the widespread agitations among various peoples for greater inclusiveness in existing governance arrangements.
“The meeting noted that in deference to the sensitivities of our various peoples, there is need to review appointments into Federal Government agencies, including security agencies to reflect federal character as Nigeria’s overall population is heterogeneous.”
While there is a raging debate over the declaration by the southern governors on open grazing, there is no doubt that it is the sincere hope of many Nigerians that the world-wide accepted practice of ranching should be brought to bear on every Nigerian interested in cattle rearing.