Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom spoke with Assistant Editor JIDE BABALOLA in Makurdi, the state capital, on the menace of herdsmen, the controversial anti-open grazing law, the problems of refugees, persistent threat to security in the Northcentral state and way out of the crisis.
Benue State has been having an influx of Cameroonian refugees and the recent bloody crisis had brought a high number of internally-displaced persons (IDPs). Can you give us an insight into how big the challenge is?
The challenge is enormous The refugees are over 8,000 and we are still counting. The IDPs are over 60,000 now and we are still counting. It is quite challenging. I have just released N100 million for essential materials to be bought for the IDPs. They are in four locations. Three camps are in Guma local government while one is in Logo. We intend to cater for them. I have also deployed the Ministry of Health to post health officials to take care of the health needs and challenges that are there. SEMA have already deployed staff who are doing documentation. We did inform Mr. President. I was contacted and told that NEMA is bringing relief materials today for the IDPs.
As for the refugees, we have already sent in some relief but they are not enough. UNHCR and our SEMA officials here have visited the camp. There were issues about whether by law, we have the right to camp them in our state but I think that has been resolved now and I have already intimated the Minister of Interior and NEMA. I believe that they too will provide some help. I have provided some relief to them but honestly, contending with over 60,000 IDPs is not an easy task. You are dealing with children, women, you are dealing with the old people and the whole thing is complicated. The environment is another issue; since they are staying in a primary school, the environment is not conducive. So, many issues about the food and their health needs are really tasking and challenging; we are really calling for help.
Is the Federal Government not coming to the aid of your state?
You see, it is unfortunate that some Federal Government agencies failed Mr. President and I told them that they have not complemented what the President is saying. They have not been able to fill in the gap in such a manner that this situation would have been averted.
In the first place, there was no need for this. If they had listened and taken heed to the admonition and advice I gave them right from the time that I suspected that this kind of thing was going to happen. The security agencies for instance; in June, 2017, they were adequately informed of this threat. So you don’t expect Mr. President to go there and be doing it, though even the Presidency was informed too, there is no doubt about that but you know, I am a governor and I know what I go through.
So, if there is a lapse from any of my supporting staff, this kind of thing can happen and that is what happened. He was not briefed and so, we must appreciate that there is a President but we have people who are responsible for the specific duties that should be carried out and it is their responsibility to adequately brief you as chief executive and do a follow up and ensure that this is done. Otherwise, even the office of the governor, I know how busy I am. So, you wake up every day to see this kind of issue, talk more of the President. It is quite challenging and the anger is so much and I think the main challenge is because the President himself is a Fulani man but I want to let our people know that they should reason beyond that.
This crisis actually started before Mr. President came in. In Benue State here, the peak of it was in 2012 to 2015. So, it is not that Mr. President is not doing anything. When this happened, I reported to him and immediately, he contacted the IG and directed. It continued, he contacted him and immediately he said that the police and Army should deploy their men and that was done. At least for the past three days, we can sleep as a result of these. I believe that we shouldn’t take arms – two wrongs cannot make a right. We should allow the Federal government agencies that are responsible for peace, security and protection do their rightful duties because that is why they are recruited and paid.
There is a lot of insinuations going on and falsehoods that people are spreading, I am pleading with them, this is about human lives, let us not politicize issues, let us not be sectional, let us not begin to let our anger rule us. The Bible says be angry but let not the sun go down upon your wrath. People should allow themselves to be carried away because this thing happened. I think we can do better. What is important is for us to continue to pray for Mr. President, pray for me and other leaders like the Bible enjoins us so that whatever decision we take would be in the best interest of the people so that there would be peace and development.
There has been much talk about the issues of land acquisition for ranching and provision of subsidy; Fulani herdsmen are saying that stoppage of grazing would require a cultural and lifestyle change for a practice they had carried on for hundreds of years. How easy is it to acquire land for ranching and is the state going to walk the path of providing subsidy for cattle rearers ?
It is very easy to acquire land for ranching; those who do not are not interested. That is a fact. As I talk to you, there are herdsmen who are here, whether Fulani or other tribes that are rearing cattle in Benue State and as we said when we were going to implement this law, that we would give it a human face and that is what we have done.
So, 100% compliance is not there but we have allowed it because we want it to wear a human face. So, even where you don’t have the capacity to do a standard ranch, we would still accommodate you and that is what most of the local governments are doing. You are allowed to do some level of grazing that is restricted to a particular area – you can go and give water to your cattle and come back.
How realistic or feasible is the issue of subsidy for cattle rearers?
Well, the issue of subsidy is something we would need to sit down and discuss with the Federal Government. I have proposed this before, that there is need for it because cattle rearing is also part of agriculture. So, if we are paying subsidy for fertiliser for farmers, we can do same and this would require us to establish new technology in cattle feeds, not just grass. Government should subsidise and I agree with that. Those who have established standard ranching, government should subsidise for them.
Some of your people criticize you for exposing them to harm by insisting that they submit their arms last year and that you keep saying so much about peace while danger stares them in the face.
You see, either way, they would insult you. Some other people are accusing me now. When some men somewhere were caught with guns, they were all over the place, saying that Benue State is sponsoring those people. I am not sponsoring them and I don’t believe in violence. I don’t believe that two wrongs will make a right. I believe that we should do the right thing.
So, we must obey the law and we must do the needful to ensure that the right thing is done at all times, no matter the provocation and that is why I am not calling for a reprisal for this attack on our people. Innocent people should not be attacked. A Fulani man who is on the street that does not know what happened in Logo or Guma and you come and attack him in Makurdi, it is not right and it is not accepted. Such people would be treated as criminals anywhere they are seen. We must learn to do the right and I know that I have done the right thing by disarming people .
We were able to bring insecurity to its barest minimum when we did it. Prior to that time, nobody was sleeping in this state – killings, assassinations, armed robbery, kidnappings – the rate at which it was going was terrible! So, this is the point, we needed to do that. I am sure that you slept here yesterday and did not hear about any incident. We must learn to do the right thing because that is the way to go.
What is your source of inspiration for initiating and carrying on with the Anti-Open Grazing law, in spite of very stiff opposition?
If you look through my chequered life history, you would discover that I have passed through the storms; I have been through the crucible and I am properly refined to defend anything I do. Today, I am elected by the people and like I keep saying, if you ask me for the meaning of democracy, I will tell you that it is doing what the people want or at least doing what majority of the people want. So, one thing that I am determined to do is to continue to acknowledge that it was God that brought me here and I would continue to look unto God. I am not looking unto any man and looking unto God, giving leadership with the fear of God has translated to equity, fairness, justice, accountability, selflessness, integrity, discipline. These are values that are missing in the society today and I want to entrench them. I said it during my campaigns that as governor, I will ensure that I execute the counsel of God over the land. Executing the counsel of God over the land is serving the people because that is the desire of God, for all mankind to be given equal opportunity; small or great or those in the middle should be given equal opportunity in governance and to also feel part of it. What we are doing, I believe that posterity will judge us and appreciate us better. What we are doing is a kind of revolution. You will see that the kind of government I run has never been witnessed before; you say the truth and ensure that there is equity. So, we have transformed a lot o things and these were things that were not practiced before, including this prohibition of open grazing.
We believe that the prohibition of open grazing is global best practice but people were shying away from it. If you ask, people who argue that it is because of the law that people were killed here, and I ask them: what about Adamawa, Plateau, Taraba, Nassarawa, Rivers, Bayelsa, Imo, Ondo, Ebonyi ? Was there any (anti-Open grazing) law in these states? How about in Edo where there is no law but just few days ago, somebody’s hand was chopped off. People are being butchered. So, I don’t want to shy away from my responsibility as governor and I want to do the right thing but I want anybody who feels that I am not doing the right thing to challenge me. I am always very open and if your argument is superior to mine, I am ready to go with you but for now, I think that I am going along with the people, they elected me and so, I must do their bidding at all times.
Do you have any fears; is your life under threat?
It is true that I am under threat. I have been told and the Fulani men sent text messages that I would be killed. They called some people and said they are going to attack me, that I am a dog. They called me all kinds of names, but this kind of thing (Anti-open grazing law) is worth dying for.
Are you not cowed?
I am not cowed and I am not afraid of anything. It is a foolish man that dies twenty times before his real death and I am not one of them. I am not a foolish man and looking at my life history, you would appreciate that this person cannot be a foolish man.
What are the financial implications of implementing this law?
There is. I am yet to put in place what we have spent but I can tell you that it is much because implementing this requires establishing and maintaining the Livestock Guard – you will provide money and put logistics in place for them. It requires the conventional security because it is a new thing and so there are resistance, especially as it is happening. Implementing it is the result of these 73 people that were killed and that was why we decided to honour them in the manner that we did on the 11th of January 2018 because we feel these are martyrs, heroes and they should be respected. Forever, it would be on record that when this law was implemented, these people paid the supreme price. When those people would be enjoying the law through ranching, because they are going to have better meat to make business with and better milk, instead of using cows that have traveled thousands of kilometres. Experts would tell you that is it not even healthy for open grazing. Worldwide, they will tell you that it is better to have cattle that can stay in one place for feeding and recreation or reproduction. Their productivity is better and herders would also be given the privilege of their children going to school. So this is going to be a better way of doing things and much has been spent. So, all these put together is the cost of what we are doing.
Food security is a major issue and many farms were destroyed as a result of the recent attacks. What are the fears for food supply in the coming year?
Like I said, in 2014 alone, Benue State lost properties and goods and of course, what we lost includes farms crops worth N95billion in ten local governments, with thousands of people killed. Definitely, it (recent crisis) will affect food security.
The IDPs that we have recorded now are over 60,000 in just two local governments and these are people who were in the process of harvesting their crops because this is harvest period. Now, they are being displaced, they are staying in camps, they cannot go to the farm.
Two things will happen; the herdsmen would bring their cattle to feed on the crops or fire will burn their crops because nobody is there to watch. So, I can assure you that definitely, this thing will have some level of implication on food security in Nigeria because we are the food basket of the nation.
Can you tell us your relationship with various security agencies in Benue state?
We are doing very well, I must say that. I have the Commissioner of Police here with his men, the Commandant of the Army, the DSS and also NSCDC. All of us work together as a government and we are really working together. This (anti-Open Grazing) law for instance, was discussed in our Security Council meetings before we even took it to the Executive Council and then sent it to the House of Assembly. So, we are working together and I am must commend them. Since the implementation of this law, their role has been fantastic!
As I talk to you, close to thirty people are in detention and there is no bias about implementing this law. There are some young men in Ado who went to murder a Fulani man and killed his cattle; three of them were arrested and are in detention and there are herdsmen who violated the law by doing open grazing , they were arrested.
Even these (January crisis) killings, I think about nine persons have been arrested. Six of them have been arraigned and three of them, it was just two days back that they were arrested. So, what else would they do? You would also appreciate the fact that today, the Nigerian security system is overstretched – the Army, Police and others – because of multiple crises that have engulfed the nation. As for us in Benue State, they have been doing well and I don’t expect them to do things that are beyond them.