By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor and Kenneth Ehigiator
….MILITANT LEADER ON THE LOOSE
….Were it not for God, Gana would have overrun Benue – Gov Ortom
Governor Samuel Ortom, who is facing raging security challenges unleashed on Benue State by herdsmen and a local militia, allegedly led by a fugitive, Gana, is full of praises to God and security agencies for warding-off the malevolent elements attacking his state. He confesses that if God had not been on the side of the state, the local militia, whom he suspects has ties to Boko Haram terrorists, would have overrun Benue. He also explains why his administration had to enact a Bill seeking to end open grazing in the state.
In this interview, Ortom insists that the law does not intend to force herdsmen out of Benue but merely seeks to provide a conducive atmosphere for farmers and herdsmen to do their business without fear of intimidation and insecurity. Excerpts:
After nearly two years as governor, what can you point out as your achievements?
I want to say the journey has been very rough with a lot of challenges but we are on. There have been security challenges, economic challenges and the social vices triggered by youth restiveness and high unemployment rate. However, despite the challenges, we are determined to add value to the lives of the people and move them to the next level, because we believe that the essence of government is to have the political will to manage challenges and defend its citizens.
Already, we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel, because today in Benue, one can see new structures springing up in all the local government areas of the state.
So far, we have been able to award contracts for more than 740 classroom blocks in our primary schools. We were able to provide instructional materials for the primary schools too. Some of the jobs are on-going though we were caught up with inflation somewhere down the line because of due process.
That notwithstanding, we have over 200 of the classrooms completed while 300 others are on-going. We have made tremendous progress with Benue State University, which is the main industry today with a student population of over 30,000. We have graduated four different batches including 152 medical doctors, and we have got the university back on its feet.
What has the state done to take advantage of the enormous agricultural potentials there?
We have placed agriculture on our front-burner, pushing everyone in the state into farming. We are set to launch the cropping season in the next few weeks with the provision of fertilizers. The good thing this year, is that we are also providing about 60 tractors to support mechanized farming. The intention is to regain the unique place God placed us as the food basket of Nigeria by remaining focused and producing enough for consumption and export. We have gone ahead to give our civil servants an opportunity to go into farming and agriculture.
Every cropping season, like we always do, we declare three months of work free days for those who are on non-essential services in the state to go back to the farm. We believe that it adds value when we do.
We did last year and this year it will be more. During harvest time, we are going to do the same thing. Just one day with a Saturday and the workers resume work on Monday. The story is very encouraging as the workers have discovered that government does not have the capacity to give jobs at the local government, the state and the federal levels. One thing we have taught our people to do is to use what we have instead of lamenting.
The land is there and it is fertile and the rains come in handy and the harvest has always been good. Whether in grains, tubers or citrus or livestock, you can make a lot of business. That is what we are trying to do to reorganize our people to take comparative advantage where we have it stand out as the food hub of Nigeria.
What gave rise to the Anti-grazing Bill that is generating concerns in the state? Some accuse the state of trying to use the new law to drive away herdsmen. What does the law seek to achieve?
There is no ulterior motive behind the Anti-grazing Bill recently passed by the state House of Assembly. If not for anything, it is to create a win-win situation for herdsmen and farmers to do their business without fear of intimidation and harassment. Land in Benue is a limited resource and there is no way you can marry agriculture and grazing and that is why we have decided that the way forward is to ranch. When you ranch your cattle, you restrict them in a manner that they do not go into somebody else’s land and cause destruction, which has been the main cause of conflict in the state. I know that my people like meat, they eat a lot of it, they appreciate it, they are ready to work hard and sell their farm produce and buy the meat if the people agree to ranch.
The problem has been herdsmen are not willing to ranch their cattle and each time they go to graze, no matter how hard they attempt to control their cattle – since they are animals and not human beings, they derail and cause damage to farm produce. This has been creating nightmares for my administration because Benue is sitting on the green belt of Nigeria because of the two rivers that we have been opportune to have: River Benue and River Katsina Ala.
Of course, you know that herdsmen, always want to have the green area to graze on and drink water; so, no matter the challenge or resistance, they are not willing to bow. It has been a very big challenge but we have been coping. Before now, we had done everything under the sun through the State Security Council on some of these challenges and we have succeeded to a large extent but there are still pockets of problems here and there, arising from herdsmen attacking farmers when their herds derail and destroy farms. Unfortunately, if you complain, the next thing is that you are attacked.
We even had cases where our farmers or some restive youths go to attack herdsmen or their cattle, thereby creating problem in the state over time. One other thing is that criminal elements are also involved in attacks under the guise of herdsmen. I initiated an amnesty programme to retrieve weapons from youths especially those who had been using them for criminal activities. And they came in their numbers and surrendered. Some were sincere, some were not.
Some have today been turned into good citizens and are working with us but some were just pretending and had to go back. So some of these incidences you hear about in Benue about attacks on herdsmen is not really from those communities where those things are done; they travel kilometers away to attack cattle, rustle them and take them away to sell. My dilemma is that, when these herdsmen come for retaliation, instead of trailing those who attacked their cattle, they go to the villages and attack anyone in sight and end up killing innocent citizens especially old men, children and women.
One of the strategies we adopted was to constitute committees at the state, local government and kindred levels and these committees comprise of security chiefs, farmers, the youth and government officials. They take complaints from people who are attacked or whose farms are infringed upon so that we now take responsibility from there.
I have persistently told our people that there is no need attacking herdsmen and that even when they provoke you, it is better to report to us so that we can take care of it. Once we know about an attack and if we cannot hold anybody responsible, we will pay compensation for the loss. My government is ready to take responsibility and we have been doing this.
We have situations where herdsmen destroyed crops and they were held and made to pay, we had situations where some youths went and killed some cattle, we held them and made them to pay and where they were not found, government took responsibility.
Since the land is no longer there, we have to regulate herdsmen’s activities, we are not sending them away from our state, and we are not sending any Fulani man away from the state as is being campaigned against us. The Bill is only aimed at regulating the activities of herdsmen and they are free to breed their cattle in Benue but must do it in a civilized manner and the civilized manner is to ranch their cattle in accordance with global best practice. But when you don’t allow people go to their farms, you create insecurity because it is said that the mind that is idle becomes the devil’s workshop.
When these youths are not able to go to the farm, they sit and begin to imagine how they are going to attack, rustle cattle and make cheap money. For us, we are saying that we must ranch and people must seek permission to do that ranching. All these things that I am saying I have been practicing them. I have been a farmer for more than 30 years. I am into livestock, I am into grains, I am into citrus. I understand the pains one goes through in breeding, I understand the pains of a Fulani man when his cattle are hacked down, I understand the pains of a farmer who labours and gets loans from the local or commercial banks to buy fertilizer, pays for equipment and farms and, in the end, the cattle will come and destroy everything.
How has your administration been coping with rising insecurity which has claimed many lives particularly in three local government areas of the state?
I want to say that only the Almighty God has been helping us in Benue. We also want to thank the Federal Government for standing solidly behind us to ward off the activities of the evil-minded elements, who want to scare us. The man called Gana is linked with Boko Haram terrorists to destroy and maim people in Benue.
He initially accepted our amnesty and pleaded with us to allow him to bring in others under his control. He surrendered 87 guns that day and extended his amnesty for another one month. To rehabilitate the boys, we gave him contract to do for the state. But he was not sincere as he went back into crime.
He was accused of killing my Special Adviser in charge of Security and, having been fingered for the crime and having been declared wanted by the security agencies, he became even more deadly in his bid to overrun the state. If we had not identified this man as a suspected terrorist, he would have overrun us because of his large followership in the state.
He is believed to be very powerful and people are afraid to talk about him because of his assumed spiritual powers. We are closing-in on him and we have arrested some of his closest associates. We believe that his episode will soon become a thing of the past.
What is really the issue between you and Rivers State governor, Mr Nyesom Wike?
I don’t want to talk about Wike anymore because I am a Christian. I have no issues with him anymore. Both of us were ministers under the past administration and we know ourselves. That is all I will say about the issue of that governor.
How do you react to the health of Mr. President, who has gone back to London for medical attention a few months after returning to the country?
I want to say this with all seriousness. Buhari remains the medicine for Nigeria (headache). Despite his age, he is willing to add value, instil discipline and drive away corruption from Nigeria. Before him, nobody was bold enough to confront corruption. It is good for Nigerians to pray for him. In Benue, we have declared three days fasting for his quick recovery so that he can come back and continue to work for us. We have no business with poverty but indiscipline and corruption have kept us down. We need Buhari to take us to the Promised Land.
You have been accused of always travelling abroad. What do you go for outside Nigeria?
It is not true that I travel often outside Nigeria. Those who have taken note of my movement will confirm that I have not made many trips outside Nigeria. If I have made any trip outside Nigeria since coming into office, it was for official reason and to bring in investors to invest in my state, which is in dire need of industrialisation particularly in the area of agriculture, where my state has comparative advantage. I’m always at home but I have been making contacts with investors to invest in Benue.