Bala, Ortom: Divided by herdsmen’s AK47
The issue of cattle herders bearing sophisticated weapons like AK47 in place of their traditional sticks, while herding their animals has become a platform of dissention and diatribe between Bauchi and Benue states governors, Bala Mohammed and Dr. Samuel Ortom.
The war of words between the two governors did not respect the fact that both leaders are prominent members of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). But, apart from their common political platform, the two governors belong to disparate geopolitical zones.
The geopolitics and economic systems between the two zones have helped to pitch the two governors against each other. While Ortom’s people are mainly subsistence farmers, Bala’s mainly Fulani ethnic nationality occupies themselves with animal husbandry, particularly nomadic cattle rearing.
As the Fulanis trek alongside their animals, they are faced with vagaries of bush life, including attacks by cattle rustlers and marauders. To preserve the safety of their herds and the bottom-line of their trade, the herders graduated from wielding sticks to arms bearing.
From protecting themselves, the Fulanis gradually evolved to attackers, even as they unleash their cattle on farmlands and crops, especially around the lush green Benue valley. With time and change of political control of the country, the clashes between farmers and herders became a source of socio-political recriminations.
Underlying the resort to self help by the herders, is the complex mix of historical allusions to land grab plots and economic despoliation of host communities with which the Fulani herders come into constant contact.
Over the years, prominent Nigerians and international bodies have called for the criminalisation of the killer herdsmen, who have continued to clash with farmers. In a report it published in December 2018, Amnesty International (AI) disclosed that in 2016, 2017 and 2018, a total of 3,641 deaths were recorded in bloody communal skirmishes between nomadic herders and farmers.
AI Nigeria’s Director, Mr. Osai Ojigho, had explained, “Our research shows that these attacks were well planned and coordinated with the use of weapons like machine guns and AK-47 rifles. Yet, little has been done by the authorities in terms of prevention, arrests and prosecutions, even when information about the suspected perpetrators was available.
“The root cause of this conflict has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity; it is largely about land and access to grazing. But, in some places, because of the failures of the security forces, competition over resources is used as a pretext to kill and maim along ethnic or religious lines. The conflict has also been dangerously politicized by some state government officials, who have inflamed tensions by embarking on a blame game along political party lines.”
However, Bauchi State Governor, Bala Mohammed, believes the Nigerian government’s failure to secure nomadic herders from cattle rustlers forced the herdsmen to pick up AK47 for “self-defence”. Mohammed, who made the remark while presenting a keynote speech during the 2021 Press Week of the Correspondents’ Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), said his Benue State counterpart, Ortom was using the media to create a wrong impression about the herders. He spoke on the theme: “The Role of the Media in Promoting Peace in Nigeria”.
The governor insisted that Ortom’s was the chief instigator of the profiling of Fulani herders, remarking, “My brother and colleague, Governor (Samuel) Ortom, started all these. If you don’t accommodate other tribes, (remember that) we are also accommodating your people in Bauchi and other places.
“The Fulani man is practicing the tradition of trans-human, pastoralism, he has been exposed to the dangers of the forests, the animals, and now, the cattle rustlers, who carry guns, kill him and take away his commonwealth, his cows, he had no option than to carry Ak-47 and defend himself because the society and the government are not protecting him.”
Mohammed’s position was greeted by a mixture of nationwide condemnations and applause from different parts of the country. But, the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, who had enacted the Anti-open Grazing Law; and whose state is one of the badly hit by the attackers, had a different view. Pained by the killing of 72 worshipers on New Year Day, January 1, 2019, Ortom looked back in anger, noting, in allusion to Mohammed’s declaration, that “it is unfortunate that those who are trusted with the people’s mandate and should ordinarily uphold truth and justice have chosen to mislead the country.”
Speaking through his Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase, the Benue State governor warned that leaders should be cautious and retrace their steps, which he said are capable of leading the country to anarchy.
Then featuring on Channels Television’s Sunrise Daily, Mohammed rationalized his stance, stressing that his comments on the usage of weapons by herders was but a figure of speech. He argued that Nigerian forests constitutionally belong to every Nigerian, who needs no permission to live in Ondo and other forests. He also warned against profiling herders as kidnappers, bandits and killers, noting that the Nigerian government should be fair enough to the herders.
Prodded by Mohammed’s ratiocination, Ortom addressed a press conference in Markudi. He said he has been receiving threats to his life, adding that Bala Mohammed should be held accountable should any untoward thing happen to him. “I am beginning to think that my brother, the governor of Bauchi State is part of the terrorist Fulani organisation that is terrorising this country.
“Why do I say this? This is the same governor who took the oath of office to protect the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This constitution does not leave room for allowing foreign herdsmen to come in without valid papers,” Ortom stated. The Benue chief executive further asked herders to obey the law of Benue State or relocate to Bauchi, where they can be allowed to carry AK47.
The war of words cascaded. Various individuals and groups came in defense of Bala and the state. Deputy Speaker, Bauchi State House of Assembly, Hon Danlami Kawule said: “Benue State Governor needs to apologise to Bauchi indigenes over his comments because we are not terrorists and our governor is not. We are not happy about what he is saying, that ‘if you cannot follow Benue laws go to Bauchi and pick AK47. What does he mean? That’s an abusive word. This is simple way of calling the good people of Bauchi State terrorists. This is coming from a man who was the first man to empower terrorists. He bought guns for them.”
Kawule asked Ortom to tender his apology to the people of Bauchi State, even as he urged the Benue governor to put the unity and security of every citizen first in line with his oath to defend the unity of the country.
Similarly, Arewa Youths for Peace and Development berated Governor Ortom for calling his Bauchi State counterpart a “terrorist”. Chairman of the group, Alhaji Salihu Magaji Mohammed said every one in Nigeria knows Governor Bala as a nationalist renown for his defence of the masses and the oppressed.
Meanwhile, Mohammed challenged Ortom to show evidence of his plans to kill him. In a statement, media aide to Governor Mohammed, Mukhtar Gidado, said: “One of the main attractions of democracy is the freedom of speech, which we relish very much in this country. That is why anybody can rise and make any allegation as they choose. As the legal dictum goes, he who alleges must prove. So, if Governor Ortom is not playing to the gallery, we challenge him to substantiate his claim, that Governor Bala Mohammed is in cahoots with anybody to kill him (the Benue State governor).
PERHAPS, roiled by the trigger words between the two brother governors, their Bayelsa State counterpart, Douye Diri arrived Bauchi last Thursday. He urged the two governors to cease-fire and embrace peace in the spirit of brotherhood. Diri stated: “On the ragging current issue between two brother governors of the same party, may I seize this opportunity to advise and call on both of you who are members of our great party to please cease further actions and reactions on the burning national security issues.
“May I also use this opportunity to call on our party to immediately intervene and resolve whatever issues that are yet to be resolved amicably as a party and as brothers. Let me as well call on the chairman of the PDP governors forum, our able chairman who has been doing very well to also please immediately intervene and not allow this conflict to grow beyond what we have already seen. It is very disturbing to read on the pages of newspapers about two gentlemen who mean so well for their states and who are doing so well in their states to be engaged in this issue on the pages of newspapers.”
Responding to the Bayelsa governor’s soft words, Mohammed said: “I was not doing anything in any way to insult or to cause any injury to my brother and friend that we had worked together at the (federal) cabinet and now as governors. I respect him and he respects me.
“Maybe we have different ways of putting the situation in context. I assure you, you don’t need to bring our party into it, we don’t need to bring our chairman, of the PDP Governors’ Forum; into it, your intervention is enough.
“You will not hear a word from me about it from today. I want to use this opportunity to apologize to my various constituencies, especially the National Assembly, if what I said has injured their sensibilities or touched on their privilege. I, at the same time, apologize to the governors if they feel what I’ve said was also injurious to them and indeed to all Nigerians, but certainly, I have no apology for saying the truth.”
With Diri’s intervention and Mohammed’s avowals, an end might have been put to the war of words between the two governors, but the truth remains that the search for a permanent end to the hostilities between arm-bearing killer herdsmen and farmers continues.
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