‘FG must make deliberate effort to disarm herdsmen’
Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom, in this interview with LEO SOBECHI and SAMSON YANOR in Makurdi, the state capital, explained the experiences of farmers and rural dwellers in the state in the hands of armed herdsmen, rejecting calls for international involvement and the creation of armed militia to confront the menace.
We gathered that armed herdsmen are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to mass around communities and attack villagers. Is your government aware of this development?
We are on ground and every day, we are briefed. As they came in, we were told and we have been taking action.
The point is that they have vowed to take over this land, and they have not hidden it. I want the whole world to know that these are expansionist agents; it is not about rearing cattle, but about taking over the land. That is their plan and I have always said it and they have not denied that.
They came out under the auspices of one funny socio-cultural organisation called FUNAB and said so, that Nigeria is the only country that belongs to them; that Allah has given them and that they are inviting all their people from West Africa and other parts of the world to join them to take over Nigeria. They have been prosecuting this agenda and many people are now aware.
I was shouting when they started, not many people knew, but the truth is that they came out with a statement and nobody denied it. It was all over the social media and the newspapers.
They told us that it is a continuation of the 1804 Jihad, that they know that Benue is very stubborn and succeeded in stopping them in 1804, but now, they have the political power.
They are well armed, they are well equipped and have the capacity, in terms of strength, by bringing others all over the world to come and take over Nigeria that they said belongs to them. It is not a hidden thing.
The governor of Kano State invited them and said he was ready to provide open grazing field for them. So, why must it be Benue State, where we are farmers? In a country that the economy is dwindling and that the oil revenue has also gone down and we are saying let us massively go into agriculture.
Livestock farming is also part of agriculture and it must be followed with global best practices, which is ranching. And that is what we have done. It gives room for everybody- the Benue man, Hausa man, Igbo man, Fulani man and every other person that can go into ranching. It is more profitable, more productive and also environmental friendly. It is not just here, but globally, even on African soil. Ranching has been adopted as a method of livestock farming, so why must it be different here in Nigeria, especially when the land is no longer there?
For those who argue that in the 1950s cattle routes were delineated and grazing areas were carved, I agree with them, but that was then. Come to think of it, from 1950 till today, we are talking about over 70 years and a lot of things have changed.
Climate change is one. Even the means of transportation have also changed. Population is the major challenge, because in the 1950s, the total population of Nigeria was less than 40 million people. Today, we are talking about over 200 million people. Where do you want to put them? The size of the land has not changed, rather, it has depreciated and decreased as a result of ceding Bakassi to Cameroun. The land is no longer there.
These people should understand that if they are coming for purposes of rearing animals, but they have their agenda and they have not hidden it. They said so in a press conference, they came up and signed against their names and I wrote to the security agents that these people must be arrested.
Does the allegation that security agencies are looking the other way about what is happening in some Benue communities worry you?
That is the allegation, but I do not want to believe that they are looking the other way, because even security agents have been killed in the course of this crisis. Even recently, an agro ranger from the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps was shot, killed and beheaded. Officers of the Department of State Service (DSS), soldiers and Police officers have been killed in the course of the crisis.
So, I do not want to accept the insinuation that security agents are looking the other way. They are doing their best. If not for them, nobody will be living here, as terrorists would have achieved their plan and programme against this country.
My concern is just like that just like Boko Haram, the federal government must make deliberate effort to disarm these people. Why should they be carrying arms? And when you hear government officials at the federal level defending these people, saying they are protecting their cattle, it is laughable. Is a cattle more valuable than human life?
Government must make deliberate efforts to disarm these people, because it is not right. I believe in the rule of law, otherwise by now, you would have heard a different story. Several people have suggested that we raise a militia, but I said no, that two wrongs couldn’t make a right.
Thank God for the security agents, who have been supportive and cooperating. We have been fighting the herdsmen and other criminal activities going on in Benue State. I believe it is not just a war against Benue State, but also a war against Nigeria.
Of course, what we did was in the best interest of the herdsmen, if they were actually out to rear cattle. But it is unfortunate that their agenda is beyond rearing of cattle; it is about taking over and they have not hidden that. Honestly, it is not about cattle business.
Benue State is known as the food basket of the nation, so between the time the herdsmen attack started and now, has the state Ministry of Agriculture or project implementation committee come up with data showing to what level food production has been affected in the state?
Productivity has dwindled by 60 per cent, because despite being the food basket of the nation, Benue State does not have much of mechanised farming. We are just trying to introduce it; we do not do dry season farming, so over 90 per cent food production in the state comes from the rural dwellers, the peasant farmers.
Now, over 60 per cent of them are displaced, some are living in camps and some with their relatives in towns. Back in those good old days, when people were hungry, they left the urban areas to collect food from the rural areas, but today, those in the villages are coming to town to collect food. This is the challenge, and that portends danger for food security, not just in Benue, but also for the country.
The worst thing is that people have taken to violence and some wayward youths have gone wild. Sometimes they come back to terrorise the people in the state. Issues of kidnapping, armed robbery and assassination were prevailing over the land, but thank God we have been able to checkmate and brought them down to the barest minimum through the active support of the government and the security agencies.
Our intention is to eradicate them completely, because there can be no meaningful progress where there is lawlessness, kidnapping, armed robbery and all that. I have vowed not to surrender Benue to criminals.
What is the level of synergy between you and other political stakeholders, because sometimes attempt are made to take political advantage of major social situations like this…?
For now, Benue is unanimous. At the inception of these attacks, an attempt to rebel was made, especially when we were gearing up for political campaigns. People attempted to take advantage of the situation against me and set the federal government against all that I was doing. There were a lot of insinuations, but today, I have not seen anyone coming to challenge the state government’s policy on this matter.
Initially, there were people who tried to take political advantage and were challenging what we did in their own interest. But no one was spared when herdsmen came attacking.
The law has brought some kind of sanity. If not for that law, Benue would have been in a mess, but thank God for stakeholders who stood with me and supported me to enact this law. It has really worked wonders; it is working effectively. I can say our law is working and it will continue to work.
Are those arrested for flouting the law allowed legal representation?
Why not? It is the rule of law in operation. Everybody is entitled to legal counsel and there are some ongoing cases. We arrested over 400, some who accepted responsibility for violating the law were immediately convicted, but those who argued that they did not, hired lawyers and the cases are on.
In the area of disease surveillance, which is key in this era of COVID-19, how far has your government gone, as there are other diseases in rural areas caused by violence?
The Ministry of Health and the Action Committee on COVID-19 have done excellently well. We were able to track the index case and of course, when we had issues with her, she was transferred to Abuja and tested again and she was left for them at Abuja to decide.
Just yesterday, we tested the samples of someone who came from Kano and discovered that he was positive. The committee swiftly went into action and currently, we have isolated him and his family. We have taken the samples of the family to Abuja to see if they are negative or positive, but they will be confined in a place for 14 days to see if the symptoms will manifest or not.
People at the border and local government areas are fully sensitised by the committee to identify anybody with symptoms and the preventive measures to take. The committee is doing excellently well, despite the challenges, especially when it comes to funding and all that.
Have the distractions allowed you to achieve your legacy programmes and policies and how far with them?
So far, so good! There is an adage in Tiv land that the small flies that keep ringing around your ears do not stop you from farming. So, despite all what have been happening, we have achieved milestones in the health sector, in urban renewal, rural road transformation, agriculture and several other areas.
What would you tell Nigerians at this period of apprehension and tension?
As a Christian, I have seen it clearly- Benue State, Nigeria and indeed the whole world have sinned against God and we must get back to God. For us as students of the Bible, this is not strange. God said in his word that time will come when He will send a plague and there will be no cure for it. This is what we are seeing in coronavirus. Even the most powerful nations of the world are struggling to overcome it. So, it is clear that God’s hand is in this matter.
The word of God says if my people that are called by my name shall repent and turn away from their wicked ways, I will forgive their sins and heal their lands. The leaders have failed in our responsibilities in this country; that is why we are facing all these.
We must go back to God and confess our sins, turn from our wicked ways and then God will revisit us again and heal our land.
No comments yet