Ortom: The man who stood for his people
He probably does not command much attention with his gait and bearing as a man from whose state largely emerged soldiers who majorly prosecuted the Nigerian Civil War and tilted the scale of battle in favour of what has remained Nigeria today. But if you mistook his slight bearing for a weakling, then you probably have another thing coming altogether.
Soft-spoken but assured and firm are what best describe Dr. Samuel Ortom, governor of Benue State. Where other men of his ilk would have quaked and crumbled to the ground in piteous lamentation, he stood firm and resolute and showed the inner strength of a man of purpose and conviction who would do everything in his power to give his people direction.
After his spell, along with many others in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), he jumped ship and crossed over to All Progressives Congress (APC) as was the fashion in 2014 to chase away the equally meek President Goodluck Jonathan from office through a congregation of what has emerged as strange bedfellows, whose sole aim, it has since become obvious, was to grab power at all cost. Ortom easily coasted home, as APC governor in Benue, but the honeymoon with his own people did not last long.
A combination of dire economic factors (falling oil prices, etc), poor management of resources, and sheer lack of creativity to create wealth that have become the hallmark of political leadership across the country soon turned the table against him.
As it happened, he could not pay salaries and pensions of workers and hunger began to stalk the ‘Food Basket’ state of the nation in what was easily the paradox of all times. A largely agrarian state without industrial and other business components to cushion the effects, citizens began to be edgy. These factors put the governor in the back foot and whatever explanations he had fell on deaf ears. How do you explain the absence of food to a hungry child?
As if these were not enough evils to befall one man, Fulani herdsmen came calling with vengeance. It was as though these marauders had timed their assault to coincide with Ortom’s most vulnerable moment in office as governor. There is a sense in which some sort of political undertone could be read into the attacks of the murderous herders to further weaken Ortom’s position and legitimacy as governor. He wasn’t being able to pay salaries and pensions anyway, so what was his use in continuing in office?
But if there were such devious plot to the mayhem, its perpetrators exceedingly under-estimated the inner strength in Ortom’s seemingly frail physique. This would be the ultimate resource he probably called forth to weather the storm that threatened to overwhelm him.
And so from Agatu to other communities, it was bloodbath after bloodbath that saw families and communities decimated. A question arose: was there a central government in the country while these mass murders took place? Ironically, Ortom belonged to the ruling APC central government at the time. But rather than offer help, President Muhammadu Buhari and his security chiefs, who are incidentally from the same ethnic Fulani stock as the killers, merely watched on and offered a barrage of embarrassing excuses that would make children giggle.
President Buhari advised Ortom and Benue people to learn to live peacefully with their neighbours. It was an incredibly scandalous statement from the Commander-in-Chief of a country whose people were killed. Interior and defence ministers offered yet stupefying excuses: oh, grazing routes for cattle have been encroached upon by farmers; oh, these herders were from outside the country and not Nigerian Fulani; oh, Ortom didn’t consult widely before he enacted the anti-open grazing law in the state, etc, etc. And in the citizen awoke a sense of either a general lack of leadership in the country or perhaps an open endorsement of the activities of the killer herders.
In fact, Miyetti Allah openly came out to threaten the life of a governor of a state in Nigeria for enacting the ‘Open Grazing Prohibition and Establishment of Ranches Law’; he still walks free till today, without consequences. A video trended at the time of a female Fulani who gave ample credence to what many had feared: that the Fulani value the life of cows more than human beings!!! If there was humanity or a sense of outrage in those who rule Nigeria, that was enough to prompt immediate action. But no; indeed, the life of a cow is worth more than a human’s.
Baba go-slow President Buhari then managed to order his Inspector-General of Police Ibrahim Idris to go to Benue and Taraba States to put a halt to the killings; but Idris had other bright ideas. A Fulani himself, he saw no reason to interfere. He would later go to Taraba, however, when it appeared the Junkun were making mincemeats of the marauders causing mayhem in their midst. Buhari’s peacemaker, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, also visited Taraba, especially after a former army general, TY Danjuma, asked his kinsmen to arm and defend themselves, as Buhari was unwilling. Danjuma’s comment sparked a storm; but Nigerians knew and still know better. The strident calls for state policing that Buhari has also bought into became part of the fallout.
But Ortom stood his ground on the anti-open grazing law and dared anyone to flaunt it, even as the death tolls piled up. He stood and wept with his people and defied the presidency that appeared to give tacit approval to the mass killings with its complicit silence and lack of action. Till date no single herdsman has been paraded or in court facing murder and arson charges. This is not surprising in a country that has what Mr. Fred Agbeyegbe aptly describes as ‘spy police’ sent south to police environments they do not know or understand its language and culture.
And so Ortom watched, appalled and broken, like a bereaved father burying his own children in mass graves, as his own people felled so better lives could be created for Fulani’s priced cows. Ortom was not even allowed to grieve in peace; a certain police spokesperson, DCP Emmanuel Ojukwu openly mocked Ortom as a ‘drowning man’. Of course, he could only be echoing his boss, Idris, as Ortom relentlessly pointed accusing fingers in Idris’ direction for his failure to secure his people.
Saddened at the duplicity and lack of compassion from his political party, APC, Ortom soon made his way back to his old political fold, PDP, in 2018. That was when APC bared its fangs at him for daring to be a deserter. The stage was thus set for a titanic battle. While still in APC, and still hurting from the cruel and mindless deaths visited on his people, no APC governor or chieftain offered any form of sympathy. Buhari openly shunned the burial of those murdered in cold blood. Only Rivers State governor and PDP strongman, Nyesom Wike, would visit Ortom with a balm for those hurting and supplies for the harassed and displaced people of Benue State.
Only Mr. Ayodele Fayose, then governor of Ekiti State strengthened internal mechanisms to wad off the murderous herders; but they are back now with vengeance, with Kayode Fayemi romancing the presidency for 2023 ambition.
And as the 2019 general elections approached, the people of Benue State chose to suffer deprivations of unpaid salaries and pensions to stand with the man who stood with them when outsiders sought to annihilate them. They chose Ortom over and above APC and returned him to office. But for the onslaught of the mad herders, Ortom might not have survived; he reaped massive political capital from a desperate situation because he chose to sacrifice his own comfort to keep his people safe. Had he caved in to Miyetti Allah’s threats and the complicit silence from Abuja, he would by now have been thrown into the bottomless bin of history as the man who sold out on his people and failed to stand with them in their moment of great grief. This is a lesson southern political leaders must embrace, to always stand with the people and not always play to the gallery and be sycophantic to the whims of outsiders on the altar of personal greed.
Yet in this also is lesson enough for Ortom and leaders who undermine the people because of personal, selfish interests. It will be tragic indeed if Ortom still owes workers salaries since being sworn in as governor for a second term. He arrived Government House in 2015 on APC platform, but remains so for a second term from 2019 not just on PDP platform, but as hero of his people, the man who stood between his people and annihilation. That in itself is poignant enough moment to pause and reflect upon.
If he had not lived completely for his people in his governance style before, perhaps now is the time to start. Service, they say, is its own reward. Now is the time for Ortom to live completely by that enduring ethos. Anything else would be a violation of the people’s implicit trust.
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