Interview, Nigerian Concord
In an exclusive interview, the Governor of Benue state, Chief Samuel Ortom, discusses the activities of herders, the move that necessitated the establishment of Community Volunteers Guards and governance in Benue. Excerpts:
*** Do you believe the Community Volunteers Guard Inaugurated by you will end the lingering challenge of insecurity in Benue State?
Security is a global problem all over the world, there are insecurity issues, and I think that as passionate people, with the responsibility as leaders to provide security for lives and property, we will continue to do our best. You cannot succeed in undertaking anything when you stand aloof, so there must be some minimum effort to compliment others to have security. We cannot say that the establishment of a community volunteers Guard would put an end to insecurity in Benue State. Mind you, we have local challenges about insecurity, local militia, local armed robbery, and criminals that are out to create insecurity within the community. Still, the most notorious of all in the insecurity we are fighting is the foreign Fulanis who have come to invade our land and take over and make it their own. They camouflage and put a shield that they are herdsmen. This is not about herders. If you see a Fulani man coming from Niger, Mali, and Mauritania and also from Libya with a few cows, they pretend as if they are here to graze or to rear cattle; it is not true, the main agenda is to take over Nigeria to become their own and turn every person to slaves. So the notorious of this is the Fulani attacks against our communities. What we are trying to do may not necessarily put an end. Still, it will minimize the level of insecurity we have in our land because the conventional security forces of the State have done their best. Still, I can tell you that from 2017 alone, when we enacted the prohibition of open grazing and enacted provisions for ranching, to date, more than 120 security personnel have killed more than 5000 people since 2011 till date have been killed.
The challenge we face is the Federal Government’s action and inaction, which clearly shows us whether they are complacent, complicit, or want to turn a blind eye to this. Because I can’t see how these men can come and kill people and take over the land, and the Federal Government will defend them. It is unfortunate, and we have established this Community Volunteers Guard to complement what the security men are doing. The security men are grossly inadequate today; they are ill-equipped and ill-funded, and the challenge is there. Hence, we decided that people should put this up and pass a law endorsed by senator George Akume when he was Governor in the year 2000.
We decided to revive it, and that is what we have done. But this is not a security outfit of its own; it’s meant to support the local security in various localities but also complement the conventional security apparatus of the State so that we can reduce it to its barest minimum. We cannot say it will put an end, but it is a general problem that has been going on.
*** Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders, have accused you of violating the rights of Fulani herders in Benue State a reason why they have brought charges against you at the International Criminal Court. They alleged that you have bought over the judiciary in Nigeria a reason why they are unable to get justice. Can you react to that?
Miyetti Allah is the umbrella body for the Fulanis that are responsible for the killings of my people, over 5000 of them from 2015, and also the over two million people in IDP camps due to attacks on communities by this same Fulani organized by Miyetti Allah. Miyetti Allah is responsible for causing havoc in my State. To turn around and accuse me of the crisis is laughable. But it is part of their lies, deceit, and falsehood in collaboration with the Federal Government to annihilate the people of Benue State that is giving rise to this kind of thing. This is very provocative because these people have taken responsibility. I have written to the Federal Government, the President, the security agencies, and to everybody that these people should be arrested because they took responsibility for the killings of our people. Still, yet Federal Government has not done anything. They have turned a blind eye, and is it because a Fulani man is President? This is unfortunate. I can’t explain why none of the Miyetti Allah group or Fulani nationality movement, who claimed responsibility for attempted assassination against me, none of them has been apprehended to date. The other time, I was told that 15 of them had been arrested, but after one year, when I made further inquiries, I was told they had been released. If I was not a child of God, if I did not believe in Being lawful, if I did not have respect for the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I would have taken arms myself to go there and fight
We have not done anything illegal. I am the one taking Miyetti Allah to ICC because they heard about my preparation to take them to court and other people who are complicit, and that was why they went ahead to make that pronouncement.
It is a lie, and they know it. In May 2017, we enacted a law prohibiting open grazing in Benue State, and this law is not in conflict with the provisions of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The constitution allows me and my State to make laws for Good governance, provide security, and ensure that the State is peaceful. I decided to collaborate with the people of Benue to enact this law. Four places were designated for Public hearing, and we went through due process, the State Executive Council and the House of Assembly. The House of Assembly organized four different venues for Public hearings. It was held and passed, and I signed it into law in 2017.
Miyetti Allah came out and said they would never obey that law. Most of these people are not even Nigerians. They come here and say they will not follow the laws of the land. If I were not a child of God, if I did not believe in being lawful, if I did not have respect for the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I would have taken arms myself to go there and fight. Because this impunity is too much, they think that nothing will happen to them as their brother is there. They do anyhow and go out scot-free. It is very painful. When I served as minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2013, these same Fulani people came to my village and deceived people that their two hundred cattle were rustled. They killed 53 people in my village alone, raised down my ancestral home, and went scot-free; up till today, nobody has been apprehended. My people cannot cultivate on their farmlands, and Benue State Economy is actively supported by peasant farming after the civil service. What kind of level of impunity? I look at what they have said as an insult and also to prove that nothing will happen to them as usual. Since 2017 I have been writing petitions. They took me to court when this law was enacted. We went to court, and I defeated them. I am a law-abiding citizen. Have you heard that we have killed so many Fulani here in Benue State? You will never hear that. We have not sent any Fulani man away from Benue State. That law prohibiting open grazing is a win-win law, but because they were using this issue of open grazing as a shield to perpetrate, come in and take over the land. They are angry with what we have done. We have further exposed them. Their real agenda is about occupation, eliminating our people, and genocide. We have said, whether you are a Fulani man, whatever man you are, whatever business you want to do in Benue State, be law-abiding. That is the only way we can live, and let’s live. Because they have the support of the Federal Government to do what they are doing, they can open their mouth and say they will take Benue State or me to ICC. It’s really unfortunate. It’s me that will take them to ICC. We have not done anything wrong. They took me to court, we defeated them, and they went on appeal. They don’t show up whenever we go to the court for the case. On the next adjournment, we will ask for a judgement from the appeal court to sort out these things. These are evil people, and they are not human beings.
** You had written to President Buhari to allow the volunteer Guard to bear arms if the President does not accede to your request what would be the next line of action and would it jeopardize any arrangements on the ground?
I have written to him, and the reason for writing to him is, that he should justify why the Fulani men should carry AK47, so I see no reason, and as a law-abiding person, I have decided to find a legitimate way of doing it. It is not for violence, it is not for killing innocent people. But it is meant to provide adequate security for these volunteer Guards. We have other lawful weapons that we have approved and purchased to be given to them, but they are not enough. The Fulani’s carry even more sophisticated weapon than AK47. I am just asking for AK47. But they carry AK49. They carry machine guns.
AK47 is enough to do away with twenty people, pump action, double barrel, single barrel, Dane, knife, and cutlass. So we need also to have a matching weapon that can cope in resisting these evil Fulani men from foreign countries who have come to take over our land. So, as law-abiding people, we have written to the President, that if he grants us a license Benue State Government is ready to purchase and arm the livestock Guards with AK47s. But if President Buhari does not do it, I am not here on my own. Whatever I do in Benue State is with the full consent of my people, stakeholders, traditional rulers, and the state security council are part of this. We did not just establish the community volunteers Guard, we went through the state Security Council. Before going to the House of Assembly. The stakeholders, traditional rulers and others in Benue State are aware of what we are doing, and we are ready to provide these weapons, after all, the Fulanis carry even more sophisticated weapons than AK47. I am just asking for AK47. But they carry AK49, machine guns and all other things. I don’t want to go into that but let us have a machine weapon that can confront these people. All we want is for our people to live in peace and for other people doing business here. They should go about their lawful business without being harassed by these Fulani men. That is what we stand for.
*** There are insinuations in some quarters that the Community volunteers guard is coming at the wrong time and that you might be recruiting foot soldiers because of the electioneering period so that you can be in control even after leaving office. How do you react to this?
Anyone can insinuate and say whatever they want. But the truth is that Benue State is PDP as I talk to you as the Governor of the State and we have three Senators, 26 members of the House of Assembly out of thirty and twenty-three Local Government Chairmen out of twenty-three. We have two hundred and twenty-six councillors out of two hundred and seventy-six, all these people were elected before the establishment of the Community Volunteers Guard. Apart from the Local Government elections, the other elections are conducted by the Federal Government. We won our election. We don’t have any problem here, so why do I need to be recruiting people as foot soldiers to do what? I do not need those things. Go back to history. Have I ever used thugs to rig elections in my own State? I have never rigged any election since I started contesting. The records are there. It is about the people, I have told you, that I am practicing Democracy here in Benue State. Democracy is the Government of the people by the people and for the people. As long as you work with them, they are ready to follow you, and it is a very wrong impression being created out there of course, by the little opposition party.
*** They have moved to impeach you.
How can four people impeach me, not even four, but three members? How can three people impeach me? They attempted it before. They were even eight then, when their leader came here that they should do illegal impeachment, they were only 8, 22 of the members of the House of Assembly. They know this is an unlawful thing, and it will not be accepted. They do not believe in the rule of law because serving a notice of impeachment on the Governor, you must have 10 members of the House of Assembly. So what they have done is laughable. Because I have recently supported the move to impeach of Mr. President because it seems we do not have leadership in this country, and that is why all these things are happening, and I am an upright person. I say the right thing, and I support them. Again, as I talk to you, APC has not been able to put their house in order for the candidate for the 2023 election. They did not conduct primaries, and the laws are there. INEC guidelines are there. When you do not conduct primaries, it becomes null and void, and you cannot produce candidates for an election. We have gone to court, so all these things they are doing are to divert attention because we are depleting them. Just two days ago, we were able to decamp a member of the House o Assembly from APC. Yesterday again, we decamped another one. That is within two days, we have been able to decamp two people from the house of Assembly to join me in my party, the PDP. So the PDP is growing stronger.
*** In view of your meetings with Governor Wike, Miyetti Allah has accused you of neglecting your responsibilities and forming an alliance with Governor Wike becoming an “errand Boy”
I am the Governor of Benue State, and I am not lacking in any area of my responsibility. Despite all the challenges, we have been able to provide basic infrastructure, go round despite all the challenges I have, we have been able to provide basic infrastructure, go round Makurdi. You will see the road, the urban renewal we have done the road construction we have taken key responsibility. Go to the teaching hospitals to see the work we are doing, go to lands and survey you will see what we are doing, go to Ministry of Housing, you will see what we are doing. We have provided roads in Zone A, Zone B and Zone C. We have provided clinics, and everything is functional. We have been able to establish primary health care, some of the states, up till today have not been able to do that, and it is functional. We have been able to provide facilities that serve the people. We are not lacking in any area in sports. My relationship with Wike pains them. You know your true friend when you are in distress. When the same Miyetti Allah came with their people and attacked and killed our people, Wike came here with stakeholders from Rivers State. I was not close to Wike before. We disagreed on a number of things. I looked at it and said this is somebody that can be a friend, and we are working together. Nobody will stop me from being friends with Governor Wike. We speak to ourselves frankly. He is not happy with what is happening in the country today, and nobody is happy about this, so we are on the same page. Birds of the same feather flock together. He has spoken to condemn this administration and what Miyetti Allah is doing. He followed us in Benue and established the law prohibiting open grazing in Rivers State. They are annoyed because I have taken the lead in guiding people. I know that some states are already asking me about the process of establishing the Community Volunteers Guard, which they will adopt. Very soon, you will see it.
If the Federal Government had listened to us, because you see the security men are doing their best, but they lack capacity, manpower, equipment, training and funding, they do not have it. We have been talking about restructuring and trying to have state police for a long time. The Federal Government does not want it. They want to control the security at the centre so they will do what they want. I have spoken to some security men who told me Federal Government gave them directive that they do not have to move against these Fulani men. That is why I keep saying that the Federal Government’s action and inaction clearly show that they are complicit in this criminality in Nigeria. Call them Bandit, and they don’t want people to call them Fulani herdsmen. I remember what the Sultan of Sokoto said some time ago, that anywhere you arrest ten bandits, most of them are Fulani’s. That is a Fulani man himself, which is why when I am talking, I try to differentiate it by saying that those people who are coming against us here have lived with Fulani in Benue State before. They are from Mali, Niger, Senegal from other parts of the world who had chosen that they would relocate here and take over. We have not sent any Fulani man away from Benue State. Some are still here, and some are even in my Government. But these people, called Miyetti Allah, have no job other than collecting huge sums of money from the Government and the Federal Government is protecting them and that is why they have been talking in the manner they do because, even when they do, nothing will happen to them. Even when we do, nothing has taken place, nobody has called them to question why are you doing this and why are you taking responsibility for attacks.
*** The PDP, Governor Wike, Atiku Abubakar, Peter Obi are we expecting Governor Ortom to become an “Obidient”?
I have always said that power belongs to God. John 3:27, A man can receive nothing except it is given to him from Above. It will come to pass among all those who are now presidential candidates whosoever God wants to make president. It will not be my making, but for me, I told you just two days ago I was able to decamp people from APC to PDP but discussions are going on, between now and the general election. If there are issues, politics is about interest; what are my interests, and what is the interest of Benue people? I have said it before, the frontline Presidential aspirants, if they have the interest of this country at heart, all of them should meet. We stakeholders from all political parties, why can we not meet and decide the best material to deliver and help us rescue Nigeria from total collapse, where all of us if care is not taken will be buried? For now, I am in the PDP, my State is PDP and that is why I am working for PDP and all the candidates.
**** The PDP Chairman is from Benue State, and we hear that he is on his way out to field a Presidential candidate from the North.
The party has a constitution, procedure, and internal conflict resolution mechanism to handle all issues. I believe that if various stakeholders are meeting at the highest levels at the appropriate time we will be able to resolve all issues concerning this matter.
*** What are the lessons you would take from Amotekun now that Volunteers would start operations in earnest?
I do not talk about other states. I do not talk about anything happening I am concerned about my State and I am talking about Community Volunteers Guard and I believe that they will be able to reduce some of the insecurity we have. We compliment the conventional security men, especially Mr President, whose our request to have AK47 it will go a long way, these are discipline people and we have given them rules of engagement.
After three days of the Inauguration of Community volunteer Guards, one of the Guards went out there, back to his community and in his uniform, he went and raped a Girl. We immediately dismissed him and handed him over to the police for prosecution, it is going on, and I will make sure, I have told the Attorney General to make sure that he is convicted. Because they have rules of engagement, they have a code of conduct and they have to be disciplined and must work under the supervision of the Nigerian police. We have our own way of looking at our peculiarities in handling all matters and we do not want to say we are copying what is happening in other states. Other states have their peculiarities so they can do their own, we are doing what our law says and we are happy doing it.
*** For the pensioners in your State, what do you have in place for them and how have you been able to offset the arrears?
We Inherited over 70 billion arrears of pension gratuities and salaries when we came in, in 2015, we have done our best, the Federal Government did support us to intervene in the first instance, 28 billion was given as loan not grant as loan to the State which we are paying. We were able to deplete it the balance of over 42 billion was still pending. Other states that are friendly to the Federal Government got it. For me I did not. From 1980, the problem with payment of salaries has been there. They have refused to allow me even to get a loan to deplete this one so on my own we have been trying through whatever we have to pay and we have been able to reduce this money to about thirty-seven billion As of today. But what we have done, because these are patriotic people who worked and retired, we are passionate about them. we are concerned about them and what we have done is to meet with them and we have agreed anytime We are able to raise money we can clear the backlog, but for now, for them to also live every month we are able to pay half of the pension, both at the State and at the Local Government. What we have done ahead to solve this problem permanently, is to domesticate the PENCOM law in Benue State, as I speak to you we have been able to save in the PENCOM commission over 5 billion Naira and when we reach a threshold of up to 10 billion Naira we can request loan from PENCOM to be able to clear the backlog. We have provided a platform to solve this problem permanently. Since 1980, the problem with the payment of salaries has been there. Solving the problem will be the PENCOM administration that we have domesticated the law. We have started the implementation and over 5 billion is there, by the time we reach that threshold we will be able to solve this problem so that as you are retiring you are getting your money. This is the first Government after all this while, that has been able to do this, so we are passionate, despite the drop in Revenue and IGR we have been able to keep this at pace. The National Union of pensioners because of transparency on what comes in and what goes out, we allowed them on the joint account and the Local Government and at the State to show them that this is what comes in and this is what goes out. That is why we have this agreement with them. I know that politicians have been trying to infiltrate them, to go and protest, but it will not solve the problem, some are angry they have taken us to court, even when they take us to court we open up and show them what we have and we pay gradually and instalments it is not my intention. My stand against the Federal Government has also made things impossible for me and that is why other States cannot say anything whether there is injustice, unfairness, or inequity. But the truth is that what I am doing is on behalf of the people, any day they tell Ortom this is enough stop I am willing to do that. But as long as they are standing with me and they have continued to encourage me, then I stand firm, I know I risk a lot of things. Still, I have chosen to do that because what Benue people have done for me is enough to sacrifice my life and as long as they stand with me I will work with them and I want to say that I challenge anyone who is in doubt of what I said to a debate. About everything I do in Benue State, not someone to go and sit somewhere in Abuja and say they want to impeach Ortom. My 2019 election was an endorsement that the Benue people are with me, despite all the manipulations from the Federal Government, Federal might, and Ministers might, it came to nothing. I am the only one, when I was in APC I won the election against PDP and when I went to PDP I won an election against APC with overwhelming members of the House of Assembly and National Assembly. So how do you dispute that this man is not in charge? I am in charge because the people of Benue state are with me
*** With the rising debt profile, what would you say to the next President of Nigeria, would you pity who would rule Nigeria for the next four years?
It is unfortunate but our children and I would have to pay for it. It is unfortunate that this Government has not been able to manage the Economy, security and anything well. I think that it is a matter of getting the right person; you know as a student of the bible, the Bible says that I will strike the Shepard and the sheep will scatter. Everything is about the head, if the head gets it right, there would be a turnaround. I know we are in trouble, whosoever takes over from this Government because they have taken us from top to bottom. It is easier taking us from top to bottom. Still, taking us from bottom to top we need someone with the capacity, with the determination and who is willing to hear and have the support of the State and other stakeholders to also contribute, now I have been calling for an economic summit, and I have been calling for security summit where all the stakeholders irrespective of partisanship, sex, let’s get experts in all these fields to let them come together. I believe in Nigeria that is why you see me carrying the colours of Benue and the colours of Nigeria. We have no other country. Nigeria is a Beautiful country endowed with mineral resources, that if properly tapped can turn around entire Africa and make Nigeria an investment destination. Yet the people that are there do not even understand it is meant by economy and security, that is what has led us to where we are. That is why I am appealing to those contesting to team up together so that even if it is Atiku, that wins or Obi or Tinubu, they will also be part of their administration so that they can harness their idea together and make things work for our country, because that is what we need today, Nigeria is in trouble but we can redeem it by coming together to work as a team.
*** What would Governor Ortom be remembered for and your message to Nigerians
Those who elected me will remember me as someone who is their servant, who has worked with them. I have listened to their cries I have stood for them and I have been able to add value and bring impact to various sectors of the economy. My message to Nigerians is that let us team up together and ensure that our vote counts we appreciate INEC for what they have done to reduce or minimize rigging so that we have a true reflection of who is to be elected or not. At the same time, I want to remind Nigerians we have a role to play, individuals must work together to ensure that the 2023 election succeeds and the best person is elected. I will not leave up prayers as a student of the bible. Whether Christian or Muslim, let us sustain prayers as we pray let God give us wisdom and guide us on what to do, so that we put that prayer to work, because faith without work is dead, if we pray from morning till night without doing the work then it is dead.
SOURCE: International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR)