In this interview session with Johnson Babajide, Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State bores his mind on how incessant herdsmen attack in his state and other security issues.
WHILE you were away, some of your security officers were transferred and prior to this, you alleged that there were threats to your life. Some have linked this transfer by the police to a plot to eliminate you. Do you agree with this?
Let me appreciate all of you. Thank you for standing with me and my government in this trying period. Words are not enough to express my inestimable appreciation to all of you for your advice, your constructive criticisms and support that you’ve given to us especially the siege that Benue State is fighting today.
It is appreciated that you have through your pen made it possible for the outside world to appreciate what we’re going through in Benue State. We’ve gotten tremendous support for our internally displaced persons ( IDPs) and this is also attributed to you for making people understand, telling the people the pains that the people of Benue State are going through even beyond the shores of this country. People have tried to reach out to us and it’s based on the information that you’ve been giving out. So you’re deeply appreciated and I pray that God will continue to keep us and will continue to help us.
Now, to the question about the transfer of the immediate security personnel attached to me by the police. Of course, I was on vacation and I also heard and saw it, but I did complain through the Commissioner of Police here in Makurdi that this was not right. In the whole country, you have the right, as governor, to select your immediate security personnel that work with you, and I think the attention of the authorities of the Nigeria Police were drawn to this and it was corrected the following day. So to me, whether it was made in error or by mischief or whatever means, the important thing is that it was corrected and today, all my aides are with me, because I also saw the letter that was written that cases of transfer of police officers, as far as Benue State was concerned, should be suspended indefinitely and I have all my aides. So I don’t want to read meaning into that for now.
What are the steps being taken by the state government to prevent further attacks on Benue communities by the invaders?
Since the invasion in January, we’ve not rested. As governor, my deputy and members of the executive council and, of course, as members of the security council in Benue State, we’ve been working very hard; we’ve been very proactive, because we have agents in the 276 council wards, in the 23 local governments and we’ve been meeting very frequently to assess and analyse the situation with security agencies in the state. And to complement the security agencies, we’ve also empowered the Vigilante Groups and Livestock Guards to complement what they do. And we’ve identified all those flash points that these invaders come and attack our people and we’ve adequately made presentations to the Federal Government. And as I speak to you, there’s already a reinforcement going on by all security agencies to ensure that we’re able to surmount this challenge, especially of the attacks on our people because Mr President, in my last discussion with him, was deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis that we’re facing today in Benue State.
A committee was set up to assess the damage and to see how these IDPs can be rehabilitated to go back to their various communities. But one thing that was identified is that areas that were attacked were not yet safe and while the committee was going round, despite the fact that they had adequate security personnel with them, they were also attacked in several places and thank God, the security personnel were able to repel all the attacks and no one was hurt till they finished their assignment and went back. So Mr President had indicated that he wanted a rehabilitation of these homes, because even when they go back, how are they going to stay in these places? So we raised the issue of security in these areas and he did assure us and that I’ve seen the sign. As of today, some of the personnel, the top senior people are already in the state and by tomorrow, the Chief of Army Staff is visiting himself just to try to also address this matter.
All the security apparati are augmenting their personnel to help curtail these attacks and I believe that within the shortest possible time, it’ll be done. Of course, you know that though I am the Chief Security Officer of the state, I don’t have the authority backing me to order the police or soldiers; that is why we will continue to ask for state police to ensure they are adequately trained and equipped to have the capacity to take care of the security of the state. But for now, it is the responsibility of the Federal Government. They too, they have their deficiencies in terms of capacity, numbers, equipment, funding and this is why I will continue to call on my people to continue to support them, because the insurgency that is going on, as of today, out of the 23 local governments, you can hardly count five local governments that are not under siege. So, you can see the enormous challenge. So, there are several ways that individuals, groups, communities can come in to support. We have the Vigilante Group, we have Livestock Guards but these are not armed people so it becomes very difficult and when it comes to funding, you discover that the security personnel in the state are grossly underfunded and ill-equipped. We need to support them. Where individuals or groups or corporate organisations have that kind of support, you can pass through government, you can pass through anybody or to them directly by way of mobility, funding or whatever that can be available to support the security agents to work. On our part, we’re working very hard and that is why I had to reschedule my trip to come back earlier than I had planned because of the continued attacks. So I’m here putting heads with the deputy governor and other members of council and security agencies and I believe that this will definitely have an end. The efforts of the security agencies looking beyond the issue of grazing is also a welcome development. I think by the grace of God, we’ll soon surmount this challenge.
What’s your reaction to the military invasion and massive destruction in Naka, considering the failure of the military to react in the same manner when Fulani militia killed their men years back in Yogbo and Tyulen? Will Benue seek redress?
I condemn the invasion in its totality; this is unwarranted. I must also condemn the killing of the army personnel in Naka and that was why my deputy, who was then the acting governor, swiftly took action by directing the chairman of the local government and the traditional rulers of the Gwer West Local Government to ensure that the perpetrators were arrested and brought to justice. And this was done. Even while I was away, I was keenly following up until these suspects were handed over to the Commanding Officer of 72 battalion; and so the action of government was very clear. Five people were arrested and brought in. It was not the military that arrested them or police. The chairman of the local government and the traditional council came together and arrested these people and handed them over. And so there was no basis whatsoever for an invasion. We’ve reported this to the Chief of Army Staff and he has already directed an inquiry to be made and they assured me that anyone found wanting will be dealt with according to the laws and so I’m waiting for the outcome. I don’t want to pre-empt what will be, but this is not right and I’ll continue to tell our people that criminality in all its forms is not allowed. Reprisal or revenge of any type will not be accepted by this government. We are a government that believes in the fear of God and God respects human sanctity and it is important that whatever happens, blood should not be shed even when you are attacked. Reprisal is not the solution; it’s not the answer. The answer is the rule of law. That is the only thing that can guarantee safety for all. When you allow lawlessness to prevail, you are calling for anarchy; and when there is anarchy no one will ever be safe. And you don’t know the extent that will take us to. So at all times, we must be law-abiding. The security agencies are there; don’t think that they are slow. Justice may not be gotten that same day but if you follow due process, justice will definitely be gotten. And I want to encourage our people to, at all times, appreciate this. And so until we have the report of the Chief of Army Staff, then we’ll know exactly what other steps we’re going to take.
The National Economic Council (NEC) recently prohibited open grazing and it was done in just a few states, including Benue. Don’t you think the Benue anti-open grazing law should be adopted and enforced nationwide?
You know that Nigeria is a federation comprising 36 states and Abuja. And, of course, the 36 states are federating units and these units are independent of each other. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria mandates each federating unit to make laws for good governance of their citizens. This is what we did as far as this law is concerned. You’re aware that this challenge between herdsmen and farmers in Benue State and other parts of the country preceded the current administration whether at the federal level or Benue State. The steps we took were to forestall crisis finally for farmers and herdsmen and we remain committed to this in Benue State. We cannot talk about any other state. But I must congratulate the Benue people; I must congratulate all of you – the media for standing with us in defence of this law. You appreciate the fact that since May 22, 2017 when we signed the bill into law, it became so contentious. There were several schools of thought and several agitations from several quarters. So for the National Economic Council, NEC, coming to adopt that truly, ranching is the right way to go, for us in Benue State, it is congratulations to all of us and we appreciate God. And for other states adopting this, it is left for them to decide. There are various Houses of Assembly; there are various governors and the processes of making laws for their good governance. Mind you, out of the 36 states, we have our peculiarities. What is peculiar to me here may be different from my colleague here in Nasarawa, Ebonyi and other states. So it is now left for them to decide if they so wish. We’ve always said that the prohibition of open grazing in Benue State is a product of the people themselves.
You were all here and you saw that in the process of making this law, the people were in a hurry to the extent that Benue State House of Assembly was occupied more than three times. And you had people coming, old women, young and so on coming in to protest and ensure that this law was enacted. So, the Assembly was not spared. Several times, the people came and occupied the Assembly. So, even as I speak to you today, before I went on vacation, I had cause to tour the IDP camps. I visited the eight of them and in spite of the hardship and the pains that the IDPs were going through, in each of the camps, I did pose a question “do we find a way of repealing this law?” and unanimously they said no, they believe that this is the way to go. From the old women, the old men, the young men and girls and even children. They were all unanimous, so for me, it is a plus to us for NEC to have taken that decision. I commend the wisdom of the vice-president by setting up that committee that went out to assess the situation and the entire members of NEC coming to adopt this. Like the northern governors, they met some weeks ago in Kaduna and adopted that ranching remains the only option to stop the challenge of herdsmen, farmers’ crisis. Like they did say, by 2050, the total population of Nigeria by projection would be 415 million and if we have approximately 200 million and we are having this challenge, by the time we double that population, where are we going to be? Where would you have the land for open grazing? So I commend NEC for taking this bold decision. Individual states are at liberty to decide what is good for them. I’m aware that some time ago, my colleague in Kano State called on all herdsmen to go to Kano that they have enough land for them to do open grazing. That is the kind of thing that I’m talking about. For us here, it is impossible, because we don’t have the land; our land is for crop production, which is the main occupation of our people. Even within our population here, that land is not enough for farming. So I appreciate God that ranching remains the best global practice. It’s what is obtainable in India and other parts of Asia, in Europe and in America.
While you were away, the coordinator of the Livestock Guards was arrested by security agents and it was well-celebrated. His arrest was said to be on suspicion of his links with the Boko Haram insurgent group and killings in Benue State. Meanwhile there had been repeated calls for the arrest of the leader of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore for making threats to attack the state and carrying out same. What’s your take on this?
Let me say that as a law-abiding governor and someone who believes in the rule of law, I’ll always support due process. Security agencies are at liberty to arrest, detain and investigate anyone, who they may suspect to be involved in security breach or perpetuating insecurity. The arrest of Tershaku is one of such and for me as I always do, and you are witnesses to the fact that when it comes to issues of security and prosecution, I don’t interfere. I’ve made a statement through my assistant after his arrest that due process should be followed; he should not be victimised but security men should be fair to him. He should be investigated and if at the end he is found culpable, he should be prosecuted. When my adviser was suspected of murder and a commissioner was also a suspect in a murder case, I asked them to resign. Although they were not convicted, I said for the purpose of credibility of this government they needed to give way and they gave way. They had to resign. You are also aware that even when one of my appointees was convicted, I asked him to resign. Later though, he appealed the decision of the lower court and was exonerated and he is now a free man. If I have another opportunity I’m going to appoint him again. So I don’t want to talk about the arrest other than to say let the needful be done; let there be no victimisation. If at the end an investigation is carried out and he is culpable, let that be. On Miyetti Allah, I’m also dumbfounded. I’ve said it repeatedly; I’ve written and will continue to write and continue to raise alarm that the leadership of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore is responsible for the killings; for the mercenary work that is going on in Benue State. I still want to repeat that they are responsible. There are evidences; they are on tape, they have done press conferences and none of them has come out to refute what was credited to them in the media. They’ve said it is about Jihad; it’s not about grazing. They said it is about occupation; about taking over the land. They’ve said it and the evidence is there. I’ve presented this to security agencies and I want to believe that it is a whole process; they’re still working on it and at the appropriate time, these people will be apprehended, because they cannot go free. After killing my people, they’ll not be allowed to go free. I’ll continue to say it, that these people must be arrested because they’re responsible for killings in the state. The evidences are there, very clear for everyone who wants to see to see.
What decisions did your party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) reach at the recent caucus meeting and how are you responding to the alleged moves by some people to lock you and your supporters out of the party by not allowing you to influence the party structure in the forthcoming congresses?
The decision at the caucus meeting was very simple, because the National Executive Committee of the party has made things easier for all members of APC in Benue State. There is the guide that was given by the NEC of the party that congresses should be conducted, which are elective from ward to local government and then state. Early June, we will be conducting the national convention where we will elect new set of party officers to man the party from the ward to the national level. So, there is no cause for alarm. The [party]caucus was briefed on this development and the change in date. Instead of the earlier scheduled 2nd of May for the start of the congresses, it will start on the 5th at the wards, to be followed on the 12th by local government congress and state congress will hold on the 19th. Then it will be followed by the convention in early June. So the guidelines are very clear. It is an elective congress that will be conducted. But the current officers who were given waiver by NEC to be allowed instead of resigning 30 days to the day of those congresses if they wished to re-contest, they are free to remain in such offices until congresses are done. And through consensus, we can arrive at these officers. But where a consensus cannot be reached, there’s going to be an election which will usher in new set of leaders. But where we have challenges, we’ll revert to the original arrangement of the extension of such offices for members of the executive within that ward, local government, state or at the national level until further notice and so this was what was resolved.
The second question as to my people being shut out of participating in the congresses. It’s just an insinuation; it has no basis. We’re working together as a party. APC is one party in Benue State. We have no factions. We discuss as a family and we’ve resolved all issues that emanated as a result of some agitations from some members, which is normal. Politics is about interest, so when you are two, you may have diverse interests. So when you are more than two, when you have over four million people putting their heads together, there will always be differences. But we can always find a way of resolving it. Where we cannot, the constitution of the party is there and it will strictly be followed. One thing that we also resolved was that we will allow the constitution of the party to prevail on our activities. So there’s no cause for alarm. I came into this party without structures and today I see no reason why I should be afraid after serving as governor for three years under this platform and every other person that has interest, if you follow due process, you will get there and of course you are aware that the electoral law has been reviewed in such a manner that except the constitution of the party is followed, you are at risk.