Godwin Akor, Makurdi
Known as the Food Basket of the Nation, Benue was widely acclaimed as the greatest food producing state in Nigeria before attacks by militia herdsmen started in 2011. When Gwer-West local government area of Benue state came under severe attacks in 2011, no one imagined that the menace would spread to other parts of the state. It was also not imagined by anybody in Benue state that the attacks would last till 2018 and shake the popular Food Basket of the Nation. When the attacks were extended from Gwer-West to Makurdi and Guma local government areas, Governor Samuel Ortom who was the national auditor of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and later became the Minister of State for Commerce, Trade and Industry made several appeals to the Federal Government to check excesses of militia herdsmen who had killed dozens of persons with hundreds of thousands already displaced to no avail.
When the National Assembly constituted an ad hoc committee which visited Benue state to assess the extent of damage caused by militia herdsmen, the visit did not change the situation because the report of the committee did not see the light of the day. Later, repeated attacks were carried out in Guma, Makurdi and Gwer-West local government areas with the militia herdsmen’s weapons declared as being superior to that of the police. Makurdi, the state capital where displaced persons ran to became so unsettled that some people began to leave the town even as Naka, headquarters of Gwer- West local government was already filled up with over 150,000 displaced persons.
When the then Governor, Gabriel Suswam visited displaced persons in Naka, Makurdi, Daudu, Gbajimba and so on to sympathize with them, he raised the alarm that Benue people face annulation and that steps should be taken by the Federal Government to halt the attacks on communities.
When the ancestral home of the late Tor Tiv, Dr Alfred Akawe Torkula, Torkula village in Guma local government area, was reduced to rubbles in 2014, Suswam was going to see things for himself when militia herdsmen opened fire on his convoy at Tse- Genyi where they later exchanged fire with men of the civil defense corps. The soldiers that accompanied him from 72 Battalion in Makurdi retreated, saying they were not instructed to exchange fire with any group of persons.
After the encounter, proceeded to Gbajimba, headquarter of Guma, Ortom’s local government, to sympathise with displaced persons after which he removed corpses of persons killed in over 13 villages in the local government the previous day for burial. Thereafter, Suswam wrote the then President, Goodluck Jonathan, on the precarious situation in Benue and requested for troops from other parts of Nigeria. As the soldiers deployed from mainly the southern parts of the country arrived to restore peace, militia herdsmen expanded their frontiers to Logo, Suswam’s local government, Buruku, Tarka, Kwande, Agatu, Apa, Okpokwu, Gwer and other places where more people were killed and displaced in 2014.
In 2015, Governor Samuel Ortom who left the position of Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to become governor of Benue state was greeted with serious attacks in the areas hitherto overrun by herdsmen. As if they were waiting for Governor Ortom to assume office, the herdsmen again chased people from their homes and farms as the governor cried out aloud and called on the Federal Government to help in restoring peace in Benue state. Benue was socially, economically and politically disorganized with palpable fear written on the faces of the citizens.
There was no other option for Ortom as he tried to make peace between the natives and herdsmen by organizing several peace meetings but his efforts were frustrated by renewed attacks. The dangerous situation made Governor Samuel Ortom to dedicate the state to God after two weeks of fasting and prayer. At the event, Ortom prostrated before the congregation and handed over the state to God. After the dedication, he told the people God would from the time, be totally in charge of the affairs of the state. It was disturbing that in spite of Ortom’s efforts, militia herdsmen destroyed more than half of Agatu local government with explosives. When Ortom visited the area to assess damages caused, carcasses of dead persons and animals littered the settlements of Okoklo, Ocholonya, Abugbe and so on.
It was as a result of Ortom’s efforts that soldiers were stationed there after the people had complained that militia herdsmen used to cross River Benue from Nasarawa axis to cause havoc in Agatu. Disturbed by the unending crises, Ortom began to look for a lasting solution to the problem. In 2017,. That was the genesis/origin of the Anti-Open Grazing and Ranches Establishment Law which was approved by the House of Assembly and signed into law in May 2017. Government gave a grace period of six months for herders and rearers of other animals to familiarize themselves with the law and prepare for the implementation in November of the same year.
The implementation of the law marked the crisis between Benue state and Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore which threatened fire and brim stone, saying the implementation would be fully resisted by herdsmen across Africa. In spite of the fears expressed by Benue people and Ortom’s call on security agencies in the country to arrest and prosecute leaders of the organization, the organization’s threat was made good in 2018 in Guma, Ortom’s local government and Logo, home local government of Gabriel Suswam, over 70 persons were killed on the new year day. The killings attracted a lot of condemnation when there was mass burial of those killed in cold blood. The international community called on the Federal Government to stop the killings just as Ortom cried for help from across the world.
The internal security problem in Benue state where disgruntled elements in the Benue North-east Senatorial District held sway had reduced as a result of the introduction of the amnesty programme which Ortom initiated as soon as he was sworn in as governor but pockets of kidnapping activities continued to disturb the people. When the amnesty programme was changed from the carrot approach to the stick approach, over 900 youths had willingly surrendered over 600 weapons with several ammunition that were destroyed in line with the United Nations best practices.
After the massacre in Guma and Logo, the army headquarters introduced exercise ayem akpatuma (cat race) which became a joke to the militia herdsmen who killed more people on their farms. Following serious complaints about the small scope of the exercise, the Federal Government introduced Operation Whirl Stroke under the leadership of Major General Adeyemi Yekini who brought herdsmen attacks to its barest minimum between Between 2018 and 2019 Yekini was able to remove encumbrances at the various borders between Benue and Nasarawa and between Benue and Taraba states with few isolated cases of attacks by herdsmen believed to have come from outside Nigeria.
In the year 2020, the relative peace enjoyed by the people is being eroded by the influx of herdsmen into Benue with their cows in hundreds of thousands. This movement has generated a lot of concern among the people and government of Benue state. In Guma, Logo and Kwande militia herdsmen have so far killed between 10 to 30 persons with hundreds of people displaced. Those recently displaced have brought about the complication of the problem facing the already displaced 150,000 persons who have been under the care of the Benue state government.
With the commitment shown by Governor Ortom and the security council, towards the restoration of peace in Benue state, many farmers had returned to the land with the position of the Food Basket of the Nation seeking for restoration but the recent attacks by herdsmen on Benue communities is dashing the hopes of the people. When a woman from Guma local government was amputated as she came out to ease herself during last year’s rainy season, Governor Ortom described the attack as one of the isolated cases of attacks by herdsmen from outside Nigeria and urged the Federal Government to tighten security at the borders against foreign herdsmen who were bent on denying the people desired peace.
The return of relative peace to Benue and the restoration of agriculture which is the mainstay of the economy as well as last year’s relaunching of exercise ayem akpatuma which the chief of army staff, Lt General Tukur Buratai said would curb kidnapping in Benue within few months has turned out to be a window dressing as the herdsmen have started launching series of attacks on Benue communities in Guma, Logo and Kwande where the people are leaving their ancestral homes in droves.
When the Federal Government announced that Operation Whirl Stroke which brought relative peace was going to withdraw, Governor Ortom and his colleagues in Nasarawa and Taraba states pleaded and requested that the withdrawal should be gradual and that the Commander. Major General Adeyemi Yekini, should stay to finish his good works.
Without fear off contradiction, Governor Samuel Ortom who is today known as the defender of Benue valley had said in a lecture he gave at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka last year that the Anti-Open Grazing and Ranches Establishment Law which Benue state enacted in 2017 and was condemned by those that wanted to take over Benue land would one day be celebrated, adopted and cherished by Nigerians and the Nigerian Government which condemned June 12, 1993 as a struggle without meaning and impact but later realized the importance of June 12 and have decided to celebrate it as a National event.
Before and after Governor Ortom’s popular declaration at Nsukka, many states had adopted and keyed into the ranches establishment law which they have implemented while many more are making similar laws. In addition, many other states have as a result of the menace caused by Fulani herdsmen in their states come up with their own type of security outfits like Amotekun and so on. In addition, many states have agreed that community policing should be approved by the Federal Government in addition to the Nigeria Police Force.
The security situation in Nigeria was such that Governor Ortom’s ranches establishment law was seen as a sign retrogression because of the erroneous believe that cattle rearers should be allowed to roam about with their cattle against the best practices of the ranching of animals across the world but today, the Federal Government has agreed that ranching remains the best option for the nation. It must be also stated without fear of contradiction that Ortom who has substantially restored Benue to its lost glory because of the ranches establishment law has today not only become the defender of Benue Valley but also a hero in the nation’s struggle for the development and promotion of agriculture to international level at the time that oil resources are dwindling and the Federal Government has partially closed the borders so that influx of arms/ammunition, foreign herdsmen who have been causing problems in Nigeria and influx food items largely produced in Nigeria can be controlled.
As the problem of security which was subsiding resurfaces again, Governor Samuel Ortom should be supported by well meaning Nigerians to make agriculture Nigeria’s viable option to oil whose prices are crashing due to Coronavirus and other uncertainties. The Federal Government also needs to strengthen Operation Whirl Stroke to be able to completely secure Benue and other state’s troubled by herdsmen said to have now moved into Benue with thousands of heads of cattle to destroy crops, houses and kill the people who are already being displaced in the new year.
This brings one to the unnecessary controversy which some people had generated on the performance of Operation Whirl Stroke and other security agencies in Benue state. The truth is that Governor Ortom has never at any time said the agencies were not doing enough. Instead, the governor has used every opportunity available to him to commend the agencies and encourage them. Mention must be made of Major General Adeyemi Yekini who has in the past two years or more made serious efforts towards frustrating efforts of those who had wanted to aid militia herdsmen to create tension and unrest in Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba state’s where the governors had decided to provide enabling environment for the security outfit to carry out its responsibilities without problems.
The only thing the people of Benue state and other Nigerians need to do now is to commend Governor Ortom for the efforts he has been making to prevent the taking over of Benue Valley by those who wanted to use open grazing as an excuse for occupying the fertile lands with distorted history and claim that they had occupied the area before.
At this stage, one needs to encourage the governor to give attention to the welfare of the people by making serious efforts towards settling salary and pension arrears and putting little smiles on the faces of his former political appointees. Already, he has flagged off activities of the state’s pension commission headed by a seasoned administrator and former Head of Service, Mr. Terna Ahua, mni.
With Andrew Ayabam now heading the revenue generating agency of the state, the governor can confidently borrow some money through a bond so that internally generated revenue would be used to offset such loans. Like he said during the presentation of this year’s budget to the House of Assembly, an airport would be built this year with a borrowed facility of N11 billion which would be paid back by the internal revenue board headed by the tax expert.
Efforts must be made by all and sundry so that Governor Ortom who has made efforts in the four years nine months would not be made to allow the state to slip into the position of being at the mercy of invaders who want to take over the agriculturally endowed state called Benue.