The Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, has recently intensified his pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari to act on the herders’ malaise in the country. In this interview with some reporters in Abuja, he gave his reasons and also addresses the agitation for the appropriate zoning of the 2023 presidency.
YOUR colleagues, governors, are coming round to the point you have been making about ranching. How do you feel about that?
I commend the Northern Governors Forum and my colleagues from the South-South, who are in agreement that ranching is the way forward and I feel fulfilled. I feel very grateful to God and I’m encouraged that you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free. So, it doesn’t matter you are castigated persecuted or vilified about what you know can ensure justice, equity and fairness for all. It doesn’t matter whatever happens. It is better and more honourable to follow that just cause. So, I commend all of them for accepting that we are in a democratic setting. That even when we disagree and at a point we see that the point someone is making is superior to what we feel or what we are doing, it is better to own up and accept like it has been accepted. I commend them and I thank them and together, we can build a better Nigeria.
If, as many people are saying, many of the herders are foreigners, how can ranching be the solution? What kind of ranching are governors contemplating?
Yes, I’m in agreement that majority of the Fulani herdsmen, who are creating problems for our country today, are foreigners as rightly acknowledged even by the president himself. They are not Nigerians. By April, I’ll be 60 years and in these 60 years, I’ve grown up to live with Fulani men, who we cohabited; we worked together and we never saw this kind of menace that is going on with the coming in of these foreign herdsmen. My recommendation to Mr President is that we cannot just allow the influx of these armed herdsmen. Part of this is to ensure that appropriate measures are taken before anyone comes into our country. We are not stopping people from coming, but there are procedures; there are policies; there are rules that have to be strictly applied. Whether you are a foreigner and whether you satisfied the requirements of being in Nigeria or becoming a citizen of Nigeria and to settle in a community, definitely, you will be profiled. And so, for me, it is not about allowing people to move freely the way they want. But they will have to be profiled and you must be able to hold people responsible when crimes are committed in your society. Yes, those who are here with cattle can also ranch.
About what kind of ranching I talk about in my own state, Benue, we have enacted a law and it has been in operation since 2018. It accounts majorly for the relative peace. Any herdsman who comes to Benue with his cattle doing open grazing is aware because we have made adequate publicity and we have disseminated information to all the herdsmen across the state. Anyone, who comes around, knows that he is committing an offence by trespassing on our land. So, ranching in Benue State, you have to restrict your cattle to one place. It may not be an international or standard ranching per se but you must restrict the cattle to one place; you provide feeds and water. We have a number of them. Even in my own farm, I have a ranch. And so, with that, there will be no issue of anybody trespassing on anybody’s land and there will be no issue of cattle rustling that is usually given as a reason for herdsmen attacking people and all that. But I can’t speak for other states. Others can even adopt open grazing if they have the land, but for us, the land we have is for agriculture, for farming especially and not for livestock business. But those who are into livestock business here can take advantage because the waste from their agricultural produce can be used as feed for our cattle. If you do that, along the line, you are providing jobs in the value chain, even livestock. And so, the waste from the land is no longer wasted. They are given out to feed the animals. So, it depends on state.
But for me, my recommendation to the Federal Government is that the National Livestock Development Programme that the National Economic Council (NEC) painstakingly brought out should be adopted. That will solve the problem. And the national livestock development programme, other states opted for open grazing; that they will provide grazing reserves and grazing routes. But for us in Benue State, we opted for ranching that will restrict the movement of cattle; the herders will stay in one place and feed their cattle. It depends on each state and the availability of the land they have.
We hear that the politicians from the Middle Belt are angling for the presidency. Would you support zoning of the position to the South-East in 2023? Since the president has admitted that these marauders are foreigners, what have you advised him?
I cannot speak for the Middle Belt. Mine is just one state in the Middle Belt. But as a leader, I can say that is not on my table for now; until that time comes. When we get to the river, we decide what method to use to cross it. I cannot on my own decide whether the Middle Belt should contest the presidency or not. But I think that it is too early to be talking about 2023 when we still have up to two years and four months. I think what Nigerians need now are dividends of democracy and that should include especially security of lives and property. As I talk to you now, I will be a mad man to be talking about it. And if anybody comes to me to talk about 2023, I will send him away from my office. There is no reason. As I talk to you, I have more than 800,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in primary schools and they are stopping our children from going to school. These people are suffering on the lean resources of government and kind-spirited individuals, who have come to support us. And it is with pains; one man with four wives in IDP camp that is not suitable for dogs to live in. We don’t have the resources to cater for the people. People cannot go to their farms. Those, who attempted, were killed. Women were raped and their hands chopped off and several evils are being committed. So, my primary concern now as a leader, if you ask me and as a stakeholder in this country, is for the Federal Government, states and local government to put heads together to end the level of insecurity that is going on because without security, there can be no meaningful development. As I talk to you, there is food crisis in Benue State and other parts of this country. And as I talk to you, the early stoppage of rains has also created its own challenge about food security. The critical one is the one that people cannot just go to their farms at all; they cannot move freely and they are eating deep into the budgets of their brothers that are in urban areas who are civil servants; who are business people and so on. So, for me, it’s not about 2023. Let us use what we have now. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow; you may not wake up tomorrow. If nothing is done to check this menace of insecurity that is going on, tomorrow we may not have a Nigeria to contest presidency in or governors, senators or House of Representatives.
The issue of rotation, I think that when that time comes, Nigerians will sit together; they will talk about history. They will talk about promises that were made; they will talk about gentleman’s agreement that were reached and then, decide. For me, I will follow where Nigerians will want the presidency to come to. But if you ask me my personal opinion now, that should not be a problem to us. Since the advent of democracy, we have been rotating the presidency. So, it’s a matter of various political parties to decide where they want their president to come from. If you decide to make a wrong choice in where your presidency will come from, you will lose out and it’s as simple as that. So, that is not a problem. Like I said, this is not the time for it. When that time comes, we will decide on what to do.
I’ve always said that the issue of ECOWAS Protocol was being used as a smokescreen to see how some people here can drive the Fulani herdsmen agenda. Like I said, we are not talking about ethnicity here. We have Fulani men, who have cohabited with us, we have lived together and working together, we had no problem until these foreign Fulani men started coming in. It is not right to allow herdsmen to come in the name of ECOWAS Protocol. I have also read the ECOWAS Protocol and I have given it to my lawyers to also read. There are procedures to follow before you come into Nigeria. You must profile those people coming in, including their cattle. Have they been following it? So, this is the point. I agree with the National Assembly as they have now risen up to their responsibility because we have been calling on them to. And I’m happy that they are also taking steps. We must review the ECOWAS Protocol. It does not favour us for now. Ghana did it. If you go to Ghana, our neighbours, they don’t have open grazing because of the menace that was being caused by these herdsmen. Even the Benin Republic, they did same. So, why can’t us, the giants of Africa? They are ranching in Kenya, South Africa, and other countries. Why can’t we do it here? So, the ECOWAS Protocol must be reviewed for us to have a better policy to regulate cattle in this country.
You have made some recommendations to the presidency. Will you say the president is not doing enough to tackle this menace?
The president as our leader is not doing well. That is why I am calling on him to step up his action and act faster than the way it is being done right now. Declare a state of emergency on security so that all resources, all strengths will be channeled towards ensuring that we have security of lives and property in the country because for now, everything is in disarray and without security, there can be no meaningful development. And so, the president is not doing well. That was why I had to write to him; that was why I had to open up and declare that the president must come out and take steps that will redeem his image. President Buhari served this country as a military head of state and Nigerians appreciated him for whom he was and that was why overwhelmingly, he was voted into power in 2015. But honestly, what is happening now, the body language shows clearly that he is not the president who is supposed to be the president for everybody but for nobody. It is clear to me that the president is the president who is the president for everybody and for some people. So, this is the challenge I have. But when you talk about these things…I saw some sponsored media articles that talked about performance of Ortom. I am doing well, just like any other governor in this country and I am working with my people, my people appreciate me. In terms of infrastructure, go to Benue, you will see it. Since I left APC, I have been a performing governor. Anybody, who wants can go to Benue State, let my media people take you round. And in terms of payment of salaries, since 2018, I have not failed in paying salaries and it is not 50 per cent. It is 100 per cent. And Benue State is the state paying the third highest salary apart from Lagos and Rivers States. So, when you bring those barefaced arguments that Ortom had not done anything, come to Benue State. You have not been there. It’s just that I am publicity shy; that’s why you don’t see those things. So, when you go and sponsor some people to go and talk about me and say Ortom is not paying salaries, go and pay salaries, I have been paying salaries. Talk about other things. Address those issues that I am raising, which are very genuine; address those points.
Even though your position on open grazing has also been expressed by others, it would appear that yours is interpreted differently, sometimes, suspiciously. What do think is responsible for the adverse reactions to your views on open grazing. Drawing on the last point you made about sponsored articles, given your remark that the president is not doing well, are you not worried that the presidency may come after you?
Well, I think that those who chose to misunderstand me when we started this ranching policy and the enactment of law prohibiting open grazing and providing ranches, I think they have come to terms now. You are part of the media, you knew the arrack that I had. There was no one coming out to openly support me in those days on the law which we enacted. Rather, it was castigation. But I think that now that most of them have eaten back their words and they are accepting the superior policy and law which have come to restore peace for herdsmen and farmers, I applaud them. I appreciate them; we are together. I am also a fallible human being; I am subject to mistakes. And so, if someone brings a superior argument, I am ready to take it for the good of all. And I think that most of the people that were attacking me, they were in complete ignorance about how deep I researched and brought a policy that will help this country and they have accepted it now. So, I commend them for coming out boldly to accept that and I think that is the spirit that all of us should imbibe. It’s not just about ego. If you don’t know something, accept that truly, my brother, I didn’t know and that alone is ok.
On the second question, I don’t think it is right for anybody to suggest that the Federal Government will come against me. I did not insult Mr President. I did not castigate him; I only told him the bitter truth. Even in my letter, I commended Mr President for the steps he has taken that have brought relative peace to us in Benue State. That is commendable. I have commended him in certain areas that he did in terms of infrastructure and all that are worthy of note and I appreciate him for that. But at the same time, I cannot hide from the truth. The Bible says ‘you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ I will be doing injustice to myself, to my children and to my generation and especially the Benue people who voted me if I don’t say the truth. All I am saying is to ensure equity, fairness and justice for everybody and for Mr President too. All these things are happening; Mr. President may not be aware. That is why I have decided to bring it to his notice so that he will be aware. And I believe that the Buhari I knew as a former military head of state and the one that was voted into power, that Buhari would rise up to this challenge. But to say that I should not say the truth, that one is far from me. You know me very well. I have never hidden the truth, especially when it comes to issues of equity, fairness and justice. You die once. Whatever happens if I die today? Will I be the first person to die? Will I be the last person to die? So, what is it? As a man, you have to stand by the truth but the truth cannot be hidden. No matter how long it takes, one day, it will come out. When Chief MKO Abiola was honoured here on June 12, I made a statement. Then, it was in the heat of castigation, criticism and vilification of my person for enacting a law through Benue people to stop the crisis that was going on and I said just like June 12 was aborted and Abiola was arrested, and today we are honouring him, one day, Nigerians will appreciate and honour the prohibition of open grazing and provision for ranching in this country. I am not a prophet but the Bible says the test of a true prophet is that whatever he says shall come to pass. So, if I said it and today it is happening, what do you think about me? Am I a prophet or not?