On Saturday, March 20, 2021, Samuel Ioraer Ortom, politician, farmer, former Minister of State for Trade and Investment, and now Governor of Benue escaped death by whiskers when assailants suspected to be herders waylaid him on his way back from his farm. According to Ortom, about 15 herders who were dressed in black outfits ambushed him and his security personnel. In his words "... . I went to my farm along Gboko road. And, on our way back, we started hearing some gunshots and we discovered people who were dressed in black, and from experience, we now discovered that these are Fulani militias and I did not want to take things for granted because, few days ago, the media were awash with statements from MACBAN who met in Yola, the same place they met in 2016 where they decided that they will take Nigeria, and that every other person is a slave; that was when they started infiltrating the entire country".
According to the Governor, "I appreciate the security men attached to me. They were able to repel them, and the gunmen could not have access to me. And I thank God for my fitness, to have run for more than one and a half kilometres without stopping. It means that God has given me strength, and I am grateful to God." Ortom, who has been a vocal critic of open grazing of cattle, reportedly impounded over 200 cows for violating the anti-grazing law the State passed in 2018. The attack on the Governor has been widely condemned by President Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian Governors Forum, Northern Governors Forum, the Peoples Democratic Party, and as well as many other groups. The former Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, also promptly ordered an investigation into the attack.
FUNAM Claims responsibility
On March 20, 2021, in a press statement signed by Umar Amir Shehu, a group known as The Fulani Nationality Movement, (FUNAM) claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said it had genuine reasons, as it acted on behalf of millions of Fulani people in 15 countries. FUNAM said it is a case of vengeance against an infidel, who has used his time and money in destroying the Fulani values and inheritance. According to the group, "Our courageous fighters carried out this historic attack to send a great message to Ortom and his collaborators: Wherever you are, once you are against Fulani long term interest, we shall get you down. This is a clear warning. We hope those who take us for granted, will get the indisputable message".
FUNAM claimed 11 of its operatives were involved in the attack' and that the Governor was able to escape because of a slight technical communication error. It claimed Ortom has been leading the campaign against Fulani interests, in the North. The group said it has operatives in all Southern States. It warned collaborators working against Fulani people across Nigeria, of dire consequences. It stated clearly that any State or individual that opposes RUGA or ranching, will be confronted. It said FUNAM will carry out attacks on strategic human and material assets of States and non-State groups or individuals, known for their anti-Fulani campaigns.
The PM News on March 21, 2021, first published the FUNAM press statement. The newspaper reported further that in 2018, the group had triggered some furore in Nigeria when it claimed the Fulani are the owners of the Nigerian territory, from Sokoto to the Atlantic. The Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence, Muhammadu Sa'ad Abubakar, CFR, the spiritual head of the Fulani, reportedly doubted the authenticity of the group and disowned its statement as reckless. The group allegedly has made several incendiary statements thereafter, without any consequence. According to the PM News, in February 2020, the group in a statement by its president, Badu Salisu Ahmadu, claimed a special Fulani Strike Force was responsible for the killing of 23 people in Plateau State in late January 2020. It is hoped that the fact that a group has owned up to have perpetrated the assassination attempt on Ortom, should put paid to speculation that the Governor orchestrated or stage managed the attack on himself, in order to draw sympathy.
Ortom's Rice Farm Razed on December 31, 2018
The recent attempt on the life of Governor Samuel Ortom, was not the first to make him pay for supposedly opposing Fulani interest. According to The PUNCH newspaper of January 2, 2019, suspected armed Fulani herdsmen on New Year's eve stormed the rice farm belonging to Samuel Ortom, and set it ablaze. The rice farm, located in Gbajimba in the Guma Local Government Area of the State, was said to have been razed down by the suspected herdsmen. The rice farm, according to the Farm Manager, Kena Iordzua, covered about 250 hectares of land, with the burnt rice estimated at over N100 million. The farm Manager told The PUNCH correspondent that the herders came to the farm with a large number of cattle during the day, and set it on fire at three different points. Iordzua said the inferno could not be put out due to the wild nature of the fire, as a result of the harmattan. The farm Manager added that security agents were mobilised to go after the herdsmen, who shot sporadically in the air as they retreated towards the Nasarawa State border.
Was Ortom the only Governor to be attacked in Nigeria?
At least nine people were reportedly killed in northeastern Nigeria on Saturday, November 21, 2020 when Boko Haram terrorists targeted a convoy belonging to Borno State Governor. According to local reports, members of the terrorist group attacked the convoy of Gov. Babagana Zulum on the Gajiram-Monguno road, killing seven soldiers and two civilians. Zulum escaped uninjured, but, it was the third time he had been attacked by Boko Haram terrorists, a report by Anadolu Agency (AA) said. Zulum's convoy was reportedly attacked twice along the Baga Highway in September 2020.
Also, former Governor of Benue State, George Akume in March 2004 escaped assassination, after his convoy was attacked near Nasarawa-Eggon, Nasarawa State on his way to Kaduna to attend a meeting of the Governors of the 19 Northern States. His friend and former Managing Director of the Nigeria Airways, Engineer Andrew Agom and a security guard, Sergeant John Ngam, died in the attack.
General State of Insecurity in Nigeria
Such is the general state of insecurity in Nigeria, that traditional rulers, political office holders and persons considered as Very Important Personalities, have been targeted for attacks by unknown armed groups. In November 2020, bandits shot a prominent First Class traditional ruler in Ondo State, Oba Israel Adeusi who was the Olufon of Ifon. Ifon is located in Ose Local Government Area of the State in South-West Nigeria. Oba Adeusi was said to be returning to his town from Akure, the Ondo State capital, where he went for a meeting with other frontline traditional rulers in the State. In December last year, unknown gunmen attacked the convoy of the Emir of Kaura Namoda in Zamfara State, Alhaji Sanusi Muhammadu Asha, killing three Policemen, and five of his guards and aides.
Ortom's Spat with Governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi State
In February 2021, Governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi State engaged in a word of words with his Benue State counterpart on his handling of the herders/farmers conflict. Mohammed blamed Ortom for his 'lack of foresight', for the negative perception of Fulani herders in the country. Speaking on the theme "The Role of the Media in Promoting Peace and Unity in Nigeria", which marked the closing ceremony of 2021 Correspondents' Chapel Week organised by Correspondents' Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Bauchi State Council, the Governor lamented that the herder/farmers crisis was poorly handled by Benue State Governor. The Governor further lamented that pastoralists in the country, particularly Fulanis, are being maligned even though most of them have become victims of cattle rustlers who have dispossessed them of their commonwealth, and they 'have no option than to carry AK47 because the society and the Government are not protecting them'.
On Friday, February 12, 2021, Ortom's Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase issued a statement on the matter. He said inter alia that "the most shocking part of Governor Bala Mohammed's statement was where he defended herdsmen for bearing arms. "I wonder which section of the law the Bauchi State Governor cited to support herdsmen's free movement around the country with sophisticated weapons. I recall that it was the same Governor Mohammed who once said on national television, that a Fulani man is a global citizen, and therefore, does not need a visa to come to Nigeria, and that the forests belong to herdsmen. I wonder if my friend and colleague in Bauchi State knows a thing or two about the horrendous activities of herders in parts of the country, to warrant the emotional defence and justification that he has repeatedly put forward in their favour". After the brickbat, the Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike and his Adamawa State counterpart, Ahmadu Fintiri, invited the two feuding Governors to Port Harcourt and settled the rift.
Resolving the Herders/Farmers Crisis in Nigeria
From all indications, it will seem the genesis of the crisis for which the life of the Benue Governor is being sought, is over the 2018 anti-open grazing law in the State. It should be recalled that this law was a 'child of necessity' and a last resort, after years of attack by supposed herders on the farmlands of Benue indigenes, especially in Agatu and Guma Local Government Areas. The two LGAs were the epicentre of the 2018 New Year's Day massacre, that left close to 80 persons dead. It was a pogrom that shook the entire State.
Governor Samuel Ortom has pledged not to repeal this anti-open grazing law. Other States such as Ekiti, Ondo, Oyo have also passed similar legislations. In fact, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State on January 18, 2021 incurred the wrath of some Northern groups, when he gave a quit notice to all herders who are illegally rearing their cattle inside the Ondo forest reserves.
The Governor issued a statement which read: "Today we have taken major steps at addressing the root cause of kidnapping, in particular, and other nefarious activities detailed and documented in security reports, the press and debriefings from victims of kidnap cases in Ondo State. These unfortunate incidents, are traceable to the activities of some bad elements masquerading as herdsmen. These felons have turned our forest reserves into hideouts for keeping victims of kidnapping, negotiating for ransom and carrying out other criminal activities. As the Chief Law and Security Officer of the State, it is my constitutional obligation, to do everything lawful to protect the lives and property of all residents of the State. In light of the foregoing, the following orders are hereby issued:
1. All Forest Reserves in the State are to be vacated by herdsmen within the next seven days with effect from today, Monday 18th January, 2021.
2. Night-grazing is banned with immediate effect, because most farm destruction takes place at night.
3. Movement of cattle within cities and highways is prohibited.
4. Under-aged grazing of cattle is outlawed.
"Our resolution to guarantee the safety of lives and property within the State shall remain utmost, as security agencies have been directed to enforce the ban. In its usual magnanimity, our administration will give a grace period of seven days for those who wish to carry on with their cattle-rearing business, to register with appropriate authorities".
It is the herders/farmers clashes that have also led to a non-State actor, Sunday Adeyemo popularly known as Sunday Igboho, to similarly give a quit notice to Fulani's in Igangan in Ibarapa area of Oyo State, and the forceful ejection of Seriki Fulani of the town, Abdulkadir Saliu. Similarly, members of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) recently captured and handed over to the Police, Isikilu Wakili, a prominent Fulani herder in Ayete area of Ibarapa, who was fingered in many kidnapping and rape cases in the town.
The Kano State Governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, and indeed, the Northern Governors Forum have come out to say that open grazing is no longer fashionable and sustainable in Nigeria, and that the best way to go is ranching. Sometime ago, as published in Business Day of Saturday, March 27, 2021 while fielding questions from journalists in Katsina, the Kano State Governor disclosed that his administration has been able to stem the tide of banditry, by establishing a ranching culture in the State. He said, "We are building a RUGA settlement in Sambisa forest, our border with Katsina, and we have succeeded in curtailing the effect of banditry in that area. So, we are building many houses, constructing a dam, and establishing cattle artificial insemination centre. We are establishing a veterinary clinic and already, we have started building houses for herdsmen." Ganduje advocated for the proscription of nomadic herding which features the transportation or trekking of herdsmen, from the North to the middle belt and Southern part of Nigeria. "There should be a law that will ban it, otherwise, we cannot control the conflicts between herdsmen and farmers and cannot control the cattle rustling which are affecting us greatly", he said.
The Northern Governors Forum headed by Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong, also met on the herders/farmers clashes. In a communiqué issued on Tuesday, February 9, 2021 after their virtual meeting the previous day, the forum noted as follows: "The current system of herding mainly through open grazing, is no longer sustainable, in view of growing urbanisation and population of the country. Consequently, it resolved to sensitise herders on the need to adopt new methods of herding, either by ranching or other acceptable modern methods. It appealed to the Federal Government to support States with grants, to directly undertake pilot projects of modern livestock production that would serve as a springboard for the full implementation of new methods of livestock production. The Governors called on political leaders to isolate criminality and social groups in their domains, with a view to treating criminals like criminals".
A February 24, 2021 report in Vanguard newspaper reported that, the Federal Government, on February 23 announced securing €400,000 grant to kick off National Livestock Transformation Plan, NLTP, in four States. In a statement by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, and Project for Agricultural Coordination and Planning, PACE, President Muhammadu Buhari, secured the grant from the Dutch Investment Agency, RVO, after approval of the grant, which Buhari signed a Memorandum of Understanding, during his visit to the Netherlands. The States for the NLTP include Nasarawa, Adamawa, Plateau and Gombe. The statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Agriculture, Dr Andrew Kwasari, who was accompanied by members of the FMARD-PACE Team on a two-day visit to the Nasarawa State Livestock Transformation Office to ensure that the State Livestock Transformation team was fully aware of the requirements for successful implementation of the pilot, said the €400,000 covered 50% of the cost of the pilot start-up of NLTP model in Nasarawa State for 30 pastoralist households, with a start date of March, 2021.
The Federal Government is right on track with kick starting the National Livestock Transformation Plan, under which it intended to establish ranching. However, it has to also sponsor an executive bill to ban open grazing nationwide. Despite the purported ban of open grazing in the Federal Capital Territory by the Federal Capital Territory Administration, herders are still going about their business without let or hindrance. All forest reserves in Nigeria also have to be wired with Closed Circuit Television cameras, drones and satellite surveillance, in order to expose criminal herders using the forests as hideout for kidnapped victims. All apprehended criminal elements should be prosecuted and made to serve their punishments, rather than offering them nebulous amnesty which has so far proved counterproductive. Lastly, attackers of Samuel Ortom must be fished out and prosecuted, in competent court of law.
Jide Ojo, Development Consultant, Author, Columnist and Public Affairs Analyst