BEVERLY HILLS, April 26, (THEWILL) – From (motor park) tout to bus conductor to taxi driver to salesman and from there, I rose, God took me and propelled me to where I am (today, a state Governor)”
Chief Dr. Samuel Ioraer Ortom, governor of Benue state, North-Central Nigeria is a Visioner. I knew this when I began this piece that I had initially entitled, “Ortom: Persecuted, Distracted yet Committed”. But the title change did not alter the cause for the piece: Sympathy. Yes, this piece was prompted by sympathy – my attitude towards a man I initially did not have much regard for. I used to see Ortom as a typical Nigerian politician, a tough-minded opportunist whose unstable character bears no ambiguity.
He had occupied strategic positions at state and federal levels on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP): Ortom was once the PDP state Deputy Chairman, he was the Director of Operations of the PDP gubernatorial campaign in Benue State in 2007. He was also Director of Administration and Logistics of the Goodluck/Sambo Presidential Campaign Organisation in 2011. All these preceded his appointment as Minister of State for Trade Industry and Investment in 2011 under a PDP-controlled government.
OUT AND IN
He dumped the PDP for the All Progressives Congress (APC) and contested for Governorship of Benue State in 2015 which he won. He later announced his departure from APC to decamp to PDP in July 2018. But that was not the issue I had against him then. I disliked him when he joined the likes of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Raji Fashola to pour vituperations and invectives on former President Goodluck Jonathan and the PDP as if that’s all they were paid to do. The party that made him, equipped him and projected him.
Ortom dished out his own portion of public demonization of PDP and its leadership – his former political camp. Of course, in that mentally turbulent state, he would not be bold to protest the killings of his people by the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders. This did not go down well with some of his colleagues, especially Gov. Nyesome Wike of Rivers State.
Ortom and Wike engaged in a war of words when Wike called for the declaration of a state of emergency in Benue. Wike declared that Ortom had lost control and lacked the capacity to stand up for his people. He added that Ortom was among those who politicized insecurity in the country which had degenerated to consume Benue State. According to Wike, Ortom was in the league of APC governors, who plotted a state of emergency against Rivers State when it had security challenges.
Reacting to Wike’s call for the declaration of a state of emergency in Benue, Ortom described the call as reckless and jaundiced, adding that his counterpart in Rivers needed medical attention. Ortom incurred the wrath of many Nigerians when he argued that more killings had happened in Rivers than in Benue. But his determination to bear the killings to protect his office was short-lived.
When he perceived that Nigeria had begun to descend into a shabby political arena overfilled with the particles of tyranny and brutality, Ortom beat a retreat. He was to join the league of those fatigued at offering dictatorship the ingredients it craves for. This emboldened him to speak truth to power. Unlike his ambivalent counterpart in Plateau, Simon Lalong (whose priority appears to be a pleasant boy to President Muhammadu Buhari) Ortom would no longer bear the wanton killings of his people by the herdsmen. His state enacted the anti-open grazing law. And that was his ordeal.
Consequently, Ortom fell under the unbearable weight of persecution by the APC-led federal government, by his own kinsmen and, worst, by the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association – as he disclosed to the world. Benue had become a killing field for the herdsmen. The state, known for its outstanding place as the nation’s food basket, was literally submerged with blood.
Without a voice from the Presidency, the killings intensified. And when the national security authorities looked the other way, the killers multiplied. With ulterior silence of the Nigerian Governors Forum, the killers became more daring. Benue caught the genuine attention of the world. In the midst of the altercation between Makurdi and Abuja, the then Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr. Jimoh Moshood called Governor Ortom a “drowning man” during a heated argument with the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr. Terver Akase.
My sympathy for Ortom developed in the first half of 2018: The agony of overseeing the mass burial of over seventy corpses of his people was one I am not sure many leaders have the nerves to bear. In peace time for that matter. When the bodies began to arrive in open the articulated trucks, I perceived a man whose blood had suddenly congealed in his veins.
It was a scene that shocked the world — watching the anguish of bereaved families and a bewildered governor. I pitied Ortom. I watched as he stepped down from the podium in a mourning attire – terrified, exhausted and tormented in the spirit.
One wonders what went on in his mind as the same governor who had articulated his vision for the State from the outset. Ortom had revealed that he came in with a clear vision to industrialise the state. He lamented that the herdsmen crisis had taken an enormous toll on his administration with 18 of the 23 local government areas in the state then under siege. Ortom and Benue was abandoned
Part of his over 1,420-word funeral speech in May 2018, read:
“I am here today with members of my Government to say to all of you that the State deeply shares in your sorrow. We remember not only one moment of tragedy but 19 lives of great purpose and promise.
“This is the second mass burial we have the misfortune to organize in the last 5 months. On January 11, 2018, we had the mass funeral and burial of 73 of our patriots who were slaughtered in the 2018 New Year attacks by armed herdsmen in Guma and Logo Local Government Areas of Benue State.
“We never expected another such day. But we were wrong. On 15th March, 2018, we held another mass funeral for 26 victims of herdsmen attack in Omusu, Okpokwu local government area of the state. From January1 to date, Benue is being attacked by herdsmen nearly every day not only in Guma and Logo but also in Ukum, Agatu, Okpokwu, Kwande, Gwer west, Gwer East and even Makurdi LGAs. At least 18 of our 23 LGAs have been attacked.
“In the early hours of April 25, Rev. Father Joseph Gor, Rev. Father Felix Tyolaha and 17 other worshipers were again brutally killed by armed herdsmen at Quasi Parish Ukpor, Mbalom in Gwer East Local Government Area. They were in early morning prayers in the Church when they were gunned down.”
When President Buhari eventually decided to visit the embattled Benue, he stunned the world with his disclosure that he was not current with the terrible happenings in Benue. Buhari told the gathering of Benue people and top government functionaries that he was surprised that the then Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, flouted his order to jet down to Benue and take necessary measures to arrest the killings in Benue.
“I’m not aware that the I-G did not spend 24 hours in the state as directed by me, I am getting to know in this meeting”, Buhari told the shocked audience. It was a disclosure that history would capture in a way yet unknown. Buhari also said the meeting was not the best place to expose the inefficiency of his appointees and appealed to the Benue people to exercise restraint and live in peace with their neighbours.
Of course, the President’s visit did not result in a restraint to Benue killings, and Ortom decided to be bold, courageous and red-eyed. He organized press a conference to openly declare that the Miyetti Allah group was behind the killings in Benue. This change of gear may not have gone well with his adversaries. There were open threats to Ortom’s life and, recently, an assassination attempt on him. This drew the ire of the House of Representatives which adopted a motion calling for an investigation into the dastardly act. Part of the resolution read:
“On Saturday, 20th March 2021, some gunmen suspected to be killer herders, ambushed and opened gunfire on the convoy of the Governor of Benue State, His Excellency, Gov. Samuel Ortom at Tyo-Mu Community, a distance of fewer than 20 kilometres from Makurdi, the state capital;
“Gov. Ortom narrowly escaped death as armed herders rain bullets on him in his farm. Further worried that the armed attackers, numbering over 15 wielded sophisticated weapons and dressed in black, had trailed the Governor from the farm but were repelled by the security detail attached to the Governor, who had to run for over 1 kilometre to safety.”
VISION AT BAY
In the midst of this persecution, Ortom finds himself at a crossroads. His vision for the state is kept in abeyance for now to secure the life and properties of his people. He can only revise the Vision document with the mind of “I wish ….” Of course, given his background as an industrialist, farmer, businessman, politician, philanthropist, administrator and employer, Ortom was on the fast lane to industrialise Benue, a state with huge potential for agriculture and agro-allied businesses. With the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), Benue would excel in agric value chain, particularly in food processing.
In the blueprint for the development of the State entitled, “Our Collective Vision For a New Benue State” Ortom articulated the vision and mission statement of his administration with specifics in a method that showed objectives, goals and action steps with measurable standards. He argued that past development initiatives have recorded little success in harnessing the resources of the State into a vibrant economy for the common good of the people.
“ ‘Our Collective Vision for a New Benue State’ seeks to break that jinx with a paradigm shift in our development initiatives. The driving big-picture of the paradigm shift is encapsulated in the Vision Statement, which inspires our people: ‘to build a Model New State, anchored on the fear of God, that is economically and socially viable for the common good of all’,” Ortom explained in the blue print of his development agenda.
The main building block of the driving big-picture is the Mission Statement, which exhorts all Benue people “to collectively mould a thriving State by providing critical infrastructure, promoting agro-allied industrialization, priming public-public-partnership, empowering the people, creating jobs and wealth, changing the way of conducting government business, fostering good governance and establishing an investment hub in a peaceful and democratic context”, remains work-in-progress.
Ortom disclosed in June 2018 that the state had lost over N400 billion worth of property to renewed militant herdsmen attacks on communities in the state since 2015. With barely two years to serve as governor, he has a huge challenge in his hands. The vision is there, the persecution is intensifying and time is running out. But he is a man of mountain-size faith. Ortom’s belief in the power of God as the prime mover of man’s destiny is one that he finds peace in.
GOD’S SPECIAL SPECIE
When he appeared before the Senate ministerial screening committee in July 2011, his life story which he shared with the lawmakers was so touching that he was asked to take a bow and go. Senators were stirred by an account of Ortom’s background as a school dropout, a motor park tout and one who struggled to attain education through very difficult means. He appears like one built for a turbulent time like this in the history of his people.
His particular “sin” was the enactment of the anti-open grazing law as a measure to secure the lives and properties of his people. He appears unperturbed.
“Benue State Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law 2017 was the people’s legislation and no amount of intimidation and blackmail would make them repeal it.
“For me, I have no regret whatsoever concerning the enactment and implementation of the law. Why should I have any regret doing the will of my people? They trusted me and gave me their votes and I will not betray what they want. I’m doing what they want and I’ve no regrets”, Ortom once told some state governors during a sympathy visit to the state.
The persecuted Governor turns 60 this day, April 25. He deserves all the good wishes we can give to him. He deserves our prayers the more. For a leader with a vision to be so persecuted all round, yet focused and undaunted, there is something to learn from him – his strong faith in God. Ortom is a Born-Again Christian, Believer, Redeemed, Justified and Regenerated. We join him, his family, friends, associates and the good people of Benue in celebrating this special day of his.
“We are hard pressed (persecuted) on every side, but not crushed; persecuted, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:8-10).