STABILIZING A FLOUNDERING NIGERIA VIA THE ORTOM MODEL (2)

Samuel Ortom as the Governor of Benue State
Samuel Ortom as the Governor of Benue State

As stated in the part one of this opinion, the menace of insecurity, especially herdsmen terrorism, looks overwhelming. And this is why the Minister of Defence, Gen. Bashir Magashi (retd) bemoaned recently: “Make no mistake: our country is bleeding right now.” And if Nigeria is bleeding, Benue is haemorrhaging profusely. With the onset of the rainy season, there is a marked resurgence of gruesome killings by suspected herdsmen in the state. Benue appears surrounded by terror.

This writer’s intervention here is prescriptive as it draws attention to the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law passed by the Benue State government in 2017. After Ortom signed this bill into law, he met the greatest hostility that a governor has ever had to face for living true to his oath of office.

And with the security apparati effectively outside Ortom’s control, implementing the law became (and remains) problematic. It does not matter that in the corresponding period, Northern states enacted laws establishing Hisbah corps or Sharia police; and these laws have been enforced to the letter, thanks largely to the weight of security agencies.

And keeping ranching at arm’s length, the Federal Government advanced its preferred option: a revival of cattle routes which obtained in the 60s when the then ruling Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) opened up the country for Fulani herdsmen! When that fell flat, it, again, brought to the table its next best option i.e. Cattle colonies! With that too falling on its face, Abuja now brought Ruga (not RUGA, please).

Whether cattle routes, cattle colonies or Ruga, Ortom’s stand was immovable: Benue has land for ranching, but none cattle colonies or Ruga! Meaning: Since there was a popular law on ground, any entrepreneur interested in the cattle business was free to buy land and ranch his cattle.

In the campaign to engender a nation-wide buy-in, the Presidency on June 30th, 2019 (just one month into President Buhari’s second term),  stated that the policy was voluntary, and that with 12 states already keyed into the pilot scheme of the Ruga project. The versatile Garba Shehu named the states as Benue, Sokoto, Kebbi, Niger, Adamawa, Zamfara, Katsina, Kogi, Nasarawa, Plateau, Kaduna and Taraba.

He further itemized the benefits of the Ruga scheme to include job-creation, containing roaming herders, curtailment of cattle-rustling, access to credit etc.  The wonder was not that states like Sokoto, Katsina and Kebbi, which are homes to Fulani herdsmen, were listed – the wonder was that Benue, which had consistently voiced its objection to the project, was named as being part of the controversial project.

Not many people or groups were swayed by the presidential campaign, with choral negations rising against it. The vocal Southern and Middle Belt Leaders (SMBL) Forum, in fact, described the Ruga concept as “repugnant,” especially as the presidential spokesman had said the Federal Government had gazetted lands in the 36 states for the project.

Well, once again, the courageous Ortom, acting as a statesman rather than a politician, stood his ground: that Benue had land only for ranching. And with his opposition, the Ruga scheme curiously became dead on arrival.

Now, why would Benue state’s objection kill a project that 11 other states had willingly subscribed to? Was Ruga about something sinister rather than the agricultural value-chain it was advertised for? Was Benue the main target, and the listing of states like Kebbi, Sokoto and Katsina just a ploy to plant Ruga in the state? Why didn’t the willing Northern states use the Ruga scheme as a comparative advantage to boost their sleeping economies?

Why did no other victim-governor with victim-populations stand with Ortom in speaking against this alleged landgrab scheme?  And why did standing alone, rather than scare Ortom, only nourish this uncommon politician’s uncommon courage? With the benefit of hindsight, can it be said that Ortom single-handedly killed the Ruga project? Does it explain why the governor and the people have become unabated targets of attacks?

The above are mere rhetorical questions and nobody should invite stress by seeking for answers as all the answers are ensconced in the realm of conjecture. What is real and incontrovertible is that Ortom is a man of uncommon courage, unusual grit and rare gumption. His principled and sustained stand is not only critical to checking Benue’s feared annihilation – it is a veritable service to national unity. Whatever may happen tomorrow or whatever one may say about his practical politics, Ortom has secured his place in Nigeria’s history – whoever writes it and whenever it is written.

Since 2017, many states, including Taraba (Jan. 24th, 2018) and Bayelsa (March 11th, 2021), have enacted similar laws, Furthermore, the South-Western states of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Ondo, Osun and Ekiti have banned open grazing. The decision was taken at an enlarged stakeholders meeting in Akure, the Ondo state capital, on January 25th, 2021, with the leadership of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN) and security chiefs in attendance. And as a mark of good faith and openness, the South-West governors allowed two Northern governors, Mohammed Abubakar (Jigawa) and Abubakar Bagudu (Kebbi) to also attend the meeting.

About the same time, states in the South-East Geo-political Zone also banned open grazing. The Ebonyi state Governor, Dave Umahi, governor announced this on Feb. 1st, 2021 during an APC Stakeholders Meeting at the Christian Ecumenical Centre, Abakaliki. Umahi, who doubles as the Chairman, South-East Governors’ Conference (SEGC), added that the Forum had also banned the movement of cows by foot in the Zone and called on security agencies to flush criminals out of the zone’s forests.

To underscore the worsening security in the area arising from the herdsmen menace, the SEGC followed this up with the first ever South-East Security Summit in Owerri, the Imo state capital, on April 11th, 2021. Besides maintaining the ban on open grazing, the Forum went a step further to set up a joint security outfit for the code-named Ebube Agu (Fearsome Tiger).

In Edo state, just as was the case in Benue state, with all dialogue availing little, there is popular pressure on Gov. Godwin Obaseki to altogether ban open grazing in the state. The latest pressure is coming from a Non-Governmental Organization, the New Nigeria Initiative (NNI) which sees the ban as the only way to stop the “endemic brutality, untold cruelties and awful circles of events arising from clashes between herdsmen and farmers.”

Unknown to many, there has been a steady and inexorable building of a national consensus over the vexatious herdsmen menace, with its unrelenting butcheries and brutal dispossessions of native populations. This is how it has come to be that from Benue (North-Central) being a lone voice against herdsmen terrorism in 2017, open grazing prohibition has now become a national chorus; with the ban against open grazing legally effective in the South-East, South-West, Bayelsa in the South-South (with Edo warming up) and Taraba state in the North-East. Ortom’s lone voice has been amplified into a megaphone, and the ban on open grazing is now a national song. If the Buhari presidency fails to act now, it is feared that this song may become Nigeria’s swansong!

It does appear that with a cow-population of only 20 million, Nigerians were finally asking why the Federal Government was not looking at the ranching models in Brazil, India and China, with cow-populations of 212 million, 189million 114 million respectively?

This patriot believes this was why on January 25th, 2021, the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF) met with MACBAN in Akure, Ondo state, following which they banned open grazing, under-age herding and nocturnal grazing.

And as a follow-up, the NGF, at the end of its 25th virtual meeting at their meeting on February 11th, 2021, reiterated its ban on open grazing in the country, saying it had reached a consensus on the “need for the country to transition into modern systems of animal husbandry that will replace open, night, and underage grazing in the country.”

Nigeria has heard Ortom. His governor-colleagues have endorsed his vision by adopting and recommending it for Nigeria’s survival. The ball now is in the court of the Federal Government. The time to act is now.

And the Ortom model offers a ready template of drawing back from the precipice. Nigeria is a great country, but it is not because of her 20million cows – it’s because of her 200million-strong human population. The logical thing, now that even the hitherto unwilling MACBAN has accepted the ban on open grazing, is for the Presidency to adopt the model, and direct security agencies to support governors to implement it for win-win outcomes. This should be a tribute to our founding-fathers.

*** Simon Imobo-Tswam, an author and communications specialist, sent this piece from Makurdi.