By Nathaniel Ikyur
They could not even wait for Governor Samuel Ortom to leave office before unleashing chaos. Moments after the governor-elect of Benue was led by his godfather, Senator George Akume, to visit President Muhammadu Buhari at the presidential villa in Abuja a few days ago, Fulani herdsmen re-launched a viciously orchestrated attack on the village of Umogidi a sleepy rural town in the Enetekpa Adoka district of Otukpo Local Government Area.
By the time villagers and security forces took a head count, more than 50 mourners, including the son of the chairman of the Otukpo Local Government Council and a police officer, were allegedly murdered in cold blood by the assailants, suspected to be Fulani herdsmen who have continued to lay siege on communities across the state. This is according to unrefuted accounts by community leaders and media reports.
According to the eyewitnesses, many people are still missing or may not be accounted for. The attack followed a previous attack on the same community that resulted in the deaths of three people whose bodies had just been buried when the armed herders attacked the community for the second time in less than 12 hours.
As if that was not enough, armed Fulani herders in the early hours of Saturday, April 8th, 2023 invaded Mgban IDP camp along Makurdi-Lafia federal highway at Branch Udei and killed scores of persons. As at the last count, over 35 corpses have been recovered. These are the same people who have been forced to abandon their ancestral homes by the Fulani.
With this most recent attack in Enetekpa Adoka and Mgban in Guma local government areas, Senator Akume’s assurance before President Buhari that the Fulani will return to the state in full force has only stoked our fears. The Senator uttered those bone-chilling words while introducing Governor-elect, Reverend Father Alia, to the Aso Rock Press Corps. Senator Akume had a short while ago taken the Fr. Alia before President Buhari where they both pledged their loyalty to the President after profiting from the most audacious electoral heist in the history of Benue.
On the other side of the conference table, Presidential spokesman Garba Shehu, one who would go to any length to crucify Governor Ortom, sat, beaming with smiles, as if to say, finally, this is a successful conquest. He would later take Alia’s hand, displaying some familiarity with the new man in Benue as he walked him out to the exit door of the presidential press center.
So we ask: Is this the Fulani return to Benue about which both Akume and Alia spoke before the presidency? Are the Fulani returning to continue their genocide against the citizens of Benue? Whose interest does this return serve: the Benue people, Senator Akume, Father Alia or their sponsors in the last election?
Putting Senator Akume and Governor-elect Alia’s remarks in their proper context and perspective reveals that they were carefully veiled political commentary aimed at a distant audience to whom both Akume and Father Alia owed gratitude for assisting them in seizing power in Benue state. What does Senator Akume explicitly mean by “return of the Fulani”? The Fulani never left Benue at any point in recent history. This false and deceptive claim is intended to incite animosity between the Fulani and Benue peoples. And this must not be allowed to flourish because it’s a false narrative used to curry electoral victory.
Surprisingly, the Governor-elect in his response to a question, talked about including all cultures in Benue under his incoming administration. Invariably, he implied that Governor Ortom’s administration was intolerant of others, especially the Fulani. How deceiving. The opposite could not be further from the truth. And this is a false assertion. It is an open secret that Benue has remained everyone’s home. After the anti-open grazing law, which aimed at regulating the constant invasion of the state by killer herders was enacted, peaceful Fulani remained in Benue to continue living in harmony with their neighbours. Some are even appointees in Governor Ortom’s government.
Interestingly, some public commentators have dismissed Governor-elect, Father Alia’s recent off-handed post-election quips. They described it as immature and conceited. They may be spot-on, particularly in this instance. You can disregard his grandstanding rhetoric regarding the health of state institutions such as the Benue Civil Service as doddering missteps of a political novice eager to taste power, but it is necessary to set the record straight. Since its inception, inclusiveness has been a primary feature of the Ortom Administration. That is the reason most critical decisions are taken involving all stakeholders.
The State Civil Service with all affiliate Trade Unions has never gone on any industrial action. It has been a unique selling point between the Ortom administration while operating open financial dealings to stave off rumours and speculations about the true position of the finances of the state.
In Benue State under Ortom, indigenous and non-indigenous ethnic and religious groups have co-existed without conflict or animosity. The state has had less violent intercommunal conflicts in the past eight years as has been experienced in the state during previous regimes. This is due to the Ortom administration’s deliberate policy of promoting harmonious inter-communal relations. So where did the governor-elect get the wrong notion that some ethnic nationalities were driven away from Benue?
The continued attacks by Fulani herders on Benue communities are a clear instance of a direct threat to national security. This is why the Ortom administration has continued to call for help from the federal government with characteristic fortitude.
The attacking herdsmen have been murdering without discrimination. They spare nobody within the communities they attack. They butcher Christians and Muslims, natives and non-natives, men, pregnant women, children, and youth, the young and the old, the sick and the healthy, killing anyone in their way.
It is therefore a malicious misrepresentation of reality aimed at feeding a convenient, self-serving political narrative, to imply that the Ortom government’s response to the threat posed by the gun totting Fulani herders in enacting and enforcing the popular anti-grazing law, amounts to excluding the Fulani or any other ethnic group from the affairs of Benue. As with all false narratives, this too will fail. Those promoting this narrative are not just mischievous but are unfair to Governor Ortom or even the Fulani. Not all Fulani support the activities of the killer Herdsmen. This is important to note.
Let me also state here clearly that the incoming governor must resist the temptation to disparage the Ortom administration to appease Senator Akume and his Fulani-backed cabal. Thousands of peace-loving Fulani who have coexisted with their neighbours in Benue State for decades would also confirm that the allegation that the Ortom administration discriminates against them or any other ethnic group is a fabrication by desperate politicians who choose to ignore the truth.
These incidents, like the most recent murders in Enetekpa Adoka of unarmed villagers, are senseless and provocative. The attackers come from outside the state to kill and maim, and they vanish into the surrounding hills after committing their heinous acts.
Governments are primarily responsible for protecting her citizens. By enacting the anti-grazing law, Governor Ortom was carrying out his constitutional duty to protect lives and property, as the law restricted the movement of cattle as a preventative measure against murderers disguising themselves as nomads and entering villages to kill and plunder. This category of criminal-minded Fulani is responsible for the murders, not the industrious Fulani who live in peace within the communities.
Therefore, it is irresponsible for revisionist politicians to assert that implementing the anti-grazing law amounts to excluding Fulani from Benue State. This is false. It is on record that Governor Ortom has frequently extended hands of friendship to peace-loving Fulani and interacted with their leaders regularly.
For those who are bent on dismissing Governor Ortom for his guts and passion, it will surely come to pass that he will be remembered by history as a governor who did his best for Benue people and stood with them in times of tribulation. He was twice elected governor due to his popularity, and the people placed their protection in his hands. This is why he has never wavered in speaking truth to unearth the evils of genocidal acts by the herders.
Before it was passed, the Benue State Anti-Grazing Law was the subject of extensive bottom-up consultation. The anti-grazing law did not target any specific racial or ethnic group. It was a precaution to protect the populace from mass murderers who were already taking a jold on various local governments across the state. Most Fulani supported the Benue anti-grazing law because it helped destigmatize a peace-loving community.
As Governor-elect Father Alia settles in to comprehend the real issues beyond the sound bites of political bombast, he must recognize the magnitude of the security challenges and threats to the various communities of Benue. For sure, Alia’s burden is weightier. My suspicion is that our oppressors want to use the face of the church to wreck more havoc on the fertile Benue lands.
Therefore, his success or not will have a dent, positive or negative on the Church depending on how he navigates between satisfying his sponsors and keeping Benue lands safe, and away from the bloodthirsty herdsmen. Already, the herders are excited and moving into Benue with speed.
Hardliners discountenance this. But he should take a page from Governor Ortom’s playbook and include everyone in running the state. History will remember Ortom for prioritising the security of lives and property, pursuing the interests and well-being of the Benue people without compromise even at the risk of his own life, and running an inclusive government. This is the Ortom Legacy.
▪︎ Mr. Ikyur is the Chief Press Secretary to the Benue State Governor