By Andrew Yakubu

“The truest kind of leadership demands service, sacrifice, and selflessness”
~ Former United States President Barack Obama.

I am from Plateau State, but my mother hails from Gwer East local government area of Benue State, so I follow events in my maternal home with avid interest. In the last decade, Benue State, like my home state Plateau has been on the butcher’s slab with herders sacking communities and killing hundreds of people.

For some time, Benue was in search of a permanent solution to the herdsmen attacks which began around 2010 or 2011. A former governor of the state Gabriel Suswam was nearly killed by the armed herders in 2014. It was in that milieu of hopelessness and confusion in the face of increasing herder attacks on Benue people that Samuel Ortom emerged as governor in 2015.

Ortom was immediately greeted by more ferocious attacks from the rampaging pastoralists. His government knew that it had to quickly find a solution to end the attacks before the whole of Benue was enveloped by mayhem. So in 2017, he found a solution! His administration enacted a law against open grazing of livestock and began to encourage ranching. Enforcement of the law commenced in November of that year.

As expected, Fulani social-cultural groups rose in stiff opposition of the Benue law with Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore in the vanguard of the resistance against the law. They threatened to visit more violence and death on the state if Governor Ortom did not repeal the law. But Ortom, not being one known for been easily intimidated, called the bluff of the herders as well their sponsors and went on with the enforcement of the law against open grazing. He consequently attracted the anger of the then President, Muhammadu Buhari who was averse to anything that would prevent his kinsmen from moving with cattle by foot from Sokoto to Lagos and from Borno to Port Harcourt.

Ortom was vilified, blackmailed and intimidated by the Buhari administration with the willful conspiracy of its cohorts in Benue State. In fact, he narrowly escaped assassination in 2021 from the hands of armed herders, but would not buckle under the yoke of the pressure and deadly threats. He refused to betray his people who were massively behind his decision to make the law against open grazing.

Ortom chose to sacrifice his political future by leaving the All Progressives Congress, APC which he accused of not protecting his people. I remember watching Ortom on television in 2018 speaking boldly and passionately, “I was not elected to preside over dead people. The 2019 election is not my priority. The safety of my people comes first. Of what use is the seat of Governor if my people are being killed on daily basis?These killings are unacceptable and must stop”.

That message was received loud and clear across the country and many Nigerians rose in condemnation of the killings in Benue State. Ortom instantly became a model of courage and patriotism in governance. And of course, his people acknowledged and appreciated his efforts when they overwhelmingly voted for him during the 2019 election. On the other hand, the open grazing and ranches establishment law became a reference point in the country. Anywhere you went at that time in Nigeria, people were calling on their governors to emulate the Ortom example.

Eventually, many states adopted the ban on open grazing initiative of Ortom and indeed some enacted the same law but sadly, none other showed the courage to enforce the law. Even here in Plateau State, Governor Simon Lalong sent the bill to the State House of Assembly, but that was the end of the story. No guts to pass and sign the law.

Meanwhile, in Benue State, the enforcement of the law drastically reduced the attacks on Benue people as herdsmen with their cattle left the state in their thousands for neighboring states. Though nearly two million people were displaced, some had begun to visit the ruins of their ancestral homes and carry out skeletal farm activities at the time Ortom was leaving office in 2023.

The unfortunate thing is that despite his efforts and huge sacrifice, Ortom’s adversaries at the federal and state levels conspired against his ambition to go to the Senate in 2023. They saw him as a potential threat to the vested interests that wanted to take Benue by all means. Some of his people who were compromised betrayed him and he paid the price! The outcome of the 2023 Benue North West Senatorial election shocked many people to this day. Ortom lost! But was he the real loser? No, the people of Benue and other minorities in the Middle Belt region were the actual losers. We lost a voice that would have spoken for us in the red chamber of the National Assembly.

Lessons to be Learnt

What Samuel Ortom saw years ago is only being seen by some people now. He rightly spoke against the herders occupation agenda in his state which is today an agenda to occupy parts of this country. But some undiscerning people dismissed him as an ethnic jingoist. Many states in this country are in crisis today with kidnappings, destruction, killings and other acts of terrorism taking place unabated. The former Benue governor has been vindicated. If only someone had listened and acted early enough, the current situation would have averted.

Ortom has no doubt emerged as a shining example of a courageous and dedicated leader who prioritized the safety and well-being of his people. His dogged determination to ensuring the security of lives and property, particularly in the face of the challenges posed by open grazing, has set him apart as a beacon of leadership and determination.

By taking a firm stance against open grazing and advocating for the establishment of ranches, he showed remarkable courage in standing up for the best interests of his people, despite facing significant opposition and criticism.

What distinguished Ortom was not just the enactment of the law, but his commitment to its enforcement. In addition to his efforts to address the issue of open grazing, Ortom made significant strides in enhancing the overall security of Benue State. His proactive approach to addressing security challenges and his willingness to make difficult decisions for the greater good of the state further exemplified his exceptional leadership qualities.

Governor Ortom’s legacy as a courageous leader who prioritized the security and well-being of his people is a testament to his selfless dedication and commitment to the common good of his people. His willingness to stand up for the interests of Benue people, even in the face of adversity, serves as an inspiration to leaders across the nation.

Today, Samuel Ortom’s legacy serves as a reminder of the profound impact that courageous and determined leadership can have in addressing critical issues and improving the lives of citizens. His contributions to the security and well-being of Benue State will undoubtedly be remembered and celebrated for years to come.

  • Yakubu writes from Bukuru, Jos.


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