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The Ortom Assassination Attempt

On the 20th March 2021, there was an assassination attempt on the life of Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State on the outskirts of Makurdi, the Benue State capital. Governor Ortom had gone to one of his farms at Tyo Mu, along the Makurdi-Gboko Federal Highway to look things up. According to the Governor, his convoy had parked by the roadside to allow him access the farm on foot with a few of his aides and security details. It was while they were walking back to the road from the inspection of his farm that armed men in black ambushed them. The Governor calls them herdsmen. His security details exchanged fire with the armed men and gave him cover to run to safety. According to the Governor, he run for more than one and half kilometers.

Within hours of this dastardly attempt, a Fulani terror group going by the innocuous name of Fulani Nationality Movement (FUNAM) claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt. In a statement issued by one Umar Amir Shehu, the group admitted to carrying out the attack on ‘behalf of millions of Fulani people in 15 countries”. They claimed that the attack was a case of vengeance against an infidel who has used his time and money’ to destroy Fulani values and inheritance.  FUNAM stated in the statement that their ‘courageous fighters’ carried out the attack to give notice to Ortom and his collaborators and promised that whoever is against Fulani interests will be cut down. FUNAM vowed to kill Governor Ortom and said he had escaped their 11-man assassination squad only because of a ‘technical communication error’. The group also promised to ‘attack strategic human and material assets of states and non state groups or individuals known for their anti-Fulani campaigns’.

The FUNAM statement seems to have escaped the notice of cynics who have since argued that Governor Ortom had faked the attempted assassination against him. Without giving any reasons why the Governor will fake an attempt on his life, they have doubted his story including the details of his escape from those who ambushed him. They wonder how a Governor can run for more than one and a half kilometers and not collapse. They argue that he had faked an attempt on his life as a political investment against his opponents. Some of them have gone as far as to further argue that Ortom seems to be exaggerating his status in the eyes of  his opponents and even if the attempt was successful, he would have been just another casualty in a long line of unfortunate deaths in our country. Others have said that aggrieved local community members who are angry with him over the acquisition of their land targeted Governor Ortom for attack and elimination.

Students of history especially those interested in the history of assassinations may know that not all assassination receive the same response from the general public. Some are welcome, others are not. Reactions also differ. One of the immediate causes of the First World war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungry in June 1914 by the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist terrorist group. This shows how explosive an assassination can be.  Yet we know when Murtala Mohammed was assassinated and many others in our country, we carried on. Many think if the attempt on Ortom’s life were successful, there would have been trouble in the land. Ortom is a sitting Governor that has been enmeshed in high level controversy with the Fulani of the whole world. Following incessant attacks on Benue communities by the Fulani which resulted in thousands of deaths, injuries and displacement of people and destruction of farms and whole villages, Governor Ortom consulted widely and signed an anti open grazing law which went into effect in 2017. All leading umbrella Fulani bodies active in the bush warned that more blood would flow in Benue unless the anti open grazing law was rescinded. Governor Ortom has vowed not to rescind the law arguing that nomadic pastoralism is obsolete and that ranching must take the place of indiscriminate grazing as is the practice in other parts of the world. This stand has irked the Fulani to the extent that they see Governor Ortom as a dominant headache in the country. They have vowed severally to invite the Fulani of the whole world into Benue to spill blood and indiscriminately graze by the point of the sword.

Much to the annoyance of his cynics, the general public has expressed horror at the assassination attempt. Governor Ortom’s party the PDP has condemned the attempt and warned of dire consequences if Ortom is cut down. His colleagues in the Governors’ Forum have also expressed shock and anger on incessant physical attacks against sitting Governors across the country. Governor Wike of Rivers State has warned of dire consequences if anything had happened to Governor Ortom. He was emphatic that if Ortom had been assassinated, Nigeria would have been buried with him. In Benue State, group after group while commiserating with the Governor had said the state and Nigeria would have known no rest if anything had happened to their Governor.

Whatever anyone may say about Ortom, one cannot deny the fact that his courage has stopped the Fulani of the whole world in their tracks as far as their plans to choke parts of the country and claim everywhere as grazing reserves for herdsmen. Governor Ortom by his courage and clarity represents a principle, which we must all latch on. Nigeria is a modern state where the core values of personal property, geographical boundaries and territorial laws must matter. We must not allow anyone citizen to claim right of way wherever they may find themselves and their animals at the expense of other citizens. Fulani herdsmen have never sat down to reflect on the state of the country if everyone were to start making similar claims on the country and moving about with livestock. Ortom’s stand also underscores the principle that in the modern state, citizens who allow others to dictate the terms of coexistence using the point of the sword are doomed as slaves in the polity.

The Fulani push for grazing reserves when our population and arable land mass are constraints, when environmental stress is a dire challenge and when nomadic pastoralism is obsolete is a push towards anarchy. From grazing reserves, they moved to cattle colonies and from cattle colonies they moved to Ruga and from Ruga, they have moved to National Livestock Transformation Plan. Today, the Fulani are playing bandits, insurgents and kidnappers as points of pressure to negotiate access to lands across the country where they can stand and stake further claims on the polity.

Ortom reminds us of the principle of true federalism in the country. While acknowledging the right of all citizens to legitimate livelihood in any part of the country, his argument is that livelihoods based on livestock production must be regulated within the borders of his state. Nomadic pastoralism has implicated too much of national security, public health, food security, public order , environmental stress and livelihoods to be left unregulated.

In Benue State alone, between 2009 and 2019, the Fulani had attacked the state for about 133 times leading to over 3,050 deaths. Worst hit are Agatu, Guma, Gwer West and Logo. Benue has over 100,000 Internally Displaced People in camps with little or no support from the Federal Government. An attempt to draw attention to the plight of these IDPs recently by the Mutual Union of the Tiv in America (MUTA) was shot down by Rt. Honourable Ahmed Idris Wase on the floor of the House of Representatives. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila has since stepped in to save the day on the matter but it is yet to be seen how the Federal Government will treat this national shame.

While Ortom tries to fight back and defend the ancestral lands of his people, those committed to forcefully taking over these lands see him as a threat and an obstacle that must be eliminated. There have been reports of the presence of herdsmen in the vicinity of the farm on which he was attacked. People mining sand by the river adjoining the farm have reported the presence of large herds of cattle and armed shepherds. Those who know these facts cannot deny the complicity of herdsmen in this assassination attempt.

We must all welcome the promise of the House of Representatives to inquire into the assassination attempt. We also welcome the promise of the Nigeria Police to investigate this incident and get to the heart of the matter. When a sitting Governor cannot go to his farm because of bandits, it means the ordinary person has less chance of attending to his farm safely.

Cynics must learn to draw a line beyond which they cannot go, no matter how much they may hate Governor Ortom. We can only thank God for keeping him safe but the attempt on his life shows how dangerous it is to speak out and up in Nigeria today. Yet we cannot allow others to dictate the conditions under which we shall coexist with the point of the sword. That will be slavery and it is incumbent that we do not live as slaves in our country. So help us God.

 

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