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Simon Imobo-Tswam: Ortom, open grazing prohibition law and Benue 2023

With 2023 silhouetted against the political horizon, and with political discussions in the Benue market square getting louder, it is needful for one more interested observer to join the conversation. The aim is to enliven the conversation by enriching it with fresh perspectives, putting disparate issues in context, placing others in sharp relief as well as expanding the conversational space and provoking critical input. This is one classic case of the more, the merrier.

The foregoing is not just to appear busy – it is rather to stress the importance of the discussion to the discerning. Where else, 2023 may be just another election year or another chance at power-grab, but for Benue state, 2023 will be a revalidation of our right to life, our right to live on our ancestral land and our right to human dignity. Of course, it is understood by any perceptive mind that the first validation was in 2020.

In other words, Benue 2023 will be squarely and categorically about checking the hydra-headed menace of herdsmen, and the regime of insecurity it has spawned by way of murderous bandits and criminal gangs across the state. And the principal instrument of achieving this would be the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law.

Aspirants/candidates with grammatical sophistications, eminent preparations, vaunting ambitions, academic pedigrees, cognate experiences, stakeholder endorsements, godfather anointings and zonal arithmetic – whether individually or collectively – will be mere jokers if they detach themselves from this all-important law. Let the truth be told, and it is hereby told, the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law is not merely about agriculture or its value-chain economics – the law is further about the identity, the dignity and the survival of the Benue man beyond the decade.

So, let no one make any mistake about this. In previous election cycles, the electioneering issues centred around the provision of infrastructure – be it physical or intestinal. In 2023, however, one critical issue will dominate the campaigns and the votes-quest: the strategic, herdsmen-powered insecurity. This is because without removing the bloody, killer-herdsmen signature on the Benue landscape, it would be impossible to eliminate the local, misguided hoodlums who have turned the Sankera axis of the state into a virtual gangland. And we know that without peace, no meaningful development can take place.

As a matter of fact, because of this historic and existentialist significance of 2023, every sane Benue person is advised to begin making an open demand of every guber-aspirant to voice his/her position on the Open Grazing Prohibition Law publicly, loudly, consistently and unambiguously – be it at rallies, church functions, marriage ceremonies or any social engagements. No stammering should be accepted, and this is not a task to be delegated to PAs or campaign spokesmen! When a candidate says he would review the law, let it be clear that he is on a special assignment!

Perfunctory mentions of the law – whether casual or impassioned – in the manifestoes/blueprints should not do. Everyone knows the witchcraft of the political elite, especially the demagogic kind: candidates have little to do with their blueprints, preferring to outsource same, wholesale, to consultants and content developers. This explains why candidates rarely bother about their blueprints, once they access power. Benue should remain alert so as not to fall prey to this political/professional witchcraft – not after the wounds, the burials and the lingering traumas.

The existential threat of the herdsmen and blood-thirsty bandits is real to every Benue person. And this is true – be he Etulo, Idoma, Igede, Igbo or Tiv; and be he an APC faithful, PDP member or altogether non-partisan.

The grim truth is that when the terrorist hordes invade the ancestral homestead from Niger, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Libya or even Iraq, they do not ask for evidence of political affiliations like PDP or APC membership cards – they simply sneak into homes, in the dead of the night: murdering, maiming, burning, looting and dispossessing. This is why in the several and ever-expanding IDPs in the state, one will find haggard and melancholic APC, PDP, APGA members, all united by pain, and collectively painting living portraits of abandonment, shame, misery, trauma, hopelessness and depression.

It would, therefore, be thoughtless, idiotic and imbecilic for any sane Benue person to hide under the leaking canopies of political partisanship and start justifying gruesome herdsmen massacres and/or feign disinterest in who succeeds Ortom as if it doesn’t matter.

It is not a political party thing. It is not a question of labels. And talking of labels, labels, on their own, often mean nothing, especially in our system where political parties have no ideological differences but are just platforms for accessing power. This being the case, labels should not excite consternation or inspire prejudice. Nonetheless, if a label divorces itself from its environment and continues to see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing; or if its prime marketers continue to live in self-denial, even appearing to mock victims for whatever season, such a label should trigger justified suspicion and invite close scrutiny, come 2023.

And yes: Benue 2023 will be a crowded affair, with even cripples and sponsored agents of native colonialism pretending to be saviours. And no critical mind should be shocked – for if foreign interests allegedly sponsored two candidates for the largely ceremonial Tor Tiv stool in the last selection exercise, they would really be dumb if they don’t flood the race with “credible candidates” who have the executive powers to repeal the offending law.

The other thing is that Gov. Ortom has played an admirable part in this ongoing well-oiled, well-calibrated and well-supervised saga of a grand takeover of Benue state. Despite the microphones of cheerleaders trying all too hard to muddle the message, the megaphones of Miyetti Allah, MACBAN and their belligerent ideologues have passed the message across, loudly and clearly.

For much of Ortom’s first term, I criticised him most ferociously; and this, on account of his initial inattentiveness to matters of infrastructure. However, I have since come to realise that leadership is not only about infrastructure; that leadership cannot have only one yardstick of evaluation; and that every environment or time asks a peculiar leadership question, and, consequently, calls for a peculiar leadership answer.

Against such a backdrop, Ortom has delivered and delivered well. Government is a continuum – not a bus-stop; and his successors will, thus, have all the time to major in infrastructure. The challenge of the moment is to live! But refreshingly enough, as happened in the home stretch of his first term, Ortom’s second term is witnessing a rash of infrastructural developments, showing that, even here, the man has found redemption and is ably redeeming himself.

This redemption can be seen in the stunning validation of his politics with a second term mandate in 2020 against all odds and despite all permutations in Abuja. In clear, analytical terms, it means Ortom has connected with the people to whom power belongs, particularly in his courageous rhetoric against the continuous and impunious brutalisation of his people. The people seemed to have spoken with their votes in 2020 that: “It is the living that receive salaries; it is the living that marry and it is those who are alive that admire skyscrapers!” Like Benjamin Disraeli, Ortom may say: “I must follow my people. Am I not their servant?”

And as Barr. Mike Utsaha, an APC ideologue and prince of the Nigerian Catholic Church, has ventured, Ortom may yet enter history with the glory of late Apollos Aper Aku, whose copious infrastructural achievements still dominate the Benue landscape.

But whether or not Ortom enters history as another Aper Aku or not is immaterial – after all, Aku entered history in his own right. And Ortom will enter history in his own right too. In fact, for just raising a voice against the land-grab agenda and calling for the proscription and prosecution of Miyetti Allah at a time when other victim-governors with equally victim-populations have elected to take the vows of silence, Ortom qualifies for a front-row seat in Nigeria’s hall of fame any time Nigeria erects that.

But beyond this, the man signed the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Bill of the Benue state house of assembly into law – against all intimidation, against all blackmail and against all threats to even his personal safety. Even when implementing the law went into the problematic, he remained undaunted.

For a long time, Nigeria thought the killings would remain a Benue thing, even calling it “communal crises,” and urging us to “live with our neighbours in peace!” When Ortom cried about massacres and mass graves, he was mostly ignored. But today, the big, Benue killing field, callously commonised as “that Agatu thing,” has become the unending, Nigerian nightmare!

And even here, Ortom has not ceased speaking despite real threats to his life, writing letters to the powers that be and calling out for comprehensive action against terror and terrorists. And what is more, whereas in the past he was pooh-poohed, today his Open Grazing Prohibition Law has become the swan-song of his governor-colleagues, north and south of Nigeria.

But beyond the present, beyond helping to halt the national drift and further charting a path to a stronger future, Ortom is walking the steps of the venerated J.S. Tarka and the revered Aper Aku in forging links with southern minorities in the south-south. In the 50s and 60s, Tarka built political linkages with the Joseph Wayases, the Egbert Udoma Udomas and the Harrold Jenewari Dappa-Biriyes. In the Second Republic, Aper Aku forged close links with the Clement Nyong Isongs, the Patrick Anis and the Melford Obiene Okilos under the auspices of the 4th Force. And Gov. Gabriel Suswam followed the beaten path by befriending the Emmanuel Gabriel Udoms and President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. Today, Gov. Ortom is servicing those historical relationships with his chummy relationship with the Rivers state counterpart, Chief Nyesom Ezenwo Wike.

With history being kind to the memories of both Tarka and Aku, Ortom has assured his place in history already. What remains is for him to finish strong on all counts.

However, where both Tarka and Aku rest in peace in the land of the silent, the Benue voters are still alive; and deserve to live in peace and in dignity, unperturbed by bullets, cudgels and daggers. And this re-emphasises the significance of 2023 to the Benue voter. If ever there was a need for the consolidation of a legacy and the closing of ranks, this it. And let the critical issue of Ortom’s successor engage the attention of every true Benue man.

Imobo-Tswam, a public space commentator, writes from Lokoja.

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