By Ismail Omipidan
Benue State is predominantly Christian. But there are Muslims who are natives among the Tiv, the largest dominant tribe, and the Idoma, who are the second largest tribe in the state. However, while there are councils in the Idoma area that are predominantly Muslims, no such thing exists in the Tiv area.
But like in most parts of the country, there are those referred to as settlers scattered around the state, most of whom are Muslims, and who are today claiming to be natives of the state; Makurdi, the state capital, which is part of the councils in the Tiv area, is a classical example here.
Governor Samuel Ortom is a Tiv man and a Christian. But, because of the ethno-political sentiments that characterised the 2015 general elections, Ortom, as the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate in 2015 benefitted from the same sentiments. This perhaps explains why at the beginning, following the invasion of Agatu communities, an Idoma speaking area by Fulani herdsmen, Ortom rather than gather political leaders in the area, most of whom are Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) members, turned the way of Nasarawa State, where another APC governor, Tanko Al-Makura calls the shot.
In February 2017 for instance, Ortom was accused of allegedly ceding an island in Idoma land, without the consent of the locals, to Fulani herdsmen, for grazing.
Coming exactly one year after many people were killed with hundreds of houses burnt and farmlands destroyed, following Fulani herdsmen’s invasion of Agatu communities, the locals are seeing the governor’s action as an affront on its people, and a grand design to “depopulate the area, ahead of the 2019 polls.”
After the 2015 herdsmen invasion, which left thousands of the locals stranded, and scattered across Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in the state, the invading Fulani herdsmen had after sacking the communities, occupied their homes, until the Agatu people managed to reclaim their lands.
Daily Sun’s investigations revealed that since the communities were liberated from the hands of the herdsmen, the Agatu people vowed never to allow the Fulani enter their land again.
Ironically, Ortom who had all along been opposed to the provision of grazing land for the herdsmen anywhere within the boundaries of the state, was being accused of singing a different tune now.
Ortom’s initial stance on grazing
In May 2016, Ortom reiterated his strong opposition to the idea of grazing, while reacting to a media report, credited to his Plateau State counterpart, Simon Lalong, to the effect, he (Ortom) had agreed to host grazing reserves in Benue State.
In a statement issued by his Special Adviser on Media and ICT, Tahav Agerzua, the governor had among other things said: “…just like I keep emphasizing, people who propose that we should do grazing areas and grazing routes, I tell them, yes, it can be done in other states, maybe. I don’t know, we are governors of various states, but in Benue there is no free land, or is there any land anywhere for grazing?
“The truth is that, in the 50’s when cattle routes were carved and areas designated for grazing reserves, the total population of Nigeria as at then was less than 40 million. By 2012 projection, Nigeria’s population was over 170 million and by this year, it may hit more than 200 million. And likewise Benue State, we were less than a million people in the fifties.
“Today, we are over six million and we have farms and so there is nowhere that you can go and identify 10 hectares of land that is empty that people can go in and graze. There is nowhere in this state. I’m a farmer, four years ago when I wanted to acquire 500 hectares of land in my own village; it’s one of the remotest in this state where we believe that there is land. I went there and I had to settle more than 100 people to acquire the 500 hectares. So that is the challenge, the land is no longer there, the land that used to be, in the fifties, 923,000 square kilometers is still the same land that we have and today in 2016 the land is even less but the population has grown.”
The U-turn, romance with Al-Makura
But by January 2017, the governor told the Agatu people to allow “the herdsmen come in to graze and live with you. They are your brothers. Let peace reign.”
While reiterating his stance on ranching as universal remedy to the crisis, Ortom urged Agatu people to “forgive and allow the indigenous Fulani return because vengeance belongs to God. If you remember, my kinsmen were similarly killed and property including my ancestral home destroyed by herdsmen but the people of Guma have since forgiven the attack and moved on.”
The governor, who had visited Agatu, alongside his counterpart from Nasarawa State, Tanko Al-Makura, tried without success to persuade the Agatu people into allowing the herdsmen to graze within their communities.
Although, at the meeting, the locals voiced out their opposition to the proposal, Ortom and Al-Makura went ahead to sign the purported agreement, ceding part of Agatu to the herdsmen for grazing.
In the communiqué after the meeting, made public on Thursday, January 19, 2017, and read by Ortom himself, the governors said both parties agreed to designate Oguto-Adanyi-Ogumagbo-Bagana: “The above privilege is only granted to indigenous Fulani herdsmen, who were known to the Agatu people before the crisis. This is to forestall the destruction of farms and exhaustion of available green pasture.”
Curiously, even though the purported peace and reconciliation meeting was held on a Wednesday, January 18, 2017, the purported communiqué, signed by the two governors, was dated Thursday, January 21, 2107. But the said date fell on a Saturday, thus, lending credence to the claim that the communiqué had been prepared, even before the said Agatu meeting.
Agatu people fault agreement
But just while the Fulani celebrated the feat, the Agatu people remained vehemently opposed to it. Their representative at the House of Representatives, Ochepo Entonu, submitted a petition, from 17 communities in Agatu, to the House, over the matter. And while laying the petition, signed by leaders of the 17 communities from Agatu, the lawmaker declared that his constituents have vowed to oppose the take-over of their ancestral land by the herdsmen, by force.
Warning of possible danger
Entonu, further said: “We have to alert the world early before we witness mayhem in Agatu land because Agatu Local Government caretaker Committee Chairman and some irrelevant self-acclaimed stakeholders in connivance with Benue State governor recently entered into a despicable transactions to cede our community to herdsmen for grazing purposes.
“This despicable act of ceding Agatu lands to Fulani herdsmen through the illegal agreement is a dangerous act capable of causing mayhem in the community.
“It is therefore imperative to state categorically that the entire people of Agatu and the 10 district heads are calling the attention of security agencies and the federal government to quickly intervene before this hideously contrived conspiracy to exterminate the people of Agatu becomes a reality. Let me also remind the House that our people are yet to recover from the last Fulani herdsmen attack in June last year (2016).”
He cautioned that the entire Agatu community was uptight and ready to protect its land and people.
State lawmaker defends Ortom
Speaking in the same vein, member representing Agatu state Constituency at the Benue State House of Assembly, Alhaji Sule Audu, insisted that no part of Agatu would be ceded to the Fulani.
Audu who posited that the Agatu people have not provided any land for grazing to Fulani cows on their land, noted that the peace pact that was signed clearly stipulated that Fulani are not to be seen in Agatu until after harvest at the end of February, stressing that the current occupation of Fulani in Adapati community of Agatu was completely illegal:
“It is only when Agatu people have completely ended their harvest at the end of February that Agatu people can now consider those Fulani who had lived in Agatu for many years and are known by the Agatu people to come back. The focus now is how to rebuild Agatu.
“We are completely against the ceding of any Agatu land for grazing and the route that was approved for Fulani for grazing did not include Adanyi and Ogumogbo. It was a mistake they appeared in the communique. Fulani should not attempt to enter any part of Agatu land for now.”
Fulani leader defends position
The national coordinator of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Garus Gololo, who was living in Benue State at the time said no Fulani has bought any part of Agatu land, adding that the two governors solicited for peace in the area following the worrisome reality of loss of lives on the side of the Fulani and Agatu people in the last five years.
He maintained that the peace pact became necessary due to the ongoing construction of the Loko-Oweto Bridge, which passes from Agatu through Nasarawa to Abuja.
“The Loko-Oweto Bridge has been awarded and the work can be hampered if there is no peace in Agatu since the bridge is passing through Agatu.”
Asked why his people are currently occupying Adapati Island in Agatu despite signing agreement that they would not come into the place until the end of February, Gololo said his people had not breached the agreement: “Adapati is not on Agatu land but on Nasarawa land.”
While noting that the Fulani have taken the agreement very seriously, the MACBAN official however insisted that there are people working against the peace pact between the Fulani and Agatu people to score cheap political points.
He particularly accused the PDP of fanning the embers of discord in the area to continually pitch the Fulani against the Agatu people as a way of portraying the ruling APC in a bad light ahead of the 2019 general election.
Benue govt reacts
Reacting to the development, the Benue State Government dispelled claims that a part of Agatu had been sold out to the Fulani herdsmen through the peace agreement that was signed.
The governor through his Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase, stated that such allegations are far from the truth as government has neither ceded land to herdsmen nor conferred indegenship on any individual or group of persons, as the reports have claimed.
Ortom explained that the decision to allow herdsmen to graze cattle in designated areas in Agatu was jointly made by stakeholders on both Agatu and Fulani sides who have lived together for many decades, both within Benue and Nasarawa communities, stressing that the decision was not imposed on the people by the government.
His deputy, Abounu reacted: “We have investigated that allegation and found it to be completely false. Mike Inalegwu never sold any island to anyone. The place in question is in the middle of River Benue and during the rainy season is always covered with water. It cannot therefore become a permanent place of abode for anyone.”
He explained that the agreement to allow cattle of the Fulani people who are known to the Agatu to graze on that piece of land was a temporary arrangement to stop the Fulani men on the Nasarawa bank of the River Benue from crossing over to Agatu settlement area and does not in any way transfer ownership of the island to the Fulani.
He revealed that arrangement had been made with the Nigerian Army to provide armed soldiers to watch the cows while grazing, in order to prevent further movement from the island, just as he urged the Benue people to have confidence in the government.
“As long as Governor Samuel Ortom and I are at the helm of affairs of this state, not one inch of Benue land will be ceded to anybody. The position of government on the issue of grazing has not changed. Ortom has repeatedly stated that Benue land is for farming and not for uncontrolled grazing and that ranching remains the best solution to the farmers/herdsmen crisis.”
The anti-grazing law
After the initial reluctance, Ortom finally extricated himself from the company of the Nasarawa State governor, Al-Makura. But it did not come easy. It took attacks on Tivs communities by Fulani herdsmen; to make Ortom changed his mind.
In fact, he was so angry that in March last year, he gave herdsmen a two-day ultimatum to leave Tombo-Mbalagh in Buruku. Talking tough, Ortom said “My job as the governor is to provide security for lives and property. I cannot watch seeing people being killed unprovoked. It is not right.”
Before then, precisely in March 2016, a pressure group, known as Movement Against Fulani Occupation (MAFO), led by Rev. Fr. Solomon Mfa, presented an anti-grazing bill to the state House of the Assembly. Three months later, Ortom was forced to send an executive bill to the House too. But his was called “Open-Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Bill. “
Ortom’s Bill was aimed at outlawing the invasion of cattle across people’s farms, and to establish a Livestock Special Marshals Corps, whose role would be to identify, apprehend, and charge to court erring herdsmen.
But after scaling the first and second reading stages in the House, the bill was replaced in October with a Livestock Protection Bill, which simply seeks to provide protection for cattle and promote cattle ranching by Fulani herdsmen in Benue State.
Dissatisfied with the turn of event, MAFO led protests against the new bill. The group occupied the state’s House of Assembly premises and insisted on the enactment of the bill the group had proposed. But Deputy Speaker of the House, James Okefe, went on radio to say there was no such bill, as claimed by MAFO in the House.
The group again resubmitted the bill to the leadership of the House of Assembly. And during one of follow up protests, Speaker of the House of Assembly, Terkimbi Ikyange, addressed the group and promised that an open-grazing prohibition bill would be passed by end of March 2017. And in May last year, the bill was finally passed and assented to by the governor.
But the governor gave a grace of six months before enforcing the law, setting November 1, last year as effective date. With the law coming into full force, he went ahead to inaugurate the state’s Livestock Guards and the Vigilante group who were also provided with working tools, vehicles and motorbikes to ensure effective enforcement of the law.
Speaking at the inauguration, Ortom maintained that the anti-grazing law was intended to ensure the safety and protection of farmers and livestock breeders alike.
“I have always maintained that the grazing law is not intended to chase herdsmen out of Benue but enacted to ensure that herdsmen carried out their activities without fear of molestation or intimidation.
“Aside providing for the ranching of cattle and all livestock in the state, the law is out to check cases of cattle and livestock rustling because it adequately provides stringent punishments for anyone caught in the illicit act.
“Besides, government has also made provision to avail herdsmen and livestock farmers land to enable them set up their private ranches as practiced globally without hindrances because the available land in Benue can no longer support wild grazing”, the governor said.
Leader of MACBAN reacts
Speaking on the law on the eve of his members exit from Benue State, Gololo, said that contrary to the claim of the state government, there was no land anywhere for grazing.
“Where is the land? I’m the coordinator of the Fulani association in the state and I am not aware of such arrangement. That has been the story of the state government, yet nothing like that. It is not true. Through which agency are they leasing the lands? All these things are propaganda by some of the state officials who do not want to see Fulani herdsmen again in the state. When will they make the facilities available? The law took effect on November 1. They are not ready to give out land to any Fulani man. They are not ready to do anything that would make the Fulani stay back in Benue,” he said.
Asked where his members were relocating to, Gololo further said “they can relocate to any peaceful state in Nigeria. The decision to relocate is an individual thing; it is not a collective agreement of the herdsmen. Even I, their leader, I don’t know where they are going since their cows are no longer safe in Benue.
“It is a fact that we were not carried along. They didn’t call anyone for public hearing. I am in the state and l didn’t go anywhere. If you go for public hearing, names would be written and pictures would be taken. Let them bring the attendance list as evidence to show or prove that there was any public hearing. No one attended any public hearing; that is why we are emphasizing that we should be given time before implementation.
“Constitutionally, if they are doing anything pertaining to our group, we must be there to represent our interest and speak for our people. But in this case, none of us was carried along. We are Nigerians and we have voter cards. They were supposed to have done it in a way that it would not be a burden to any group.
“Nobody is opposing the directive. The point is that, where will the Fulani build the ranches? The government has not shown us anywhere; no land has been shown to us. Since there is no land, there is no way we are going to keep our cattle in ranches.
“The state government has not made any move to engage us in a dialogue apart from the last meeting it held with the national leadership of MACBAN at the Government House in Makurdi. At the meeting, the President of our group urged the governor to extend the date for the implementation of the law because that was the first time they were hearing about the law. But the chairman of the Tiv association, who spoke for the other groups, like Idoma and Igede, said that if the government failed to take action or implement the law, they would take action against the Fulani. The man was not cautioned by the governor. It is very bad.”
Daily Sun gathered that most of the herdsmen relocated to Nasarawa State. The state shares border with Benue State. This perhaps may explain why Ortom is pointing fingers at his Nasarawa counterpart over the recent attacks.
For now, Ortom seems determined to enforce the law. As a matter of fact, he has told stakeholders, including political leaders in the state in the wake of the attacks that he was ready to sacrifice his second term ambition over the issue.
He reiterated same in an interview with Daily Sun recently when he said “Well, during a stakeholders meeting, I said I have withdrawn from all political activities and I don’t want to talk about anything party, voting. I can’t talk about voting in 2019 when my people are dying, whether at the federal level, or at the state level, or even my own election. I am not prepared to talk about it.
“Let me tell you, I am not talking about politics now. Whether presidency or no presidency, governor or no governor; whether I am re-elected or not, that is not my concern. My concern now is how I will stop the killings that are going on because I cannot be politicking with dead people; I am not a dead man.”