Benue State prides itself as the food basket of the nation. With abundant farm produce in every nook and cranny, its claim is barely in doubt. But, no thanks to the bloody attacks of cattle herders, many indigenes of the state are discouraged, these days, from going to the farm. In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO at the Benue State capital, Governor Samuel Ortom calls on the cattle herders to abide by the new state law on ranching as a way of providing lasting peace in the agrarian state or risk jail. Besides, against the backdrop of mounting responsibilities for state governments in the federation, the governor reiterated that more allocations should be channeled to the states than the Federal Government receives at the moment.
Some state governors are calling for greater allocations from the Federal Government as against what they get at the moment, in fact, to get more than what the centre is getting. How would a state like Benue react to this?
You see, the Federal Government, apart from Abuja that it manages, every other thing in the thirty-six states is managed by the states and, in fact, most times, Federal Government projects are duplication of what the states are doing, especially these constituency projects that you have all over from the National Assembly. You go to a community, and you have three clinics; what are they doing there? It doesn’t make sense. But we [governors] are in touch with the grassroots, with the people; we are here with them. They see us; we interact with them; and we have feedback from them on what they need. But we do not have that money to execute projects that will have direct impact on the people. And sometimes, for the projects sited by the Federal Government, no thorough work is done, no feasibility studies are done, and, especially, when there is no synergy with the state government, it becomes a big problem. So, you see that the burden of governance is more on the states than Federal Government. We will prefer a situation where the Federal Government is deeply involved in coordinating policies and coordinating uniformity and creating the enabling environment with the states so that we can function. When it comes to funding, the states need more than what the Federal Government needs.
You have just called on Nigerian writers to partner with you on advocacy for ranches for cattle herders, how far do you want this to go?
I want it to go to all the nooks and crannies of this country because the menace of herdsmen attack is not just on Benue people but it is on other Nigerians as well. We decided to champion the cause of restoring peace, orderliness and security for our own state, and I appreciate the fact that other states are already keying into this programme. That is a global best practice for cattle farming or livestock farming and by the way livestock or cattle farming is a business. You do it to get income to sustain yourself just like we here are farmers and we farm to sustain ourselves, so it should not be done at the detriment of other people. While we are living, we should also respect the rights of other people to live. It should not be at the expense of others, and so I would want this thing to go beyond Benue State, because when it happens to another state, I won’t be a happy man. I know what we suffered between 2012 and 2016. We have estimated that we lost more than N95 billion worth of goods and property, excluding human beings that died. N95 billion! If you go to the rural areas, you see schools, churches, hospitals, houses, farmlands, all that destroyed. In 2013, I lost my rice farm and farm implements. My ancestral home was razed; my entire village was razed; more than 50 people were killed in one day. So, this is a very big challenge.
For us to have arrived at sending an executive bill to the House of Assembly, we fasted and prayed, and God gave us that wisdom to have a permanent solution to this problem. Go to America; go to Europe; go to Asia; and even here in African, Kenya and Tanzania are doing it: ranching. I was in Swaziland, a small country, four years ago, and the country’s major earning is beef, but they ranch. So, why can’t we ranch in Nigeria? Where is the land with the upsurge of population? In the 1950s, when people argue that they had cattle routes and grazing areas, the question is: “What was the total population of Nigeria? [It was] less than 40 million people. Today, in 2017, I can approximate it to be over 200 million, because the projection in 2012 was 170 million. So, by today, we should be over 200 million. But what is the land mass now? What was it in 1950? It’s still 923, 000 square kilometres, even less with the ceding of Bakassi to the Cameroon. So, we have a lesser land mass than what used to obtain when we were less in population than now. So, it’s unfortunate that we have kept sealed lips and, honestly, I feel so sad; but I will continue to do what is right, as far as I know, as a person. Even if I die today, I know I have done the right thing. I am championing the cause of ensuring that we have ranching, which is the global best practice, and is the only solution. I have challenged herdsmen; I have challenged any one, including Miyetti Allah, that I am calling for the arrest of the leadership of Miyetti Allah, Kautal Hore, who took us to court for a law that we legitimately passed, and is threatening to invade our state. A law that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria permits us to put in place! A law that seeks to protect lives and property! A law that seeks to bring peace to our people! Then, you take us to court.
I have said that the security agencies should arrest them for threatening me and my state that they would make the law not to function. I am waiting to see who will trespass. I am waiting to see who will not respect that law in Benue State. I have said it, I am not forcing anyone to live in Benue State. If you want to do open grazing, you can go to any other state that land is available. For me, here we are farmers and we cannot pay salaries as at when due today, so we want to have food on the table for everyone, and we have massively encouraged our people to go into agriculture, and they have done that. There is no single hectare of land available for grazing in Benue State. If you want to stay in Benue State, we are not sending you away –you can stay, but if you have cattle, you must ranch them. If you don’t ranch, the law will catch up with you, and you will be sent to jail. There is no two ways about it. And we are not just talking about cattle –we are talking about livestock –so pigs, goats and all of them are all involved. So, I want as many Nigerians that can support us in advocacy and let people understand, because the misconception is that the law is targeting individuals or Fulani men or certain ethnic groups and so on; it’s not right. The law seeks to ensure peace for every one living in Benue State, including Fulani herdsmen and any other person whatsoever. We want peace. And so, if the herdsmen ranch, the law will protect them from cattle rustlers. There are stiff penalties waiting for cattle rustlers. So, we would appreciate this, whatever you can do within your powers, to reach out to many as are ready to listen to us –please, do –and I believe that God will bless you, because we have suffered enough, and we think that this law is the solution, and I have challenged anyone out there who think that there is a better option of ensuring peace and security for Benue State to bring it on the table. We are ready to call Benue stakeholders to review the whole thing again. But outside that, if they cannot challenge us with a superior policy that will restore peace, they should keep quiet and respect our views.
Why is it inevitable to hand over private schools to the owners as you have proposed?
We have to make adjustments to meet with the economic realities in which we have found ourselves today as a government. It’s no longer news that we cannot pay salaries as at when due, and we are trying to shelve responsibilities that are making it impossible for us to pay salaries as at when due. If you go out there, private schools and mission schools are doing better than what government is doing, so why should we continue to sponsor them? That is the point. We have discussed with owners of schools, and that was our agreement with them. We feel that we are better off so that government can concentrate more on its schools instead of having half-baked graduates from these schools. We should concentrate on our schools and lay a sound foundation for our children. We want to go back to those days that government schools were respected –that is what motivated us and we are going to do it.
Can you achieve it within the time frame you set between now and January 2019?
It’s a process that we have to start. Others did not do it, but we want to do it. I think it’s the way out. Government schools will still continue, but if you want to go to a private school, you go there. Even as it is now, people are going to private schools so it doesn’t stop anything. We will continue.
How are you able to provide dividends of democracy against the backdrop of economic recession experienced in the country for quite some time?
We are prudent, and it has helped us. Here in Benue State, we are very prudent with the little resource we have. One, as a government that has the fear of God, we promised the people even before we came in that we would ensure truthfulness, equity, fairness, justice, transparency, accountability and selflessness. We are not looking at what we can get, but what we can impact on the people. And so that has guided us. Despite the challenges we have, the little that comes in –initially, things were not as bad as they are today, and we were able to channel to those projects. That is why we have impacted today on several communities. When it comes to education, today Benue State University has been paid up to date. When we came, they were on strike for months. We negotiated with them, and because of the attachment we have in promoting education and developing education, we have paid them up to date. At the primary school, we were able to secure N3.8 billion loan to match with UBEC and, today, we have N7.6 billion to promote primary education. Construction of new classroom blocks, provision of instructional materials, provision of desks and all that is going on all over the 276 council wards in Benue State. Some are completed; some are ongoing; some will soon be completed. We are renovating our secondary schools to bring them to a standard that our children will be proud.
In the health sector, we have been able to record milestones. The School of Nursing that was shut for five years have been resuscitated, regained accreditation just the same with College of Health Technology, Agasha, and for students of the College of Health Sciences at the Benue State University who were stagnated, medical students that were stagnated for 12 years, a course that could have been completed in six years, for 12 years they were there. It was this administration that came with the determination that ‘look we must put this behind us’. We went further and secured all that was needed to get the accreditation. We got it, and, as I talk to you, within two years, we have been able to graduate four sets of medical students who are now medical doctors –152 medical doctors from the Benue State University. On infrastructure, we have constructed several roads linking up communities in the state. We took over from the past administration many uncompleted road projects; we have been able to do some of them with the little resources we have. I can go on and on in empowerment and all that. In all sectors, we have tried. In electricity provision, we have done a lot, they are on record and I hope that the Media Adviser will give you a brochure that we published recently. So far, prudence has guided us and for us we are selfless, it’s not what we get, but it’s what we can do to impact on the people.
What is Benue doing to improve on rice production, given that it is a rice producing state, and there is a redirection at the federal level for us to be self-sustaining in rice production?
We have done so much since we came in two years ago. In fact, we were almost losing our honour as the food basket of the nation. When we came in we put agriculture top on our priority list and today we have gone back. We have been able to partner with the International Fund for Agriculture Development, IFAD, we paid all the counterpart funding that was needed and massively the impact of IFAD on Benue State agriculture is noticed in almost all the three senatorial districts. We have been able to provide fertilizer on time. We have been able to encourage the people to go back to agriculture, because that is one area that we have comparative advantage and, in the face of difficulties in funding, we feel that food should be on our table and, so, massively, we have encouraged our people. In rice production, we have done so well and we are willing to close the gaps. If you go out to various communities in Benue State, you will see massive rice cultivation and we are looking forward to a bountiful harvest this year. In soya beans production, we are doing very excellent at it. It is just the market that we are looking for. Maize, sesame seed, yam, and cassava are there.
In fact, Benue State is blessed. The land is arable, more than 98 percent of it, and with the River Benue and Katsina Ala passing through Benue, we are also taking advantage and encouraging our people that, now, that we have a law guiding that, the Fulani herdsmen will no longer be a threat to agriculture they should go back to the farm and not just restrict themselves to rainy season farming they should go into dry season farming taking advantage of the rivers we have in Benue State and the canals and the streams and, of course, some few dams and so, that is what we are doing. And that is why we have to thank God that we have a law in place now. We will no longer be molested when we go to farm. And I want to appreciate the real Miyetti Allah whom I invited and after explaining to them our predicament that look the land is no longer there, and I had offered to provide security and provide the mobility to take them round Benue State to see things for themselves, to see any area where there is one hectare of land for open grazing. And they appreciated it and embrace this law and advised their members accordingly that, truly, what the governor is saying is true, and it’s a reflection of what the people want. And so, we are very much appreciative to the Almighty God for giving us Benue State, for giving us, this land, and we are ready to not just feeding Nigeria; we are ready to feed Africa.