Benue State hosted this year’s Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) International Convention where Governor Samuel Ortom was interviewed by Arts Editors. The governor used the occasion to call on all well-meaning Nigerians to help spread the advocacy on the law mandating the ranching of all livestock to forestall frequent clashes between farmers and herdsmen that had left in its wake deaths and destruction of property in the state. WESTERN POST’s ADEOLA OGUNRINDE was at the convention and interview session. She presents the interview here…
In this year’s Association of Nigerian Authors convention, ANA, you called on writers to partner with you on advocacy for ranches, 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 and all that destroyed. For me in 2013 I lost my rice farm and farm implements. My ancestral home was razed down. My entire village was razed down. 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 on African soil Kenya, Tanzania are doing it, ranching. Small countries like Swaziland, I was there four years ago and their 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 fifties when people argue that they had cattle routes and grazing areas I ask them what was the total population of Nigeria? 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? What was it in 1950, 923, 000 square kilometres. Today it is the same 923, 000 square kilometres but even less because of 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 that 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 first of November, I am waiting to see who will trespass. I am waiting to see who will not respect that law and is 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 as at 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. I 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 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 even the herdsmen when they 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 any one 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.
You decided to hand over private schools to the owners,why?
We needed 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 off 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? So 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 do 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.
Some state Governors calling for more funds from the Federal Government, more than what it gets, how would a state like Benue react to this?
You see, the Federal Government, apart from Abuja that they manage, 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 you have three clinics what are they doing there. It doesn’t make sense. But we are in touch with the grassroots, with the people, we are here with them. They see us, we interact with them and we have feed back 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 the Federal Government the projects they site, 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.
How are you able to provide dividends of democracy?
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 did promise the people even before we came in that we will ensure truthfulness, equity, fairness, justice, transparency, accountability and selflessness. We are not looking at what we can get but we are looking at 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 but whatever came in we were able to apply it on those projects and the funds that came in for specific projects were channelled to those projects and 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 class room blocks, provision of instructional materials, provision of desks and all that is going on all over the 276 councils 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 we be proud. In the health sector we have been able to record milestones. The School of Nursing that was shut for five years we resuscitated it, 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 that were stagnated, medical students that were stagnated for twelve years, a course that that could have been completed in six years, for twelve 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 the state. We took over from the past administration a lot of uncompleted roads, 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 sector 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 the production of rice?
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. 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. Soya beans we are doing very excellent at it. It is just the market that we are looking for. Maize, sesame seed, yam, and cassava is 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 raining 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, if they see one area where there is one hectar of land for open grazing. And they appreciated it and they 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.