Ortom: Courage in leadership at 59, By Nathaniel Ikyur

There’s something about his persona that has defined his life and character. He’s being a fighter from birth. He’s refused to be drowned by circumstances or challenges. He has continued to make his way through odds to stay afloat. His name is Samuel Iorarernyi Ortom, the fifth democratically elected governor of Benue State. He’s clocked 59 years today, April 23, 2020. He was born on April, 23rd, 1961, and hails from Guma local government area of Benue. He understands and takes charge of his environment at all times.

Governor Ortom was not born with a silver spoon, neither was there anyone in his lineage that could command any significant influence anywhere in the political or business sectors. In inspite of this, he leaned on God who has helped him to conquer where the fainthearted would freeze.

His incredible life story is what many would shy away to tell. He did before the Nigerian Senate on Wednesday, 6th July, 2011 when he was screened to be appointed cabinet Minister. It was so moving that he was only asked to take a bow and go on account of his sincerity as a school dropout, a motor park tout and one who struggled to attain education through very difficult means.

As one of his publicists in the 2015 governorship campaigns, I saw Ortom exhibit an uncommon faith. Here was a man who lost in the PDP governorship primaries. Yet, he remained undaunted. He invited everyone to his swearing in on May 29, 2015. It was strange. A few days after, he emerged a candidate of the APC and won the general elections. His electoral victory in 2015 could best be described as God’s handiwork. Nothing more. The aftermath was difficult, but he sailed through the pile of litigations. As if that wasn’t enough, his re-election in 2019 was laced with landmines that an ordinary politician would have caved in. Again he emerged victorious. On both occassions, Ortom proved that his political sagacity was a key attribute to his succes.

Interestingly, the governor has had a swinging wave of political movements. In 2015, he defected from the PDP after losing at the primaries to the APC and won. In 2018, he also defected back the PDP under very difficult circumstances. He still clinched the party ticket. He was able to mobilise the PDP leadership, both at the national and state levels to queue behind him. He won the party primaries and the main elections.

Then the plot to stop his second term bid thickened. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, Department of State Services, DSS and the Nigeria Police became tools in the hands of the federal authorities to stop him. On one hand, some members of the 8th Benue state House of Assembly, led by erstwhile Speaker Terkimbi Ikyange conspired with their collaborators to impeach Ortom. They failed. 

Ortom is a courageous leader who has never allowed himself to be weighed down by challenges. At the height of the resistance to the enactment of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law 2017, no one could speak up for him. His colleague governors refused to be drawn into ‘his war’ to save themselves for a re-elections. He was unruffled. But many whispered to him privately, supporting his position on ranching, not just for Benue but for Nigeria as a whole. None  volunteered to speak publicly to support him.

It was curious how in early 2018, the Police High Command transferred all of the governor’s personal police aides to other states. Though the order was later rescinded, it was part of the plot to weaken him and oust him from office.

Some wondered why Ortom won in 2019. It was simple. He defended the Benue ancestral land with all sincerity. He also campaigned like an opposition candidate. The APC on the other hand campaigned as if they were the party in power. Ortom literally begged the electorates. He was everywhere, leading the campaign at the front and not leaving anything to chance. He spoke to everyone. He communicated in the language the people wanted to hear. The APC relied on a mythical ‘federal might.’ It never came. Before they knew it, the curtain was drawn. They lost. Ortom of the PDP won.

In the last five years as governor, Ortom has made impact in road construction, health care development etc. For instance, from 2015 till date, Benue State University has graduated 272 medical doctors. Over 42 primary healthcare centres have been built.  Many more are under way. Security, agriculture, education, rural development, works and transport have also had their share. More than 34 ongoing rural roads are under construction. Some are completed while others are at vaious stages of completion. Rural electrification projects are also ongoing by the ministry of Rural Development and Cooperatives. Primary schools reconstruction and rehabilitation has received tremendous attention bringing hope to that sector hitherto neglected.

The governor is angry that Benue has been turned into killing fields and a theatre of war, with an increasing number of deaths, destruction of farmlands and properties. Sometimes an entire village is razed down in attacks. Ortom as a governor has not rested in confronting Abuja on this. He says this is a dangerous threat to food security.

On May 7th, 2019, the governor spoke on ‘The Challenge of Mitigating Herdsmen Attacks on People of Nigeria: Lessons From Benue State’, at the Professor Miriam Ikejiani-Clark lecture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). Ortom lamented how the Federal Government deployed all its might in an attempt to strangulate him simply because he spoke truth to power. He had warned that: “those who think that the problem of herdsmen is only that of Benue valley and Middle Belt states should watch out. It is spreading and soon it will become an obvious national social and economic problem too difficult to contain.” And it came to pass.

He has never hidden his anger how Benue have suffered unprovoked attacks and killings which  appear more like a pogrom or genocide masked in terrorism. As he puts it, “it’s not because they do not know their attackers. Benue people know those who are visiting them with unprovoked violence and killing their kith and kin,” but says the concern of Benue people is not just with the herdsmen militia. It is “with those who hire the killers as mercenaries; those who bring them and show them our ancestral lands for them to turn into killing fields.” 

Ortom suspects the role of the government at the centre in the implementation of the anti open grazing law. Their disposition on the activities of the herdsmen have exposed the intentions of those behind the killings. He feels they are doing everything possible to truncate the law and ensure the continued destruction of farmlands, occupation and killings of Benue people by armed herdsmen. This is what he wants to end.

As Ortom celebrates 59 years of God’s faithfulness, we’re sure Benue will reap more dividends of democracy from a man of uncommon courage, who’s always winning against all odds.

Ikyur is the Principal Special Assistant on Media to Benue State Governor