Samuel Ortom has been the governor of Benue State in Nigeria’s Middle Belt since 2015. Before that, he served as Nigeria’s Minister of Industry, Trade, and Investment. Over the past five years, raids by Fulani militias on his state have killed hundreds and forced 1.5 million of its 6 million people to flee their homes. In recent years, Governor Ortom has become known for his spirited defence of the people of Benue State against these attacks, and his fiery criticism of President Muhammad Buhari’s handling of Nigeria’s security crisis. On October 13, Nigeria Report was privileged to be able to hold an interview with Governor Ortom by video call.
Nigeria Report/Christian Solidarity International: Governor Ortom, seven months ago you survived an assassination attempt. First of all, let me say how grateful we are that you are safe. How has this attempt on your life shaped your approach to the violence in your state?
The Honorable Samuel Ortom: I was attacked at my farm in March of this year because I have been branded as someone who is the enemy of the Fulani. But the attempt on my life strengthens my resolve to fight on behalf of my people. The Constitution of Nigeria clearly states that the responsibility of any government is to assure security for lives and property. Everyone in the country knows that the Fulani are after me, but I am protecting my own people, and even beyond them, I am standing up for the Christian community in the rest of Nigeria. I am not worried about all these threats against me, because I am a born-again Christian, I stand for the truth, and I believe that God will be able to help me. So, since March, my resolve has only increased to do my best to make sure that we expose this evil.
NR: It is often said in academic and policymaking circles in the West that the attacks in your state and elsewhere in the Middle Belt are the result of competition for scarce resources between farmers and herdsmen, which is exacerbated by climate change. How would you react to that?
SO: All this talk of farmer-herder crisis and climate change is meant to divert attention from what is really happening and to deceive the outside world. The real agenda of those terrorist militias that are killing, displacing, raping and enslaving the indigenous people of my state and the rest of the Middle Belt is to occupy the land and to guarantee that Nigeria cannot escape from being an Islamic Fulani country. That is the fight that we are undertaking in this country today. They want to take the whole country, from the North to the sea, to enslave us and Islamize us. The Fulani jihadists are not hiding their agenda. It is to drive away the people, kill them, destroy their property, and take over their land. After shooting and killing the people, the Fulani terrorists butcher them as if they are animals, just to create fear in the rest of the people, to tell them that if they do not subject themselves, this is what will happen to them. They target the Christian indigenous people of my state and the rest of the Middle Belt because we stand in the way of fulfilment of their agenda to Fulanize and Islamize the rest of the country.
This Fulani jihad is not new. It began over 200 years ago. Let me give you some background: In the year 1800, a Fulani jihadist named Usman Dan Fodio conquered the Islamic Hausa Kingdoms in northwestern Nigeria and established a caliphate centered in Sokoto. They incorporated the subjugated Hausa people into their political system and now speak of one “Hausa-Fulani” people. From Hausaland, the Fulani jihadists launched campaigns to conquer the rest of Nigeria. They enslaved many Nigerians. But when they came to the area that is now Benue State, the people from my ethnic group, the Tiv, were able to repel them. This is the background to what is happening today. It is simplistic and misleading to say this is just a conflict between herders and farmers over grazing land.
NR: What happened in between the Fulani jihad in the 1800s and today? When the British colonized Nigeria, they subdued the Fulani and instrumentalized them as part of their colonial rule, using them to rule over other Nigerians. To some extent, the Fulani continue to occupy this space in Nigerian politics, do they not?
SO: The jihad was cut short in 1804, especially in Benue State. Our forefathers stood up against the jihadists. But their ambition to establish a huge Fulani-dominated Muslim empire throughout the whole of Nigeria never died. The British conquered the Fulani Caliphate at the beginning of the 20th century. But the British kept the Fulani elite in place and governed through them and handed over power to them at the time of independence in 1960.
Today, the Fulanis have occupied key political offices and strategic offices that will help them implement their agenda. They have succeeded in ensuring that the entire security architecture of our country is run by Fulanis or their associates. They use Fulani organizations like the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, and the Fulani Nationality Movement to push their agenda. The FNM has just released a press statement, saying that the Fulani jihad was only suspended in 1804, and that now people from their nation have taken over key positions in Nigeria, and they are ready to overrun the whole country. They have mobilized and armed the Fulani herdsmen as their foot soldiers, promising them the conquered land of the indigenous farmers. They have even encouraged Fulani nomads from other parts of Africa like Niger, Mali, Gambia, Chad, Senegal, and so on.
The Fulani elite secured their position when Muhammadu Buhari became president in 2015. He is a retired military general, former military dictator, and a Fulani Muslim extremist. In former times he used to openly call for the imposition of Shariah on the whole of Nigeria. So, now the Fulani foot soldiers commit their atrocities while receiving the protection of the security organs of the federal government. Moreover, the government tries to play down the real political character of what they are doing. I have said all this directly to President Buhari.
Meanwhile the government is quick to crack down on the separatist opposition in the south, banning their organizations and branding them as terrorists. The Fulani have killed a hundred times more people than the separatists in the southeast and southwest, but the government is not prepared to say anything against the Fulani militias, or to call them terrorists.
In 2018 in my state, Fulani militias carried out a massacre of more than 100 people in cold blood. I reported this to the president, to the vice president, and to the Nigerian security council. But to this day, no action has been taken against these people. They are under the protection of the federal government. Their terrorists travel around in convoys protected by federal security men.
The Fulani elites are in place, and the Fulani terror groups are in place. They are working in collaboration to fulfill the goal of a Fulanized Islamic Nigeria. Like two centuries ago, the Middle Belt is again their main battlefield.
NR: How does this terrorism impact your state?
SO: The attacks of the Fulani terrorists have brought devastation to Benue State. They come, kill, and take over the land. More than 1.5 million people in our state are displaced, out of 6-7 million total. This devastation is not unlike what you find in the northeast in places affected by the terrorism of Boko Haram, ISIS, and the Islamic State West Africa Province. But the federal government tries to conceal the suffering of my people in Benue State from the outside world. They even try to deny that there are 1.5 million IDPs. Some international aid groups are currently trying to verify the reality, and I hope that the truth will come out.
The UN agencies are present, but they are not adequate. They focus on the states of the northeast where Boko Haram and ISWAP are perpetrating violence. Those terrorist groups, unlike the Fulani terrorists, strike government targets as well as the civilian population.
When you talk about 1.5 million IDPs, that is a huge population. More than 50% are children. More than 30% are women. Some stay in schools or abandoned buildings, some stay in the open air, and some are staying with their extended families. You can imagine how hard it is, when someone has budgeted for a family of five, and suddenly must care for twelve. The attacks are creating miserable poverty for just about everyone in Benue. The reason why the federal government does not provide adequate humanitarian aid and obstructs aid from the international community is the same reason why it protects those who commit the violence against our people. It is because there is resistance in Benue State and other parts of the Middle Belt to the Fulani Muslim domination. This is what they do to those who stand in their way. I feel the pain of my people. God has sustained us for five years of intensive attacks. I trust that He will help us.
NR: What might a Nigerian solution to these problems look like?
SO: The Bible says, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” [Zechariah 13:7]. If you don’t have good leadership, you will have crisis. Nigeria today suffers from a leadership deficiency. In the past, we have had leaders who did very well in managing Nigeria’s diversity. Among them were two good Fulani presidents, Shehu Shegari [1979-1983] and Umaru Musa Yar’adua [2007-2010]. Yar’adau did so well. He brought peace to the Niger Delta. Unfortunately, he died a short time after becoming president. In 2012, when I was a minister of the Federal Republic, President Goodluck Jonathan told us, “Look, there are several ways of solving problems. Dialogue can be used to solve problems, not just force.”
Sadly, the current president is part of the insecurity. He is an extremist who is not prepared to accommodate people, to work together. When he was sworn in, President Buhari promised that he would work for nobody and for everybody, that he would be a president for all Nigerians. But he is working only for the Fulani.
The solution is for the president to respect the rule of law. I as a Christian believe in the rule of law, in due process, in everyone’s right to live. We should look at the areas that are not providing justice and equity for our people. We need equity, fairness, and justice amid our diversity of religion and ethnicity.
NR: When President Buhari visited the White House, President Trump accused him of “killing Christians”. But nothing seems to have happened to end the atrocities. What should Washington do to
help end the crisis?
SO: The United States as a world power and its many allies around the world should immediately condemn the atrocities in Nigeria, especially against Christians, and condemn the current government for what they are doing against our people. They must end turning a blind eye to the destabilizing atrocities. They should encourage their partners in our government to respect the constitution of our country, and to release the thousands of people being unjustly held in prison.
The danger of the United States not reaching out to Nigeria in the interest of ensuring fairness, equity, and justice, is that Nigeria will explode. If this happens, the catastrophic consequences will be felt far beyond Africa. If the US doesn’t want to see 200 million Nigerians trying to go to the US and Europe, they should help us end this crisis. The media, NGOs and religious groups should tell our story. The international community, and especially Christians around the world, can do so much.
This article was republished by: Charisma News