Quite early in the administration of Samuel Ortom of Benue State, there was this in-your-face, if suspicious attempt on the part of the man and his acolytes to portray the governor as a righteous individual whose ascendancy was simply God-ordained as opposed to it being the result of the hard work and sacrifice of a long-suffering electorate of believers and their mainly APC leaders who toiled and persevered in order to bring about qualitative change to their lives. Governing with the soi-disant “fear of God” mantra thus became an article of faith that was thunderously mouthed at every turn in what has been a gargantuan ploy of public deceit and treachery in the face of proven incompetence, sleaze and malfeasance.
The questionable religious rationalization at the heart of the Ortom misrule has sought dubious reinforcement in the form of costly bazaars or pilgrimages of Pentecostal religiosity and, lately, a self- intoxicating dose of bigoted ethno-religious propaganda that hardly add any real value to the way Benue has been administratively managed in the past three years. The ultimate tragedy of the abdicating Ortom regime is that as the average Benue citizen has gotten dangerously much poorer and much more despondent since May 29, 2015, due, mostly, to the paucity of government projects and a lack of an abiding vision of development by the current administration, the personal fortunes of the governor and his family have soared astronomically and obscenely to a point where communal harmony is greatly threatened on account of the mass impoverishment and socio-economic dislocation in a context of wanton profligacy and self-enrichment by a few in the corridors of power. This state of affairs is at once unethical, anti-democracy and unacceptable.
It is significant to restate here the critical case we have been making elsewhere, namely, that the elections of both 2011 and 2015 were essentially about repositioning Benue State after the awful PDP legacy of Governor Gabriel Suswam. The reiteration has become necessary because those who choose to ignore the lessons of history are bound to repeat its tragic errors or mistakes. Thus, in a nutshell, the elections of those years were also about building on the achievements of previous governments and especially those led by Aper Aku and George Akume, respectively. Alas, today, as the country prepares for the next round of polls, it is pertinent to attest that the imperative to reposition Benue State has never been more pressing, thanks, mainly, to what we have described earlier as the tragic abdication of governance on the part of Mr. Ortom and his administration. The tragic dereliction and its equally tragic or nefarious consequences on Benue and its citizens must be seen as the central focus of the 2019 elections in the state. It follows therefore that any attempt to divert the attention of potential voters away from what should be the crucial issues of the campaigns by an unwarranted, divisive and rabid resort to false narratives of fake news and ethno-religious bigotry should be rightly rejected. This setting of the records straight does indeed require a systematic and firm rebuttal of the sheer ribaldry and mendacity emanating from the governor and his subalterns. Importantly also, beyond the refutation, it is about elucidating what is at stake in next year’s gubernatorial election.
A few weeks ago, in a bizarre, tragicomic display of political duplicity, flippancy and bad faith, Governor Ortom announced that he was leaving the APC and rejoining the PDP. Most worrisome in his declaration and the embellishments by his official megaphones is the fact that the man chose to brazenly misinform Benue people and the country at large about the real motivation for his turncoat politics. In a legerdemain, he vainly sought to discredit the APC brand by way of disparaging and egregious remarks about its leadership with a curious claim that he was given the red card despite his alleged good works. At various occasions, the mythical good works of the governor are said to include, amongst other things, his alleged refusal to share the people’s money with key stakeholders, his role as defender of the masses against Fulani herdsmen incursions and the putative Fulani and Muslim agenda of conquest and despoliation. And pursuing the enumeration of fantastic claims, Governor Ortom has suddenly developed a victim complex – that because of his self-proclaimed stature as the protector of the people against the Fulanis, the Federal government is bent on victimizing or persecuting him through the use of agencies like the police and the EFCC. In what is no doubt an offensive indulgence in disinformation ( “fake news” ) coupled with hate speech peddling, the governor and his attack dogs have mischievously ranted that Senator Akume is facilitating the invasion of Benue land and especially Guma local government by Fulani herdsmen, their mercenaries and ten thousand cows! Sadly, with his shrill histrionics which underscore a rash and discomforting posture of schizophrenic rabble rousing and hysteria, Governor Ortom has irremediably degraded his statesmanship to a point of a self-indicting caricature.
Perhaps the best and most succinct way to debunk the wild and ignominious claims being bandied about by the governor and his associates is through a lottery allegory, also known as the gambler metaphor – an apt rendition of what Ortom and his government have come to represent in the present scheme of things.
Now, the lottery allegory being alluded to here does refer to a pathetic situation whereby one partner in a marriage supposedly based on trust, selfless hard work and sacrifice for the good of the entire family suddenly wins a lottery and promptly decides to keep the windfall all to himself by bolting through the treacherous door of greed and selfish calculation. Of course, in order to justify his disposition of anti-people vanities and avarice, the gambler, in a giddy re-enactment of pride and prejudice, engages in fabulous but self-serving narratives or tales that invariably seek to whitewash his bad ways.
Governor Ortom’s lottery story is a tale of destructive hubris versus the common good of Benue State and the country as a whole. It is the yarn of gluttony and insouciance writ large in stark confrontation with the legitimate aspirations of the people. At a deeper philosophical level, the meaning of the lottery allegory is that as a politician, Ortom is hardly a team player imbued with a profound vision of where we as a people are coming from and where we should be headed. The way and manner the man has run the state with the exclusion of wise counsel from major stakeholders of the APC and the wider Benue family do attest to both his narcissism and the worrisome failures of his government. The governor appears to harbour a troubling attraction to criminal or unsavory types with little formal education and lacking in sagacity who either act as members of his kitchen cabinet or have at various times held key positions in his government. This should be cause for alarm. As the saying goes, any government essentially catering to parochial proclivities and in which thugs or dimwits occupy central roles is bound to be mired in controversy and disaster. This is where the governor and his administration have been and his self-serving migration to his former party will likely make matters even worse. And it has indeed made matters much worse.
If governance under Ortom was until a few weeks ago characterized by the paralysis of mediocrity and wanton profligacy, today, any semblance of it has come to a damaging standstill. Like a drowning man, Ortom is busy holding on to very expensive straws held his way by the likes of David Mark and Iorchia Ayu even as Wike, Fayose and Secondus, amongst others, continue to beat their drums of PDP divisiveness and retrogression. But things don’t have to be so. If he is truly God-fearing, instead of futilely dissipating his energies and the state’s scarce resources on the chimera of an elusive or unattainable second term, the governor should dedicate his “fin de règne” to trying to salvage what is left of his tattered image by putting in place some deeds of redemptive epiphany. Like instantly resigning after apologising to the APC (whose mandate he is immorally holding on to) and the rest of the Benue family. It is probably not too late. Ortom can quit the stage and mitigate his odium through a show of genuine remorse and repentance. We are perhaps being carried away in our enthusiasm for things to be done right. The stark reality, however, is that in his narcissism and self-denial, Governor Ortom is most probably thinking that by moving back to the PDP, he will escape the terrible yoke of his self-inflicted woes. Fat chance! As for the APC, as they say in local Nigerian parlance, good riddance to bad rubbish! Panicky and disoriented on account of his dismal performance, Ortom has awarded himself a red card and he must bear the dire consequences of his choices. The good people of Benue are already bearing the brunt of his maladministration and general misconduct.
The governor’s numerous excesses, chief of which is his stubborn refusal to heed wise advice in delicate matters of governance, do end up alienating the majority in many notable ways. A mindset that sees nothing wrong or improper with the massive accumulation of personal wealth on the part of government officials and their allies in a context of generalized penury and deprivation is not likely to frown at the thought of Makurdi acquiring the notoriety of being perhaps the dirtiest and noisiest state capital in Nigeria. That is to say that these characters in government are devoid of all sense of humanity and decency. The savage, anti-social conduct of wanting to overnight be the Croesus ( a Dangote ancestor) of Benue by, amongst other things, controversially buying up everything in sight, when your state capital and the entire socio-economic and physical landscape of the province are blighted and left terribly sordid and desolate even as a few families amass scandalous wealth while paltry salaries are denied workers and neglected pensioners experience slow, agonizing deaths does invariably destroy one’s claim to being the protector or saviour of the people.
Benue is essentially an agrarian society which prides itself as the ‘food basket of the nation.’ Yet, that motto is daily being challenged as the basic needs of our farmers like the provision of fertilizer and tractors are largely ignored to a point where we are fast becoming a basket case of development in the agriculture sector. In the education sector and especially at the sensitive level of the formative years of our children, a programme like the school feeding one by the APC-led federal government that is designed to assist by easing off the burden of responsibility on parents and thereby making education more readily available to all and sundry has been hijacked and rendered corruption-prone by elements close to the seat of power in Makurdi. Mrs Maryam Uwais, the Special Adviser to President Buhari on Social Investment Programmes, recently lamented about the diversion of the funds meant for the federal government’s school feeding programme in Benue State. Mrs Uwais verbatim on the many scams of the school feeding programme in Benue: “ We also have over 900, 000 cooks in Benue, but we are trying to reorganise it because we have found a lot of anomalies, in terms of the number of pupils and the number of cooks.” – ‘FG’s school feeding programme funds diverted in Benue – Uwais’, Punch Online, Wed., August 29, 2018.
The Nigerian Concord has reported that the wife of the governor, Mrs Eunice Ortom, is one of the individuals that have allegedly perpetrated fraudulent activities involving the school feeding programme. Abuja’s N-Power programme seems to suffer a fate similar to that of the school feeding programme in Benue State. Amidst all these transgressions on the part of the current regime, the youths that constitute a sizeable part of our productive forces have been particularly reserved a raw deal. Employment levels amongst them are worryingly high and those in tertiary institutions are denied scholarships and the ones on them are not being paid. All these woeful failures on the part of Ortom and his government that are a flagrant negation of the APC’s progressive pro-people ideals do constitute a serious abdication, the irresponsible, self-serving claims of the governor notwithstanding.
Ortom’s claim that his refusal to share the government’s money with leaders of the APC in the state is the root cause of his quarrels with them does require being subjected to scrutiny. A pertinent question thus arises as to the whereabouts of the funds being presumably saved by way of a refusal to service party leaders. When it suits him, the governor laments that his failure to pay salaries, pensions and carry out projects of sustainable development is due to the security challenges Benue State is facing. The whopping sums accruing from the so-called security vote ( which, by the way, Ortom and his henchmen wrongly insinuate that it is something akin to a bonanza that can be used carelessly without requiring to be accounted for), the huge Paris Club refunds as well as the critical bailout money from the federal government, not to mention the monthly federal allocations, the internally generated revenue (IGR) as well as the usurious bank loans, all have apparently been frittered away through opaque practices that basically feed the destructive reflexes and fantasies of primitive, anti-masses accumulation. And the clearest indication yet of the unprecedented pillaging and eventual laundering of Benue State’s resources by the governor and his administration through shady, mafia-style practices intended to cover both the brazen sleaze and the malevolent intention informing it has been provided by the anti-corruption agency, the EFCC. In a damning report by the latter, it has been revealed how, for instance, one Oliver Ntom, a government cashier, did make curious withdrawals of about 19 billion naira that would subsequently be mostly unaccounted for, “while the memos written in respect of the withdrawals were destroyed,” allegedly on the orders of the governor.
For more detailed reporting on the massive corruption at the state treasury and in particular the funds accruing to the state’s local government councils, a point of reference worthy of mention is a Lagos-based newspaper, The Nigerian Concord. “Troubles for Benue first lady as EFCC probes her involvement in NSIP fraud” and “How Ortom crippled Benue economy in 3 years, Part 1” are some of the significant documents produced by The Nigerian Concord. One can also access, online, the following useful reports, amongst others: “EFCC probes Ortom over alleged N20 bn laundering”, Daily Trust, July 31, 2018; “EFCC probes Ortom, Benue lawmakers, permanent secretaries, others for alleged N23. 08 b”, The Nation, July 31, 2018 and “EFCC accuses Governor Ortom of N22 bn fraud”, Punch, July 31, 2018. Also, in its impeachment notice, the Benue State legislature, through Speaker Ikyange, did expose the alleged illegal deductions by the state government of dizzying sums of money meant for the payment of salaries and for development activities by the respective local government council areas.
Suffice it to mention that the infamy of the excesses and grandstanding by the Ortom government has not ensured the security of Benue State in its various ramifications.
Security is the responsibility of all and any effective security cover must combine the critical ingredients of proactive intelligence gathering and adequate policing. Today in Benue, it is a combination of these two factors and other dissuasive measures like the military initiative of the Buhari administration code-named Operation Whirl Stroke that has greatly improved the security situation and not the boisterous playing to the gallery by Ortom and his underlings. Incidentally, it is alleged that, following a tip-off, the arrest and detention of one controversial Tashaku, a Governor Ortom ally and a known reprobate with alleged Boko Haram ties, have immensely helped in the securing of the state, at least in the Guma-Gwer axis.
Surely, in the logic of the crime and punishment ethos, there should be consequences. In this regard, one cannot underestimate the inevitability of EFCC summons (and eventually the courts of law) as instruments of dissuasion and restoration against criminal truancy of the administrative kind like the one currently being witnessed in Makurdi. Indeed, a potent justification is that it would be both morally wrong and against the democratic aspirations of our people to allow those who are wickedly wrecking our common patrimony to use ill-gotten resources in order to perpetuate themselves in power. So, the least we can do as democrats with the best interest of the people at heart is to give adequate publicity, in all the local idioms, to the brazen atrocities of the governor and his clique.
Constantly resorting to hired agents and other retrogressive voices in order to cry wolf in the face of mounting and irrefutable evidence against them as Governor Ortom and his hangers-on are doing is tantamount to saying that they are against the rule of law and that they prefer the type of impunity that allows them to get away with murder, figuratively speaking. Of course, we know that any society that wants to progress and prosper cannot afford to be hobbled by the destructive antics of those desperately seeking impunity. And talking of destructive antics, let’s just say that as the governor’s turncoat shenanigans hit a brick wall of resistance and revulsion within the PDP’s Benue chapter in particular, not to mention the popular repudiation by the majority of Benue citizens of the man and his underachieving government, Ortom and his errand boys are manifesting clear and unmistakable signs of panicking and desperation that are taking on a most sinister and tragic hue.
One of the first acts of desperation and political brigandage by the governor after his so-called decamping was to orchestrate an illegal takeover of the leadership of the state legislature by pliant and compromised “honourables”. This reckless assault on democracy and the sanctity of the state assembly is being pursued in conjunction with an equally reckless assault on the local government system which, by the way, has virtually been destroyed by the governor and his administration through, amongst other things, a dubious and irresponsible tempering with its finances or operations as recently revealed by Speaker Ikyange. Chairmen and councillors of local government councils are allegedly forced or arm twisted to “decamp” or loudly express solidarity with Ortom’s louche political choices.
It is pertinent to add that the level of violence and intimidation against suspected APC members has escalated to a point where the police and other agencies of government must be proactive and urgently do something before it is too late as the badly bruised and preying Ortom and his regime viciously strike out in sheer mean-spiritedness against their opponents, real or imagined. There are persistent and apparently credible reports to the effect that some elements, including those belonging to the state’s Livestock Guards outfit and the Vigilante contraption, are being recruited as dangerous thugs with, amongst other things, an aim to helping in the rigging of elections by unleashing mayhem and other atrocities before, during and after the 2019 elections. A retired senior civil servant is said to be the arrowhead of the recruitment of criminals for pernicious designs.
Cynically but dangerously manipulating the state’s security challenges, first as a diversion from his known failures or foibles and also as a weapon for personal political and sundry gains, Governor Ortom and his ready and rascally resort to ethno-religious stereotyping and the whipping up of bigotry against known social categories must be rejected as reckless and harmful to communal harmony and national unity. In the final analysis, his “the Fulani are coming” scare tactics have the potential of harming our legitimate and just struggle to decisively rid Benue State of criminal elements, whether they are herdsmen, their sponsors or their mercenaries or even local bad boys. At the same time, the point needs stressing that neither the Tiv people nor any other social group is at war with either the Fulanis or the Muslims in Benue or elsewhere. What we are against is criminality that is a present and continuing danger to our society. It is a settled fact that the various ethnic entities of the state do consider the land bequeathed to them by their ancestors as a sacred trust that cannot be the object of disputation from any quarters.
The Benue people have proved beyond any reasonable doubt and need no lessons from anybody that they are a very accommodating lot. That is why Ortom and his co-travellers pretending to be protectors of our people must be told in no uncertain terms that their self-seeking skulduggery has no place in the APC’s progressive agenda of tolerance and development for all and not just for a sleazy and privileged few.
In conclusion, it requires restating that Governor Ortom is his own worst enemy and perennially crying foul as he does will not change that. He was bad news for the APC. He is bad news for the PDP who must now see him as an avoidable liability. Ortom is most certainly bad news for Benue State and the country as a whole. Beyond that, there are obvious lessons to be gleaned from the Ortom tragedy. The first obvious lesson is that progressive governance is serious business that is meant to empower by creating an enabling environment through the putting in place of policies and mechanisms that help in unleashing individual and collective energies that drive communal advancement as opposed to it being a self-serving, criminal enterprise of kleptocratic aggrandizement and money laundering for a select and destructive club of misfits and carpetbaggers alike.
The second practical lesson is that as a people in search of sustainable development, we are bound to make honest mistakes and significantly, we should never allow those mistakes of judgement or omission deter us from continually striving to seek remedies, if and where necessary. It is a mark of both humility and moral courage to admit that one has made errors in one’s patriotic bid to nurture leadership in our yearning for purposeful democratic change. The inherent wisdom here is that any objection to such calamities like the Ortom debacle must not be personalized and should of necessity bear the seal of principled, moral and philosophical justification as has been the testimony by the APC, including both its leadership and its general membership in Benue. As a parting shot, we invite all to consider this food for thought: There is no scientific or sure way to read the mind of those we (the electorate) help acquire power and leadership. It is often said that the best way to know a man’s true worth or character is to entrust him with power. Or money, others would say. When he fails, as is the case with Governor Ortom, who, by the way, has of late acquired the derisive but befitting sobriquet of ‘Kanshio’ or “The one who is not capable”, the beauty of democracy is that the people will surely vote him out.
Lloyds H. Obekpa