By Mahmud Jega
The most engaging story in Nigeria at the weekend was the reported attack by gunmen on Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom’s convoy. The governor was out in the countryside on Saturday morning, inspecting a farm on Tyo-Mu-Abetse-Gboko Road in Makurdi Local Government, when gunmen opened fire at his convoy. No one was killed and no one sustained injuries, for which we offer thanks to God, but the governor said he ran for two kilometres, which was ill-advised because he could have run straight into the bandits’ hands.
Ortom moved very fast to politicize the incident. He said it was an assassination attempt, which is not certain because these days, a lot of motorists travelling on our highways get shot at without the attackers knowing who is in the vehicles. Ortom went beyond that and alleged that it is Fulani militiamen, the biggest bogeymen in modern Nigeria, that shot at him. Last week when I drove on the Abuja-Kaduna highway, I was full of fears that someone will shoot at me even though I am a grandson of pastoralists.
Several questions to ask Ortom. From inside his gubernatorial jeep and in a flash of a second, how could he tell that the attackers were “militia herders” when Benue State, in particular, has been infested with bandit gangs for many years, including the most notorious one led by the late Gana? Ortom said they wore black, which is a rare attire among Nigerian criminals because in most cases, victims of attacks on highways attest that the attackers were dressed in army camouflages.
Even Ortom’s account that the attackers numbered about 15 need not be believed. People in traumatic situations almost always exaggerate the number of their attackers. When the prominent Muslim cleric Sheikh Albani was ambushed and killed in Zaria in 2014, his student who was with him in the car said 20 men ambushed them and were firing from all directions. The police later determined that only two men did the firing, but it must have sounded to the man in the car like a lot more people were firing.
Ortom’s main reason for saying militia herders did it was not because he positively identified them but because, since 2017 when he signed a law banning open cattle grazing, he has regarded himself as the bulwark against alleged Fulanisation of the Middle Belt. He reckoned, with some reason, that he could be the target of an attack. More immediately, he said leaders of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore met in Yola the day before and marked him for assassination. He attributed this information to “intelligence” that he received, quite possibly from a source that was trying to ingratiate himself with the governor by feeding on his fears. Miyetti Allah itself is an urban-based NGO with uncertain influence over the endemically rural pastoralists.
Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike then upped the ante by implying that the Federal Government sent gunmen to kill Ortom. That fact that the Federal Government has not killed people much more threatening to it than Ortom, was lost on Wike. He said the Federal Government [read: President Buhari] would be held responsible if Ortom is killed, and also that such an event will be the end of Nigeria. The fact that Nigeria did not end with the killing of tens of thousands of people by criminals over the years was also lost on Wike.
It is demagoguery of the highest order to rush to blame a whole community and the Federal Government for an incident that is quite common place in Nigeria, without waiting for a police investigation, as the opposition PDP more sedately called for. Even when the attackers are apprehended, thorough interrogation is required to establish if anyone sent them or if it is the “new normal” banditry in Nigeria.
Ortom is not even the first Governor of Benue State to be attacked on the highway. In March 2004, then Benue Governor George Akume’s convoy was attacked on the highway in Nasarawa State. Former Nigeria Airways managing director Andrew Agom was killed while sitting beside Akume in the governor’s car. Although some allusion was made at the time to the inter-communal conflict involving the Tiv in southern Nasarawa State, subsequent police investigation indicated, if I remember right, that the bandits did not know who they fired at. This was also before the age of the Fulani herder bogeyman.
Then also, there have been many high-profile assassinations in Benue State in recent times, most recently of Dr. Terkula Suswam, elder brother of the state’s former governor Gabriel Suswam, and of Ortom’s Senior Special Assistant on Security Denen Igbana in 2016. Police even arrested Ortom’s Special Adviser on Special Duties, Arch. Joseph Ikyaagba, as a suspect in that killing.
I do not know who attacked Governor Ortom on Saturday, what the attackers’ motive was and who, if anyone, sent them. I join in urging the police to get to the bottom of this matter and to answer these questions as speedily as possible. No one should cry wolf before it is positively identified. As for Wike, who is known to have the coarsest mouth among top Nigerian officials since Ayo Fayose, he should please reflect carefully before he wishes Doomsday for Nigeria and its 200 million people, in case misfortune befalls one man.
Sardauna was killed. Tafawa Balewa was killed. Akintola was killed. Okotie-Eboh was killed. Maimalari was killed. Kur Mohammed was killed. Victor Pam was killed. Samuel Ademulegun was killed. Ralph Shodeinde was killed. Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed. Fajuyi was killed. Murtala Mohammed was killed. Ibrahim Taiwo was killed. Dele Giwa was killed. Kudirat Abiola was killed. Marshal Harry was killed. Bola Ige was killed. Dikibo was killed. Saudatu Rimi was killed. General Shuwa was killed. Ado Bayero was nearly killed. Shehu of Borno was nearly killed. All these people had higher profiles in our national history than Ortom.
Only last week, gunmen opened fire at the Emir of Birnin Gwari’s convoy in Kaduna State. I pray that not one more person should be killed by criminals in Nigeria. But Nigeria should not be plunged into chaos by men rushing to cry wolf when it could have been the work of a squirrel.