Until this weekend, I always believed that Eliud Kipchoge was the best African runner over long distances. After all, the Kenyan runner is the world record holder having run the marathon in just a little over two hours.
This perception is being challenged by the fantastical performance of Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State, who on Saturday was reportedly attacked by some Men in Black (no, not the famous alien hunters of that Hollywood movie) and to survive them, he first did his best Usain Bolt impression and outran the bullets of his would-be assassins. He then did his best Kipchoge impression and kept running for another 1.5 kilometres. Never mind the fine physique of both Bolt and Kipchoge, they’ve got nothing on Gov. Ortom, who has proven that looking physically fit is not proof of one’s stamina. After all, that old cartoon character, Speedy Gonzales, “the fastest mouse in all Mexico” is not built like an athlete.
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Anywhere in the world, the killing of any person is a great loss for the human race. The killing of a leader is even more so. The incident that played out this Saturday in front of the Benue Peoples House in Makurdi is unfortunate and worrying. In this incident, Gov. Ortom, standing, surrounded by his security details, told journalists that earlier that day, there had been an attempt by some Fulani to assassinate him while he was visiting his farm in Tyo Mu, some 20 kilometres outside the state capital.
The narration of the attack is dramatic. There was a hail of bullets from some “men in black” who were apparently “Fulani”. There was return fire from his security details. There was the figure of the governor getting on all fours, crawling, bolting and running for 1.5 kilometres to escape his assassins.
The governor’s aide would later explain that the attack happened on the farm and the governor had to run to his parked car 1.5 kilometres away to return to the safety of Makurdi.
A dramatic and troubling account. While all the right noises are being made, commiserating with the governor, threatening fire and brimstone if such were to happen again, threats of an imminent investigation into the attack and finger-pointing and blame games, many questions have bubbled to the surface.
There has been no independent corroboration of the governor’s claims, no eye witness accounts, not even photos of bullet shells on the farms which could easily be arranged for a man surrounded by gun-carrying security men.
The locals on the ground have made contradictory claims. First is that the governor’s farm is not in Tyo Mu but some five kilometres away. Second, is that the gunshots the governor might have heard were that generated when the state’s “Livestock Guards,” who were trying to enforce the anti-open grazing law, clashed with some herdsmen, who usually camp by the riverside this time of the year.
Of course, the IGP has dispatched a team to investigate the attack and the jury is still out on if it actually happened, was imagined or concocted.
Whichever one it is, governors have spoken out in support of their colleague, echoing the gravity such an attack on such a person, occupying such an office could have. It is clear it would have enormous repercussions for the people of the state, and the country generally, and it would have a ripple effect in communal relations in this country as such things tend to do.
But what is unclear is how much does Gov. Ortom understand about the sensitivity of the office he occupies. This was glaring in the manner in which he announced the news of his alleged attack. In the briefing, he spent far more time elaborating on a rather bizarre conspiracy theory than he did on the details of the attack.
The Men in Black, he said, were Fulani militias sent by the Miyetti Allah Fulani group to assassinate him. Apparently, the governor alleged, he had documents from the group arising from a meeting in Yola in which they resolved to “take Nigeria as their country and every other person living here must be a slave.”
Obviously, there are many people who believe in the perpetuation of conspiracies of such imperial agenda but the reality is that such thinking belongs to the 18th century when the world tolerated slavery and imperialism was still a thing.
This briefing also showcased the narcissistic tendencies of Gov. Ortom who seems keen to centre himself as an anti-imperialist force, a protagonist of his own play.
He claims to be in possession of a letter sent to him by the Fulani where the Miyetti Allah has “Singled me out as the ONLY person who is creating problems for the Fulani race in this country.” Hence he has been marked for elimination.
It would all be laughable if these were a play in a theatre but Mr Ortom’s position as governor makes this a minefield to play in.
What Mr Ortom is doing here is setting the stage for a religious and tribal confrontation between his Tiv nation and the Fulani.
This narrative has of course been bought into by some politicians like the member representing Ado/Ogbadibo/Okpokwu Federal Constituency, in the House of Representatives, Dr Francis Ottah Agbo, whose statement condemning the attack described it as “a failed attempt to silence the voice of reason crying in defence of the people of Benue.”
This is not the first time Mr Ortom has positioned himself as a potential victim of an assassination attempt. Only last month, he pointedly accused Gov. Bala Muhammad of Bauchi State as being part of a conspiracy to assassinate him and “wipe some people away including Benue State.”
To deny that there is a herdsmen problem would be disingenuous. They have destroyed farms, attacked villages, committed mass murders and a good number of the bandits in the country behind the kidnap for ransom menace are of the Fulani stock. But there is a significant reason to suspect that Ortom, in this instance, is playing to the gallery or channelling his inner Donald Trump.
When a leader of a people devotes his intellect and energy to championing conspiracy theories and perpetuating hate amongst people, it is often an indication of some underlying issues – a false perception of self, sheer intellectual laziness or a desperate attempt to mask some incompetence.
If Ortom invests half the time he is expending in perpetuating this ethnic hate narrative and conspiracy theories in actually governing his state, Benue State would not remain one of the oldest and least developed states in the country where the governor thinks just paying civil servant salaries would be the best he could do.
It is vital that his claims on this attack are investigated and if true, those ‘Men in Black’ are found and tried. The authorities should also investigate his previous claims and investigate the documents he claims to be in his possession about these conspiracies. It is also vital that a person in his position restrains himself from incendiary claims and crying wolf. An elder does not deliberately set fire to bush around his house just so his neighbours notice the size of his potbelly.