Last Sunday, the Benue State governor had a grand stage to perform for the nation and it was an electrifying show. He was hosting the quartet of Governors Nyesom Wike of Rivers, Seyi Makinde of Oyo, Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia, and Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu in Makurdi, the capital, and the media documented the rage of the PDP chieftains for posterity, especially their controversial partisan war with their party’s presidential flag-bearer, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar.
Governor Samuel Ortom, along with his four guests, has boycotted the PDP presidential campaign and that meeting seemed like an occasion to renew their vow to stand together and sink the party’s ship ahead of the 2023 presidential election. What appears like a classic case of crap mentality is a response to Atiku’s refusal to cave into their demands, one of which is the resignation of Iyorchia Ayu as the national chairman of the party.
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In October, at a political rally in Kaduna, Atiku didn’t mince his words in lamenting about how the Fulani have been dangerously pathologised, and he singled out Governor Ortom’s polarising commentaries on the conflict in his jurisdiction. “I had a big quarrel with Governor Ortom on his accusation of Fulani people,” he said, and that “I am a Fulani man. Why should you categorise all Fulani? We have to improve the ways and manner we look after our livestock. I am angry with Samuel Ortom for profiling Fulani as bandits and terrorists.”
What transpired in Makurdi was Ortom’s attempt to fire back, and it, ironically, confirmed Atiku’s profiling of the governor’s style of politics; an illogical spark of desperation to make an entire ethnic group answer for the crimes of criminal herdsmen as though the Fulani from all parts of the country sat down over bowls of Fura and Nono and developed a military strategy to wage an ethnic war in Benue. But it’s even scarier that Ortom’s bigotry was shared in a room full of educated citizens and public servants that agreed with him, and kept clapping while he said, “To hell with Atiku and any other Fulani man. And any man supporting Atiku and all that is an enemy. I want this to be known as long as I am governor. They should go and tell him. You want me to be a slave for a Fulani. Anybody supporting Atiku is an enemy of Benue.”
This is the fascist mindset that bred some of the worst hate crimes the world has witnessed. It’s what Adolf Hitler would say in cherry-picking facts to portray the Jews as villains in the German space. Ortom’s outburst in Makurdi evokes the memory of Hitler’s infamous Reichstag speech in 1939. Like Ortom, Hitler ridiculed every voice of reason that cautioned against profiling the entire Jews as enemies of the German nation. He appealed to the sentiments of poor Germans who had been programmed to treat the Jews as economic parasites and that the Jews were turning Germans into “beggars in their own country.”
Governor Ortom’s anger would’ve been justified if Atiku or any Fulani politician in a position of authority has defended the killings attributed to herdsmen in Benue. That, say, Boko Haram began as a cult of mostly Kanuri foot-soldiers doesn’t make the Kanuri ethnic group responsible for their terrorist operations. When, in 2013, the Ombatse militia group was implicated in the killings of 74 operatives of the Nigeria Police Force and 10 personnel of the Department of State Security Service in Nasarawa State, the Eggon ethnic group wasn’t singled out or blackmailed to take responsibility for the crime of the individuals involved. Similarly, the spate of killings attributed to the IPOB in the South-East has not warranted any attempt to hold everyday Igbo or their elite responsible for such a reign of terror.
If Ortom had always feared the entire Fulani were responsible for the killings of his people, as he thrived in parading himself as the Governor of the Tivs in a multi-ethnic state where only his kinsmen are favoured to get elected as governor in their peculiar case of tribalism, he should’ve rejected the interventions sent to the state by Fulani businessmen and politicians. Even Atiku, who’s become his nemesis as a result of the toxic in-fighting in the PDP, donated N50 million to internally-displaced persons in Benue when he visited Ortom in February. Ortom must’ve felt he was on trial after Atiku shared then that his reason for such charity was because “I don’t label anybody, either ethnically or religiously. As leaders, we should try as much as possible to bring all our people together to understand themselves.”
There are nobler or less dangerous routes Ortom ought to have taken in exploiting the conflict in his state for his personal political agenda. The trending joke has been that he only rushes to cite the Fulani as his main nightmare whenever he’s found wanting in delivering on his electoral promises, especially in serially owing civil servants in the state, but trusting his audience to be so gullible is his first mistake. His record is going to speak for him once he’s out of office, and there won’t be state resources to “invest” in propaganda warfare from that point.
Ortom’s Tiv kinsmen have been at war with the Jukun of Taraba State since almost the beginning of time, and this led to the displacement that inspired Atiku’s donation earlier in the year. But he could not move to blame the Jukun ethnic group or any notable Jukun politician for the conflict consuming his people because it won’t earn him any round of applause. The conflicting ethnic groups shared an identity he could not afford to exploit for his political relevance, so he chose the option of organising a grand ceremony to sign a peace pact with his Taraba State counterpart on behalf of the Tiv and the Jukun.
Like those who identify as Tiv and Jukun amidst their conflict, neither the herdsmen in Benue nor Atiku represent the Fulani. And if Ortom were consistent in applying such flawed logic, he would’ve singled out Lt. General T. Y. Danjuma, a vocal Jukun man and champion of their ethnic causes, as a mastermind of the annihilation of his Tiv kinsmen. There’s nothing wrong with opposing Atiku or any Fulani politician, but the line Ortom is struggling to cross is pointing to a familiar road, the road to Kigali.