On Thursday, April 23, 2020, Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom turned 59 years amidst acknowledgment and outpouring of prayers, goodwill and accolades by his people, friends, associates and even political rivals.
Such wide-ranging acknowledgements are in recognition of his leadership, contributions and sacrifices of this people-centred personality that have in the last five years repositioned the state for greater productivity while fearlessly defending the common heritage and destiny of the people from aggressors.
Apart from giving Benue state a leap in infrastructural development as well as revamping critical sectors of the economy, Ortom is being celebrated by his people for uniting the state on a common front to protect the territorial heritage of his state, particularly on his stance against the controversial Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) settlement policy.
Whereas President Muhammadu Buhari may have his good intentions to initiate the policy for the establishment of the RUGA settlements in the 36 States of the Federation, the approach to it in a manner akin to unilateral imposition without due consultations with stakeholders, especially, the State Governors or considering the sensitive nature of land acquisition in Nigeria, unarguably, made it suspicious and ultimately rendered the project impotent.
In the federal government’s thinking, the establishment of RUGA settlements in the country would end the open grazing by herdsmen and halt herdsmen/farmers clashes across the country.
There is no argument or doubt that herders/farmers clashes have been a sore point in the country and has claimed thousands of our productive citizens. It has taken a severe toll on the nation’s socio-economic and political engagements and required a lasting solution.
Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Alhaji Mohammed Umar while advancing reasons for RUGA stated that, “the RUGA settlement is one of the very important things being done by government to forestall Herders/Farmers conflicts not only in Nigeria but in most of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. “It is a concept that we developed to deal with internal security”, he said.
According to him, “we felt that to do away with herders-farmers conflict, we need to settle our nomads and those who breed animals. We want to put them in a place that has been developed as a settlement, where we provide water for their animals, pasture, schools for their children and security among others.
In sharp responses however, many state governments rejected the idea. Such States include Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, Abia, Imo, Taraba and Benue States who instantaneously rejected the establishment of RUGA or cattle colonies in their States on the premise that they have no lands to spare.
The state Governments oppose to RUGA, maintained that they will not accept the imposition of RUGA settlements on them, insisting that anything short of ranching would not be accepted or tolerated by them.
Rejecting the RUGA project, Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State frowned that the Federal Ministry of Agriculture unilaterally marked out three local government areas; Otukpo, Tarka and Ukum for RUGA settlement without the consent of the state government and the people.
Speaking through his Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase, Ortom stated, “we found the approach by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture not only as a gross violation of the ranching law but also as an insult to the sensibilities of the entire people of Benue State”.
He recalled that during the national council on agriculture summit which took place in Owerri, Imo State in April last year, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture attempted to impose RUGA settlement on the States but the Benue State delegation seized the opportunity to remind the summit that the State has existing law on Ranching which has phased out open grazing. Akase maintained that “No one at the summit put forth an alternative method of animal husbandry to counter the Benue State’s presentation”.
While stating that the government of Benue State is willing to support cattle owners to establish Ranches as stipulated by the law prohibiting open grazing, he however stressed that “Benue State has no land for grazing reserve, grazing route, cattle colonies or RUGA settlements. The State only has land for the establishment of Ranches”
The State government took a step further and dragged the Federal Government to court challenging RUGA settlements in Benue.
In the suit filed by State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Michael Gusa against the Attorney General of the Federation and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, he argued that RUGA was an imposition against the wish of the people.
The action of the Federal Government, Benue State argued is at variance with section 1 of the Land use Act of 1978, which prescribed that ownership of land in any State of the federation is vested on the Governor of the State and only the Governor has the right to grant the statutory Right of Occupancy to any person.
Consequently, the Federal High Court presided over by Justice Mobolaji Olajuwon declared the federal government policy or proclamation to establish RUGA settlement in Benue State as unwarranted, unlawful and unconstitutional.
Justice Olajuwon held that any move by the federal government to compulsorily acquire land for RUGA settlement or cattle colony in Benue State without the approval of the State government is null and void.
The Judge therefore granted an Order nullifying every action or decision taken to establish RUGA settlements or cattle colonies for herdsmen in Benue State.
Justice Olajuwon further issued an Order of perpetual injunction restraining the AGF, the Minister and the Ministry of Agriculture, their Agents, Privies or whosoever from making any attempt to hold, administer, use or allocate land in Benue State for RUGA settlement, cattle colonies or any other purpose contrary to the 1999 constitution, the Land use Act of 1978 and the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law 2017.
A victorious Ortom said the judgment vindicated the position of Benue State on the matter. According to him, “it was a struggle by the people of the State and other Nigerians of good conscience against impunity and injustice. By the verdict, the judiciary has once again proved that it is a beacon of hope for democracy with its attendant attributes such as equity, fairness and rule of law. The truth has ultimately prevailed on the RUGA settlement issues in the interest of the entire country”.
The Governor insisted that his administration will amend and indeed strengthen the open grazing law in the State to ensure stiffer penalties against violators and to serve as deterrent to others. He said there is nothing personal about it but for the interest of all.
President Muhammadu Buhari in apparent response to the public outcry against RUGA has directed the suspension of the project forthwith.
It is hoped that the court judgment against RUGA would put paid to anxieties and suspicion while herders should be encouraged to embrace Ranching in conformity with best global practices on animal husbandry. This way, constant friction between herders and farmers would be eliminated and citizens live in harmony with each other.
Governor Ortom protected the interest of his people as well as assisting the nation set a new and lawful order for a permanent solution to the incessant farmer/herder clash. The crisis that would have trailed the imposition of the RUGA system in many parts of the country has by this development aborted.
Ortom has shown that leadership demands courage, focus, resilience and standing on the side of the people no matter the odds and upholding the sanctity of truth and ensuring peaceful coexistence of all at all times.
At 59, Governor Ortom is giving no sign that he has an oars to rest on. Despite his achievements, Ortom is still pressing forward on his programmes, setting new goals and in unwavering commitment to move Benue state to a pride of place in the national and even international arena.
(Mumeh wrote from Abuja)