By Terver Akase
What is today regarded as a success story in the quest to restore peace and security to Benue and neighbouring states began on May 29, 2015 at IBB Square, Makurdi with a pronouncement by Governor Samuel Ortom, when he declared in his inaugural address and I quote; “We will move decisively against our youths and their patrons who have chosen a living out of unbridled acts of terror and thuggery. Government will no longer be a shield for these youths and those who patronise them. Whoever they may be and no matter how powerful they are, they will be brought to account. We call on all unlawfully armed persons who have been terrorising innocent citizens to immediately surrender their arms, be free and get integrated into our reform programme, or we shall pursue them down to their holes.”
That statement by the Benue State Governor marked the official declaration of the three-month amnesty granted armed persons in the State which was to expire at the end of August, 2015.
To demonstrate his commitment to the amnesty proclamation, a few days later, Governor Ortom set up a committee to oversee the amnesty programme.
But one valid question to be asked is; why did the amnesty become necessary at that point in time in the life of Benue State? The answer to this question is well known to the people of the State – home and abroad.
Before Governor Samuel Ortom took over the mantle of leadership, many parts of Benue were turned into theatres of violence, armed robbery, kidnapping, political killings, thuggery and cultism. Some youths of the State were given deadly weapons by their sponsors which they used to cause mayhem. Political thugs could walk into innocent people’s offices and homes to demand what they called ‘settle the boys’. Anyone who dared refuse to part with large sums of money was either beaten into a pulp or even injured, if not killed.
The situation was fast dragging the economy of Benue to a halt as investors refused to come to the State while those already on ground were leaving in droves. More worrisome was the fact that the then Government of the State appeared to look the other way while violence caused by thugs and cultists reigned supreme.
That was the scenario when Governor Ortom took the oath of office on May 29, 2015. So it was a matter of emergency that Benue needed to think fast outside the box to bring the ugly trend under control.
Return fire for fire with the criminals and other perpetrators of violence? Governor Samuel Ortom and his team decided that the option of force might usher in a temporary reprieve but not yield a long term solution to the problem, hence the Governor’s decision to adopt the ‘carrot and stick’ approach through the offer of amnesty to all those who had carried arms to commit any form of crime.
The thinking of the Governor and his team was based on the fact that development can only thrive in an atmosphere of peace. The amnesty was therefore considered as a veritable tool which would serve as foundation upon which security could be provided in order to facilitate the desired enabling environment for investment, which will in turn lead to massive job creation. That was the birth of the amnesty programme.
Governor Ortom used every event he attended to remind armed youths in the State that his administration would employ the carrot and stick approach in prosecuting the war against insecurity. He also assured those keeping arms that if they embraced the amnesty programme, they will be rehabilitated, integrated and encouraged in various ways to earn a descent living.
The Benue State Governor ceased every opportunity to tell youths of the State that until peace and security were allowed to prevail, their dreams to have a well developed State will remain unfulfilled.
He said on one occasion and I quote, “If we can secure lives and property in the State, our plans to industrialise the State, create job opportunities through micro small and medium scale enterprises will come to pass.”
The amnesty programme of the Benue State Government received a major boost a day before its expiration when a notorious gang leader named Terwase Agwaza (aka Ghana) said to be terrorising parts of Benue and Taraba States surrendered a huge amount of arms and ammunition – 84 assorted riffles and 770 rounds of ammunition.
‘Ghana’ pleaded with Governor Ortom to extend the grace period for the handover or arms, promising that he would make contact with fellow armed persons to also surrender their weapons. Governor Ortom magnanimously granted the amnesty extension to the end of September. The amnesty extension led to the recovery of more arms from different gangs while the rate of crime and killings reduced drastically.
The feat recorded with the surrender of arms by ‘Ghana’ and his gang led to more successes for the amnesty programme. A few days into the extension of the grace period, six young men from Ushongo local government area of the State, came to the Benue People’s House to surrender a number of weapons to the amnesty committee.
That feat was facilitated by the Ter Ushongo, Chief Ambrose Iortyer and the Reverend Father Theophilus Osugh of Saint Stephens Catholic Church, Lessel, as well as the Assistant Pastor of NKST Lessel, Reverend Terna Agber. Among the arms surrendered by the youths were AK47 riffles pistols and assorted ammunition.
Less than a week later, another group, this time from Kwande local government area of the State handed over their weapons to the amnesty committee at the Benue People’s House. It was another harvest of assorted automatic rifles and a large number of ammunition.
While receiving the group from Kwande, Governor Samuel Ortom reiterated his commitment to supporting security agencies to perform their duties maximally.
Governor Ortom also recently assured those who have surrendered arms that the State Government will soon roll out a comprehensive programme to rehabilitate and reintegrate them in the society and prevent them from returning to their old ways.
What must not be allowed to go unnoticed is the role played by the Church and traditional rulers in the State for the success of the amnesty programme. The overwhelming support given the programme by religious and traditional leaders has sent a clear signal for the restoration of peace and security to all parts of Benue State.
This also goes to confirm the fact that the present administration led by Samuel Ortom is truly anchored on the fear of God and has the backing of all key players in the State.
Little wonder that the amnesty initiative of Governor Ortom has received commendations from individuals and groups, local and international organistations who describe the Benue State Governor as a man of peace leading the State with the fear of God.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHRC, took the lead in the series of commendations poured on Governor Ortom when the agency’s Country Representative in Nigeria, Angelle Atangana visited the Governor. Atangana said on the occasion that if the amnesty programme of the Benue State Government succeeded, it would curb incidents of communal violence and reduce cases of internally displaced persons and refugees.
Similarly, during the 70th Session of United Nations General Assembly, Nigerian envoys lauded the amnesty initiative of Governor Ortom. The envoys took time to commend the Benue State Governor on the amnesty programme when he visited Nigeria House in New York.
Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria, Ambassador Usman Sarki, Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the African Union Usman Baraya, as well as the Minister Councillor at the Nigerian Mission Dr. Cyprian Heen, who spoke separately said the amnesty programme of the Benue State Government was the way to go in achieving global peace and security.
As the amnesty period expires Wednesday, September 30, 2015, the Benue State Government is aware that the people of the State will be expecting, and rightly too, that the gains and lessons drawn from the process are brought to bear on the development of the State.
Determined to tackle insecurity on all fronts, Governor Samuel Ortom recently met with his Taraba State counterpart, Arc Darius Ishaku to fashion out ways of tackling trans-border clashes between the two states. That meeting culminated in the establishment of the Joint Peace Committee followed by the Joint Military and Police Patrol team.
In addition to the security measures taken, Benue and Taraba states also agreed to establish agro-allied industries between them to absolve the teeming youths who are currently unemployed.
Developments analysts believe that this move by the two states is a sure way of ending armed robbery, cultism, thruggery and other negative acts among young people.
Another step Governor Ortom plans to take in the next couple of days is to send a bill to the Benue State House of Assembly for the establishment of ranches for cattle rearing. When passed by the legislature, the law would help in curbing frequent clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the area.
For anyone who lives in Benue State or has visited the State in the last three months, there is clear evidence of change from the way things were done in the past and now. A sense of direction, orderliness and due process are fast returning to the polity. In less than five months in office, Benue people are already seeing the signs of accountability and transparency in governance.
What is paramount at this point is for the good people of Benue to continue to support the efforts of Governor Samuel Ortom whom they freely and truthfully voted; a man who is leading the way in commitment to selfless service to the State; a Governor who has shown courage and dogged determination in ensuring that his people sleep with their eyes closed.
Terver Akase is Senior Special Assistant on Media to the Benue State Governor.