Nigeria 2023: Benue Governor opens up on his cold war with President Buhari 

By Dele Yusuf
Posted on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 18:53

Samuel Ortom, Benue state governor, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Makurdi
Samuel Ortom, Benue state governor in Makurdi, Nigeria November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Hardly a week goes by without a media fight between Benue Governor Samuel Ortom and Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari or, in most cases, his aides. A cold war between the duo might be getting to the cusp of boiling over with Nigeria’s next general elections fast approaching. The governor opens up on his relationship with the president and why he thinks Buhari has “failed” Nigerians. 

In the build-up to Nigeria’s presidential election in 2015, Benue Governor Samuel Ortom was one of then-presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari’s lead supporters.

He prayed, campaigned and paved the way in Benue for Buhari as both individuals were heading to the election with the same motive: to get the All Progressives Congress (APC) into power both at the federal and state levels.

But in a rare interview granted with The Africa Report, Ortom admits his regrets in helping bring Buhari to power. “I’m really disappointed,” he says of the way things are going under Buhari whom he once described as Nigeria’s worst president in terms of security. “This government has failed completely.”

A relationship gone sour

In 2014, Ortom was welcomed into the APC from the Peoples Democratic Party after he failed to secure the PDP’s ticket for Benue state governorship election. At the time, Buhari was contesting to become the president for the fourth time, then under the APC, a newly-formed coalition out to displace the PDP and the Goodluck Jonathan administration.

The Benue governor’s defection to APC meant switching allegiance from President Goodluck Jonathan under whom he served as minister of state, trade and investments and who would later end up in the history books as the first incumbent president to not win the popular vote in an election.

When Buhari was returning for his second term in 2019, Ortom sold him to Nigerians as the best candidate with “no alternative.” In an interview with the local Vanguard newspaper, he had said: “He (Buhari) is a man of integrity, discipline and with so much courage to fight the cankerworm called corruption. He is a selfless leader who has instilled discipline in our people. That is the kind of person we need at this particular time of our development and history as a nation.”

Buhari won and their friendship blossomed… though not for long.

Increasing clashes between farmers in agrarian communities and herders who are mostly from the Fulani tribe put a wedge between the duo, with Ortom often accusing the president of failing to act.

Things got out of hand when he left the APC to return to the PDP in 2018, a move he said was inspired by his search for platforms “that offer more accommodation and support for our policies, especially the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law 2017 (which some believe has worsened the farmers-herders conflict even though it was meant to resolve it).”

At the PDP’s Ortom became more outspoken in his criticisms against a president he thinks has failed in his mandate. And although the presidency did not respond to The Africa Report’s enquiries for comments, it has often engaged the governor on issues raised.

“Some of us have been blocked from seeing Mr. President,” he says. “If you give me the opportunity, I would have seen and told him this, but they have blocked me; that I say the truth, and so I should not see him again.

After the Benue leader recently said Nigerians were regretting voting in Buhari into power, Garba Shehu, presidential spokesman, had a word for him: “There are two types of politicians in Nigeria today. The first are politicians who are leaders that offer solutions to the challenges facing the voters and the country….The second (are) politicians who offer excuses for the challenges voters face. They avoid ideas and instead blame others for problems they have either not solved or have themselves created.”

He said the Benue governor was in the second category, citing salaries owed to workers in the state as an example as he said: “He (Ortom) inherited unpaid salaries and pension arrears – and rather than find a way to raise funds to pay them, he has blamed the President.”

Access denied

Ortom tells The Africa Report that his access to the president has been “blocked” by “the powerful individuals” surrounding the president.

“Some of us have been blocked from seeing Mr. President,” he says. “If you give me the opportunity, I would have seen and told him this, but they have blocked me; that I say the truth, and so I should not see him again.”

The most prominent issue for which he has tackled the president concerns security, particularly the decades-long clashes between nomadic herdsmen and farmers in which Benue is one of the most affected states. The deadly conflict has worsened over the years as farmers continue to protest the destruction of their crops by cattle while the herders insist the farmlands are along routes originally meant for grazing.

Now, the conflict has morphed into armed violence in most parts of the Middle Belt and Nigeria’s north, resulting in killings and abductions for ransoms.

“Can Mr. President go to Katsina and stay there for one week without moving armoured tanks and a chunk of security personnel to protect him?” the governor asked. “Can he do that compared to when he was here in 2015 (when the president came to power)?”

Katsina, Buhari’s home-state is one of the worst-hit in the conflict, according to data from the US Council on Foreign Relations, but so is Benue. And while Ortom has often blamed the president for killings in his state, the presidency has often accused him of taking pleasure in passing the buck.

The 2023 Game

With his second term nearing its end, Ortom is believed to be nurturing an ambition to run for the senate in 2023. Two people close to the governor tell The Africa Report that the governor has already made his decision to run and is “waiting for the right time” to publicly declare his interest.

“His Excellency’s (Ortom)relationship with Buhari has affected many things but he is not going to be distracted from running for the senate in 2023,” one aide said anonymously as he was not permitted to speak on the issue.

The last time Ortom spoke on the matter, in October 2021, he said he was “still consulting with God” on whether to contest or not but minced no words on PDP’s “readiness” to return to Aso Villa, Nigeria’s seat of power in Abuja.

With heavyweights in its fold – including Bola Tinubu, national leader of APC whose supporters spread across the grassroots and in the north – in addition to being the party in power, the ruling party, analysts say, will do all it can to retain power.

Its biggest disadvantage, according to Ortom, is that it has “failed completely” under Buhari.

“We were on top when Mr. President came to power in 2015,” the governor told The Africa Report. “But he has taken us from top to bottom. I want the president to know that Nigerians are not happy; our people are not happy. There might be people who are deceiving him that all is well; all is not well in this country.”

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