By Ayo Olukotun
“My life is in the hands of God and no Fulani militia has the power to take it without His permission”
-Samuel Ortom, Governor of Benue State, The Guardian, Monday, March 23, 2021
Assassinations by which it is meant the preplanned and deliberate murder usually of a high profile citizen are considered a weapon for changing the course of events. Historically, it is easy to recall such assassinations as those of John F. Kennedy, a former president of the United States; Martin Luther King Jnr, civil rights activist; Mahatma Gandhi, Indian politician and anti-colonial agitator; General Murtala Muhammed, Nigeria’s former head of state among several others. Recall the description of Russian history as a succession of dictatorships, moderated by assassinations and you will get the drift of the political deployment of the crime.
This puts in context the enormity of last week’s failed assassination attempt allegedly carried out by Fulani militia on the Governor of Benue State, Mr Samuel Ortom, who in the opening quote attributed his miraculous escape to Providence. Before getting to the counter factual scenario building of what might have happened, had the attempt to eliminate Ortom succeeded, let it be stated that the event should be interpreted in light of how rampant insecurity of lives has become. For instance, in the normally tranquil Ijebu area of Ogun State, shocking news made the rounds last week concerning the kidnap of a traditional ruler, who happily was subsequently released.
What the Ortom case confirms, however, is that insecurity had got to a level that no one including politicians who hold executive power is immune to its rampaging advance. Note also that another governor, Prof. Babagana Zulum of Borno State, had on two separate occasions escaped by the whiskers attempts on his life. In the same vein, Ortom had survived two previous assassination bids, making last week’s the third. If Zulum’s brushes with death are seen as an offshoot of the war against Boko Haram, Ortom’s occurred in a relatively less fraught environment unless the country itself is viewed as a boiling cauldron in which the gun of the assassin booms comprehensively across the nation’s geography.
As Ortom himself has pointed out, if state governors with all the paraphernalia of security around them can no longer go around safely, then one wonders what the fate of the ordinary Nigerian has become. This brings us to contemplating what events would have transpired had the assassination attempt on the governor been successfully prosecuted. It is possible considering how inured Nigerians have become to the running tragedy on our streets that tears will be shed, including of course crocodile tears, a mourning ceremony will be mounted, and the issue will fizzle out with the passage of time. Considering, however, how heated exchanges have become over inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations of late, it is also conceivable that such an assassination would have become the breaking point for a nation in turmoil.
The people of Benue State and the Middle Belt would have considered Ortom a martyr whose gunning down was motivated by a subnational project to eliminate all voices speaking out against the atrocities taking place in what Odia Ofeimun described at the recent Awolowo Memorial Lecture as a ‘cattle republic’.
In that context and possibly like Moshood Abiola and the June 12 saga, the governor would have been transformed posthumously into a nationalist, Benue State and Middle Belt hero larger than life whose assassination must not be allowed to be in vain. Such political martyrs are found in our history. For examples, Isaac Adaka Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa, who became legends because of the manner of their deaths and the causes they stood for, provoking as a consequence the militant version of the Niger Delta struggle for equity and resource control. This is another way of saying that the governor’s ghost would have lived much longer than him and would have continued to haunt those who plotted his death.
A more radical version of this scenario would be the repercussion of Nigerians mobilising themselves for their own defence through self help, convinced of the utter futility and bankruptcy of the official channels of protection and deliverance from death through the state security infrastructure. Something like this is already happening, indeed the Minister of Defence, Major General Bashir Magashi (retd.), said recently to national chagrin that Nigerians should learn to defend themselves against the onslaught of bandits. Obviously, a confession of official helplessness, Ortom’s assassination if it had been carried out successfully would have confirmed that Nigerians can no longer be saved by their rulers who are now counting on them to save themselves. Not just that, the illicit flow of weapons already a disturbing syndrome will cascade upwards wildly, further endangering the nation state and creating a near state of anarchy.
In a related connection, secessionist’ movements in gestation would have been provided ammunition to argue that their ethnic nations have no business remaining in the jungle and mumbo jumbo that Nigeria has become. It will be difficult to argue that this is not a sinister agenda perpetrated by an ethnic militia in order to bring about a latter-day version of Utman Dan Fodiyo’s republic which will have no place for the freedom of expression let alone worship. Needless to add that the current distemper arising from a mismanaged economy with the naira increasingly looking like ‘moinmoin’ leaves will aggravate the resulting turmoil making the uncertainty more palpable.
Another easy to imagine consequence of such an assassination would be the creation of such disquiet that it will be impossible to hold the 2023 elections, in point of fact, Ortom had warned recently that if nothing was done to halt the rapidly deteriorating insecurity, it might be impossible to hold the next elections. Of course, that itself may be a hidden agenda to prolong the political incumbency of government given that this will necessitate a state of emergency, higher military spending, and the outlines of a garrison state which would annul the possibility of the rule of law- in short, a version of what Rev. Fr. Matthew Kukah recently described as a journey to darkness. We do not yet know why the faction of the ruling elite behind the current insecurity has chosen this very time to orchestrate their nefarious plot, for sure, there are several unanswered questions including whether the Fulani militia implicated in several violent acts, realise that their attitude and actions can easily provoke backlashes that will further destabilise the country or terminate it.
The reason for building scenarios including worst case ones is to draw lessons from them, and more importantly to learn what must be done to avert desperately troubling scenarios. The point has been made several times that had government stamped its authority on the situation when it was more manageable, it probably would not have reached the current crescendo. For years, it has been public knowledge that militias have traversed the length and breadth of our forests, coming out at will to rape, kidnap, maim and disrupt normal life. How many of these forests have been stormed by security forces with their gang leaders arrested and paraded as trophies of civility and justice? The time to act is now.
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