Home Opinion On the road with Samuel Ortom, Benue’s ‘hard man’

On the road with Samuel Ortom, Benue’s ‘hard man’

28 min read

Avid followers of Nigeria’s sociopolitical trends and developments must be very familiar with his name and his multifarious endeavours. Indeed, if there were medals or plaques to reward bluntness and no-holds-barred interjections and interventions in public discourse, he will, rightly, undoubtedly and deservedly, be a frontline contender. He is consistently vocal, irrepressibly fearless, typically pointed, notably bold, pulls no punches. He is no respecter of suffixes, refuses to be cowed by nomenclatures, unmoved by high-falutin titles, ever fire-spitting and serially hard-hitting. Where others cringe like whimps, kowtow, cavil and caterwaul, mystified by “the body language” of the supposedly high and mighty, he sneers, even smiles, unimpressed and unmoved by such myths and concoctions.

You may indeed be tempted to brand him the “Comrade Governor”, an appellation which will adequately fit his undertakings and public profile. And you will be correct. Indeed, established activists like Adams Oshiomhole, former long-serving leader of the Nigerian Labour Congress and immediate past governor of Edo State, must be green with envy about the activities of our subject. Famously, Oshiomhole was a veteran of several street marches, many public protests, even picketing activities during his more active days in unionism. All of that mellowed, however, as soon as he became chief executive of the state which prides itself the “heartbeat of the nation”. Today, however, we have a sitting governor who has refused to be encased by the glitz, glamour and razzmatazz of the high stool. He prefers to identify with his people, the mass of his constituents, on whose goodwill he rose to office, whose rights, privileges and welfare he swore to protect.

Back in July 2011, he stunned Nigeria’s upper legislature and Nigerians in general while being grilled for confirmation, following his nomination by the then President Goodluck Jonathan as a Minister of the Federal Republic. Requested to introduce himself to the parliament and indeed to Nigerians since the ministerial screening was on live telecast, he said he was “a motor park tout”, who God has picked up and raised to become a potential member of the yet-to-be constituted Federal Executive Council. Those who know him attest to the fact that he was a famous commercial driver on the Gboko-Mkar road in the Tiv country of Nigeria who nonetheless kept his eyes on the ball. His past brief at the time was National Auditor of the then ruling party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), a position of national visibility. Ehigie Edobor Uzamere, former Senator representing Edo South, requested the upper house to graciously confirm his nomination for his unashamed forthrightness about his past and pedigree, a proposition which was unanimously endorsed by the plenary.

And he was not faking his profile. His father’s retirement from service in 1979 impacted his education such that he dropped out of Idah Secondary Commercial College, in present Kogi State, where he had earlier been admitted in 1976. He became a well known professional driver in Gboko, at the heartland of the Tiv country, operating from various motor parks. He pulled up himself, however, earning an ordinary level General Certificate of Education, and a Diploma in Marketing. He later obtained an Advanced Diploma in Personnel Management, and a Master of Public Administration, among other qualifications. He had also functioned in the defunct National Centre Party of Nigeria, the All Peoples’ Party, and the PDP, in various capacities.

He has been a strident critic of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari whose Fulani kinsmen have made life most unbearable for his people. The nomadic herdsmen decimate and destroy the farms of his predominantly agrarian constituents, maiming and killing the hapless people, even daring to appropriate their lands. The unabating onslaught by the nomadic marauders has precipitated the displacement of whole communities in instances, from their aboriginal homes. This has spawned squirming camps of internally displaced persons across the face of the state. He has himself been a target of the criminals, who attempted to attack him in the course of his visit to his farm on at least one occasion. He is never tired of highlighting the complicity of a Federal Government whose security infrastructure has demonstrated lack of resolve and capacity to mitigate the situation. His appreciative constituents have nicknamed him “Defender of the Benue Valley”.

Samuel Ioraer Ortom has barely changed between my first meeting with him about 10 years ago, and today. Back in 2014, I visited him in his Abuja residence, with my bosom friend and brother, Gabriel Tivlumun Nyitse. Ortom was substantive Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment; and concurrently, Supervising Minister for Aviation. Nyitse desired to run for the governorship of Benue State, as successor to Gabriel Torwua Suswam, who is presently a Senator. He served under Suswam as Permanent Secretary, Government House Administration for a record seven years. He believed he had learnt the ropes, to replace his erstwhile principal. Nyitse had a list of prominent Benue State personalities he had to meet and consult with. Ortom, who comes from the same local government area, and indeed a contiguous community to Nyitse’s, was top on the list. We subsequently made several such visits together, both in Benue and Abuja.

Olusunle (right) presenting his newest poetry collection, “A Medley of Echoes”, to Governor Ortom

I was stunned by Ortom’s modesty and unassuming personality on that first meeting. Here was a Minister with something of a “double-barrelled portfolio” under the Jonathan administration. That administration has been severally pilloried for large-scale greed and graft by the incumbent government that is widely believed to be hopelessly reckless, massively corrupt. Recent figures indicate that Nigeria’s debt portfolio has overshot the N41 trillion mark. Most of these debts were incurred within the lifespan of the incumbent leadership. This same government mouthed wholesale contestation against corruption as one of its three-pronged agenda in the run up to its ascendancy in 2015.

But here was a supposedly senior Minister in that same government, contentedly resident in a modest terrace apartment in one of the many housing estates abutting the city centre! Many of his colleagues, and indeed several senior public servants, by the way, were simultaneously in rabid contest and competition for architectural monstrosities at the heart of the Federal Capital Territory. Please take a tour of Maitama, Asokoro, Guzape and Katampe, among other highbrow districts in Abuja, and check out what our leaders, elected and appointed, have done with our commonwealth. Except for a few vehicles bearing official plate numbers facing Ortom’s place, his abode was largely anonymous. We were received by one of his aides at the approach to the house and ushered into his living room, where he was already seated.

Ortom received us warmly and gestured to us to take our seats. He slaps your palm the way a longtime friend would, while shaking hands with you, which immediately puts you at home. We run through happenings in the political space together, taking special note of the gradual onslaught of the budding All Progressives Congress (APC), an uncanny amalgamation of disparate political parties and tendencies. He shares with us too his experiences as an “amphibious” member of the Federal Executive Council, with legs in two ministries. Nyitse “delivers his manifesto” as it were, to a listening Ortom, emphasising the imperative for continuity of the good works Suswam had done by someone who understands that global vision of development.

I’ve met Ortom on two occasions thereafter since he transmuted into the Governor of Benue State in 2015. Both occasions, however, were not times for banter or bonhomie. We met again, for instance, in the run up to the 2019 general elections when the Buhari administration spontaneously removed the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria from office. PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar addressed the media on the issue at the Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja, an event I attended as a public affairs enthusiast. We also met at the internment of our mutual friend, Donald Ngorgor Awunah, an Assistant Inspector General of Police and distinguished son of Benue State, who died in active service last May.

Ortom demonstrated remarkable humanity, beginning from Awunah’s hospitalisation months earlier in an Abuja medical facility, all the way to his unfortunate demise. Through Nyitse, who is now his Chief of Staff, he underwrote the hospital bills substantially. He indeed offered to fund a foreign medical trip for Awunah, if he was strong enough to cope with long hours in the air. Following Awunah’s exit last 23 May, Ortom visited his family in their Makurdi home to comfort them. He beat his own maximum limits of support for the final rites of passage of loved ones by over 100 percent in Awunah’s instance. Rather than delegate a representative, he attended the event in person, travelling through the dilapidated Makurdi-Nakaa-Mbachohon-Tse Awunah road for the event in Gwer West Local Government Area (LGA).

Awunah’s funeral ceremony was richly attended by the top brass of the Nigeria Police Force, colleagues (retired and serving), kinsmen, course mates in the various institutions he attended, family and friends. Upon a request by the traditional ruler of Awunah’s community, Ter Tyoshin Daniel Ayua Abomtse, at the internment, Ortom promptly approved the immediate absorption of two of Awunah’s children into the Benue State Civil Service. Donald (Jnr) Kumachivirter and Nnee Gabriella, both graduates of English, are the beneficiaries. Such is the depth of pragmatism and humanity that Ortom who demonstrates beneath that preliminary veneer of a tough guy, a “hard man,” as he describes himself.

On a recent visit to Makurdi at the instance of my friend, Nyitse, I was opportuned to observe Ortom even much closer. Yes, I desired a few days out of the boredom of Abuja. Makurdi would most probably top the list of my preferred hideaways not only because of Nyitse, but also because I have been wholly absorbed into the state, over time, by friends who have become virtual family. My visit coincided with the golden birthday celebration of the Ortom’s wife, Eunice Erdoo. Beginning from Saturday 27 August to following Monday, several activities were lined up to celebrate a beautiful lady who Benue State people have come to appreciate and adopt as the mother of the state. From church thanksgiving ceremonies in Makurdi and Gbajimba, (Ortom’s hometown), in Guma LGA, through receptions in both communities, Ortom showed sides of him I had never known.

As we were admitted into Ortom’s country home, Sunday 28 August after a church service, I was struck by the humility of the premises. Across Nigeria, I have seen and have been hosted in sprawling country homes of the nouveau riche who were not necessarily governors. I have glimpsed country abodes, complete with mini-stadia and conference centres in places. I have seen countryside villas adorned with helipads, among other facilities. Ortom’s place consisted largely of a modest bungalow which represents the main house, and a contiguous structure which serves as service quarters. The roof is the regular aluminum long span type, which has since been replaced by more exotic, modern roofing trends. As Nyitse and I tried to search for chairs to join other guests in the courtyard of the house, we were directed to come into the main building. We entered and were beckoned to our seats.  I kept looking around for a private door leading possibly, to a more expansive, more exclusive sitting area. Apparently, however, the room where we were seated, was the main living room. The dining arrangement had been temporarily reconfigured to receive special guests for the event. A caterer was set up in a corner of the room, while plastic chairs and tables were introduced for other people.

Ortom came in without ceremony and took a place beside John Dyegh, a serving third-term member of the House of Representatives, on a maroon settee made of fabric. On the adjoining side was the state’s Deputy Governor, Benson Abuonu and his wife. Titus Tyoapine Uba, Speaker of the Benue State House of Assembly, was also seated with his spouse, facing the governor. Evidently therefore, we were in the “VIP suite” of the complex in the rectangle so spontaneously constituted. A side stool was adapted as makeshift dinning table for Ortom, as he helped himself to luam, (pounded yam) with an assortment of ashwe, adenger, pocho, and similar enticing Tiv soups. There were no formalities. He didn’t need chefs or protocol staff fawning over him. Still curious, I asked Nyitse in a whisper: “When did Oga build this house?” He answered in a low tone too: “He built it when he was a Minister. And he hasn’t added one building block to it ever since”.

Nyitse, my host, told his Principal that I would love to meet him on that visit. Studying people is actually one of my major interests. Besides, my latest volume of poetry, A Medley of Echoes, which Foreword was written by Emeritus Professor Femi Osofisan, contains a poem titled Makurdi. Nyitse thought I should autograph a copy and present it to Ortom, having so celebrated the state capital in my book. As we drove into what used to be Government House, Makurdi to keep the appointment, I observed that the signage had been re-written to read “Benue State Peoples’ House”. This, I believe, is to underscore Ortom’s mantra of political populism, the earthiness he has constantly and consistently demonstrated in his approach to governance and administration.

It was meant to be a 9 am appointment on the day. And when you find yourself in the company of big names like Iyorwuese Hagher, distinguished Professor of Theatre and Drama, and former Minister of the Federal Republic in the governor’s visitor’s room, be sure the big man is not far away. You are further reassured when Abba Moro, Senator representing Benue South, shows up. But Nigerian-style politics consists among others of the public office holder contending with the reality of his constituents waking him up at dawn in his home, thereby kick-starting your day for you. And they are traditionally armed with a brimming basket of complaints and requests. You better switch to that mode as a politician, or receive your testimonial at the next ballot.

We had brunch together when Ortom finally came, joined by members of the state House of Assembly, leaders of the PDP and some members of the State Executive Council. You could not but marvel at his unassuming naturalness as he exchanged banters with his guests, de-congesting cuisines stacked close to him for general administration and culinary dispensation. He has taken off his blazer and hung it behind him. And he simply moved over after brunch to the adjoining private living room to begin his work for the day, meeting individuals and groups, addressing challenges and proffering guidance on a broad range of issues.

Ortom is an interviewer’s delight. He is initially reluctant because he needed to attend to other guests. But once he switched on to the conversational mode, he proved a consummate engager. Ortom is so, so well-informed, up-to-date, confident and articulate. You want to ask: Is this the same man who encountered well-known punctuations and hiccups in his early educational career?

Time, without doubt, has been his teacher. Not too many professors and scholars possess what Ortom possesses in expressive capacity and clarity of communication.

Olusunle, PhD, poet, journalist, author and scholar, is a Member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, (NGE).

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