When Samuel Ioraer Ortom took office as the executive governor of Benue state in 2015, he probably had no desire to be anything more than a governor i.e. Do his best in terms of promise-keeping, and, possibly, seek a second term. But none of us can tell what is in the womb of time for us, and, we can’t, therefore, tell for sure what destiny may have in store for us.
Today, Ortom is a second-term governor, but more than this, he has become the champion of Nigeria’s democracy, the one-man bulwark against oligarchic forces and their hirelings – the veritable “Defender of the Benue Valley.” He is also now being called Nigeria’s voice of reason, the mobilizer of democratic forces and the voice of the Oppressed minorities. But in speaking for the minorities, Ortom does no novel thing.
His distant predecessor, Gov. Apollos Aper Aku, did this before, forging close alliances with the Clement Nyong Isongs, the Patrick Anis and the Melford Obiene Okilos under the auspices of the 4th Force. It was during this time that on Aug. 4, 1982, at ABU, Zaria, he shocked Nigeria, especially the NPN oligarchs, with his revolutionary proposal of Power-Rotation among the Six Geo-political Zones! And before the revered Aku, the venerated Joseph Tarkaa did this too: mobilizing minority peoples of the Benue Valley and beyond, and speaking for them.
Beginning in the late 50s, and until the 80s, Tarka built political bridges with the Aminu Kanos, the Kashim Ibrahims, the Joseph Wayases, the Egbert Udoma Udomas and the Harrold Jenewari Dappa-Biriyes. And after Aku, Gov. Gabriel Suswam followed the beaten path by befriending the Emmanuel Gabriel Udoms the Goodluck Jonathans and the Nyesom Wikes. So, Gov. Ortom is walking a well-travelled path. But Ortom has brought another dimension to it: where Tarkaa and Aku spoke for the minorities, especially those in the Middle Belt, Ortom has expanded the scope, stepped up the game, and is now seemingly speaking for Igbo people of the South-East and even for the entire Southern states too! For instance, it took his courage, candour, consistency and clarity of messaging to rouse Southern governors and their thoroughly terrorised peoples from uncommon slumber.
Today, that lone voice has become a national chorus; and the lone man, who was crying himself hoarse in the political wilderness of the Benue Trough, is today a national opinion leader; one to whom the governors and the peoples of Nigeria are looking up to for leadership and direction. For a man who only sought to be the governor of Benue state, these epaulets of promotions and the garlands of national adulation must be turns of pleasant surprises. Hate him or love him, be you a hailer or a wailer, you must agree that Ortom has become the Face of the Democratic and Republican Nigeria: a free and just Nigeria where all are free before the law; an equal opportunity Nigeria where no one is a first-class citizen or second-class citizen simply on account of his ethnicity, language, attire, mode of worship and region. He is not the president of Nigeria, but history has taught us that you don’t need a great throne to do great things; and that you don’t need to be a great man to do great things. This is why the the Revd. Martin Luther King still tells us from the grave: “The time is always right to do what is right.”
For Ortom, that time is now. And in this elected path of the moral high ground, Ortom is walking with a number of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people who, through acts of uncommon courage, uncommon will and uncommon vision, have taken their places in Hall of Fame. I list them in no order of importance.
- Lt. Col. Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov: (The man who ‘saved’ the world) Col. Yevgrafovich Petrov, a Russian, was born on 7th September, 1939, in Vladivostok, USSR, and died on 19th May, 2017, in Fryazino, Russia. He was an officer in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, and played the heroic role in the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident when the world teetered on the brink.
On 26th September 1983, just three weeks after the USSR had shot down Korean Air Liner, Petrov was the duty officer at the Oko nuclear early-warning system when the system gave a false alarm that the US had launched missiles against the Soviet homeland. Judging the system reports to be false alarms, he disobeyed the standing orders to report same to the highest rungs of authority, who would automatically have ordered a retaliation. In placing human lives over rigid military orders and soviet nationalism, Petrov prevented an erroneous retaliatory nuclear attack on the US and her NATO allies, thus taking his place in the Hall of Fame. Lesson: Even soldiers can place humanity above rigid orders or narrow-nationalism.
- Abraham Lincoln (The man who saved America). Abraham Lincoln would be a well-known global figure even if he didn’t become an American president. This is because even before he became president, his serial electoral, medical and business failures or breakdowns had guaranteed him a place in history – man is obsessed with celebrating the failures of others! Lincoln was born on 12th February, 1809, in Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky, U.S., and was assassinated on 15th April, 1865, in Washington, D.C. When he took over as the 16th American president on 4th March, 1861, the country was adrift!
There was social, economic and political discontent arising majorly from slaveholding in the South. As one American historian, Ted strong, has noted, “Northerners were fighting to preserve the Union, southerners to preserve slavery.” And Robert S. McElvaine of The Baltimore Sun has added: “Slavery was the raison d’etre of the Confederacy (the Southern States). The ‘Liberty’ they sought to preserve was the LIBERTY to OWN HUMAN BEINGS!” (Emphasis, mine). The issue had pushed the US to the crossroads, dividing the country into two halves; and the task of uniting the republic fell on the shoulders of this very ordinary-looking commander-in-chief, a man who had suffered a nervous breakdown not too far back. On 1st January, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, making the abolition of slavery, as well as the preservation of the Union a war aim. In other words, when the issue of slavery, as important as it was to the economy of the Southern States – when it threatened the corporate existence of the country, the president, with a pan-American vision, put his presidential foot down! He didn’t equivocate, euphemize or perfume the issue. Lessons: The President of the Republic should use his office to unite the country and preserve her corporate existence – no matter the vested interests that were at stake.
- Mamoudou Gassama, according to Wikipedia, was born in 1996. He was born in Mali, but travelled to Italy via Burkina Faso, Niger, Libya and the Mediterranean. Although he had legal residency, in September 2017, he crossed over to Paris, France, to join his brother. It was while living in Paris that on 26th May, 2018, Gassama climbed a four-storyed building in the 18th arrondissement (District) of Paris in a record 30 seconds to save a four-year-old boy who was hanging from a balcony. It would later be known that the boy’s father had left his son unattended and gone shopping! In the aftermath of his heroic act, it is reported that the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, called Gassama “Spider-Man of the 18th District,” and on 28th May 2018, President Emmanuel Macron invited him to the Élysée Palace, gave him a job and awarded him the “Médaille d’honneur.” And in September 2018, he was granted French citizenship. LESSONS: Gassama, elevated human life over prejudice. He is a muslim, but at that moment, life was life – Muslim, Christian, Animist, Atheist, Hindu, Bhudhist, Voodooist etc didn’t matter. He told himself: “Life is sacred. And blood has no tribal marks or religion.” His humanity speaks to every human being!
We can go on and on. We can mention Charles De Gaulle, we can mention Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and many others who never took the high office, but did many high and noble things. And while these great souls did noble things, there were small men who dealt them the cards of distraction via treachery, betrayal and discouragement. These were the hordes of traitors, a clan of Judases, the accomplished hypocrites and the consolidated liars of their era.
That is what Ortom faces today, but he trudges on, without looking back. After all, Abe Lincoln et al didn’t look back. Benedict Arnold: I end this piece with the inglorious story of the greatest traitor in American history: Benedict Arnold. He was the general who sold his Homeland to the British for $6000! Arnold was born on 14th Jan., 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut. He traded in merchant ships, and when the revolutionary war began in 1775, he joined the Continental Army, and rose to the rank of major-general. Greedy for power, recognition and honour, Arnold and his clan of traitors agreed to compromise West Point, a major American stronghold (which he commanded) to the British for £20,000. His fellow-traitor, André, was captured with the “contract papers” in September 1780 and promptly executed Arnold, however, escaped to the British side – receiving commission in the Colonial Army as a Brigadier, a downgrade! And instead of the agreed £20,000, the British paid him £6,000! Arnold, who only a few months back was fighting for American Independence, started leading British forces to raid and kill his fellow-countrymen in Richmond and environs.
But worse than this, he led the burning down of New London, Connecticut; even slaughtering his countrymen who had surrendered after the Battle of Groton Heights! Groton Heights, it must be mentioned, was just a few miles from the town where Arnold had grown up as a child! In essence, he helped foreigners from another country and continent to visit death and destruction upon his own people, turning the survivors into hapless Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs)! Feeling alone and ostracized, in 1782, he moved to Britain. Although he was received honourably by the king, and the ruling party, he was despised by the English nobility and the military establishment. When he died in London in 1801, he was extremely unpopular and bankrupt.
Lessons: A traitor has no honor: Those he betrays give him the respect usually accorded vermin; and those to whom he betrays his people consider him a sub-human creature! So, where others took their places in the Hall of Fame, this traitor took his place in the Hall of Infamy! History is still our great teacher.
… Imobo-Tswam, a media entrepreneur and public space analyst, writes from Abuja
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