Reading the text of Senator George Akume’s press conference containing critical allegations against Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State in Abuja on August 30th, 2021, one finds illustrations of the problems of messaging without taking the factors of timing and content in communication strategy. Of course, Governor Samuel Ortom has not been paying salaries, pension and gratuities for years but what is the truth value of that when weighted against the thick perception of Ortom as someone being persecuted for fighting ‘Fulanisation’? Islamisation and ‘Fulanisation’ are what majority of Nigerians have been socialized into believing to be the drivers of the Buhari administration. It is not a matter of whether it is true or not. It is, rather, a matter of what is perceived to be true. As long as the Buhari regime remains unable to do the sort of things that will interrogate such perception, Ortom will remain too cold to hold and hot to handle.
Senator Akume did have a winning strategy with which he could have buried Ortom, substantially but even then never completely. If he had detailed the months and years of non-payment of salaries, pension and gratuities and matched it against resources the governor has collected in the past six years plus, that would have been tough luck for Ortom. But selling a narrative that supports abrogation of the Livestock Guards is unlikely to be a winning formula even as frustrated with Ortom as many are. His non-payment of salaries doesn’t weigh as much when ‘Fulanisation’ and the 1804 Jihad it connotes are at issue.
That is where Akume has a messaging strategy crisis. It is not as if people are not sensitive to what he is saying against the governor. It is simply a matter of which one is perceived to be a greater threat between non-payment of salaries and being Islamised. It remains unclear why Nigerian Christians believe that there is a systematic Islamisation campaign; that they could be Islamised and that a theological social order can be successfully imposed on a modern economy. It is even more intriguing that they rarely talk of Christianising adherents of other religions besides pagans. It all suggests a crisis of theorising in Nigerian Christianity. But as long as that feeling of collective vulnerability to Islamisation persists, so long would an Ortom being seen as ‘defender of the Benue Valley’ will prevail over other narratives.
Ortom’s image as someone being persecuted for standing up to what are perceived to be state sanctioned attempts at taking ancestral lands by beating the locals to submission is not a local image but national and even global. Akume might, in that context, be risking a backlash that could be more dangerous for him than he might have calculated.
This is more so that Ortom is a professor in propaganda and has, so far, won all the battles between him and Akume. He managed to meander smartly enough to regain the throne in 2019. A clumsy politician could have dilly-dallied and possibly lost the 2019. Not him. As soon as he found a safe landing in the Anti-Grazing law and in inflammable, anti-Fulanisation rhetoric, he made Akume uncomfortable, Akume being the one that brought him to power over and above everyone else. He was obviously not listening to Akume because, having passed the Anti-Open Grazing law along with the rhetorical politics about it, he knew he would not be given the ticket to contest the governorship under the APC again in 2019. So, it was time for him to return to the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) and, hence, the needlessness of listening to Akume or being restrained by him anymore. Since then, their relationship has been up and down.
Victory number two came when he eased Akume out of the Senate, bringing in a younger guy to defeat the ‘leader’ in 2019. That is besides displacing all Akume loyalists in crucial high state offices in Benue as soon as the first signs of break in relations occurred.
And he can inflict more damages. For instance, in his initial response to Akume’s press conference Monday, he wondered why the minister did not hold the press conference in Makurdi, the Benue State capital if he thought he were that popular. And that the minister should be taken in by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC) first for the N2b he allegedly stole. Ortom’s logic is that Akume’s own occurred before his. Someone with capacity for such an argument may not be trifled with, notwithstanding his lack of formal education.
What Ortom is illuminating is the risks associated with king-making in an environment of politics involving no serious ideological bonding. In a context of serious ideological bonding, a break in relations may still occur but over principles and without necessarily leading to divulging details that embarrass the larger ideological caucus.
Senator Akume might, empirically, be a sharp contrast to Governor Ortom in any comparative analysis of the two. While one is more open, circulates and has a peculiar way of giving more freely, the other one is the opposite. But the other one is coming up smarter in constructing and hanging his politics on a paradigm. It requires rupturing the paradigm of defending the Benue Valley against ‘Fulanisation’ and Islamisation to rupture Ortom in contemporary Nigerian politics. It ought to be nothing difficult to do but Akume’s principal is so apolitical that he remains incapable of doing so. He is waiting for time to prove that he never had or has never been a party to any ‘Fulanisation’ and Islamisation campaign beyond the figment of opponents. As long as he maintains that position, people who hang on him politically will continue to encounter occasional catastrophic ruin, no matter how kind they may be. That is Akume’s risks in the impending escalation. If Akume continues to ignore the contingency of meaning by throwing grand press conferences with scripts written by flat experts in messaging, the possibility of a counter-hegemonic narrative that can punch holes in Ortom’s narratives of victimhood might either remain elusive or take too long to come. In the long run, it might no longer matter.
Without suggesting that Akume lacks people in solidarity because they are also unhappy with the situation, the point is that Ortom is dealing with an issue while Akume is dealing with Ortom. The structure/agency debate is at stake here. How best can it be handled in context is the question confronting Akume!
Elite fragmentation anywhere is not anything to be jubilant about because it is always the common people who will bear the brunt in the course of two elephants slugging it out! In a state such as Benue where neither the legislature, elder statesmen, media watch over nor elite consensus is a restraining factor on power, this is a significant rupture worth noting. It is possible some national elders or serious religious leaders step in. The people in Benue State have suffered under democracy. To go without salary in a state without a single functional industry, without much commercial activities and with a totally unorganized agricultural system is nothing less than a national tragedy warranting the intervention of nothing less than the Abdulsalami/Kukah peacemaking mechanism. For, Nigeria might as well be dealing with a potential point of violent implosion! Time to go beyond the blame game in favour of something more holistic!