In this interview, Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom presents his score card on the development of the state, identifying insecurity and payment of salaries as major challenges confronting his administration. He also speaks about perceived rift with his predecessor among other issues.
Workers in Benue State are owed salaries and allowances running into several months, what is really the implication of the recent declaration of state of emergency on payment of salaries?
One other thing that is a major challenge to me is payment of salaries. It worries me, I have sleepless nights on the matter but I am constrained. You are aware that there is drop in oil prices, violence and restiveness in the Niger Delta which have brought about shortfall in federal allocation and like in Benue where the state is core civil service, without industries and other commercial activities, it becomes difficult. People are not even willing to pay taxes and we understand their pain. The average person is affected and this is a big challenge.
Apart from getting money to pay salaries, we have the issue of ghost workers and we have done biometric but we discovered lapses. At a point, we wanted to apply other means including death verification which is ongoing at the moment. I know that I owe the state workers four months’ arrears of salaries. It is not that I don’t pay but what we do is that any time there is allocation, we pay and leave the shortfall. At the local government level, we met with the labour unions and we agreed that since the monthly allocation is not enough, for instance the wage bill is about N3.7 billion, what we have been getting from the federal government is N2.5 billion.
At the local government level, we have arrears of 7 months and that is why we declared state of emergency on payment of salaries and the implication is that we will prioritize payment of salaries, we will cut down cost of running government including slowing down projects execution. There is no basis paying ghosts instead of people who are working and we have set up a committee headed by the deputy governor. Pension alone is over N700 million and overhead is about N500 million. Salaries is N3 billion and this is too high. But we want to eliminate ghost workers. A committee did investigation and discovered that those who have retired, people who use same account and are collecting money from different vouchers are on the payroll.
When we came in, the Federal Government issued us N28 billion bailout, 12.5 billion to the state and 15.5 to the local government. At the local government, because of the screening, we were able to save N1.4 billion and the money is still in the account. All these are meant to clear arrears of salaries and pension. By declaring state of emergency on salaries, the implication is that we will prioritize the matter and clear the backlog.
You alleged that a notorious militia leader named Gana is behind all the criminality in the state. Why has he not been arrested?
This is something of worry. I am sure you must have watched an interview of Ghana what he said about himself, where and how he was trained, and what he intends to do. But I think as a Christian, this is just the work of the devil. He said he was trained in Niger, Borno and Cameroun, and so I think he is linked with Boko Haram terrorists. All he does is to cause pain. Initially when I came and did the amnesty programme, Gana was one of the people that came first in the three months period of the amnesty. He surrendered himself and we accepted him. He pleaded that he had a lot of followers and we should allow him time to bring the gang to also surrender and the very first day he came, he surrendered 87 guns and thousands of ammunitions including explosives.
According to him, he was not sure whether we could accommodate him. He later brought his boys who surrendered weapons and we granted them amnesty. In the course of rehabilitating him and the boys, we gave him a contract for revenue collection but he was not sincere. He went behind and was committing so many atrocities including kidnapping, robbery and killings. My special assistant on special security, the late Denen Igbana got to know about this and during the period, he was able to rescue 13 kidnapped victims.
And when my special assistant fingered him, he (Gana) organized, went and killed him. That was how we fell out and that was when he started running away from security agencies. And since then he has been running but we have declared him wanted. One thing we have noticed is that he has mass followership and he was donating motorcycles to the youths and putting them in his gang. If not God that saved Benue, we would have had another Boko Haram in the state. Today, the Federal Government’s attentionhave been drawn with relevant security agencies and they are working together to track Gana.
Several efforts are on to arrest him including a day that he was caught up, and he quickly climbed the tree and nobody was able to see him again. From his community, they have said Gana is very powerful through witchcraft and that if you discuss him, he knows and would quickly come and kill you. And so people are afraid to give us information. He has continued to kill including his kinsmen, uncles, brothers and sisters. He was residing at the border between Benue and Taraba. We have arrested many of his closest associates and recently, one of his wives came and surrendered, saying she is fed up and we believe that very soon, the issue of Gana will be over.
There exists a rift between you and your predecessor, Gabriel Suswam, who is accused of having link with Gana. Recently, there was a seeming fracas between you and the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike. What is actually the cause of these issues?
These are things I will not know. I have not heard Suswam talking with Gana. I don’t know about his link with Gana. The security agencies will explain that better and I have no direct evidence. The security agencies will know it better. About my friend Governor Wike, he said I went to campaign against him in Rivers State. I was nominated by my party and I went with other governors and that is where it started. But as a Christian, I don’t want to join issues with him and I have told my aides not to join any issue with him and there is no point talking about it.
I have no issue with him, we were both ministers in the former President Goodluck Jonathan administration. I believe all this is politics because of the way PDP treated me. They treated me in a manner that was not befitting and I left. Till now they are still dreaming that Ortom is governor but I have dislodged PDP in Benue State. I don’t want to comment on the matter but it is because you have asked me.
While the fight against corruption has taken a critical dimension, President Buhari’s ill health is worsening by the day. What can you make out of this?
It is unfortunate that President Buhari remains the medicine for Nigeria. He is selfless, highly disciplined and a patriotic Nigerian who fought for the unity of this country and despite his age, he is willing to add value to the development of this country. He is trying to instill discipline and wipe away corruption. Before his coming, everybody agreed that the problem of this country is corruption. He is the correct person for the job and whatever is happening to him, my advice to Nigerians is that let us continue to pray for him. It is God that heals.
For us in Benue, we have declared three-day fasting and prayer to pray for the quick recovery of the president so he can come back and administer the nation. We need him in this country to give us the inspiration to go back to our glory. We have no business in this country begging, the only thing is the indiscipline, corruption and impunity that have enveloped us.
The Open Grazing Bill as passed by the state assembly is a development that has sparked crisis in some quarters. Do you think this bill will survive?
The best thing is that Miyetti Allah ought to have participated in the public hearings. Government had spent a lot of money to organize it in zones A, B C and we ended it up in Makurdi. There are Fulani men in my government and it is strategic so that they too can participate. Our government is open and very fair. The passage of the bill does not say that herdsmen should leave Benue but they should do things right. That is the problem we have in this country, people do things arbitrarily.
Is Miyetti Allah above the law or those people carrying arms? We are not sending away any herdsman but whoever that wants to rear cattle in Benue, such person must ranch it because the land is insufficient and when you do open grazing, you can destroy crops. The herdsmen claim that when you take away their cow, they are ready to die but how about the farmers, should they also not die when their farms are destroyed. I therefore challenge anyone that is against the bill to give me a proposal that is better than this ranching bill.
You are about to clock two years in office. Is there anything remarkable you have achieved so far to enhance development?
So far, the journey has been very rough with a lot of challenges but we are on top of security, economic challenges and social vices as a result of youth restiveness largely because of unemployment rate which is very high. Of course we shall continue to have these challenges but the responsibility of government is the capacity to manage challenges, to ensure that people add value to their lives and to the development of the state. Within the limited resources, we came in and we met a deficit treasury, many people will not know but salaries, pension and gratuity arrears were in the tune of over N69 billion, and contractual obligations that we inherited over N70 billion.
We have faced most difficult times contending with salaries of workers. We started with borrowing and later on, the federal government intervened with bailout and we were able to apply the resources judiciously to develop infrastructure. One thing that we did when we came was to woo all the development partners that had gone while others were at the verge of leaving because of non-participation by the previous administration.
Talking about UBEC alone, we were able to access N3.8 billion which we matched with our counterpart funding and we had N7.6 billion. Today in Benue, you see in all towns and villages, new structures and we have awarded more than 640 different classroom blocks for our primary schools, provision of instructional materials and we have about 200 of these jobs completed and about 300 are ongoing. One other thing again that we did was the graduation of medical doctors who were abandoned for several years. We had cases of accreditation for instance in the school of medical sciences, BSU. By the time we took over, it was 12 years of non-accreditation but we took it as a challenge and resolved it. Today, we succeeded in graduating four batches of 152 medical doctors from the Benue State University.
On agriculture, we are able to provide fertilizers and currently, we intend to launch the cropping season for this year. We procured about 60 tractors to support mechanized farming. We have gone ahead to give civil servants the opportunity to farm and so we have declared three months’ work free day, every Friday. We have been able to evolve workable security measures to curb attacks on farmers by armed herdsmen. You can recall that when I came in, I initiated the amnesty programme and restive youths surrendered several weapons. On SDGs, we have done very well, we have constructed projects, skills acquisition centers, clinics among others