Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom has described his former political party, Peoples Democratic Party, PDP as a propaganda party.
He said this in an interview with Leadership Newspaper’s Solomon Ayado while explaing why he left the PDP.
“The PDP is my former party but I had to leave because it does not believe in fighting corruption; the party does not believe in transparency, equity, fairness and justice and so I had to leave. It is just a propaganda party.”
Governor Ortom also said his government will be transparent and fair to everyone.
“I will ensure my government gives account at the end of every year. I will provide audited accounts and publish it for everybody to see and I’ve given a challenge that it is not about me, but about the people and so if I do something wrong, my attention should be drawn. I will not witch-hunt anyone. It is not by propaganda; PDP is good at it.”
On allegations that he planned to bribe his way out of the election tribunal, the Governor said that was against his religion as a Christian.
“Now, they have jumped to another thing, saying that we are planning to bribe judges. Where is the money in the first place? Even if I have the intention of bribing any judge, I will not do that because I’m a Christian and I don’t believe in that. ”
Read the full interview below:
We understand that you obtained a N10 billion loan shortly after you came into office. What was the loan for?
I did not just meet an empty treasury when I came on board, I met a deficit treasury. It was a hard nut to crack; we thank God that today, we are where we are. By the grace of God, when we came in, we discovered that the subvention from the federation account was not enough to cope with salary payments because apart from the arrears of salaries that was, as at May, N12bn, we had other challenges as well. This was just what the preliminary investigation revealed.
When my predecessor was leaving, he released a press statement that he left N9.2bn debt; so when I took over, I made immediate enquiries and preliminary reports revealed that we had salary arrears of N12bn. We had certificated contracts which were ready for payment to the tune of N18bn, ongoing contracts to the tune of N50bn. We also had some overdraft facilities collected by the past administration and some outstanding loans which were left – altogether at N2bn, totaling about N90bn; that was a preliminary report and then add that to the N9.2bn he declared and the balance of N18bn bond that was collected. So, it was a big challenge of where to start from and where to go.
Salaries were not paid; government needed to take off; teachers were angry; Benue State University, a major industry in the state was shut down; the university teaching hospital was shut down and the only school of nursing and the school of health technology were also shut down due to non-accreditation of their programmes and obsolete facilities in these schools. For over three years, there was no admission into the school, this is in addition to several other challenges we had within the state.
On the issue of salaries, even when they were paid, it was either half or quarter. We saw this as a big challenge and so, we came together and decided on the first thing to do. If someone is hungry, he is angry and when someone is angry, such a person can’t work and so we had workers who were not working. We saw it as not being fair and the only remedy was to get money from the bank.
A preliminary look at the monthly wage bill showed that it was too high but that was what was presented to us. We contracted some consultants to do a biometric audit to see if we could reduce the wage bill because for a state like Benue, having a salary bill of about N2.9bn every month was on the high side and if you add up the overhead and running cost across board, which is over N800million, that is over N3.7bn. I have engaged a consultant who is working on how to authenticate the actual wage bill of the state; that is on-going. So, with this money, added to all we got from the federation account, as well as LNG proceeds shared to the states, we were able to successfully pay salaries for the month of May across board. We’ve as well paid salaries for June and July and the House of Assembly has taken off; the state executive council has taken off and we were able to provide funds for the renovation of the nursing school so that it would be accredited, for the school to reopen.
How have you been coping with managing the affairs of the state?
As I was saying, we were also able to provide funds for the equipment needed for the School of Health Sciences because students of that school had not graduated for the 12 years they had been there, when ordinarily, the course they are studying is for six years. I felt their pains. We’ve now met all the requirements, including the teaching hospital, which is a partial requirement for the accreditation of health sciences. The Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria will be in Makurdi soon and we hope the result will be favourable because all the requirements we were told to put in place have been provided. We believe this time around, they’ll do that and our children will graduate from this school. There’s no doubt, we’ve also had some security challenges too – kidnapping, armed robbery, cult activities, cattle rustling and all that. I must confess that by the grace of God, we’ve been able to contain these challenges. We have been able to minimise the issue of cattle rustling; we’ve been able to minimise the issue of conflicts between farmers and herdsmen; we’ve been able to minimise the issue of kidnapping and armed robbery and killings. We’ve noticed killings of our prominent people with impunity, though it is now under control. It is a situation caused by the past administration that bought arms and gave to vulnerable youths who are now using those arms. That was what prompted me to grant amnesty to those who still had access to those illegal weapons because my administration believes in the carrot and stick approach in tackling issues. We said during my swearing-in that we would declare a three months amnesty period for those who would willingly return those arms to us. We said we would even pay them a token; N100,000 for an automatic rifle; N60,000 for a pistol; N30,000 for locally made rifle and N20,000 for locally made pistol, after which we will reintegrate them into the society and look vocations for them to be trained in and provide equipment so that they can be properly integrated into the society. So far, it is yielding results and we expect more.
On the issue of kidnapping, we have been able to minimise it. With the help of the boys returning their arms, we have had respite in that regard. We were able to identify those behind the three cases we had recently, got to them and were able to release one without the payment of ransom.
As for armed robbery, once in a while it’s there but our security operatives are on red alert. We are working. There are some challenges too but as our finances continue to improve, we look forward to supporting them with a view to beefing up their activities so that our people can live in peace. Basically, we believe that we cannot achieve our objectives if we don’t have peace in our state. We have made lots of contacts; it’s an agrarian state with more than 90 per cent fertile land and people are willing to invest in agriculture and processing through industrialisation. We cannot achieve this when we do not have security. People are really willing to come and we have also held consultations with traditional rulers, stake holders and the youths. We believe that with time, we will be able to take full charge and curtail insecurity in the state.
So, it is so far, so good. We are equally looking at critical areas that have been neglected and though funding is not there, we’ve been able to bring smiles on the faces of people. Benue is basically a civil service state and the issue of salary payment is a major project that has to be done and that is why we are prioritising industrialisation, micro, small and medium scale enterprises, commercial activities and also investment activities in our state, knowing that this will help to bring value addition to our state and diversify the economy from the civil service nature as it is today.
Due to popular demand and as a democratically elected government, I have set up panels to verify the actual figures of indebtedness and, as I’ve told you, preliminary investigation revealed that we had an outstanding N90 billion debt profile. On further scrutiny, through the transition committee that I had put in place, they came up with a preliminary figure of about N130bn because they also accessed other records.
There are challenges at the local government level too, they too are owing salaries, pensions and gratuity to the tune of N30bn, and so if you put all these figures together, you are looking at over N169 billion that is outstanding. So far, that is what we have been able to verify. So, to put the records straight, I have set up strategic panels, one is to verify the assets of government, where they are and their value and the second one is to verify all the resources that came into the state from 2007 to 2015, so that we can know from where we are starting. It is not meant to be a witch-hunt, but to verify the truth. Our government is one that believes in the fear of God and that is what we stand for. We believe in truth, transparency, equity, fairness, justice and selflessness. We believe in integration, love and doing things right. We believe in the rule of law, due process and so, basically, this is what we are doing. We are committed to ensuring that we have the best for our state; we are committed to effecting a change that will transform the state to the best. We are committed to effecting a change that will bring out the potentials that we have in the state; we are committed to effecting a change that will bring all stakeholders in the state to be part of what we are doing and this is starting from me. We are accountable to the people.
So far, we have started on a sound footing and we are not looking back; we are not looking at what we met, but we have drawn a line and are moving forward and I believe it shall be well with us.
Benue is the food basket of the nation. Is there any specific plan to develop its agricultural potentials such that the state does not necessarily have to depend on federal allocation to pick its bills?
As a farmer, I will tell you that I am committed to doing this. One of the things that was a driving force for my victory at the polls was that I was identified as a farmer and a grassroots man and the people believed that if a farmer is governor, he already knows the pains and challenges in farming. And so, I’m committed to ensuring that we surmount these challenges. I am committed to ensuring that we provide an enabling environment to do farm work and operate in a manner that would be beneficial to them, to the state and to the country. I can tell you that the problem really is not the production of the produce; the problem is storage, processing, and marketing and unless the entire agricultural value chain becomes implementable in Nigeria, we will continue to have this challenge. And from the background of being a former minister of industry, trade and investment, this is where I come in. That is why we are promoting industrialisation so that we can process these primary products by promoting micro, small and medium scale enterprises. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you must have a big industry. You can have a small one that can process some of these primary products, not necessarily to finished products, even to semi-finished products for larger industries but some of these small and medium enterprises can even process some of these products to finished products. But let there be value addition through processing. It is said that when you export your primary products, you are exporting jobs, wealth and opportunities but when you process your primary products, you are providing jobs for your immediate community; you are creating wealth and you are creating opportunities. This is what I am looking at. So, we are bringing in investors; where we do not have the capacity, investors will come in and take over. This is why I am committed to tackling this issue of insecurity in my state because I believe that no investor will come when the state is insecure.
Frequent clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers has been a serious issue in your state. How do you intend to tackle this?
You can see that since we came in, we have been able to reduce it drastically. I have brought the warring parties to sit together, appreciate the fact that they need one another and whatever they do must be win-win for all; live and let’s live kind of situation. So, no one should think that he’s an island; they need each other and this has sunk into these people.
There are also challenges in the environment. The flood of 2012 is an example. NIMET warned that there may be another flood disaster this year. What proactive measures have you put in place in response to the warning?
Of course, these are natural disasters and once in a while, we’ve had that, but we can manage it. It’s not all parts of the state that are prone to flooding, those affected mostly are the ones around the river banks, especially where River Benue and Kastina-Ala pass through. I think we will be able to cope with and manage it. I was personally affected in 2012 when my 350 hectares rice farm was submerged for over a month and got ruined. The second year, it was not flood but herdsmen; they attacked and burnt down my 150 hectares rice farm and almost burnt down my combined harvester, but we are still moving on. Up until today, I am still cultivating. I even cultivated this season and I hope that it will yield good harvest. So, we have that challenge and we cannot run away from it and I believe that we will surmount it. I have a committee right now headed by my commissioner for works, commissioners of environment and water resources and three other commissioners. Some experts are on also on that team and I believe that they will be able to come out with good strategies.
One thing I have noticed in Makurdi, which is prone to this flooding, is that buildings were constructed on drains and we must relocate those people that built on the drains to ensure that water flows.
How does your party intend to fight corruption without bias, or what is now widely regarded as witch-hunting?
The PDP is my former party but I had to leave because it does not believe in fighting corruption; the party does not believe in transparency, equity, fairness and justice and so I had to leave. It is just a propaganda party.
Since the APC came onboard, have you not noticed that certain things are stabilising on their own? Civil servants are now aware that they have to be disciplined to retain their jobs and, of course, it would take a courageous criminal now to talk about stealing again in Nigeria. So, if we say that we are fighting corruption, go to the whole world and tell them, if we say you stole N1, and you did not, come out and tell the world. And for us, if we say that you stole, we will show the records because the evidences are there. So, where is the witch-hunt? Who has been witch-hunted?
I will ensure my government gives account at the end of every year. I will provide audited accounts and publish it for everybody to see and I’ve given a challenge that it is not about me, but about the people and so if I do something wrong, my attention should be drawn. I will not witch-hunt anyone. It is not by propaganda; PDP is good at it and back home in Benue State, anything you do, they will find a way of painting it black even if it is white. Now, they have jumped to another thing, saying that we are planning to bribe judges. Where is the money in the first place? Even if I have the intention of bribing any judge, I will not do that because I’m a Christian and I don’t believe in that. And it will interest you to know that since these judges came, I have not set my eyes on any of them because I am represented there by my lawyers.
What political strategy did you apply in the dying minutes of the party primaries, that made your switch from a PDP aspirant to an APC candidate possible within hours?
Look, I’ve been in politics for over 30 years; I know the game. I have been local government chairman, elected on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), from 1990 to 1993. I was publicity secretary of the National Centre Party (NCP) in 1996, I became state treasurer of APP in 1998 and state secretary of PDP in 2001. I became deputy chairman of PDP in Benue State in 2006 and the national auditor of PDP in 2008. Then I became a minister in 2011, so I know the workings of the party.
I’m not a fool to just jump into a party – I know that the tribunals are there, so I can’t just get up overnight and say I am a candidate, knowing that I can be challenged tomorrow. I looked properly at the constitution and I am learned. Before I join any party, I look at your constitution – what does it take to be a member.
When PDP manipulated my primaries on December 9, 2014, and threw me out, it was that same day that I resigned from that party – and I wrote to my party chairman at my ward where I joined the party earlier and I had to resign there. He acknowledged my resignation and gave me my letter, a copy of which I have till today. It was the same day I started looking at the other parties and I felt the APC had structures on ground which I could leverage on, added to the fact that many people in APC had told me that if I win the primaries in the PDP, they would vote me, that I am a good candidate and that they would love to work with me.
So, based on this, I decided to go with the APC. I looked at their constitution; in October 2014, the APC, knowing that PDP was a very big party and there would be bitter fallouts of their primaries and they (APC) would need to leverage on it, amended their constitution, such that you can join the party the same day and be eligible to contest election provided you have a waiver.
I joined APC in my ward on the same December 9, 2014, and wrote to be granted a waiver and I went to the national secretariat. They said ‘wow, this is big fish’ and the form was given to me.
Was this development known to your rivals?
I have no business with them. So, I got the form, filled it as stipulated by the guidelines of the constitution and I was eligible. I also got clearance; my name was submitted to the panel that came to Makurdi to conduct primaries.