New Telegraph

Ortom: Alia, I’m governor until May 29

Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom has given his successor and governor-elect on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Hyacinth Iormem Alia, a free hand to probe his administration, saying he has nothing to hide. Furthermore, Ortom, who said that the loss of his bid to go to the Senate does not really matter to him, also touched on other issues bothering on the G-5 governors, life after office and the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) issues of the state among other matters. CEPHAS IORHEMEN monitored the governor’s interview on Arise News Television

The Benue State Governorelect, Rev. Father Hyacinth Alia has been quoted as saying you are leaving the state in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU), particularly the civil service and that his responsibility is to rescue the state from the ICU where you have left it. He also said you have not paid salaries, pensions and gratuities. Are you guilty as charged?

Is Alia correct? It is an unfortunate statement coming from Hon. Alia, governor- elect, he is no longer Reverend Father because he was suspended from priesthood and so I feel sad about what he said. Going back to history, since I came in as governor, the civil servants have not been on strike and there must be a reason for their understanding with me why they should not go on strike because my government has been transparent and ensured equity and fairness in all things that we do in the state. When I took over in 2015, the total salary arrears, pensions and gratuity was over N70 billion.

The federal government intervened and we paid. There were issues because people alleged that there was diversion of funds and so on. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other offenses Commission (ICPC) came in and we were given a clean bill of health because no single kobo was diverted from the N28 billion that was given for the Local Governments and the State. Now, the balance of about N42 billion; just like other states were also applying, I did apply but politics will not permit this money to be given to me.

As I talk to you, Mr. President approved, the Federal Ministry of Finance approved and it went to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and because of politics, people rose up from Benue State that that money should not be paid to me because I am no longer in APC, then I had defected to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). And so, that has been hanging on. Everything was done, due diligence was done, DMO (Debt Management Office), had approved but getting to CBN, our people from Benue State rose up ( and said) look, if we pay this money to Ortom’s administration, it means we will not have anything to hold onto to campaign against him in 2023. This was what happened, as I talk to you, all the documents I have are there and CBN was just to release this money just like they did to any other state. Unfortunately, I found myself here, that money is still pending and I tell you the issue of salaries predates my own administration. Right from the days of Aper Aku, Aku owed over 13 months and so on. Today, we are talking about seven (7) months and of course I also inherited.

Whether it was military or George Akume, Gabriel Suswam or Adasu, they also owed salaries. The issue of salaries has been a major problem in Benue State, and let me also inform you that Benue State is paying the third highest salaries in Nigeria outside Lagos and Rivers States respectively. In the northern states, Benue State is paying the highest, you can cross-check this fact because we have done our research and the statistics are there. We have been paying. When I came in, I attempted to clear the arrears when I got a N20 billion loan from the bank but because of various recessions that came and economic hardship, it has not been able to stabilize but in 2018, I decided that salaries must be paid every month. The other seven months that were standing let it be arrears.

For the Local Government workers and teachers it was ten (10) months. So this is what has been going on. It is politics that has led me not to clear these salaries. You heard other states that have similar problems but because they are in APC they were paid. I must say that President Buhari was not biased, he approved but politics did not allow this money to be remmitted and I think that was what the APC in-coming government is saying that they will clear arrears it’s because we have already laid the foundation and they want to use that because now, with APC government they can take advantage and clear the arrears.

What has your administration done in the area of infrastructure?

We have done so well in all sectors of the economy. We have reached out to ensure that there is flow and we have also secured N20 billion loan from CBN Infrastructural Development Loan Facility and yet this money has been frustrated to be paid to us because we are outgoing but we have done everything, it is with the CBN and up till today, they have refused to release this money. But that notwithstanding, on our own, due to the little savings we have been able to have, we have paid pensions and gratuity as we have the money.

The issue of pensions, we sat with the pensioners and they all agreed that look, the difficulty is there but we must survive. Most of us are living on drugs and we accepted it. Every month we pay part of the pension and the other ones are paid the following month.

So it is not that we have not given attention to this. It is a big challenge, I am concerned too but this has been my own frustration but I think that we have done well by ensuring transparency in making sure that the pensioners, the local government workers and state workers are part of the sharing committee that we meet every month.

They are there so no shortchanging of any form has taken place since we came in. So I think that the incoming governor-elect should concentrate more on strategizing and see how he can move on. In any case, he has won an election so if he has won election by whatever means using federal might and security might and money might that they did, but he has won election, I have no quarrels with that. When he comes in, it will be his duty to settle all the challenges that he told the people that he was going to solve. I think he should concentrate more on attending to these things instead of poke nosing and interfering with my government at this time.

Your Excellency, in terms of economic development, Benue State is rated last in terms of Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). In fact, it’s said the state’s 83 per cent of IGR comes from FAAC and there is huge dependence on the Federal Government. What did your administration do in terms of revenue generation to justify its status as the Food Basket of the Nation? Also what is your comment on the killing of 46 people in Umogidi community in Otukpo LGA?

Thank you. I tell you the truth. My administration had tried to ensure that we improve on our IGR because when we discovered that not much was coming to take care of our financial needs in the state, we decided to look for creative and innovative ways that will improve on our IGR; that we did. We brought experts, we brought technocrats and people that we felt will be able to add value and make things work for us in Benue State to improve on the IGR to augment whatever comes from the federation account. Unfortunately, you will realize that since we came in and even before then, the challenge was the issue of security.

As I talk to you, 18 Local Government Areas out of 23 we have in the state are under siege by these terrorists’ herdsmen and it becomes difficult. In a situation where you have roughly seven million people and you have over two million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), in fact, all of them are peasant farmers that contribute to being called the food basket of the nation. So this has been the problem.

In a situation where people are carrying their belongings on the head and running here and there; in a situation where herdsmen come and feed over farm produce, in a situation where people are not stable, it becomes very difficult to one working and generate revenue from what is being produced from the farm. And you know that without security, it is impossible to add value to economic development in any aspect. Thank God, the incoming administration said they are going to allow the herdsmen into the state. And since the PDP lost election and I also lost my senatorial bid, the Fulanis have now taken over the state, that is what we have seen.

The report you heard from Umogidi community in Otukpo Local Government Area of the state is just one of them. In my own village, and other parts of the state like I said, 18 local government areas are under siege. Killings have been going on every day, they feed on people’s farms, they do whatever they want and they said that they have taken over and my own administration is no longer there. They are going to repeal the Prohibition of Anti Open Grazing Law, which Benue is their land they will take over and so on. Mind you, at no time did we send any Fulani man or woman away from Benue State. The challenge has been that democracy is anchored by the rule of law. I am somebody who believes in the rule of law and due process and this is what I have been doing. I have more laws than the other administrations since the inception of the state since 1976 and the reason is that as a democratic governor, let us have laws guiding us and leading us to do the right thing. But here are people who have come up openly and said that they will not respect the laws of our land. They have killed our people, in 2012, more than 5,000 were killed and it has been a major problem. So there is instability, they have not allowed things to work and now they are on a killing spree, every day I have reports on killings.

Okay, talk about the G-5 the platform on which you served. Three of you lost your bids to go to the retirement home (Senate). So how is the market and what is next for Ortom?

Laughs. Let me tell you, the market for me this time is not good and I am here. May 29 when I handover by the grace of God I will find something else to do, maybe go back to my farm and do business as far as I am concerned. But let me tell you, the truth is that the G-5 were able to achieve the desire of our members and the Integrity Group because the G-5 came out as a result of the fallout of the Convention of the PDP towards 2023 elections, and some of us believed that there should be a power shift. Nigeria is a country of over 250 ethnic groups and in the past we have been known to rotate the presidency from North to South. And so we felt that it was wrong for PDP to have given the presidency to the North when we have the incumbent President, Buhari from the North and the same North producing another one. We felt that that was not good for the unity of the country.

Some of us were concerned about how we can make things work for our country, Nigeria. We don’t have any other country to go to; I don’t have any investment in other places other than Nigeria and particularly Benue State. So we are concerned that let this country be together. Everyone knows that it is in the unwritten constitution, gentleman agreement, that when the presidency is in the North for eight years, it should go to the South for eight years, so this is what we stood for , truly.

I wanted my friend, Governor Nyesom Wike, I supported him during the primaries but not just him, and the South because we felt the presidency should go to the South. And you will recall that when the Southern Governors met in Asaba and said the presidency should go to the South, irrespective of wherever it comes from provided it’s from the South, I was the first governor in the North that came out to say that truly, what the Southern Governors said was right and let Nigerians team up together and ensure that let us have the presidency from the South. Thank God for the APC Governors who came in their numbers after that and said that we want equity, fairness and justice and let this presidency after Buhari’s tenure of eight years, go to the South, I commended them for that.

So for me, whether I lost my senatorial bid, and of course even before the elections, I did say that it does not matter whether I lose my senatorial bid but let the right thing be done. The Bible says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. We all know that we are in prison in this country, there are issues that have to be resolved and it is anchored on the rule of law and ensuring equity, fairness and justice in every aspect of our lives in this country. This is what is lacking and we cannot be on the fence. It doesn’t matter; my losing senatorial election does not really matter to me. That was why in spite of glaring evidence that if I go to court I may win or I may lose but I chose that let me stay back and I withdrew the case. Initially, I filed the suit but I have to withdraw it and say that look, let there be peace and especially for Benue State. The kind of trauma that my people gone through, two million people in IDPs, people running here and there being killed and all that, poverty all over the place, why should I get myself involved in stressing my people up. I decided to withdraw the case irrespective of the evidence that I have whether the rigging that took place, whether the federal might, whether the non transmission of results electronically as was said by the INEC because you cannot shift the goal post in the middle of the game. So with all these put together, I said look after all the Benue people have been good to me. I have served them as local government chairman, at the party level I have represented them, at the State and National levels I was Minister and today Governor and by the grace of God two-term Governor. I am grateful to God and the Bible says “All things worketh together for good”, and John 3:27 says, “A man can receive nothing except it is given to him from above”, and throughout my experience in politics, I have won all my elections, people have taken me to court up to the Supreme Court I have always won without releasing one kobo.

Your Excellency, despite what Rev. Father Alia said about his assessment of your performance, how do you intend to extend your hand of fellowship to him to achieve a seamless transition?

I have already done that to Hon. Alia, the governor-elect, I have extended a hand of fellowship. He has nominated people to join my transition council. The Secretary to the State Government (SSG) is the chairman of the council and they are expected to work together. If there are things they want to know, we will give it to them. We have nothing to hide; we are prepared to give everything that is needed and ensure a seamless transition to the new administration. I don’t have any quarrel with that. My duty as an incumbent governor and ending my tenure on May 29, 2023 is to work out a transition that will hand over to him and that I am committed to and I have no issues with that whatsoever. And I want to admonish him, because he is my junior brother, that he should wait, when he takes over, if he wants to probe me, he is free. If he wants to find out what took place during my eight-year tenure, he can go ahead and do it even beyond my eight years tenure, but now I am the Governor of Benue State till May 29, 2023. So I will continue to execute my work until May 29 when I will hand it over to him and will be sworn-in and then he will take over and whatever he has for the people of Benue State, he will go ahead and do it. And I advise him to think of doing better than what he thinks I did so that he will be appreciated because he was voted in by Benue people.

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