On Tuesday, 29th November, 2016, Governor Samuel Ortom granted audience to a team of the management staff of National Mirror newspapers. Below are excerpts from the interactive session.
How have you been able to bridge the gap between promises made and the reality now?
We’re keeping faith with our promises to the people in our government and so far, so good, we’re in touch with the people and in spite of the recession we have today in our country and Benue State is also affected. We’re not able to pay salaries as at when due. Our wage bill is N7.8 billion on average in a month and since August last year we’ve been receiving an average of N4 billion, though once in a while we have interventions like the bailout funds, like the infrastructure fund, like LNG fund that came in. But that is where we are. You may recall that we did promise that for us we’ll ensure that we industrialize the state to ensure value addition to our primary products, and then we’ll promote micro, small and medium scale enterprises we’ll also promote and develop trading and commercial activities within the state. Most importantly, we’ll attract investments into Benue State and so far, so well. We came and met a very distressed situation on ground, one, the economy was bad, arrears of salaries were owed, arrears of pensions were owed, and arrears of gratuities were pending. When you put these things together it amounted to over N69 billion. It’s unprecedented in the history of our state and we inherited a deficit treasury, even our accounts overdrafts were hanging on them and so it was a very difficult thing taking off. Worse of all was the issue of security. Security for lives and property is the primary responsibility of every reasonable government. We took over a government and inherited an insecure state and armed robbery, kidnappings and killings, assassinations and several other crimes were going on in the state. But by the grace of God, God gave us the wisdom to introduce an amnesty program. First of all we applied the carrot approach when we pleaded with the criminals and the response was massive. More than 700 assorted weapons were recovered from these hoodlums and more than 900 of them came up to surrender to the amnesty program. Today we’re applying the stick approach; the amnesty program is in two folds, the carrot and stick approaches. So after the expiration of the period we gave for the carrot approach we introduced the stick approach and today you can see that our state is relatively calm. We’ve been able to reduce criminality to its barest minimum and people are going about their normal duties because we knew that no investor would come to invest in Benue State in an insecure environment. We knew that no commercial or trading activities or the development of micro, small and medium scale enterprises or industrializing the state to realize our dream for an industrialized state would thrive in a state of insecurity. We appreciate God that we’ve been able to come this far and we believe that moving forward becomes very easy and there is an influx of investors coming into the state. As at today several investors have come from Europe, from America, from Asia, and we are providing the enabling environment because we believe that with these kinds of efforts we’ll turn the state from a civil service economy to an industrialized economy that will drive the system. Currently the state is more of civil servants who are driving the economy and when salaries are not paid it becomes a very big issue in this place. So we want to take people away from that. Now that the Federal Government is faced with reality and a recession has been declared in the entire country for us we believe that it’s an opportunity to look outside the box of government and begin to be creative and innovative. For now, we’re taking advantage of areas where we have comparative advantage. For us in Benue State, as the Food Basket of the Nation, we want to not just feed Nigeria; we want to feed Africa because we have the capacity. We have no business importing rice. If the opportunities that we have here in Benue State are harnessed properly rice production alone we can hit N1.5 metric tons right here because the population is there, the land is there, and we have water. All the advantages are there for us, it’s just the will and the technical support that the people need. Of course, once the market is also created and farmers are able to break even as it’s happening now and our people are really excited, I’ll tell you the truth, an average farmer here is excited with the change program of the APC. They’re very excited, they’re happy with Mr. President, they’re happy with me because for the first time in the history of this state people are getting returns on their investment in farming. I’m a typical farmer and for a very long time it was difficult for me to sell a sack of rice for N8 thousand, they gave me six to seven thousand at harvest. Today, I’ll tell you, the benefit is great. Last year’s harvest, I was able to sell mine at N15 thousand but the other people who had little patience after I sold mine the following week it went to N32 thousand and I calculated 1, 500 bags and I was losing N25 million. We have the capacity for the production of soyabeans, it’s massive and sesame seed, and several others, of course yam which is the traditional product of Benue State. It’s massive, all that is needed it to put processing factories that can add value to these primary products. Because we’ve secured the state today investors are coming and we’re very excited. Because of the challenge we have in the payment of salaries we initiated this year again that even the civil servants should go to farm and today our civil servants almost all of them are farmers. We declared Fridays work free day in July and August for planting and for harvesting November, December, January, we’ve also declared Friday work free day for civil servants, except those on essential services. If you go to our villages todayyou’ll see that people have really taken the advice of government and they’re working very hard on their farms and we expect a bountiful harvest this year. If people need food they should just come to Benue State.
Do you have any program to scale up the production in the agriculture sector and also provide storage facilities?
Yes, there is. All those things are on the line, we’re being proactive. For this year’s budget we had over N800 million for the construction of earth dams in order to give opportunity to our people to do dry season farming. We also had about N900 million for land clearing because if we must go into commercial agriculture, we must clear the land. We also made provision for the purchase of 60 tractors with all the implements on them and we’ve made a wonderful arrangement for the procurement and supply of fertilizers, working with the businessmen and supplying it directly to our farmers. We pay subsidy to the businessmen but the business supply directly to the farmers. With all these in place and of course the issue of storage and off taking in the event that prices fall, because we want to maintain and sustain the tempo, we want to engage our people, we decided to work towards getting the Benue Investment and Property Company, BIPC, which is an agency of government that handles investment activities to establish marketing boards which will be off takers of all products that are not bought immediately at good prices so that our farmers will continue to be encouraged to do more. In the area of education we’ve been able to keep to our promise. We did promise that for us show us your level of education and we’ll show you the level of your development and so education is a priority of this administration. We want to make our tertiary institutions strong; at the secondary level we want to make it stronger and to make it strongest at the primary level because that is the foundation. When we came teachers were on strike we had to talk to them to come back. Apart from that we have secured the Universal Basic Education Commission, UBEC, funding after paying the counterpart funding, put together its N7.6 billion. We’re doing massive renovation and construction of new classroom blocks and we’re massively providing learning aids to our primary schools. We have also embarked on training of teachers. This year alone we were able to train 10, 000 primary school teachers and 6,000 others at the secondary school level and it’s a periodic thing that we’ll continue to do because we believe that building their capacities will make them more effective in handling our children to acquire knowledge. At the secondary school level too we’re making the environment more conducive by renovating most of our secondary schools and also planning to give back to some of the original owners of the schools, the missionaries and private people because government does not have the capacity to continue so let the private people do it. We set up a committee, they’ve completed their work and we’re working on the white paper. All these things we believe will strengthen the system. At the tertiary level especially the Benue State University because of the priority attention that we have given to education because we believe that even if you’re not able to bequeath anything to your children as parents you’ve given them everything. The Benue State University in particular, the other institutions too we’re supporting them to continue to operate but Benue State University it is connected to almost all the families in Benue State and we’re not joking with it. Despite the fact that we’re not able to pay salaries as at when due, Benue State University we’ve been able to pay them up to date as I talk to you. There are challenges about some allowances but it’s understood. This is where we are and since coming on board Benue State University used to have some challenges especially with the College of Health Sciences. For 12 years medical doctors were not graduated from that school until we came on board. We were able to fulfill all the conditions for the accreditation and the team came and did the accreditation and as I talk to you we have graduated up to four batches of medical doctors from the Benue State University. We also met the Schools of Nursing and Midwifery which accreditation was withdrawn for over four years. We went into it, injected money and we were able to fulfill the conditions and we have been reaccredited and so today we’ve advertised for admission of students. For four years admissions were not done in those schools so we’ve been able to do this. Likewise the College of Health Technology Agasha we believe that early next year we shall have accreditation and our children will return there. We’ve been able to support the NKST School of Nursing and Midwifery, their accreditation was withdrawn too, it has been restored. These are efforts that we’ve made in the health sector. For health services we’re working closely with development partners and they’re really supporting us. Of recent we were able to pay our counterpart funding of N1.2 billion to the Sustainable Development Goals and they matched it with another N1.2 and we have massively provided some health facilities at the rural level to be handed over to the Primary Health Care Board which has taken off and it remains the process of the integration of local government staff transferred to the board that we’re working on. We’ve been able to secure $1.5 million grant from the Federal Ministry of Health and the process of utilizing it is on. Our intention is to provide primary health facilities for our rural people so that they benefit. Apart from the health services the Sustainable Development Goals are providing water, skills acquisition centers, and orange packaging, garri and rice processing plants. On our own the Ministry of Works and Bureau for Rural Development are massively providing roads for our people in various villages. Because of paucity of funds we’re not able to say we’ll tar all of them but at least construction of bridges and culverts and then opening and lateriting of these roads and making them accessible to our peasant farmers and all that is being done and it’s been welcome by the people. We’re also providing electricity and reaching out to them and the communities are really excited about these things that we’ve undertaken in this regard. I tell you the truth that it has been difficult getting funding because like I said we have a wage bill of N7.8 billion and we’re getting an average of N4 billion and our internally generated revenue is around N250 million it becomes a very big challenge solving all these problems.
What about your promise of accountability, transparency and recovery of looted funds?
I’ve kept faith with those promises. When I came in the transition committee did their work and I was not satisfied and they also recommended that we should set up a commission of inquiry which we did. It was headed by a sound judge of the Benue State judiciary. It gave opportunity to all that had issues because we didn’t want to witch hunt anyone but wanted the facts to be unveiled. That was done and the commission recommended that due to time factor they were not able to conclude investigation on some alleged N44 billion diversion so we should probe it further. But they recommended that N107 billion should be refunded by the former governor and his team, about 52 of them. So far, we’ve been able to recover about N355 million for a contractor who collected money and disappeared so he brought it back into the treasury while the other ones are dragging. I think about 29 of them out of the 52 took us to court and they have been losing almost all the cases. I think to the best of my knowledge only one won on technical grounds but we’ve gone on appeal that it’s not right, they must refund it. We’ve also petitioned to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, and even the police. We decided to get the police involved to do some independent prosecution and that is on-going. Many people have been arrested and a lot of things have been unveiled even beyond what was in the contents of the commission’s report. There’s no going back, we must recover all these have looted funds. I tell you we’re committed to our promises. we are constantly reminded of what we told our people. We said we were going to lead with the fear of God and we’ll ensure honesty, justice, fairness, accountability, selflessness, integrity into government, discipline, and we’ll be selfless in the course of our service. So we have kept faith with these. Everything we do is transparent. Today even our inability to pay salaries as at when due workers are not on strike because they appreciate the fact that we’re transparent. Every fund that comes from the federation account and the IGR is put on the table and they’ve been deliberately included in the sharing committee. They are so everybody sees it and that has brought a lot of peace and harmony and understanding with the labor unions. So I can assure you that we’re keeping faith with these. Honestly I must say that despite the challenges the people too appreciate that I’m open to them.
The state government was said to have secured a N10 billion infrastructure facility, we want to find out…
That is what I said, you’ll recall that I did say we receive an average of N4 billion from the federation account but we had interventions like the infrastructure loan which we received from the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, through the federal government, the bailout funds, N28 billion which we used in settling four months arrears. At the state level we had N12.5 billion and because of the screening method we adopted, we were able to save up to N1.6 billion and we injected it back into the treasury. At the local government level because of the screening method we adopted we were able to save up to N1.3 billion and it’s currently in the account though it has been garnished by some Taraku Mills staff but we have made an appeal and we believe that when this money comes out we’ll pay back to workers. So the N10 billion was allocated for infrastructure and we had already given it out to the various critical infrastructure that were needed in the state. We’ve been able to call back all the contractors who were on site but because of lack of funding they abandoned all these projects and so we recalled them. Right now in the three senatorial districts of the state massive work is going on. Some of them are near completion and they will soon be commissioned. Some of them are ongoing. We were able to channel some of the monies for rural development as I told you; specifically it went for infrastructure in the state, so that is it.
You were in China, we want to find out about the visit, what has it brought?
We were in China, we held a business forum and then signed Memorandum of Understanding, MOUs, with many companies and organizations. Some have visited us twice and some are doing their due diligence and some have indicated interest in one or two areas. As you are aware the Chinese government made available over N64 billion to develop Africa and the opportunities are there but it’s not something that can just happen overnight. Due diligence is going on as I speak to you and I believe that at the end we should have something to put on the table.
What’s your relationship with local governments here and the idea of abolishing the joint account structure?
I don’t think we operate joint account in Benue State. The local government is completely independent from the state in terms of funding. The federation account specifies what goes to the local governments and what comes to the state. What I’ve done as Governor since I came in was to abolish the project account that was operated between local governments and the state. I decided that that one should go. Local governments should know what is good for them and they should fund themselves and all monies accruing to the local governments should go to them so they sit and decide what to do with their money. I don’t interfere with them but as Governor I once in a while advise them. If things are going wrong I have the duty to advise them and to ensure that prudence is ensured.
How have you been able to tackle the incessant clashes between farmers and herdsmen in your state?
This is as a result of commitment and sincerity. This peace you are witnessing todayhas come because of commitment and sacrifices from the state security council and the people of the state who stood by me to ensure that we resolve this matter. Our position is very clear that the way out of this quagmire of herdsmen and farmers is to ranch the cattle. Global best practice is that cattle are ranched. There’s nowhere in the world including parts of Africa that you continue grazing the cattle which stop vehicles right on Ahmadu Bello way in Abuja in the city. You have cattle going to the airport and trying to cause problems to flights. You have cattle going into peoples’ farms, this is not allowed elsewhere. You ranch your cattle. That is the position of the Benue state government and the people. We have no land for grazing and our land is for farming. In some other states where they have idle lands they can allow this but for Benue state the best option is ranching. But you see I’ve always said that this is something that requires understanding. The nomads all their life for decades, they have lived that wild life of grazing and all that, not appreciating the fact that the population is growing and the land is decreasing and so these are illiterates that require education, require to be informed of the happenings globally. I’m not sure the man in the jungle knows what is happening around the world, how the towns are expanding, more of people, more schools, more hospitals, more clinics, more roads, more of these things. So there is decreasing land for grazing now that we have a recession and the need to diversify the economy especially the focus on agriculture there’s almost no more land again except you encroach. Anywhere you take your cattle you encroach on somebody’s farm. So I believe that the state and federal government will have to think together, work out a modality to support and assist herdsmen to ranch their cattle. If you leave it on their own they will not have the capacity because ranching will require infrastructure, will require new methods of raising these cattle and so you must give them some kind of induction, you must stimulate them by supporting them, providing certain incentives that will attract them to it. I know they will be better off for it because they will stay in decent houses, they will drink better water, they will eat better food, their children will go to school and the cattle will benefit. In my farm in Makurdi here when you go there I’m ranching my cattle. I’ve domesticated grass cutters, I’ve domesticated rabbits, I’ve domesticated pigs so these are things that can be done. It’s just to summon the will and look forward that we’ll get to it.
Benue is known for a very vibrant culture in Nigeria, is there any strategic plan to promote tourism in the state generally?
We have done that. We have a development plan spanning 10 years, the first of its kind that we are doing for the state, and culture and tourism is a major component. If you ask me three areas where we have comparative advantage I’ll tell you agriculture, number one, then solid minerals is there then the third one will be culture and tourism. There are other areas too. So we’re working out a strategy just that funding has been a problem, security used to be a problem too but today with the stability we believe that investors will come.
From 250 million IGR in your state, you moved it to N500. How did you do it?
Well I set up the board of the Benue State Internal Revenue Service. At the initial stage they were able to do that, more strength, more vigor, more commitment and more zeal. But as we went on the challenge was that people started resisting. You know people, our people don’t like to pay tax, no we will not pay, no we will not pay and so they started resisting and you know as a listening government and a democratically elected one you begin to retract. You have a limit to how far you can go with the people especially when they are trying to cast aspersions about you and the government you try to mellow down.