Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State in an interactive session with newsmen recently in Makurdi explained why he collected N10 billion loan, his efforts to end Fulani herdsmen and farmers crisis among other Issues, our correspondent John Shiaondo was there. Excerpts:
You have selected your commissioners but there are allegations that in the appointments you were teleguided by Sen. George Akume who is the leader of the party in the state. How true is this?
My style of leadership is to carry people along. I had invited people including stakeholders and the leaders of the party like Audu Ogbe, Chief Banabas Gemade, and all other people and I told them my idea of how I want my cabinet to be. I gave the people the opportunity to participate by recommending names to me and through that, we did the selection. I also had people who are technocrats and I wanted them to be part of my government not just politicians. So I was looking forward to having a cabinet that is all-inclusive. Not all the people in my cabinet will be politicians.
I have given that opportunity to those who can add value to our government though they are not party men. And so the process allowed people to make contributions and participate. Akume participated, I participated and other stakeholders also participated. The selection was a joint participation. We disagreed to agree on certain positions and local governments but I want to assure you that we have concluded and the list sent to the House of Assembly for consideration. Once it is returned back to me, I will have a formidable executive. It was done most transparently. Though it was not 100 percent accepted by all stakeholders, more than 80 percent of them accepted it.
The state House of Assembly approved your request for N10 billion to settle salaries of workers in the state and again, you received over N3 billion from the Federation account, yet you were unable to pay up to three months’ salary. What is responsible for this?
When we were faced with this salary challenge, we sought approval from the State House of Assembly to obtain a loan but the N10 billion we collected was not just to pay salaries but also meant for the takeoff of both the legislative and the executive and to take care of the very critical challenges that we have. For instance the accreditation of Benue State University School of Health Sciences, (BSUTH) so that our children who have been there for 12 years instead of six years now can graduate.
Also the renovation of the governors’ lodge and other government guest houses and other critical things that we needed to take care of. I want to also say that we did not receive N3 billion from the federation account. We received N1.7billion from the federation and statutory allocation and VAT of N500 million. But we have overdraft and loans that were waiting to swallow it to the tune of N1.6 billion. So, that is where we are.
Again from the loan of N10 billion that we got, we decided that we would pay two months’ salary from it. For the month of May, the salaries, pension and overheads, we coughed out N3.7 billion and if the same thing will apply in June, it means that both months put together will be N7.4 billion. That was why we decided to pay that of May and for that of June, we have decided that we will do a staff audit to ascertain the actual number of staff because we believe that somewhere, something is wrong, because the salary wage bill that is getting to us is on the high side. As soon as we verify this, the money meant for June salary is ready and we are going to pay. Then the remaining money will take care of other things I said.
On many occasions you speak about reconciliation, integration, equity among others. How prepared are you to bring everyone on board to enable you succeed?
I have said it. I’m running an open door administration. I have talked about the core values in my government. I have talked about being transparent. Transparency is about allowing people access to whatever we are doing. I talked about truthfulness, equity, ensuring justice, integration and selflessness. All these values are meant to attract people to participate and be part of what we are doing. There is going to be open doors. We don’t want to monopolise everything because this is people’s government. I have gone out and seen the passion in people and I know the kind of support I got from our people. I’m not taking things for granted. So I have given my word that all Benue people will be brought on board to ensure that my government succeeds and that is exactly what we are doing.
The attacks on Benue farmers have continued in recent times, how do you intend to finally resolve the Fulani attacks so that Benue farmers can go back to their farms?
The issue of the Fulani herdsmen will come to an end very soon. We have entered into constant dialogue and meetings with herdsmen, the farmers and traditional rulers as well as journalists; soon, the matter will be over. What I am trying to do is to sensitize people that you must live and let’s live. The Fulanis must graze but they must not graze on people’s farms. Recently, I was here with the leadership of Fulani herdsmen and we all agreed to the new peace pact that my government is introducing. The Fulani herders must appreciate that where they are coming to graze is among the farmers and the farmers too, must understand that these people must find a way of surviving.
And the criminalities among the Fulanis and the farmers, we must eliminate them. For kidnappers and armed robbers, I have said they should surrender their arms within three months and we have started getting positive responses from them but after three months, they will have themselves to blame. For those who will surrender, they will be reintegrated into the society and government will find a better way of helping them to live a fulfilled life. But those who will not surrender, we are going to pursue them to their homes and we will get them and rid them from the society.
Like I told you, we are giving priority attention to investment and we are going to bring in investors and no investor will like to come in to a state that is insecure. The challenges we have today is unemployment and the only way to surmount this is through investment because we already have the advantage of mineral resources in agriculture and solid mineral and several other ways. We can only get investors to come to Benue to invest when there is security. This is a problem that all of us must join hands to surmount. So by the grace of God, the issue of Fulani will be dealt with. I have met with the Tiv Traditional council to encourage them to take a cue from what Logo traditional council did to integrate people. They have agreed that in two weeks’ time, everybody should go back to their communities and to their farms.
From experience, governors go abroad to bring investors but nothing happens. Now part of your programmes to turn around things in the state is to also bring in investors that will help build the state. What are you going to do differently to show a departure from the past?
Why we think that ours will be different is because we know the investors we are targeting. Having served as the Minister of Trade and Investment in Nigeria, we had brought investors into Nigeria to the tune of over 8 billion Dollars between 2011 and 2012. And in 2013, we attracted investment into Nigeria to the tune of over 7billion Dollars, same thing in 2014. So, we know the right people to approach to bring in investment.
We know the challenges too. Part of it is the insecurity we are talking about and that is why we are fighting to ensure that we have security in the state so that these investors can come in. Having the background of a private sector operative, I think I am more in better position to provide an enabling environment. That is all that is required. Those who have never ventured into private ventures may not be conversant with the challenges in private investment. I have been there and I know the challenges and at least the enterprises that I have set up in the state are operating even with the challenges and I am grateful.
So we can still turn these challenges to opportunities that will provide jobs and create wealth that will help the state. So, I believe that this time around, we will do something different. One of the things I learnt while serving as a Minister was not just a matter of processing but also to identify the seedling, the planting, harvesting, storage, processing, marketing and then identifying the end users. That is the only way we can complete the value chain. We must not stop half way and along the value chains, these things will provide jobs because those who are consulting for these companies will have something to take home. If we have storage facilities, it is another way of creating jobs and wealth for our people. So I think we will succeed this time around.