June 20, 2009

Things Nigerians stand to benefit from Yar’Adua if.., by Gov. Suswam

*Says President’s style guarantees stability and assured development
*Speaks on his relationship with Senate president and Senator George Akume

GOVERNOR Gabriel Torwua Suswam has been the governor of Benue State for two years now. As the nation continues its celebration of ten years of democracy, Suswan, who was a member of the House of Representatives from 1999-2007, asserts that much has changed in terms of the leadership style.

He makes a case for President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, insisting that what appears today, to be a sluggish approach to governance is a better style, compared to the shambolic and, rambunctious Olusegun Obasanjo’s.

In this interview with Sunday Vanguard, the governor of the state described as the Food Basket of the nation opens up on the relationship between him and Senate President David Mark, Minister for Justice, Michael Aondoakka and his predecessor, Senator George Akume; he also highlights his achievements so far in office Excerpts:


NIGERIA’S democracy is ten years old.  If you are to look at where we are coming from and where we are now, would you say we have fared better?
Democracy is better than any other form of government. From where Nigeria is coming, we cannot have anything better than what we are having now. There are teething problems because we were trying to get ourselves on track, so the initial teething problems are there. Ten years is so small for you to begin to say that yes, with this we have achieved much. This is the first time that Nigeria has gone far in terms of democracy; so people are still not sure whether this would work, most people were not so committed.

Now that it does appear that it is working, we hope and pray that this should be sustainable. People are getting more interested, down the road, it’s going to improve. America is a country which has 400 years of democracy, the country is still learning new things and things are also evolving – like Obama becoming president, which looked like a mission impossible some years ago, is an improvement on the democratic process and the new realities in America.

Governor Gabriel Suswam

Governor Gabriel Suswam

Democracy, like any system of government, would always improve by the day and I believe that our present and past experiences should be able to guide us in moving forward. And I hope that we would be better because we see that we are improving; as people get into positions of leadership and observe the mistakes made in the past, we improve on those mistakes, add new perspectives and make things better. And, we’ve done very well in the period of ten years; though there were problems. We can’t say that there are no problems, but, so far, I think I would say that we’ve done very well.

Still looking at democracy at 10 in Nigeria, would you say anything has changed regarding leadership attitudes?
There are a lot of changes. What democracy has done, not minding whether there was an attempt at dictatorship, we are still better off than a military government. We’re talking about this GSM, which was introduced during this democratic period. And also some of the reforms which seek to make power available to Nigerians.

Mentality of the leadership
It’s an on going thing and these are all things that were introduced during this period. Of course, with democracy, people are free to associate – whether it is business or socially – in the manner that they want and nobody queries that provided you don’t over step your bounds – this relates to the new mentality of the leadership that the space must become more open. Some of them are intangible, you can’t place your hands on them but then, you can’t take it for granted. Democracy, over the last ten years, has guaranteed those things that we never thought were possible because of long years of military rule but, now we take them for granted.

The leadership style of Obasanjo was obviously different from the leadership style of the present president. Obasanjo’s style, to a large extent, was considered aggressive. The current president measures what he’s doing and deliberately takes his time to do what he feels is right so that you don’t rush and then it crashes.

You will notice that in the first eight years, there were a lot of problems because there were decisions that were taken in haste and on the spur of the moment. Then, later on, issues came up with it. But when you take your time, as President Yar’Adua is doing, when you look at an issue, you assess it and reassess it and take a step, there would be very minimal mistakes. So, I believe that the president, if given a chance to stay as long as Obasanjo stayed, the country will be more stable, there will be less acrimonies and less crisis. You know we had a lot of crisis in the first eight years.

Now, there is relative peace among political leaders because once you have problems with political leaders, it becomes the problems of the country. These are personal issues but because they are leaders, they become national issues. There were a lot of such issues during Obasanjo’s time but since the incumbent president came into power, there are less of these issues because he believes that things must be done according to the rule. That is why he introduced the rule of law. Once you realise that, there is no problem.

During Obasanjo’s time, our leaders who found themselves in power were over using power; they were over stepping their bounds and stepping on other people’s toes and then generating heat in the polity. But if you take a very close look at the way President Yar’Adua has been operating, he does not want that and that is what Nigeria needs. Nigeria needs peace in order for us to develop.

So, they have different styles. Having said that, however, I believe we have achieved a lot in the last ten years in terms of orientation of our people. You might not notice it but the thinking of people is different; there has been a paradigm shift in the way people do things and I believe that our democracy has achieved a lot.

What is your relationship with your predecessor, Akume; the Senate president, David Mark and the minister for justice, Michael Aondoakka, because they are from your state and the impression we get out there is that there is a conflict of interest between them and you?
I have very wonderful relationship with these three gladiators. The Senate President is a great Nigerian, a Benue son who we all respect and I give him his full dues as an elder statesman of this country and son of Benue; so, we have no problem. I have no problem with him, when he comes here, at times, he stays with me here before he proceeds to Otukpo, his home town.

When I’m in Abuja, I visit him, I eat with him, I confer with him on issues that affect Benue and we keep consulting. And so, we have an excellent relationship. I have no problem with the former governor as well. The Attorney General and Minister of Justice is a close friend of mine years back. He comes here and stays with me. When I’m in Abuja, you will always see us together, so we have no problem. Problems are created by followers who would imagine that there should be problem so that they can benefit from it.

You have people in politics and no matter what you do, they will never agree with you. What I do is that I just ignore such people and move forward because these are people who want to distract you and I’m not one who wants to be distracted in what I’m doing.

So, you have noise makers here and there, I consider them as noise makers. If you want to come for us to work together, you are welcomed but if you’re making noise in Abuja, I tend to ignore that because the people of Benue are happy with what is happening. They have seen substance on ground. So, if you’re in Abuja making noise, it’s your business. I have no problem with those people, none that I know of. You know the advantage I have, I was a legislator. I spent eight years with David Mark in the National Assembly and so, we understand ourselves; we all have the passion for Benue.

Passion for Benue
He’s older and more experienced than I. He’s the Senate President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and we are not competing on anything and so, we have mutual respect for one another. As a great son of Benue, I give him his due respect and make sure that he’s protected at the home front. And he also makes sure that if there are national issues, he also protects me.

So, all that we seek to do, is to make sure that Benue is better. Where he is, he cannot come and say he wants to be governor; and, of course, I cannot go to the Senate and say I’m going to be Senate President because I wouldn’t have had the requisite experience to become Senate President. So, for what reason would we be quarreling?  All of us are best of friends where Benue is concerned, when people now bring in their ego, that’s where problem sets in. None of us is bringing in an ego thing. Where is Benue today and where will Benue be tomorrow is what interests Senator Mark and I. So, we don’t have an issue.

Your administration is two years old, how has it been?
Well, it’s been a mystery, there have been very good times and also, there have been tough times. I would say I thank God for what He has been able to do for me by giving me good health, by keeping me mentally alert to be able to carry on. And I want to say that it has been a rewarding experience for me – though very tough, but so far so good.

What has your administration been able to achieve within this period?
I always want the people who gave me the mandate to judge me or rather, list out my achievements because that way, I feel better because it is like beating your chest and saying I’ve done this. When I was campaigning I made promises to the people of Benue State that I was going to add value to their lives. And when I became governor, I set out to do exactly that and the area that I faced, squarely, has been the area of infrastructure.

I decided that Benue State has been an agricultural state and so, for you to make meaning in the lives of the people, you must create infrastructure for them to be able to enhance agricultural production especially because people were getting discouraged attempting large scale farming (which is different from our subsistence farming, the reason being that when they farm, there is no accessible roads to where they can sell and have returns on their farm produce), I set out to create road infrastructure and I have been doing that across Benue State with no exception.

The three senatorial districts in Benue are all benefitting from the rural road infrastructural development that are going on and they are going on simultaneously in all parts of Benue. It’s going on very well. What it will do to the agricultural sector is unimaginable because people now feel it, that they now have good roads.

Even when they produce more than what they can consume, they will be able to move these farm produce to bigger markets and have returns from them. And so, to that extent, we are resuscitated. The rural economy that had collapsed and the poverty level which was unimaginable is being stemmed.

Having been in the saddle for close to two years now, how were you able to drive the economy of the state?
When I came in just as it’s applicable in most parts of Nigeria, our people are used to traditional ways of farming. They use the simple farm implements which makes it impossible for your to engage in large scale farming, because it exerts a lot of energy. I looked at it and said if we must live up to our names and enhance agricultural, production, we must engage in large scale farming. And this traditional way of farming would not, in any way, enhance agricultural production beyond what we already have.

So, I set out to partner with enterprises that were interested in farming and I visited a state in America, the state of Iowa, it’s also a hundred per cent agricultural state; and I have partnered with them. We are training some of Benue citizens in modern techniques of farming. We have bought some equipment like planters, harvesters and they are already here. Some of the massive tractors that can make big ridges have been bought and they are here.

What we want to do is to move from subsistence farming, which is what has been in vogue since time immemorial, to commercial agriculture. Good enough, the Federal Government has rolled out a policy to assist state governments and private enterprises who are interested in farming and commercial agriculture. So, we are going to leverage as well, but for the state, we have already identified some farms which we tried out last year but it didn’t work out well. What we want to have is farms where we can now bring in our local farmers to learn the latest techniques; we are training some Benue indigenes and when they come back, they will impart the knowledge to other local farmers, who will now be able to apply it across Benue State. We tried the first demonstration farm which did not come out very well, we have selected different sites now where we will gradually teach the local farmers on how to use these modern implements in order to enhance agricultural production.

So, that is what we’ve done basically to try to give people new orientation in farming techniques but it’s not easy because the product that we farm mostly here is yam, we haven’t yet found the technology to make heaps. You know, you need to make heaps for yam but for other things, you can just make ridges.

I’ve contacted the university of agriculture located in Benue here for them to research into how we can make any machine that can make heaps for yam. Quite a lot of farming activities is going on here and the state is in private partnership with entrepreneurs. But I want to say that the state is not supposed to farm, it should create the enabling environment which is what we are doing. Those are some of the things we are doing to encourage large scale farming here, so that Benue State would still remain the food basket of the nation and, possibly, we’ll be able to export to other countries in Africa.

What can you point at in the last two years that you have done and for which you think the people of Benue State say they are happy about?
Quite frankly, given the short period of two years, I think we’ve done excellently well, especially when you factor in the global economic crisis.

Each of the roads I’m doing cuts across two local government areas. If you go to the villages, you see good roads and they are being completed. I’m also building three water works at the same time. The one in Makurdi here would provide 100,000 cubic meters of water – it’s gone very far; the one in Otukpo is 15,000; these are all going on simultaneously. I’m building a new governor’s lodge, it’s on-going at the same time. Work is going on in all of the roads that have been awarded, the contractors are on site.

I’ve also just commissioned modern equipment that I bought for the 16 general hospitals in Benue. We bought large quantities of drugs which we also distributed to these general hospitals in order for us to have better health care system. We have also completed 11 health centres that were started by the previous administration, they have been equipped but I have not commissioned them.

In the education sector, we are building modern classrooms with computer rooms attached to them, so as to bring ICT closer to the rural people and this is also on-going. We are also building technical science schools in each senatorial district where children will be taught how to acquire skills. We are converting 30 of our schools into pure science secondary schools because for us to move forward in this country, we must be able to develop our own technology, we must be able to have the scientist that can incubate and come out with inventions otherwise, we’re wasting our time.

These are the things that are going on in the education sector. No sector is really left out. The sector taking the lion share is infrastructure. Without infrastructure, nothing can move. If you build a school in the village and there is no good road there, nobody can go there.

The infrastructure is taking the lion share of our budget, year in, year out. So, I’ll say that in two years, I’ve done well; I will give myself excellent. We’ve embarked on massive construction of roads, not only in Makurdi but in other parts of the state. I’m committed to the projects I’ve embarked upon and I intend to finish them before the end of my four-year tenure.

Raising a bond

How do you intend to raise money aside the monthly allocation from the federation account to finish these projects?
I’m romancing with the idea of raising a bond. We’ve started the process.

You talked about wooing investors to the state, but you have been criticised for being a globetrotter. How much impact has your many trips had on the state?
Unfortunately, people make accusations on leaders that they can substantiate. Since I became governor, I’ve travelled only about nine times.

In the last two years?
Yes, in the last two years. I travelled last year about five times, while I’ve travelled this year only two times. The last time I travelled, six governors were selected to attend IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington DC. The first time I travelled this year, I went for medicals, which is only twice.

Last year, the first time I travelled, I went to China with the Bank of Industry; we were going there to look at incubators because Benue State was selected to have a science park. So, the Bank of Industry arranged that with the MD – we went to China and Singapore. That was the first time that I travelled when I became governor.

The second time I went to California, I was invited to attend an agricultural show there. It was    quite rewarding and it was there that I got linked up with the state of Iowa, where they are training our people. I signed a memorandum of understanding, we have a pact and they are training some of our people; that was the second time.

The third time, I went to Korea to attend the WTA meeting, which was meant to expose us to modern technology. One reporter said I had travelled out for about 50 times, even a pilot, in a period of two years, wouldn’t travel up to 50 times. It’s not possible. So, these are just mere distractions from people who don’t wish you well. When I travel, I keep the records.

Since I became governor, I’ve travelled only nine times and I don’t think that is anywhere too much aside two occasions where they have been private, on medical grounds. These are things that are meant to benefit the state and I don’t think that if I’m making an official trip that would benefit the state, I should stop because people are saying that you’re traveling.

2011, what should the people of Benue State expect?
Even if you want to have a second tenure, it makes it easier for you to have a reference point. If people look at it and say this is what he has done and they also feel that you have done something, then, you have a basis to want to go back to the people.

But if you don’t work and you have made promises, it was on the basis of those promises that the people voted for you in the first place, now you just lay back and say well as governor I think I should go back, what are the reference points? What can you refer to? I believe that once you have substance on ground and the people can see and feel it, then, the issue of whether you are going back or not would become less important. Otherwise, I believe that it makes no sense for you to just start saying that you want a second term without anything on ground. But now, people will see it and they will be the ones saying ‘let him come back’.