BY EMMANUEL AZIKEN, POLITICAL EDITOR
After eight years of legislative drafting and declarations in the House of Representatives, Barrister Gabriel Suswam in 2007 relocated to the executive branch of government as Executive Governor of his native Benue State. His coming has by several accounts brought remarkable change in the physical and infrastructural layout of the once quiet State.
He has also by several accounts and in his own words altered the psyche of the people from the culture of living on handouts.
Instead of financial handouts, Governor Suswam says he is determined to entrench a legacy in terms of infrastructure which he is determined to hand out to Benue. Among the legacy projects of the Governor are hundreds of kilometers of township and urban roads, water works in the three senatorial districts and a university teaching hospital which is conceived as Nigeria’s first step in medical tourism.
Following a tour of some of the projects by a team of visiting journalists, Governor Suswam sat down in the early morning of last Wednesday to draw questions on the essence of the projects, the political cost of his alteration of the psyche of the Benue elite and reasons for his early support for the presidential ambition of President Goodluck Jonathan. Excerpts:
HOW would you describe your achievements in term of infrastructure and other developmental projects within a short time?
Let me first welcome all of you to Benue State and appreciate the fact that you have taken time to go round to see some of the modest achievements that we recorded. I believe in being prudent and I believe legacy more than personal wealth that you acquire means much more to people. Before I became governor I had articulated the things that I wanted to do. I also knew and appreciated the problems that existed in Benue.
So on assumption of office from day one, I set out to do those things. It cost a lot of money but if you are prudent and committed in doing it you would be able to do it. You don’t need to pack the whole money, it is just for you to say that I have made up my mind that this is what I want. It’s been quite difficult for me to manage these projects because they are not just (anyhow) projects that are being done, they are done by reputable companies; companies that are national companies and international companies.
You will see that the rural roads that I am doing are being done by Dantata and Sawoe, PW, Rockbridge and so on. And then the water plants, the biggest one here (in Makurdi) is being done by Gilmor. It is a company that is well known and then if you go to the smaller ones they are being done by CGC, which is one of the biggest water companies we have in Nigeria and in China.
I want quality work to be done and instead of giving mushroom companies that will not do the job (but) will keep bringing (contract) revisions, I decided on the companies that would do the job well. You have gone round and seen the quality.
Benue State was created in 1976 but the governor of the state doesn’t have a place to stay. I am sure you have been to the new Governor’s Lodge, it is being put together by a Chinese company and you have seen the quality of work. That is a building that in the next 100 years you would still see what you are seeing there now.
So, these things need commitment and if you know what you want to do and believe that being governor is not the opportunity for you to amass wealth for yourself but to spread the wealth so that people will benefit…and for those of you who have been to Makurdi metropolis few years back you will appreciate that Makurdi is now an urban centre. Most of the people who left Makurdi are coming back because we now have good roads and there were certain facilities which were not there but are now there. Once we commission the water treatment plant you will have 24 hours water supply in people’s homes, on the streets and everywhere. Then you will have an urban centre.
The money is tight because the average that I receive is about N2billion, our IGR, though we have improved it, it is still not anything to go by. The salary wage bill is now N1.4billion. So if I have an average of N2billion and I pay N1.4billion just for salary not to talk of running of government so you have very little for projects. So I have found myself in a situation where I hardly sleep, because how do I complete these projects? What do I do? There are so many projects going on and then you have very little resources to work on them, so it’s been quite a difficult situation but I am committed that these things must be done.
Some of these roads you have seen is to lay a foundation so that farmers will have some roads where they can move their produce so that they can earn some money.
This had not been done before and I am doing them with very little resources but I am committed that it must be done, so it is just commitment.
What has been the political cost of staving off the pressures from party elders to share the money for these projects?
That has created some problems for me politically, but I was determined that that is the way I would go because I have seen the mistakes that were made by the past administration.
Contracts to phony companies
Contracts were given to some very phony companies, companies like Jilcork, Ronnies and so on. These are companies even by the name you know that they are phony companies. For instance, Jilcork was mobilized N2billion but they never graded one road. Ronnies was mobilized about N700million, and they are all with EFCC as I talk to you.
So I decided that it is either I do four years and there is something to show than do eight years, romance with people, give them money, share money and there is nothing on ground and when you leave they start insulting you. Now, there is no person here who can come out and say that the governor has not performed.
Now that they are trying to distract me they are bringing other extraneous issues that are unfounded. The worst thing that they can do to you as a governor or somebody that has occupied an executive position is to say you have not done anything and really you see within yourself that you have not done anything.
The opposition even now cannot fault me on performance they are bringing things to try to denigrate me which doesn’t make any sense to me. I have been able to stand my ground but it has now created political problem for me within this group of people which you have mentioned but substantially majority of them are still standing with me because they have seen that I am not embezzling their money.
On rural electrification, I don’t think there is any state which has done as much as I have done. In some rural areas where they have never, never imagined that they would have light, there have light in those villages.
Initial stiff opposition
So they have seen it and if they now start saying he didn’t give us money but at least you have seen that this money there is something he is doing with it. So, to some extent the initial stiff opposition that I had (in) not sharing this money has substantially been reduced because of what they have seen on ground which they believe is from the money I should have shared. But there is still that opposition, but I have stood my ground.
What has been your biggest challenge since you came in as governor?
The biggest challenge has been to try to change the attitude of the people. Its been quite a problem, it has been quite an issue because people need to appreciate that the efforts we are putting in place are meant to benefit them. If you are putting in effort and the attitude of the people is such that why is he doing this, it can be very discouraging. My biggest challenge up till now has been the attitude of our people.
And in some cases when you go round the people say, they are hungry, meaning that I should share government money. But the infrastructure I am putting on ground benefits everybody. But if I am sharing government money, if I am sharing N2billion, you know how little we are here, people will still complain that it is not enough for them.
It is said that in your first one hundred days that you worked like a “mad man” and commissioned many projects, but you have slowed down. Why?
When I came in I realised that there was so much that needed to be done and the only way I could achieve something meaningful was to behave like a mad person as you rightfully said. And I did that and when the late President came here in the first 100 days, he just couldn’t comprehend it because he has been a Governor before and he kept asking me, ‘how did you do it, how did you do it?’
I said from day one, I knew what I wanted, I came in very prepared and I got the contractors to the office and I said I have no business with the Ministry of Works, go ahead and do this and bring the bill. That is how I was able to achieve it.
As time passed by issues began to come up. I had a lot of petitions written against me. That Water Works which you saw there was a petition…I gave that contract believing that a capital like Makurdi, living on the bank of a river and you cant open any tap and see any water inside. And that has happened for the past 30 years. And so, if I am building that water project for N4.9 billion and you have seen it and the quality of work going on there, they sent petition to ICPC, EFCC and the court of public opinion. That is what I was saying about attitude, it is very discouraging, very discouraging.
If I wanted to take money, I would invite any of the mushroom companies, we will build that thing for 10years and I would be telling them stories. It will never be done. But this place (Makurdi water works) if I pay them money by March, I will commission that project. That will be within a period of two years. So such things for a normal human being can be discouraging.
When I came in, I didn’t have a proper office, I stayed in the Deputy_Governor’s office for one year and three months before I was able to put that office together. If you had been here before, that structure (Governor’s Office) was put together by Aper Aku and it has a small office in one wing and two bedrooms in one wing, two parlours, a kitchen and dinning room in another.
Building of proper office
So it wasn’t just convenient and the two bedrooms were on a corridor like face me I face you. So, I decided that would be turned into a proper office, so I broke it down and restructured it and now you have a very beautiful office there.
When I started building roads, they were asking me if they will eat roads. These walkways you see, they had never seen it before, this has never happened before, they didn’t understand it and all manner of insults that I was getting.
How would you describe the threat by the opposition to wrest power from PDP in the presidential election?
Victory for the PDP in the presidential election will not be by rigging, but by what is on ground. There is no party that is going to beat PDP. Let us even look at the structure and the candidates that are involved and do an analysis of the supposed gang up against PDP.
If you look at ACN for instance and their desperation to merge with other parties because they want to achieve political power and their presidential candidate, you can see that it is a party that is structured to fail ab initio. Yes, winning elections and getting election in court are two different things. If you get election in court, you would have used any method possible and that doesn’t mean you can win an election. ACN, now has majority of the states in the South West, not because they won election, but because the courts gave it to them, that is not winning election as far as I am concerned.
Superficially, yes, they are in control, but if you look at the general populace and the current that is on ground in a popular election, they will not be able to win a presidential election, given the candidate that they are putting forward.
Making noise and winning election
So, yes, they can make noise, making noise is different from winning election anyway. While we are working and working seriously, they are making noise. Look at even their convention and look at the PDP convention, you will see that there is a clear difference in what we are doing to win election. We carried the people, they imposed people, they sit in their rooms and decide on who is the candidate. It is not an issue. We do our thing transparently and we are criticized for doing that.
If you see the pattern of voting at the PDP convention, you will see that President Goodluck Jonathan is accepted across the states.
None of the political parties’ convention could compare with that of PDP. Is it CPC? Was it not by acclamation? Was there voting? Is it ACN? Was there any voting?
If PDP didn’t vote like that everybody would have screamed. None of these parties did what we did. They just gathered a few persons and if few people gather how can they win elections? And these are people who are localised. Take CPC for instance where can they win elections? Can they win election in the South East, South West or South South. Now, take ACN, for instance, yes they have control of certain states. Does it have appeal across the entire country?
Jonathan has that appeal because PDP is across the country and we are working seriously. Now, the issue of rigging will not be there and we will win election clear to the extent that nobody would question it. If there was any doubt to the PDP presidential primaries, you know we would have been in court, but it was so clear and transparent that there is nothing that any person can say about it. So about Jonathan winning election it is concluded, it is not by rigging, but it is by popular vote. God also has a hand in it. We are working that Jonathan wins and he is going to win.
There was so much noise that Jonathan before the primaries that Jonathan will not get it, but the Northern States voted more than the so called Christian states for him in the pattern of voting. The same thing is going to be repeated during the main election. In the presidential election, PDP will be home and dry come April. In terms of reconciliation I know that efforts are being made to reconcile the main actors. Talks are going on, dialogue is going on and I believe that will be achieved.
You know the biggest thing that opposition parties hate is to say that you have performed because if they accept it then they are defeated. So, I am not surprised when you have opposition you don’t expect them to accept that you have performed. If you have performed so, why are they contesting? The only way they can “project” you is to say that this man has not done anything.
Even when they see it and walk on those roads that I have done, they will still say that they have not seen it, that it is on paper. The only way the opposition can justify their opposition is to qualify the person in power as a nonentity.
How do you react to insinuations that you drove the former Governor out of the party even though it is claimed that he helped in your emergence as Governor?
I didn’t drive the former Governor out of PDP. He left the PDP voluntarily for another party.
You denied him ticket?
No, I did not. He withdrew before the contest so how would you know that I denied him ticket? He held a press conference a week to our primaries and said that he had withdrawn. In the press statement he wrote by himself and signed, he said that he had withdrawn from the contest. I did not deny him ticket.
If he had contested and lost and then left on the ground that I denied him ticket, then it would have been different, but he withdrew a week to the primaries. I don’t know for what reason, I didn’t pay him back in anyway but when it concerns issues of politics. People have their independent opinion and disposition as to the way they want to do things and I believe that after he had benefited a lot from PDP, he found another party that he wants to go to that is his own personal decision which I cannot stop him.
There is the impression that if you supported Atiku he could have won the primaries?
I didn’t know that I had such clout in the North. I believe that in terms of political support it is something that you are convinced about. I had a conviction about supporting Jonathan and I started quite early and I dammed the consequences because I believed in the project and I also believe that that was the right thing to do.
Constitutional right versus tacit arrangement
You have a vice-President, what is the work of a vice-President? When a President is incapacitated the Vice_President acts in that space. If a President dies, the Vice_President becomes the President.
Unfortunately we lost a President and somebody assumed the position of President and you say that based on some tacit arrangement he should not contest? I don’t believe in that. If he had opted himself that he is not contesting it is a different ball game, but he has the constitutional right over and above any tacit arrangement and after all, he says he is doing four years. I think that Nigerians should learn to be patient.
Somebody is President and he says he will contest and then we are busy making so much noise about it and some people just want to contest because they belong to a particular region, I don’t believe in that. I believe we should give people a chance. I think that our country should move to a level where whether it is Muslim-Muslim ticket or Christian-Christian ticket is not an issue.
The removal of Dr. Okwesileze Nwodo as national chairman was allegedly part of a bigger plot by the Governors to deal with him for his reported effort to reform the party. How true is this?
I don’t think there was any plot by the Governors against the former national chairman. The former national chairman was involved in a crisis with his home Governor and efforts were made to reconcile them. Few of us had intervened on different occasions in order to reconcile the two of them but that was not to be.
There wasn’t any plot that Governors gathered to remove the national chairman. Most Governors knew of what happened on the convention ground. Most Governors never knew that the national chairman had a court order stopping him from parading himself as the national chairman of the party. When he spoke and then the deputy national chairman came and said, yes this is the issue was the first time most Governors knew about the matter.
So, Governors didn’t plot against him. It was basically a problem between him and his Governor and apparently a mistake was made on the field and most people were not happy about it. If he was restrained by the court why was he insisting to appear there and even speak and parade himself as the chairman of the party. Some people felt that it was an attempt by him to mess up the convention because if the court had restrained him and he then acted as the chairman, everything would have been a nullity!
What is your reaction to the allegation of forgery of certificate made against you?
You know if somebody says that he has forged results for you and your wife, then you know that there is some element of madness in that. I am a qualified lawyer, my wife is a qualified architect. I finished secondary school in 1982 here in Government College, Makurdi and I did my SBS (A Levels) also here in Makurdi and after that I went to UNILAG. All these institutions are in Nigeria. After UNILAG I practiced for a while and won election in 1999. I won election again in 2003.
In 2005, I applied to read a Masters degree in Public Administration at the University of Jos and they wanted to cite my originals so I sent my SA then, to take them to the school because we were having a House session. Armed robbers took his car with all my originals. So, I applied to the Law School, to UNILAG and WAEC. I wrote to the chairman of WAEC that I had lost my credentials and that they should please replace them for me.
Certified true copy from law school
The Law School sent me a certified true copy, UNILAG sent me a certified true copy. Two months after I sent my letter to WAEC they then sent a result to me which was not my result and I rejected it. When it came I rejected it out rightly. That was in 2005. Nothing was said then, I had no need for WAEC result, I just wanted to keep my records because I had finished university, I have won election twice, so why am I going to forge result for in 2005? What am I doing with it?
When I won my gubernatorial election in 2008 somebody started calling my ADC that I must pay him that he forged result for me. I just laughed over it thinking it was political blackmail. So, I just laughed. Then he started sending these text messages to opposing political parties and when it became too much, I arranged with one of the opposing political parties and we arrested the guy in Lagos and locked him up. Then after a while thinking that this must be a mad chap because I don’t know him, then they left him.
Then in 2009 when the elections were approaching he started sending the texts to different people, he sent it to Governors’ Forum, he sent it to different bodies and in fact, all the major newspapers. But the national dailies reading between the lines assumed it to be political blackmail so none of them published it.
Now, he got my political opponents who got a magazine printed by a Benue chap, it is a magazine that only comes out when you pay. That is if you have an opponent and you want him rubbished you go and pay and they print it. So, since they printed that magazine they have not printed it again. That one asked “Is Suswam a fake lawyer?” When I saw it, I wrote a petition to the IG.
Publisher of the magazine
The IG arrested the guy because the guy was asking for so much in millions. So they tricked the guy that I had put the money in a bank that he should go there. So when he went there, they arrested him, then they arrested the publisher of that magazine and locked them up under the directive of the IG. As I talk with you the case is in court in Abuja.
I thought that would be the end, but unfortunately, my opponents found another paper owned by The Nation.
They printed it and sent 5,000 copies to Benue and my people intercepted it. I think the first time my people went out and bought the copies, so they went back and reprinted the same thing and went out and were giving it out free. Free, they were not selling it.
That was also intercepted. The third time they brought 4,000 copies and those ones are still with the Police and they were printing them to give free. One issue you are reprinting to distribute to people free. So, I just feel that outside of questioning whether I have performed, they want to rubbish my integrity and say that I forged result. Government College is here, the original result of the entire set is there. If you go to WAEC they will give you, if you go to UNILAG they will give you. If you go to SBS you will have my result.
You know WAEC they don’t give CTC, they will write to you, put your grade and sign it and give it to you. That is what they sent to me. So, I have my result. What is being paraded has nothing to do with me and that is why I have not really bothered myself because the intention is just to portray me to people as one who can forge results.
If any person wants to know the truth if you go to Government College, I have asked the principal, any person who comes let him see the result. When it became too much my Commissioner of Information insisted that I must put the result on the web site, so it is on the web site. This is just pure blackmail by people here. They are paying them to print that paper from here. All the copies they bring them here and will be distributing it free.
After I have finished degree why will I go and forge result, what will I do with it? In those days when we were finishing they didn’t put peoples picture on results, but the one that they are putting it is my recent picture that is even there!