Governor Gabriel Suswam of Benue State recently had an interactive session with media men in the State where he spoke on various issues nagging the polity.Peter Duru was there and reports Excerpts:
Could you please shed more light on the crisis rocking the Nigeria Governors’ Forum?
That forum is a voluntary gathering. No person, no one governor is under compulsion to be a member of that forum. In fact, the governor of Osun State hardly attends it.
The only meeting he attended was this last election where unfortunately he was the one who recorded and sent on Youtube what he claimed transpired. We have never had such level of irresponsibility of a colleague recording the activities of fellow colleagues and sending it to Youtube. So what I am saying is that no governor is under compulsion to attend it.
Those who conceived the idea of governors having a forum was for us to be able to peer review ourselves. When we sit down, we look at issues that affect our individual states and when you are to peer these issues, you will see that they are issues that affect the country, and if we share intelligence and ideas, we would be able to govern better; that was the essence of that forum.
And who coordinates? Who is Chairman of Governors Forum is not a big deal. We have never had any elections; there has never been any one chairman of governors’ forum that has been elected. The governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, was never elected.
He was selected. We just sat down and said ‘look’, this is the person who will be our Chairman and so the desperation which he exhibited in the election was the problem with most of us and I insisted and I still insist that if we go into any election no matter how small, there are consequences that come with it. I raised this in the previous attempt to have the elections. I said we have never elected any Chairman of NGF.
Amaechi himself was not elected and so why this election? As equal colleagues we sit down and say, you have done this, let’s select you to do this. But the basic problem was that before Saraki left, we had an issue and we decided that no one governor should stay for four years as chairman of the forum. That is two years in the South and two years in the North, and we decided that since democracy is taking its roots, let’s us have a forum that is governed by regulations and rules. So we said okay, lets us have a constitution.
I was a member (of the constitution drafting committee), Fashola as a senior lawyer, SAN (Senior Advocate of Nigeria) was the Chairman. So all the governors agreed because they gave us terms of reference that two years in the south, two years in the north for the Chairman of the forum and the Deputy Chairman must be taken from the opposition parties.
At the point that this so called new constitution was registered, no governor, frankly speaking I challenge anyone, saw that constitution before the day of the election, no one of us. What we believe was that we have agreed on these things as honourable men and as leaders, and so that was it. And I believe that Fashola who drafted the constitution has copies of that.
Somewhere along the line, somebody went and changed what we had agreed on and went and registered it and said that we signed. But normally when we go to meetings, all of us sign. So they said that we signed for the registration of the constitution. Nothing can be farther from the truth. We have always signed and we agreed on the two years. So, when we noticed that the constitution suddenly appeared, and what was inside was not what we agreed on; I raised strong objections to that and I said: we will never accept this.
That is one of the first fundamental problems. How can somebody go and change the constitution for selfish reasons and we resisted that. Well, at the end of the day, they said the tenure of the Chairman which we selected, not elected, has ended based on what we have agreed and there should be elections.
And when we went there, and I have never seen that: the person who wanted to re-contest printed ballot papers and had a ballot box and we objected. Even in ordinary village meetings, once the leadership is to go, the house would first dissolve itself but he said he was not going to dissolve the house, he would still sit in as the Chairman and conduct the elections with ballot papers which he printed and also provided a ballot box. Many of us opposed it and they claimed that they had an election, and I learnt that the governor of Osun, in that recording, said at the time they were counting they were shouting.
I was among the first governors that walked out of that meeting because it was a sham; it was unfortunate that happened, but the majority of the governors agreed that Jonah Jang should be the Chairman of the Forum. Prior to this, we first held the meeting of Northern governors and there were 18 of us.
The governor of Yobe did not come; neither did he send a representative and the eighteen of us unanimously agreed and asked Yuguda and Shema to step down, and voted that Jang is the consensus candidate. We took that to the PDP Governors’ Forum where the chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum read the resolution of the Northern governors which was adopted, then we went into the meeting just to present Jang. The issue of elections came up and we opposed it.
We raised the issues that first, that is not the constitution we had agreed on. Second, we had never had an election in NGF and thirdly, the chairman must dissolve the house which he refused. Instead, he printed ballot papers and had a ballot box. So, when they said there was an election, I ‘m not aware of any election. But I know that somebody printed ballot papers.
If I’m contesting an election, and I printed ballot papers and I say I’m not dissolving myself; common sense tells you that there is some level of desperation and some kind of funny agenda, and that is why the so-called elections led to what you term as crisis. Jang, as far as I am concerned, is the legitimate Chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum and that is how it’s going to remain because we have never had any elections. Jang was selected by consensus. That has been the tradition of the Governors Forum. So, there is no crisis. I know that and the majority of the governors know that. Jang is the rightful chairman of the forum.
And the NGF crisis has also polarized the Northern Governors’ Forum?
Yes, there is no pretext about it because I would find it difficult to sit in a meeting where with honour and as leaders, we have taken a decision and people will go outside and do something else. It is difficult for some of us to sit in meetings with people like that. So, it is true, the Northern Governors’ Forum is polarized. It is polarized because it is no longer honourable for us to meet as a people, take a decision and go out there and do the opposite.
If people can do that, then most of us don’t see reasons why we should attend such a meeting because before any decision is taken, we go out and defend it.
But at this point, we take a decision and some people will go out and do something different. Of course, Yuguda said what happened, and I fully associate myself with views expressed by governor Yuguda and so we need to talk to ourselves, otherwise it will be difficult for us – even the Northern Governors Forum – to talk to ourselves again because people would not be ready to get to meetings and discuss something knowing fully well that what other people would go out and do would be different from what we actually agreed on. So, that presents some challenges and difficulties.
People have started canvassing for your senatorial ambition ahead of 2015. Wouldn’t you think it is diversionary owing to your repeated assurances that the time is not yet ripe?
Well as a politician, people who are my supporters would want me to continue to be in politics and be relevant in the political circle. It is good for people to speculate and urge you to contest – that means your ambition is not inordinate. I am not somebody with an inordinate ambition. I’ve said that at the end of this year, I should be able to tell you people exactly what I want to do.
For now, I actually want to concentrate because there are lots of distractions. If you go everywhere now, you know there are banners, shouts and all of that. It creates a lot of distractions. And so I want to wait till the end of this year for me to make a statement about these speculations.
The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in Benue has insisted that you still have a case to answer concerning the 2011 general elections in the state. How true is this?
Well, this is news to me that the ACN is still at the Supreme Court. The substance of the case has been long decided and so, you know, they are deceiving their supporters that they have a case in court. They are living on that.
When they said they had a case in court, they asked their supporters to contribute. They don’t want that to stop, so they are still telling them that the case is still in court. The substance of the case has been decided. That is between PDP and ACN. The case I know about that is in court now is that of Khaki where he alleged that I forged my result. We have been served on that.
It is at the Supreme Court. So I’m aware of that case because my lawyer briefed me that we have been served. But for my opponent to say that they are in court, I don’t know, and all of you know that the case was decided at the Supreme Court, and so I don’t know what would be remaining for them.
The state has been facing some security challenges posed by frequent herdsmen attacks of Benue communities by Fulani herdsmen and the crisis between the Ado people of the state and Ngwo of Ebonyi State. Why can’t the government tackle the situation?
Most of you are aware that our state has put in a lot of resources to address the issue of security. The recent phenomenon of Fulani attacking our farmers is something that to a large extent is trying to defy all solutions that our state has put in place. I have held meetings with them, we have done everything but we are still experiencing some challenges in that regard.
And we have taken some recent measures to help solve the issue of security challenges. I would still be meeting with my colleague in Nasarawa State because the route that those people take comes through Nasarawa and some of them attack and fall back into Nasarawa. I will need to seriously address that with my colleague so that together we can sit and see the exact road that we would take. We have also now started to patrol the waterways. These are measures that we have taken to curb the incessant attacks of the Fulani herdsmen.
The other serious measures which we have taken I would also want to leave it like that. But I want to assure the people of Benue that as difficult as this issue is, we are finding a solution to it as we want to protect lives. What I have seen pains me to my bones, especially where children of 8 months, 2 years are being massacred by these mindless people as if they are not human beings.
Even if it needs taking additional measures, we would take them in order to protect lives. As for the issue between Igumale and the Ebonyi neighbours is an issue that I have been discussing with the governor. Those of you that were on tour with the governor will recall that the deputy governor, towards the end of our first tenure, met with the deputy governor of Ebonyi at the border to address that. We decided in our last meeting in Abuja 2 weeks ago that we would met at the border – I and the governor of Ebonyi – where we would appeal with our people to sheathe their swords and co-operate. So, I am not forgetful of that situation. Recently I went to the border between Benue and Taraba to address the crisis that has been occurring there and pleaded with the people to sheathe their swords. They have been working together. We are probably going to do the same thing with the governor of Ebonyi at Igumale Ado local government.
What is happening to the N500million the state received from the Federal Government for last year’s flood victims?
Well, there is so much speculation as to the flood money. When the Federal Government gave Five Hundred Million, it was meant for us to buy relief materials and give to the people who were affected. But fortunately for us, a lot of Nigerians, Benue sons and daughters and others, gave us a lot of relief materials – including NEMA. So we decided that it was better for us to do something more reasonable with it.
As I stand here, the Five Hundred Million is in the account of the Ministry of Finance, but what we decided, because we took example from what happened in other states, in Kogi where they distributed the money, people got N5000, some N3,500 and in another local government, some people got N700, some got N2000. So we decided that it was better to do something meaningful with the money.
So I called the chairmen of the local governments affected to go back and talk to the people in the areas that were affected so that they could come back and we can sit down and distribute this money to do projects in these places. So the chairmen came, we held a meeting and they went back and spoke to the people.
Some say they want the money distributed, some say well, if there is something meaningful that can be done so be it. So we decided as a government, we owe it as a duty to the people to do what is of utmost benefit for the people. And we sat down and shared the money according to the demand ratio based on the damage that was done.
And in this case, Logo local government is getting N11.6million, a drainage contract has just been awarded to Makurdi, from Kyabis hotel right down to the teaching hospital behind to the river. That has taken N200 million out of that money. The State Government will pay a counterpart funding of about N100 million.
The contractors that gave us the cost gave about N1.5 million. That was the highest. The Ministry of Environment said they would do it directly and it is going to cost about N300 million and something, and the contract was approved yesterday by the Exco.
The N200 million of that N500 million we are putting into that contract so that we can construct that drainage; that is the place where people were most affected.
Gwer West is getting about N90 million and something, Agatu is getting N70 million and something, we distributed it like that, and the local government chairmen are bringing projects, same would be classrooms, some would be clinics. But once they bring the proposals, we would now get the contractors or the people who would do those things in these local government and we are not sharing it one time, or to any body, no one kobo of that money is going to be shared to anybody. We would do projects that will be of long lasting benefits to the people of these places, and that is exactly what we are doing.
When we call the chairmen, it will be in the public, so no person will take what was given to the people, who were affected and embezzle it. It is totally unimaginable. I learnt that one young man even went to court to demand that I should say where I have kept the money. The money is with the Ministry. People who have lost houses, what would five thousand naira do for them? But with these things we were putting in place, if the President sees it, he will acknowledge that we are using the money for the right purpose. We are not sharing this money