By Ben Agande, Abuja
Few days before he was invited by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to answer allegations of corruption against him, a former governor of Benue State, Dr Gabriel Suswam, spoke on issues surrounding his tenure.
How it all started and challenges encountered as the chief helmsman of Benue State
I started 16 years ago in the House of Representatives and ended up as the chief executive of Benue State for eight years. As human beings, we are mere mortals and bound to make mistakes, nobody is perfect. Best is a relative term; what I consider my best might not be the best to others, but I think I did my best for the state as far as my eight years were concerned. I have refrained from joining issues because, as governor, I know the heat especially in Benue. Benue is one of the toughest states to govern because I know what it means and for somebody who knows so much and has personal experience, I would want the present governor of that state to operate in peace. In-spite of the bashing, the insinuations, the insults, you will observe that I have kept silent. It’s not that I cannot respond or join issues but it is expected that,
after occupying such a sensitive office, it is important to maintain that level of maturity. No amount of provocation should make you make comments on certain things. Many outsiders do not know how government runs, and so there are insinuations, especially with the current situation in the country where everyone is shouting corruption.
You will observe that the same people shouting corruption today are those who, in the past, engaged in same acts of corruption. Corruption is not just people taking money; it could be moral corruption. Most time, Nigerians swing like pendulum; if someone comes right now and takes a different approach, that is where they will swing to. We need our country to be on the path of development and be focused. If the genuine effort of the current leadership is geared towards the path of development, then we should all support it.
When they talk about corruption, the focus is on some of us who are exposed, but how about the driver you sent to buy something for three thousand naira and he came back telling you it was bought for five thousand naira? I believe the approach of the current leadership is probably to start with the big fishes in order to put fear in the smaller fishes; therefore I urge all Nigerians to support the genuine and legitimate efforts of this administration aimed at repositioning the country. I have no fear, but we are in a democratic setting where the rule of law is paramount and I believe that, in addressing those issues, following the code of conduct should be ultimate goal in order to avoid the violation of the rights of the citizens.
On the allegation that he left behind empty treasury for his successor
Most of the constituent parts of this country depend on one source of revenue the federation account. Money is shared from that account every month based on certain indices. For some states that are cosmopolitan, they have high internally generated revenue but such states are very few. But the bulk of the states depend on the federation account.
There is no state that depends on the federation account that the former governor will boast of leaving money behind. Because, first, the money comes, you pay salaries, you do projects; even if you are not doing project, salaries alone will consume the money and so, when somebody says you left an empty treasury, it amuses me because when I assumed office, I met nothing. In almost all the states of the federation, there is no governor that left office that will confidently boast of leaving money behind except that governor did not execute any project. When the former governor of Borno State said he left over N60 billion, it was local government money; no local government project was executed in that state; the governor was just taking the money and keeping it. Leaving money behind can be achieved only when no projects are carried out, but then at whose expense? It means that at the end of your tenure, you will have nothing to show for the years of governance. Even states that I mentioned earlier that have other source of revenue
generation, they are the highest indebted states. Look at Rivers and Akwa Ibom states, they have high debt profile. Benue State is the least indebted state from the record that was published. There is no way under the circumstances we find ourselves that any outgoing governor will talk about leaving money behind. I was doing a lot of projects in the state some of which I could not even complete because there was no money.
If you come in newly and you don’t understand the nuances of government, you are bound to make such statements. Most of such statements are intended to make you popular and paint the outgoing administration in bad light. But, with time, after you understand the way the system operates, you won’t be able to talk again. I was reading in the papers sometime ago that the government of Benue cannot pay salaries because money is not enough, and I laughed because Governor Ortom has spent just four months in office. That is the situation that I faced, but mine was even in the last six months of my government and I left just salaries of four months unpaid. There are some second term governors that currently owe workers salaries more than what I left behind. Some of the issues the current administration is raising are issues that are intended to reduce the outgoing administration in the eyes of the people and paint it bad, but I have taken all that
in good faith because I went for political office and I must also be ready to face the consequence that comes with it.
Why did your administration rely on one source of income? What happened to the agricultural potentials of the state?
I assumed office in 2007 and, if you are familiar with Benue, you will know that the state is basically rural. There was no way to engage in mechanized or large scale farming. One of the factors that contributed to making agriculture viable is that there must be free movement of goods. I decided to spend the chunk of the money on providing roads in virtually all the zones. As you all know, road projects are the most expensive infrastructure that you can engage in as a government. I did a road from Katsina-Ala to Logo; Adikpo to Ikyogen; I started a road between Vandeikya and Adikpo with 70 percent of the work done; from Ushogo to Konshisha which is ongoing. Then I went to Zone C and constructed a lot of roads. I embarked on water projects. Those things are
the main drivers of agriculture and, for you to diversify, the basic infrastructure must be on ground; we had to lay the foundation.
The only industry in Benue then was Benue Cement which is now Dangote Cement but was closing and opening. I decided to bring in the Board of Internal Revenue (BIRS). But, unfortunately, it was making noise more than what was coming in. The highest revenue we generated was N250 million. The Chairman of the Board kept saying he was generating N1billion; so people started saying Suswam was sitting on N1billion.
The new administration has come in; they have been investigating; they discovered that there was nothing like that. It was basically payee. When you remove civil servants pay as you earn, because the money is not enough, you remove it on paper and it remains on paper that it is reduce but you use it in paying their salaries. It is not going to the coffers as revenue but it is reported as revenue and that one was like about 600 to 700 million a month and when you add what he was generating, 150 million or 250 million a month, he will say he was generating 1billion. It was all lies, Benue had never at anytime generated up to 400million a month. It was not possible for you to generate money that will complement what we were receiving from the federation account. The government is probing me and investigating; they will discover that it is impracticable.
Throughout my period as governor, with all the efforts we put in, the highest we generated in a month was N250million and it was because Dangote paid some money from the factory. On the issue of diversification, the current administration can leverage on that because some of the basics are there; I put good roads in place where roads never existed, electricity where it never existed, water and, since government is a continuum, we are building blocks.
On whether he will lend his voice in support of the incumbent governor when the need arises
Let me answer that by saying that I did what has never been done in the state before. I called Governor Samuel Ortom to congratulate him when he won the election. When I took over government, nobody bought any official car for me but I bought official cars for Ortom. I left some of the vehicles I was using for him, took him on official tour of the state and told him that anytime he needs me on anything, he should not hesitate to call me. From my disposition, you will know that anytime he needs my advice on anything, I will be there, not minding his hostile disposition to me. My interest is that Benue should move forward. I know the consequence of political leadership when things turn the other way and I am ready to face the consequence that comes with leadership. What is of interest now are the Benue people. When I went
to take a deserved rest, they said I ran away. I am here to answer any questions from the probe committee and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
On the probe committee
As human beings, our approach to issues differ and also depends on different backgrounds and what we intend to achieve. My approach to life generally is that life is very short; so why create problems when you can avoid them. When I came in, I met several issues on ground but I felt that there was no basis for me to start emphasizing on them because the people voted for me not to come and start saying that the outgoing governor has done this and that, they voted for me because I promised that I was going to come and make a difference and I concentrated on that right from day one and I avoided situations that will create unnecessary conflict in the state. The approach of the current leadership is totally different; so you can’t compare two different people with different approaches. I have no quarrel with the probe, the outcome will determine how events will unfold. I won’t be in the position to say they are setting a bad precedent, whether bad or
good, it depends on who is setting the precedent.
You started governance with zeal but later derailed. What happened?
Leadership in modern world is in the hands of young men because you have the power, energy and the intellect, but, in this part of the country, when you are a young leader, people tend to draw you back. I went all out when I assumed office and decided to address the issue of infrastructure. When I started building the walk ways, a lot of people did not understand what I was doing. They said I was narrowing the roads because they didn’t understand it and you won’t blame them because most of them had never seen that before. I did that because there were a lot of motorcycle and pedestrian accidents. I was at the same time building rural roads and three major water works. No state government that started in 2007 and later in 2015 did that. I did that in the first four years.
All of us know what happened in 2007. I won the election but I was in court for four years. The intention was to distract me; it was either I forged results, or people claiming their mandate, “mandate groups”. I finished the one of forging certificate, they moved to another. Whether you like it not, there is no way such issues will arise that you will not be distracted. I attended Government Secondary School, Makurdi and fifteen of us had the best result. I went to SBS and out of fifteen points I got ten; that was why I was admitted to read law in the University of Lagos. After UNILAG, I did my first masters degree in University of Abuja, second masters degree in law at the University of Jos. I started my PHD before I became governor. I didn’t go to Toronto, the intention was to distract me. I was in court for four years and the case ended when I was leaving office.
When I assumed office, to motivate civil servants; I increased their salary because Permanent Secretaries were receiving about N45, 000, Directors N26, 000. But by the time I was leaving office, Permanent Secretaries were receiving N400,000 and Directors N300,000 every month. Then they brought in the issue of national salary increase and you will also recall the teachers twenty seven and half percent. All of these increases came in while the federation account indices had not changed. When I assumed office, the wage bill of civil servants in the state was between 400 and 700 million a month, the one for teachers was 400 million while the wagebill for local governments was in the region of 700. But at the time I was leaving, the local governments wagebill was N3 billion while that of the state was between 2.7 and 2.9 billion a month.
And so, all the money we were getting during my second tenure was going into recurrent expenditure and, under such circumstance, there was nothing I could do. Throughout my eight years I borrowed N17.5 billion, made up of 13 billion bonds and N4.5 billion to enable me complete the projects I started. There was no derailment, it was just that the funding we had before was no longer there.
On why he is challenging the probe panel set up by Ortom to probe him? Will it not be interpreted that he is guilty?
When you set up a biased panel, why won’t I go to court? Look at the members of that panel, are they not all APC members? Apart from the judge, every other member of that panel is an APC member; so do you believe I will get justice from such a probe? I believe that it is only when I go to court that I will get justice.