By Favour Nnabugwu
Governor Samuel Loraermyi Ortom of Benue State is one of the many governors that had faced many battles in their pursuit to rid their states of corrupt practices and enshrine fairness, equity and justice for all.
Having anchored his administration on the fear of God, Ortom pledged to entrench transparency, accountability, justice, fairness, selflessness, humility, discipline, forgiveness, reconciliation, integration, peace and unity. Thus, he joined the ranks of agents of the change the people yearned for, with an all-inclusive goal to implement a blueprint of ‘Our Collective Vision for a New Benue’.
He told Sunday Vanguard: “Our target in government remains the implementation of the core objectives of ‘Our Collective Vision for a New Benue’. This will be done in accordance with the APC manifesto, while I reassure you of our commitment to leading with the fear of God.
“This shall translate to the entrenchment of core values that make development inevitable. These include transparency, accountability, fairness, justice, equity, honesty, selflessness, humility, discipline, integration, forgiveness, restitution and reconciliation.”
Faced with a number of challenges, Ortom’s zest is to pull the state out of ignorance, poverty and diseases while he is not deterred by the dwindling fortunes of Nigeria’s economy as a result of falling oil prices.
Recounting the situation he met when he assumed office, Ortom recalled, “Most of you here are aware of the situation we met on ground when we assumed office last year and the measures we took.
“We met a deficit treasury with huge debts of over N169 billion with the expectation of more revelations as we continue to verify. We resorted to borrowing to commence the payment of full salaries, implementation of minimum wage to teachers, take-off of our administration as well as the clearing of salary arrears of workers at the local government and state levels.
“The Federal Government also came to our rescue with a loan of N28 billion which has helped to tackle the salary arrears challenge and we hope that help shall also come for us to pay arrears of pensions and gratuities.
“In the face of all these, we have been able to record milestones. These include early constitution of the state executive council which enabled us to hit the ground running, the trimming of government size and introduction of cost saving measures as a response to the financial environment. We introduced an amnesty program to tackle the security challenges we met on assumption of office.
“The first part of the program, the carrot approach, yielded results with the surrender of over 700 youths, 500 assorted arms and thousands of ammunition. Beneficiaries who have undergone a retreat already are being sorted out into various aspects of the program which includes a return to school, skills acquisition and integration into the information gathering system of the security apparatus. The result of the amnesty program has seen increased security of lives and property in the state even as engagement with herders and farmers has minimized their clashes.
“Following the payment of part of the money owed the contractor of the water works in Katsina-Ala and Otukpo, the taps are now flowing in the two towns even as similar payment has ensured resumption of work on the Daudu-Gbajimba road. Work is also on-going on the completion of the House of Assembly Complex in Makurdi.
“We must return to agriculture with emphasis on processing and the entire value chain as a way of boosting our economy. Our government has put in place ingenious initiatives to boost agricultural production as listed in the 2016 budget. We must also provide the necessary infrastructure to boost our rural economy. To this end, the Ministry of Works and Transport shall be given the additional mandate of Power and Energy as a way of refocusing on needed power supply for our economic development and emancipation. The ministry shall become Ministry of Works, Transport and Energy.
“The resumption of the Benue State University and payment for accreditation of its program at the College of Health Sciences has led to the graduation of the first set of 27 pioneer doctors who had spent 12 years at the institution, with more to pass out in April this year. There is massive on-going renovation at the School of Nursing and Midwifery in Makurdi preparatory to re-accreditation which the school lost for three years”.
On looted funds
The governor expressed his desire to change the state’s fortunes when funds allegedly stolen during the last administration are recovered. According to him, a commission of enquiry he set up found that about N219 billion state funds were looted under the past government.
Ortom said: “If I have N219 billion, I will do wonders for this state. It is a lot of money. Let them bring back this money and even the N802 billion we are talking about.
“We want to pay salaries, we want to pay pensioners their money, we want to pay gratuity and we want to fulfil our contractual obligations, including the ones we inherited.
“With N219 billion, it is enough to solve these problems. Nobody will hear about bailout again. I can even take from there and repay the Federal Government the amount they gave us as bailout fund.
“We need rural roads, we need electricity, we want our hospitals to work, we want our schools to be functional. This is where this money will go. So we must recover it by the grace of God.”
He said there would be no plea bargain or political settlement, adding that stakeholders are unanimous on the refund of looted funds.
“If you can make refund, I have no case against you. If you said you took N10 billion and you refund the N10 billion, I will tell you to go and sin no more. But where you cannot, this is when I will have problems with you.”
The governor said his government committed to good governance and transparency”. No one would say a kobo is diverted. In fact, the labour unions (NLC, NUT, NULGET etc) were involved in the disbursement of the N28 billion bailout money allocated to Benue. So no one would say this government is corrupt. The issue of transparency, trust and credibility is key to this government. That explains why the proposed budget is tagged Budget of Trust, Credibility and Confidence,”he stated.
Ortom disclosed that he has reduced the cost of governance in the state. His words: “Benue used to have over 50 advisors in the past government, now we have just 20. In the past, special assistants were up to 300, but now we have less than 50”.
Peace and security
The governor is also committed to unity and peace and this shows in the cap he wears. It represents the Tiv, Idoma, Igede (the three dominant tribes in Benue). What Ortom is saying is that he wants to govern a state where all ethnic groups see themselves as one. Remarkably, many people are following him to wear the cap. On infrastructure, he said: “We have no road to Gbajimba but a contract has been signed to build the road. The immediate past governor, Suswam had awarded the contract of that road but it wasn’t started. But now, the building has commenced because we didn’t revoke the contract. We are paying the contractors and they are mobilizing to site. Then in Agatu, there are no good roads. About N500 million has been proposed in the 2016 budget to fix roads in Agatu. Agatu and Guma are the only local governments without tarred state roads. During the course of 2016 budget implementation, there will be massive infrastructure development. Roads and bridges will be built in local communities to open up those places. Schools and hospitals would be built. Aso because of the government intervention, water has started running in Katsina Ala and Oturpko. That has excited resident.
On revitalization of moribund industries, Ortom stated: “There are good efforts to revitalized them but we will sell some of them because government wants to provide an enabling environment for business to strive as government doesn’t want to run the businesses. We want to stimulate the economy and allow the private sector do profitable businesses. Even the facilities owned by government will be sold or leased out. For instance, the tomatoaes factory at Wanune, we have someone who is interested in it and discussions are on. The same thing with other industries. People are waiting to either lease or buy. We want these factories to become operational quickly so the will employ Benue people and stimulate Benue economy. These factories will also provide opportunities to local farmers and other local businesses to supply raw materials and other things. This will also stimulate local farmers and the economy.”