•Herdsmen want to take over our ancestral land
•I’ve sworn to protect my people
By Peter Duru, Makurdi
Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue state in this interview spoke on why eight lawmakers in the state moved to serve him an impeachment notice and why he dumped the All Progressives Congress, APC for the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. He also expressed his fear on the looming famine and hunger in the state following the displacement of farmers as a result of their clashes with herdsmen.
Recently there was a crisis at the Benue State House of Assembly where eight members of the House attempted to issue an impeachment notice on you. How did we get to this?
Well it’s an unfortunate development but that is politics. You know that nothing took place until I said I was given red card by the leadership of APC in Benue State and I said we cannot continue like this. We are practising democracy and democracy is anchored on the rule of law and due process. Democracy is about the people. My predicament started from the enactment of the prohibition of open grazing law, some people were not happy with it which is natural, it’s a new thing, but in the 21st century Nigeria must move forward.
But I challenge anyone with a superior position as to how to solve this farmers and herdsmen crisis to bring it to the table. I am willing to subject what we have done here to a discussion on how best it can be done. As far as I know ranching remains the global best practice in animal husbandry and we have done the right thing. Nobody has come to say that what we have done is wrong. It is just impunity that is reigning in Nigeria. People rise up with the active support of agents of the federal government and think that they can do what they like. You can imagine a Minister coming to say that it was the law that was responsible for the killings in Benue state.
Is there a law in Adamawa state, is there any law in Plateau state, is there any law in Kaduna state, is there any law in Sokoto state, is there any law in Delta or Abia or Ebonyi state? So this is the challenge, people are not sincere, we have taken an oath of office and to those of us who are in leadership positions must know that when we take it, it’s either by the Bible or the Koran and we should know that God is watching and the day of reckoning would come and there would be judgement. And I think that when we give account before God we cannot ask lawyers to come and protect us. God will definitely judge us.
As far as I know people are trying to play politics with everything. This is about occupation, it is about taking over the land, it’s not about rearing cattle in Nigeria. It is about people who are determined to displace us from our ancestral land. But I have the mandate of my people and I have sworn to protect them.
I don’t have the security agencies, it is the responsibility of the federal government because we are in a federation and the federating units must carry out their obligations to the people. I know that the constitution allows me to make laws for my state and the enforcement of the law is the responsibility of the federal government. As long as we make laws that are not in conflict with the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the federal government has to do it.
The EFCC froze the bank account of your state and after the outcry that trailed that action the order was lifted. How did the news hit you?
I think that the EFCC would have been in the best position to answer that question because it was strange to me and that was why I went to court. I am a law abiding governor and I prefer the legal means to handle my case. I cannot stop the EFCC from doing their investigation as long as they are doing it within the ambit of the law, not doing it illegally and with impunity like we saw security agencies, the Police and DSS coming here to seal up the State House of Assembly. Out of 30 members of the House, eight were given adequate protection to go there to discuss an impeachment notice. At least we are learned people, the procedure of an impeachment is very clear. 10 members out of 30 which is one third can issue a notice to the House. The House will deliberate on it and 2/3 can cause the impeachment notice to be served on the Chief Judge who will now set up a panel and after the panel report it will be given to the House and 2/3 will determine whether I am impeachable or not. Anything outside that cannot stand.
That was why we went to court and we secured an interim order, the matter is still in court anyway. But ab initio they did not meet the demand of 1/3 so that was dead on arrival in the first place because we are not in the era of five or ten members moving to impeach a governor, it doesn’t hold anymore. Our lawyers are there, we will sort it out in court. So far no impeachment notice has been served, I have no impeachment notice on me and those people in the first place, who were responsible for the so called impeachment move have been suspended from the House for six months and I think that the leaders of the House out of the 22 are doing their normal work.
You defected to the PDP from the APC, what motivated your action?
Well, I must say that circumstances took me to the APC in the first place. As far as I know I was just on sabbatical. I was a foreigner in APC, nobody considered me as governor, nobody felt that I should also participate in the formation of the structure of the party even though I have large followership.
The fact is that If I had not come to the APC, the party wouldn’t have won the 2015 governorship election in Benue state, they know it and they cannot dispute it. I went to the APC because the PDP had treated me in a manner that was not democratic and that was why I left and sojourned in APC. But I was treated like a foreigner in the APC, like I wasn’t part of it. So I decided to go back to my home which is the PDP, now that the party has rebranded and the party has also apologized, accepting that the way we had conducted our affairs in the past were not right and I have also seen the reforms from the current leadership of the party.
So I told myself that this is a home that I contributed a lot to build. At the state level I was secretary of PDP for six years, I was deputy chairman of the party for one year and I was the National Auditor of the party for three years at the national level. So for me it was a home coming and you could see the rousing welcome that was accorded me when I got back to PDP. So it is home and it is about my freedom and I should be allowed. All these persecutions you are seeing, from EFCC to the Police to DSS and all that are because I left the APC. They are framing more charges and they would do more things and go to the dirty extent of even pushing herdsmen to come and attack Benue again so that there would be unrest in the state. But I know that God will stop them
From our findings, Benue state government owes its workers backlog of salaries and teachers and local government workers are the most affected, is there any agreement in place to facilitate the prompt payment of the backlog?
Yes, the payment of salaries has been a major challenge to my government since inception, though the challenge was there before I came in. I took over this government with arrears of salaries, pension and gratuities to the tune of over N69billion. Trying to cope has been a major challenge. But I must first of all appreciate the Benue workers for their understanding, their cooperation and for the encouragement they have given me to this level.
I have done my best in terms of trying to source funds to clear these arrears because I know that a worker deserves his wages. From my antecedents I have never failed, right from 1991 to 1993 when I was a local government chairman, I made sure that workers received their dues even in the midst of hardship and of course I received several awards from several workers’ organizations because of my passion in ensuring that they received their pay.
So, most of our workers understand me very well. But I must say that their understanding and cooperation has been as a result of the transparent manner I have been handling the finances of the state because I choose to ensure that my workers are aware of what comes in and what goes out so information are available and that is what has led to the relative peace and industrial harmony within the state. But it has been a major challenge trying to clear N69billion within three years and then coping with the challenge ahead of us.
Let me also say that today in Nigeria, Benue state remains the third highest salary paying state in the country. Lagos is the highest, if you take for instance a Director in that state, he receives an average of N345,000 and of course you know how much they make as IGR and other things. This is followed by Rivers state that pays an average of N285,000 monthly to a Director and of course you know how much IGR they also get. Now coming to Benue which is number three, a Director takes home N280,000 monthly and our IGR is about N500million monthly. So when you put the IGR and federal allocation together, we are not able to cope.
When we came in we inherited a monthly wage bill of about N8.2billion and because of my passion for workers, the teachers were crying for minimum wage even before I was elected governor. I immediately decided that teachers should also receive minimum wage. This also took the wage bill higher as there was an increase of about N300million which made the wage bill to be N8.5billion. But through screenings and blockage of leakages we were able to bring it down to N7.8billion that is inclusive of pension and overheads
So you are talking about a monthly wage bill of N7.8billion. From the federal accounts we had an average of N5billion and an average of N500million IGR monthly with a deficit of over N2.8billion monthly. This is largely responsible for the accumulation of the arrears that we have today but through bailouts, federal government intervention, Paris Club refunds and budget support we’ve been able to drastically reduce the backlog. The accumulation, as a result of the shortfall that we get every month is largely responsible for these arrears of salaries at the state level which is seven months at the local government and owing teachers 11 months salary as at today.
But at the beginning of the year, we decided that every other project must stop. What we are doing today from January to date is basically to pay salaries because we concluded that if you construct a bridge or a road and you have no one to make use of the bridge or road it doesn’t make sense. So the workers must get their pay. But obviously the wage bill challenge is real. However we have paid up to date since January. I must also point out that despite this challenge, one thing we have done which is very important because of our passion for education is that staff of Benue State University who take an average of N600million monthly have been paid up to date.
Moving forward, you’ve reaffirmed that your huge wage bill is a challenge, I know that there was a committee set up for verification exercise, can you tell us what your findings were?
That committee brought a lot of issues and a lot of apprehension from the people. Several people were dropped as a result of the screening because our emphasis in setting up that committee was to ensure that every worker who is genuine and is working should earn his pay at the end of the month. But those who do not work should not also earn anything because the Bible says ‘the worker deserves his wages’ but those who do not work should not also eat.
So, we implemented this. In the local government system for instance where you have large number of workers who were recruited by successive administrations they hardly go to work. For instance Guma my own local government which is a rural local government there are about 900 staff and you hardly see 50 go to work every day, they only come to collect pay and they also come when there is screening.
So, we decided to draw a line but there was huge cry from the people and as a democratic government we had to listen to the people. If we had implemented that, maybe we would have been comfortable but for a state that is basically sustained by civil service, the economy of our state is basically driven by the civil service and supported by peasant farming so it’s a big challenge. There were huge cries from religious leaders, traditional rulers, stakeholders, from party men and women that we have to make adjustments. So we had no choice but to listen to them and find a way. They told me that it was better to owe than send people away because allowing them to be idle may force them into antisocial behaviors.
Many Nigerians are clamouring for a new minimum wage, and you say you are having challenges with your recurrent expenditure, if by the end of the year a new minimum wage is approved, how will you cope?
Well, I think this is where the workers themselves will have to sit down and review the salary structure we have in Benue state today vis-a-vis what we have in other parts of our country. Like I said, a Director is taking home N280,000 here in Benue state and he is the third highest in the entire country where in other states a Director is taking less than N100,000. A Director in Kaduna is paid less than N120,000 monthly and in Kano it is N150,000 while in some states they earn less than N100,000 monthly. Maybe those states can afford it but honestly it will be difficult for us to talk about new minimum wage now.
But these are things that we can sit down and discuss. The truth is that when the labour leaders at the national level saw the challenge we had they came in. The workers went on strike, I invited them, we sat down and discussed and they too appreciated the situation. They thought that the wage bill was over bloated or that we had something to hide but at the end they went into the books themselves and they saw that truly there is a challenge in Benue state.
At the end they advised that the committee that we had set up should go ahead and do the work but that at the end of the assignment we could sit down because we have the knowledge of what is happening in other parts of the country, we can then sit down and see how we can manage the situation and come out with a figure that can be sustainable. That is what is ongoing, a committee has been set up by the leaders of the labour union and the state government and they are working together. The only challenge we have is that the committee we set up here is yet to complete its work. But I believe that in the next couple of weeks they should round up because I have given them an order to conclude the work so that we can sit down and discuss. So if we discus and come out with a reasonable figure that is sustainable maybe we can also be talking about the new minimum wage.
Benue is known as the food basket of the country but many of these farmers are displaced at the moment, is there any plan in place to probably provide them land so that they can farm or cultivate food crop? We also had reports of large number of herders returning to Benue, has peace finally returned to Benue?
I foresee famine and hunger over our land as a result of the crisis. I’m sure it will affect other states because as the food basket of the nation I know the worth of farm produce that goes out of our state daily, how it supported food security in Nigeria. Today all those people that you see in the IDPs camps are the people that produce food for their livelihood and the little economic activities that they put together.
But now they cannot access their farms. It is difficult to have land in semi urban areas where they are being accommodated not to talk about cultivating and when they go back to their ancestral land to try to farm they are attacked. Sometimes they are kidnapped, killed or arrested by these herdsmen and later released.
There is relative calm compared to what happened to us on January 1 and the subsequent three months or so that followed. But honestly I must commend the federal government, specifically the military Operation Whirl Stroke, they have done very well. The Commander and the security men attached to the operation have done extremely very well, maybe because they cover the waters, the land and the air and so they have succeeded to a large extent in pushing these invaders away from our land. But these people are stubborn, they are still there, they are still coming and they are still insisting that they are here to occupy the land, that they will kill and make sure that they occupy the land. They are in our neighboring state, they come here and attack and go back.
Those people they kidnapped and later released came back with messages from the armed men that they should not attempt to farm on that land that the land belonged to them. There is however relative calm and maybe we can say that about 80 percent of the invaders have been chased out but 20 percent of the armed men are still hanging around our neigbouring state and once in a while they attack and retreat but the security agencies have been alerted and I believe that they would be able to cope with the challenge.
It has been three eventful years of your administration, apart from the herdsmen crisis and backlog of unpaid salaries, what are the other challenges you have been confronted with and what are the milestones your administration has recorded?
Clearly there were challenges, economic challenges occasioned by recession and lack of resources to conduct government affairs as well as security challenges. Apart from the herdsmen issue there have been banditry, armed robbery, kidnappings and all that. All these I had to contend with. That was why when I came in I initiated an amnesty programme, I recovered a lot of arms and brought back the hoodlums and after reorientation they were integrated into the society as responsible citizens.
But I must say that the challenge has remained. Recently there was a regrouping of those bad boys who were all over the place but we are containing them in the midst of all these challenges. In terms of achievement, in the education sector we have recorded milestones. Go to our primary schools today you will see massive renovations and construction of new buildings and provision of instructional materials for our primary schools because building a stronger primary institution will help to support the secondary and tertiary institutions.
As for the secondary level we have not left it, at the tertiary level we have done well and like I said, even despite the fact that we are not up to date in the payment of salaries, but as for Benue State University, we have paid up to date. For other tertiary institutions we are working with them with understanding, pleading that the arrears would be paid
We have also through the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, provided skills acquisition centres in our three zones and provided other factories that can process our primary produce here in Benue state.
We undertook the 13 ongoing road projects that we inherited from my predecessor. Some are about being completed and some are still ongoing but due to lack of fund we suspended all that now to ensure that workers get their monthly pay. We also initiated other 12 road projects and construction is ongoing.
There are some rural roads we have completed and some have not been completed. For electricity projects especially rural electricity projects we have completed quite a number of them. We have gone within the limited resources to do that.
On industrialization, we have encouraged the private sector because government cannot do it on its own. The plastic industry is working, the fertilizer blending plant is working. We are encouraging others to take over Taraku Mills and other industries we have here in Benue state.
So despite the challenges we also did a lot in the health sector. We have constructed quite a number of clinics and we have lived up to the expectation of the people in terms of providing support for our primary healthcare services. I recall that the School of Nursing and Midwifery that was shut for four years before we came is now back and we have admitted students who are studying there and we have gone a step further by concluding plans to affiliate the school to the Benue State University School of Health Sciences so that it would be a degree awarding institution.
That is ongoing, we have secured the accreditation and also for the School of Health Technology Agasha, we have secured the accreditation and admission is ongoing.
In the area of water supply, we have done wonderfully well also. We have water projects in all the 23 local government areas because we know the importance of potable water supply especially if we must check cases of water borne diseases in our rural communities.