June 8, 2024

My first shocker as governor – Alia


Gov. Alia

Our elites, some of who campaigned with me fought against payment of salaries and pensions because of what they were expecting. I had no official car for 9 months, I don’t take salaries. Sacrifices must be made to serve our people

By Omeiza Ajayi

Hyacinth Iormem Alia, a Catholic Priest, is the Governor of Benue State. In this
interview to mark his first anniversary in office, the All Progressives Congress APC politician explains how he and his team had to forego some perquisites of office in order to pull the state from the brinks and thrust it on the path of sustainable profitability. Alia speaks on why he has refused to collect salaries for the past one year, how his car broke down somewhere after Akwanga in Nasarawa state on his way to Abuja, having refused to procure new official vehicles in his first nine months in office. The governor also exposes those behind insecurity in the state and explains what he has been doing to keep the peace.

What would you say you have achieved in the last one year?

Thank you very much. In the last one year, my experience was a kind of mixed. I came in as a leader with a new thinking. A leader who was very confident of what I was bringing to the table. A leader who tries to keep his or her words since I told people the very many things I would be able to do because we mapped out everything and I knew where I wanted the state to move as a new phase of development and growth.
Surprisingly, when I came in, a good number of people who were on the campaign train with me were the ones who masterminded resistance, and you know, the whole thing boiled down to money. So my thinking was once we came, we could start taking care of the Civil Servants salaries and then revive the pensioners and then get back to the drawing table to see how we could make our Civil Service very stable. That is the engine of every democratic government. 

So how we make those things work out even till tomorrow I can’t get over this. And the resistance was simply that if you are paying salaries why must you pay pensions or why can’t you miss some months? Why are you spending so much money on salaries and pensions? Then the next phase was that I needed to do some projects. So, the question was why? I said yes, this is why I came, to work! Then I started having attacks left, right and centre. ‘This is not the Church where you must do everything as you say.
Why is this…?’ But I came from the Church and that is my background. So, I have to fulfil l my words. 
Over 33 years I have been in the trenches with the poor people. I know their plight, I know where it pains them the most. I know the little things we can do to change the narrative and that is why they gave the votes that they have never given anyone in the state before despite the fact that one whole local government was out of the election. You are going to do election the next week but then the votes we got were incontestable so they had to simply go ahead and announce the results. 

I am trying to realize that some number of the elite are the problem in communities. I don’t understand their level of understanding of a democratic system and what should come therefrom – the people’s democracy. I feel our people deserve better, the common masses deserve better. They trust us – a social bond. They keep their part by voting us in, we must keep ours as well. Anything short of that is deceit, and the players of politics that believe in this deceit are the ones spoiling the name of politics as a good game. After God, the Divine above, next is democratic process, true governance of the people. There they set their minds on growth, development, job creation, on building families and all that. 

So that was the first kind of shocker I received but we have to stay on course. I said I took an oath and at the end of the oath I said; ‘So help me God’ and I want to keep to the letters of that oath. I understand what an oath is, it is a seal and once you commit your life to it, if you don’t do it, what excuse do you give? Well, we thank God, irrespective of that shock, that resistance to even pay people’s salaries, the resistance to revive the poor pensioners who were owed billions of Naira. These people were never paid for years and they were dying in their numbers. When I see an old pensioner, I see my father. My father was a pensioner, he could ride a bicycle about 56 kilometres. This man would ride a bicycle to go and collect N4,000, and they didn’t even know what they were paying them but there was orderliness, N4,000 was huge money. When you mistreat these people that is all they have to take care of their medications, at least once in a while eat some little good food and just take care of their little businesses – their demands are not many. So, you have a number of the elite who have chosen to become enemies of the state; who make deliberate decisions that are against human development, are against growth, are against infrastructural development, the decisions that are against poor masses.

Then the new thinking we are coming on board with, the thinking being that each person is a stakeholder in this irrespective of your religious or political affiliations; you are a stakeholder in our administration, you have so much you can offer. If you are a farmer, there is so much you can give to curb food insecurity. We are willing to support you but then they said that wasn’t the case. And I said yes, the farm, that is where the money is! It is not standing by the road to tell people “Ranki Dede”. That is not where the money is, the money is in the farms, let’s get back to the farms. 

And then letting people understand that those who should be in the driver’s seat of governance are the masses; attending to their needs, asking them what they want, not you doing what you think they want. If you do what they want, you’re helping them so much even to be on board with you. You are now giving them the power that is theirs. So, if mistakenly you go out there, say you want to do a road for them, but they say their need primarily is the water, please, give them the water and be very sincere about this. 
That was one stumbling block but God helping, we are able to keep to our words. We took people on the campaign train and told them we would do certain things. You have to do those things. I have a scorecard to present. You know when last week I sat back, I was just wondering if I had not insisted on the thing I wanted to do, what would I be telling the people now? What would I be showing them after one solid year? been showing people in one solid year?

They say politics is a dirty game, I say that’s where we should have Reverend Fathers to clean it up.
There is something called reputation, a good name is better than money where I come from, in my village. 

What is the security situation in the state?

The secret we came to the table . It was very simple. I told my team we must be very sincere with the Benue people. Almost all people in the state knew that people were cashing in on insecurity and making money. That people deliberately caused a number of harm to the poor citizenry. That people invited those who destabilized, those who were like accessories to the destabilization they wanted. So I told them I would not be an accomplice to that, neither would I be a champion of it at any point at all. We must think differently, the poor people have suffered. So we came in on a new slate, let us do what will be very beneficial to them, be very sincere in the approaches we are bringing.

We have relative peace today because we are on the lane of sincerity. There is no need for you to go and cry wolf down there when people come and you slaughter them and you go crying to the Federal Government to give you money so that you will come back and take care of business. Then there is no need inciting the young people, steal cows, rustle the cows and then come to be settled. There would be a reprisal and when the reprisal comes, lives would be lost. So one bad man was in some quarters orchestrating these and was cashing in when people were being buried everyday. So we took another route. We do security but it has to be targeted and deliberate. So if we discover any individual inciting a group of young people to be responsible for this we will make sure you pay for it. 

At your birthday dinner you did promised the people of Otukpo projects. How soon will that come?
Some formal announcements will be made in the coming days. There are some works going on now behind closed-doors. I just rounded off on many announcements we are going to make. All the roads infrastructure are apportioned to all the local government areas. We are trying to make intrastate connectivity and that involves so much. It is something that is so dear to my heart. If we do that, we will lessen so many troubles. So we are still going to do that, it is important that this point in Otukpo, Otukpo is an old town and this point in Otukpo requires that it is a kind of a meeting point; those going to the north by this axis and those going further south by this axis.

There is a lot of traffic there so we want to lessen it and not only create beauty but also do something that is very modern even to gain more access. I don’t want someone to be coming all the way from the east to travel to Abuja you get to Otukpo then you are stuck for a very long time. So that is our target and that is the plan and truly we mean it. In the next days we are going to roll a number of the local government projects we intend to accomplish in the next one year.

With the barrage of challenges you met on ground, insecurity, salaries etc, where you scared and overwhelmed that the state is poor and can’t pay salaries?

Was I overwhelmed? The answer is no. As I mentioned earlier, I was shocked at what the few elite do to keep the entire state in dungeon. Because it was targeted that Benue was a poor state and Benue wasn’t welcoming development and there were no funds for the state to be developed. What I have done in the last year is, I have never taken any bank loan, I have never taken loan from any source. I want the poor masses of Benue to have a feel of transparency and true good democratic governance. Just be accountable. 

So, we have demonstrated this for them to understand that the few individuals were cashing in fat on the entire Benue. So, it was my responsibility to have them exposed. I didn’t have to talk but whatever we got in there have to be properly channelled. The pension, the outstanding on salaries, pensions and gratuity you will be so shocked that it was in billions of Naira. Is it that the Federal Government could not support the state? The Federal Government supported and then it tells you that there was a calibration that people must stay poor, people must suffer. That is not democracy, that is not the ‘Renewed Hope Agenda’.

I had no car for months
You know for quite a time I didn’t have a car to drive as a governor. For nine months, I did not have a car to drive but I managed the car I had during the campaigns. That was what I was driving back and forth here. It was a difficult decision for me to make but we had to do it. I would have conscripted the money for pensions, the money for salaries to do this but I knew the people were burning badly, that they needed some cushioning.

So we needed to do what was going to be on the side of the people for the people and in the interest of the entire state. So I had to make that difficult decision. Instead of packing all these now; my deputy governor, for the executive council, the commissioners, the major advisers and all that I pleaded with them, gentlemen see we are leaders and not just leaders, we must transform this state. We must be transformative leaders and a transformative leader leads by example. If we don’t do this thing it will just be a de’javu. We will be playing back the old records to the hard Benue people and guess what? Under one month, either we run away or they will pursue us. That was why we had to take that action. 

We made the sacrifice that everything that came in had to give a cushioning to the Civil Servants. When we came in most civil servants were not coming to work. Local Government headquarters were outgrown with weeds. So the system had collapsed but we needed to revive all these and we needed to lead by example. I said I was willing to do this and the deputy said we were toeing the same line and everybody in the room said the same thing. We needed to do just the needful. Ask them how many months they were not paid, I have not been paid even as I am speaking here. I have never taken salary in the last one year. My deputy governor has never taken his salary in the last one year, but we needed to let people understand that we only came in to make a difference. We came in to let them know that when you sacrifice, something better comes in. 

And then Benue is so rich. So the few people who choose to enslave us, the few people who painted a different picture that the Federal Government never gave money to the state were all liars. And I needed to prove that they were liars by paying salaries and pensions and gratuities.

But today I am not even thinking of the sacrifices in the last year. I am not even thinking about the pains. I can tell you I was travelling the other day to Abuja, I think the car experienced the wear and tear after Akwanga; started slowing down, at a point it stopped, we were still there. I said you guys don’t worry. I have seen what the future holds for all of us and younger people, the security people were like but you are a governor, I said I know and for now no one takes it away from me. The primary thing is not just a governor in name, I want our system to work. Do you know how much one car costs? So, we have to do a number of things. We just got our new cars, just last two, three months that I got full cars on my train. We are here live and it is the same security people who are applauding that they just wonder what would have been if we never closed our eyes to so many things. 

Paying salaries without loans
So, resilience, commitment and it has to be very intentional. So, I am happy that we are able to achieve this kind of a feat. Is it that we are not going to take any loan? Now the people understand that without loans their salaries can be paid. So just imagine in the next one year, we will tell them what I have to do to advance this cause going forward, they will be the ones saying, go take this money come and make us proud because we have demonstrated accountability. We have shown them that in the nearest possible time, when you talk of Benue or when you are in Lagos and you are thinking Lagos, then the name Benue should be coming to your mind and that is my target. These are things we can do, we can achieve these things. It is just that resilience and targeted goal and that is where we are headed.

How are you going to sustain the food basket status of Benue and take it to the next level?
There is no question to the sustainability of what we have started. As I mentioned, we have never taken any loan but you have seen the milestones we have attained. So when we take loan, it will be for projects.
The narrative has changed, believe me, it has changed. We are going to maintain what we have started because we have the political will and maintaining it must be because we are still in this contract with the poor masses. What is happening today and even tomorrow is the same thing that is going to happen in the next one solid year. If you don’t have anything on ground for them, you will not work the streets of Makurdi. I know how they fight back! I am a free man in the way that I go to the market as I am speaking. I go to Wadata, I go to Wurukum. I am very free. That is why I get incentivised to a number of things we are doing. J
We have agricultural programmes that we are going to unveil. As I am speaking, we make it a duty in this administration to be off-takers to the farmers.

There are a number of incentives for the farmers and it is the only way. That is one other blessing we have on this land – Benue. Anything you plant, yams you name it has a very different sweet natural taste, and we have to take advantage of that.