From Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
In this interview, Chief of Staff to Governor Samuel Ortom, Terwase Orbunde bares his mind on the efforts the administration is making to address the issue of non payment of salary and put the state on a better pedestal in terms of infrastructural development in the New Year.
You have a rich background and credentials, how have you brought your intimidating credentials to bear as a Chief of Staff in Governor Ortom-led administration?
I don’t know whether the credentials are intimidating, I am just talking to you about what God can do in the life of a man. One thing I want to let you know ab initio is that I believe in Samuel Ortom’s vision. I believe the man; I believe his vision because I know the man. And by the way, I didn’t know him as a governor, we knew ourselves since 1988, so we have come a long way and so I can say something about him. That is why I put in the little that I can to make sure that his convictions see the light of the day. And having got that kind of exposure, I think the Bible says to whom much is given, much is also expected. So having seen a wide range of things, as his Chief of Staff, once there is an opportunity, I put in my best based on my deep conviction about the man, his person, his ideas and his visions.
What are the things you can point at that you have helped the administration to achieve over the past two years now as his Chief of Staff?
What the governor has done, the first, I believe and the most critical thing that he has addressed is believability. When Samuel Ortom speaks, he has no reason to deceive you. He is not speaking to impress you. The man is himself, so he has brought credibility to governance. That is the first and most important thing. Secondly, the man has been able to bring his deep faith in God and applied it in the solution of problems of humanity, and I am talking about things that are philosophical in nature because those are the philosophical underpinnings that define what he does. The man’s love for humanity, the man’s passion for the less privileged all show in the kind of things he does. He came on and immediately realised that for any government, security of lives and property is the first thing. He did not say so but he acted so by initiating the Amnesty Programme. And like he said, he employed the carrot and stick approach, first he appealed and the response was quite reasonable because over 800 assorted weapons and 4,000 rounds of ammunition were surrendered. Then he went ahead to assist some of those young men that submitted their weapons by putting them on a monthly stipends in realisation of the fact that an idle hand is the devil’s workshop. So he kept them busy by giving them stipends for life before he moved into the stick approach. And like he said from the beginning that he was going to give time and when that time expired, he extended it a little more before he set out to pursue everybody who had illegal weapons. That I believe was something that was very fundamental.
Secondly, the heartbeat of the Governor Ortom’s administration is the realisation of the fact that over 80 percent of the population in this state is involved in agriculture. And so if you affect agriculture, you affect a large number of the population. So adding value to agriculture became something that was paramount to him and that’s what he has been driving. The man wants to increase production because he realised that land will never increase in quantity but human beings will increase in number. So if you want to feed a growing population, you must have a solution to making sure that you produce more food per hectare by adding value to what is produced, by conserving what is produced, by processing what is produced and that is what the governor has been doing. That I think we have to be honest enough to give him credit for that.
Then he has been able to weave together the diverse kinds of personalities in the state and has reduced tension in the polity by making sure that he accords respect and recognition to those that deserve them. And I want to let you know that at that level of politics, managing egos is the most essential assignment which I can tell you he has done very well. The ability to manage the key people in the state is key and he has done very well in that regard. He has provided stability in governance – transparency. You do not need to be stressed up by the governor because he is not going to ask you to go and put an additional kobo on any project. So he is contented with his life; he is contented with what God has given him. I want to tell you that Ortom is not looking for a new super house to build or a super car to drive or one country in the world that he must travel to or a pretty girl that he must get. None of those things are Governor Samuel Ortom’s problems. And that has impacted positively on stability, be it social, political or economic in Benue State.
What are the challenges that you think have impeded his performance over the past two years, without which he would have performed better?
Yes, the biggest challenge that we have experienced is that when Ortom says something, people believe he doesn’t know what he said. So it took a while for people to believe that what he says is what he means and what he means is what he says. That was an initial challenge. But having said that, paucity of funds, the diminishing federal allocation, and the dwindling Internally Generated Revenue income have affected him adversely. He could have done more if he had a better income but that has limited him. Because he has overcome believability and so now it is the issue of delivering essential services. He is hampered by funds.
You said you and Ortom knew each other since 1988 and since then, as politicians, you have not had any issues weighty enough to cause problem between the two of you?
One credit we must give to Governor Samuel Ortom is his ability to service friendship. He tells you about the humility of his origin, and he has never ever forgotten a friend. I happen to be a beneficiary of that virtue because when I was wedding in 1990, he was in Pepsi and his assignment was to supply drinks, he was the person who brought drinks for my wedding. And at every point in time, we may see, we may not see, but when we meet, we know where we stopped. Let me give you an example. In 1995, I had gone to see my family in the United Kingdom; my wife was a student at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. I went there and I was compelled to stay longer than I wanted to, I stayed for like three months, just for me to get home and a day after, here was Ortom in front of my house telling me that he is coming from Zaria and his things were in his pickup van that he was driving. He has to pass through my place before he gets into Makurdi town so he stopped by. You can see that we had not seen for more than two years but he is coming from Zaria and he remembers his friend is somewhere and he is passing to see me. He checked and fortunately, I had just come back the day before, and he was telling me that while he was a chairman in 1992 in Guma Local Government Area, God was leading him to become governor one day but he doesn’t know when that will be, but that the week before he came to my house in that 1995, while praying, he heard very clearly that the person who will anchor that project is Terwase Orbunde. That is why he is coming to see me, but we had not seen for more than two years. That is the kind of person he is. The fact that we have not seen for two years or more did not stop our friendship, so he set out to look for me. That is the kind of person that he is. The summary of what I am saying is that Ortom services friendship. And I want to tell you that managing me for instance is quite a challenge but he has been able to tolerate my extremes because I hold strong views and I pursue them, but he knows that that’s how I think, he knows that I mean well so he takes me as I am. So every person Ortom meets, he deals with the person as he or she is. He is not going to measure you as somebody else but he will treat you for who you are and bring out the best in you. That is the strength of the Ortom enigma.
What is the government doing to solve the problem of non payment of salaries?
I am concerned about the delay in payment of salaries to workers of the state, and that is why the governor in his wisdom declared the state of emergency on the issue of salary and subsequently he set up the Abounu committee which by the grace of God I am a member. Our assignment was to ascertain why is it that whereas we are not employing, people are resigning and we have those records, some are dying and the numbers are not going down. So we found out that the N7.8b per month wage bill was unrealistic and non-sustainable. So we began to look at the indices that have made it so, and we found out that there were many cases of ghost workers. The first thing we discovered was ten different names, one bank account. We solved that and that is why the wage bill was going down. And we also found out that certain allowances across the board that were not the entitlements were being collected. We also saw that there were people who were on the wage bill who had no business being there. And then we also discovered that in local governments, even in various places, that we had more people than were needed to do a job. So haven done these careful checks, I want to let you know that those figures are going down and by the grace of God; we may hover around N4.5b as the monthly wage bill of Benue State. So as we enter the New Year and the deputy governor submits the report of his committee, the wage bill will hover around N4.5b, I can assure you that going forward, at the end of every month, if you are a legitimate staff of the Benue State government both at the state and local government level, your salary will be paid.
After a state of emergency was declared on payment of salaries, capital projects were put on hold across the state. How soon are we expecting a return to sites?
You will realise that when we made a recovery of about N4.5b from one of the banks, it was money for bond which was intended for some of these projects you are talking about and some of those contractors went back to site. The summary of what I am saying is that once we arrest this monster, work on capital projects will resume.