By ABDULFATAH OLADEINDE
PLATEAU State Governor, Mr. Simon Lalong has launched a blistering attack on his predecessor, Jonah Jang, saying while he is still trying to clear the mess left he left behind, the former governor is instigating discord among the people over the ranching policy introduced by the Federal Government.
In this interview with some editors in Lagos last Monday, Lalong alleged that Jang failed to account for N2 billion he received for youth SME empowerment.
Lalong also accused the former governor of failing to provide the list of beneficiaries of 500 SURE-P vehicles, which record showed were bought by the state government during the Jang administration, adding that he was determined to recover all looted funds back to the state.
The governor gave details of the difference between the contentious grazing reserves and ranching policy adopted by the state and more.
When you took over, what were the things you met on ground that suggested that the quantum of work you would have to do is enormous?
I inherited a state that was already in crisis, conflicts, killings here and there. In terms of security, there was none and that was the number one challenge. Secondly, immediately we were elected, I set up a transition committee and what the committee came out with, was revealing. There were abandoned projects everywhere. Many contractors had abandoned the state for almost a year.
We also saw that there was no civil service in the state. The workers were on strike for almost nine months, the judiciary was not there. We had uncompleted projects here and there and then, I inherited a debt profile of about N222 billion. When I called for the state’s accounts, what I was given was just N95 million. So, imagine salary arrears of about nine months, a workforce that was utterly demoralized and then above all, a state that was in very serious conflicts. There were killings here and there.
What I did was to look at the security situation because if you do not tackle insecurity, there is no way you can surmount the other challenges I mentioned. So, we went into how to curb the conflicts but I realised that you cannot tackle security without sorting out the issue of the workers. So, what I did was to borrow money, pleaded with the workers to return to work. Now, when they returned to work, we set up a five-policy thrust. The first was on the issue of security, second was agriculture, third was human empowerment, tourism and the last was on physical development.
What I did was to now follow the policy thrust in sequence. So, when the civil servants were back to work, people were working and we were able to meet up with the warring factions, we set up a committee, put them together. When we put them together because part of the problem I saw was that the inability of the last administration to bring the two factions together. The former governor had taken sides this time but in our own case, our campaign was that we are going to form a government of unity. When you talk about unity, Plateau State is like a miniature Nigeria where we have 53 ethnic groups resident on the plateau.
So, if you want peace, you must consider all of these ethnic groups and bring them together. For the first time, we were able to bring together the 53 ethnic groups in the history of Plateau State.
You have achieved relative peace in the state since you came on board but that peace appears threatened because of the issue of grazing reserves and ranching. What is the true situation?
The one that cropped up was settled last week, that was the political angle. I call it the political angle because I inherited a policy that was not only included but gazetted by my predecessor, Governor Jang. How did that come about? Due to the incessant crisis in the state, several commissions of inquiry were set up in the state. The last commission set up was the one headed by the late Justice Niki Tobi.
Now, Niki Tobi made some far reaching recommendations that would curb crisis on the Plateau and what he recommended was that if you want to curb the crisis, because that time it was still the issue of Fulani herdsmen and the natives, you must identify and establish the grazing reserves and grazing route. It was not implemented by Governor Dariye because of elections. Now when Governor Jang came in, he called for all the recommendations of all the judicial panels and made recommendations for grazing reserves and grazing routes and went ahead to gazette it in Plateau State in 2009.
By the time we came, things had changed. Implementing it would be a bit difficult. If you are going to implement it, where are you going to get the routes? The problem is the routes because when you establish it, you need to know the difference between grazing reserves and ranches. Grazing reserve means people will have to take their cattle to an open field for grazing, you can move from anywhere to come and graze your cows and in the process of grazing you will look for routes. In the process, they move into farmlands and feed on crops which is the cause of crisis and then, even the grazing reserves attract the attention of cattle rustlers.
So, the difference between that and what is being introduced today is the ranches, you cannot compare ranches and grazing reserves.
There was a report by the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan and that report was presided over by a sub-committee headed by the former governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam, which made recommendations resolution of the crisis and those solutions were to establish either grazing reserves or ranches.
Coming back to the case of Plateau State, it was unfortunate that the first person who came in with the controversy was my predecessor. He held a press conference and said that I was bringing in something very obnoxious and dangerous to the state; that I was bringing in grazing reserves in connivance with the president, who is a Fulani man, to Plateau State. The moment he made that statement, there was commotion. His idea was to ignite crisis in the state but I took my time because even before I decided on the policy of ranches, I set up a 14-man committee made up of experts to go and study the difference between ranches and grazing reserves.
The committee came back and made recommendations that I should adopt the policy of ranches for the state. Before the committee’s report was submitted, my predecessor had gone on air and made such statements. One of the recommendations of the committee was to sensitize the people, so I took my time and did exactly what they recommended. We went on sensitization and we started with traditional rulers. The moment we finished with traditional rulers, they accepted. We invited the youths and they accepted too. It was just an explanation that we were not going for the grazing reserves but ranches. We made them realize the advantages of ranches and the disadvantages of grazing reserves.
I saw it as a good opportunity for the employment of our youths and benefit of our state, so all the groups we met told us to continue with the ranching policy. When we finished with the youths, we went to religious leaders and explained to them, we took on the House of Assembly and the last group was the National Assembly. I took them (National Assembly) last, because I knew there were mischief-makers among them. This policy came from the Federal Government and it was the National Assembly that sat and passed the budget for it. I saw it in the budget. They were going to implement it, but because one was coming to Plateau state, the National Assembly members ran back to Plateau and addressed a press conference that the people of the state should not key into the ranching policy. From their reaction, they saw it as an APC policy because many of them are in the PDP.
When I invited them, I said, “tell me why you do not want us to key into it?” Their story changed. They said they thought it was grazing reserves but I asked them at what time did we say we were going into grazing reserve? The National Assembly passed the budget but now, they were mobilizing people against the policy. I explained to them that people of the state have accepted ranches. I did not bring grazing reserves to the state but I was only adopting the policy of ranches.
Aside clearing the backlog of salaries, in the last 14 months you assumed office as governor and having cleared the cobweb of insecurity, what can you point at as your developmental achievements in the state?
Even with the challenge of the backlog of salaries I met, within the period of one year, we have commissioned a lot of projects. One of the policies of the APC is not to leave abandoned projects, so when we came in, we continued with the abandoned projects, we completed many of them and we are still continuing with some of them.
We also introduced new projects like the new roads we flagged off, which are ongoing. Besides, let me point out one thing. We set up a state university over 10 years ago. At that time, I was the Speaker of the House of Assembly and I presided over the passage of the law to set up the university but that university never graduated students. There was no graduation for about 10 years. So, when I came in as governor, I saw that the same university could not graduate students for one reason of the other.
Is it that the university did not start at all or they started…
(Cuts in) They started, students came in but they did not graduate the students.
For 10 years? So, what were they doing for 10 years?
There have been administrative problems here and there. About four vice chancellors were changed. On the volition of Governor Jang, he would change the vice chancellor and not only that, there was problem of administration and at the same time, the students were suffering. So, the last vice chancellor was removed but the university said no, we cannot continue like that. There was no accreditation of courses, instead of concentrating on accreditation of courses and graduating students, the politics of administration was what the governor was concerned about. What we did was to go with the recommendations of the National Universities Commission and we implemented all the recommendations. 17 courses were accredited and right now, we are preparing for the first convocation of that university. I brought in the last vice chancellor that was removed. I followed due process.
With the security situation, it is not easy to restore security in the state. When we came in May 2015, people were running away from Plateau State, but now people are eager to come to the state. It is when you have peace that people will want to come to your state. Our state is already known for having the best weather and when you have a good weather, people would want to take advantage of that good weather. It was our responsibility to restore security.
In terms of agriculture, that is also our focus for empowerment and also for revenue generation. We have almost keyed into all the counterpart funding in agriculture as far as we are concerned. We have FADAMA. We are into rice, potato, cassava and several others. With our good weather, Plateau is known as the home for peace and tourism; so we are still going back to tourism. We would embark on reviving and developing our tourism.
Still on the issue of grazing, what your predecessor is trying to make people believe is that the state government wants to take lands from the natives, the indigenous people of Plateau State and give to Fulani herdsmen. Is that what the ranching policy is about?
No, an emphatic no. The policy is that the government and people of Plateau State will own the land. Government will identify the land, the people of that area will give the land willingly for the ranches. Plateau State Government will not confiscate land from any community or force any community to provide land for the ranches. Now, when you give the land of about 2,500 hectares, the state government will pay for the land, the Federal Government will develop the land, they will bring in dams, fence the land and recently what they are doing is to provide security. Right now, they are training some civil defence corps members for the purpose of protecting the ranches. They will be called rangers. The Federal Government will develop the land, but the Plateau State Government will own the land. Then they will call for people who are interested in ranching to apply and then, the state government will demarcate the land and lease to people who want to participate.
So, the land for the ranches belongs to the government and people of Plateau State but on lease to people who would come and participate in the scheme. They cannot be owners of the land. So, I don’t see why my predecessor is saying it is for Fulani herdsmen. It is not for the Fulani. Initially, they said they preferred grazing reserves, but when we did the stakeholders’ meeting, the Fulani people understood and they said for the purpose of peace in Plateau State, they also want to key into the ranching policy.
The fear of acquiring somebody else’s land or community land is not there, it is for communities who are willing to provide land for the ranches. It is not all the states that have keyed into it. It means they don’t have the land or they don’t want it. But if you want it, the recommendation is that you must provide land because it is a pilot scheme. The Federal Government is trying to encourage people to go into that scheme. If you are doing that kind of encouragement, definitely the government must start something so that when people see it as good, they will go into it. Even the one that is for Plateau State now, I don’t know how we would allocate it because the number of people that have applied now is more than the allocation that we are going to do.
So, I have been explaining with every sense of responsibility that people should key into it. They should not be afraid that it is for the Fulani man. It is for everybody, who wants to go into livestock production. I was also confronted with the allegation that it was the president that was bringing it because he is a Fulani man, to benefit his Fulani people. With due respect and apology, may God forgive the people that say such vile and wicked things. This policy started in 2014 when President Jonathan was the president of this country. We inherited the document and recommendation from the last federal administration, so, what has it got to do with President Buhari? President Buhari waited for governors to make recommendations to him and we made recommendations for ranches, and I agree with ranches. I prefer ranches.
The Federal Government said those who are willing to key into it should bring their land. So, why should anybody say that we are going to confiscate our people’s land and give it to a Fulani man or Fulani herdsmen? Why I am saying this is for Nigerians to understand the policy. The best thing is to avoid sentiments and move straight into ranching, which will be of great benefits to the people, including in the production of milk and beef.
I was expecting you to talk about solid minerals because your state has been associated with tin and other kinds of solid minerals and frankly people are surprised that you are not generating a lot of revenue from this. What are you doing in the area of solid mineral development?
For solid mineral development, most of the policies are restricted by law to the Federal Government, on the exclusive list but Plateau State happens to be the headquarters of solid minerals. The mining corporation is still there in Jos.
At a time when we were all depending on oil, people left minerals, but now, reality has dawned on everybody and we have gone back. We have a solid mineral development company in Plateau state, which was abandoned for a long time, so what we have done is that we have brought back, revive the company.
Now, the company is back on stream. We are exploring and looking at areas in mining that will be favourable to the state. In Plateau, there is a place called Wase and apart from Wase, in almost all the 17 government areas, you will find solid minerals. We are putting a lot of emphasis on solid minerals; we are also looking at tourism and the gold mine in solid minerals. We have provided enough security to chase away illegal miners. So, we are taking back gradually what is due to Plateau state and in terms of solid minerals, you will find people in the next few years talking about resource control in Plateau State on solid minerals.
One of the things that your predecessor has talked about is the local government issue. Why is it difficult to conduct local government elections in the state?
It is not difficult to organise local government elections. We came in and have been trying to tackle the issue of insecurity in the state.
My predecessor, Jang, who’s talking left the state in complete mess. He destroyed almost everything. The mess needed to be sorted out first before we talk of conducting local government elections.
For instance, I have a case where N2 billion was sent to my state for youth SME empowerment, the money disappeared and no list of beneficiaries till date. Now, when I applied for the second one, I was told that I am supposed to refund that N2 billion before I can access another one. So, I went back to ask him (Jang), to give me the list of the beneficiaries and let me know where the money is, he has not accounted for that money. I am sorry to say that in such a case, I call such a person a hypocrite. I am asking him, let me know where the N2 billion that was meant for SME went to, and who were the beneficiaries?
The second one was that we got a record where 500 vehicles were bought in the state, that is the SURE-P and we asked, where are the 500 vehicles? And where is the list of beneficiaries? He went up and down, saying that I am witch-hunting him. Is that witch-hunting? Let us put the records straight. It is supposed to be a revolving scheme so that when we get the proceeds, we can give to other people. We are determined to get all looted funds back to the state.
When Jang brought up the issue of the grazing reserves, I brought out the gazetted document where Jang gazetted grazing reserves in 2009 when he was governor. He even appropriated funding for it in the 2013 and 2014 budgets. So, if it was so bad why did he gazette it and provided money for it in his budgets of 2013 and 2014. Jang gazetted grazing reserves and grazing routes in Plateau State. If you ask him to come and implement it, he cannot implement it. He did that and he is now trying to pretend that he does not know anything about it. That is the hypocrisy I am talking about.
We will conduct local government elections. We are about putting a process in place. There are two conflicting judgements in Plateau after the last one conducted by my predecessor and all the judgements are from the high court. Unfortunately, they all stopped at the high court. There was one law that we did in 2005. I was then the Speaker of the legislature, but after we left, the governor who came on board during the state of emergency did something else. The deputy governor took over and amended the law, brought in another. When my predecessor came, he also amended the law and brought in another law, thereby confusing the whole exercise. The last election he had, two court judgements came from the tribunal nullifying the two laws. So, if you are going to conduct another local government election, you will require to put the proper laws in place first. I have set up a team and very soon, I will present the law to the State House of Assembly so that we will get the law adopted to conduct the elections.
I am not one that likes to keep caretaker committees, but I want to start the process of local government elections with a good law and a good process.