Governor Samuel Ortom, spoke with newsmen on insecurity, challenges of herdsmen in Benue and how the Paris Club debt refund was a saving grace for his administration. Adetutu Folasade-Koyi was there.
Is it true that the Nigerian Governors’ Forum warehoused money, out of the Paris Club debt refund for consultancy?
It’s true. The funds were warehoused by the Nigerian Governors’ Forum and that is a fact and I’m aware of that. But, it was meant to be consultancy for those who worked for us to get the fund. This is an on-going thing, I inherited it. For instance, for us in Benue State, a contract was signed by a consultant with the then Benue State Government, the previous government and there the agreement was that the consultant will get 18 percent of the amount. So, when we got on board and this issue came up again, we decided to negotiate at the Nigerian Governor’s Forum level and so, it came to 10 percent, five percent for consultancy, and five percent for legal fees. So, that was what was deducted from our own money and so, we even saved eight percent, as far as Benue State is concerned. So, the problem was that there were several consultants because several other states had engaged other consultants who were doing this. In my own case, the consultant that took over the job at the national level was the same consultant who had signed 18 percent agreement with the Benue state government. It was easy for me but, for other states who had other consultants, there was a problem. So the governors’ forum had warehoused this money to sort out with them and then pay. But, then, I hear a lot of things and I’ll take it up when we meet at the governors’ forum. We’ll have more information as to what is actually happening.
How has the Paris Club helped you?
The Paris Club Fund helped us very well. In fact it came at the right time for us in Benue. It came during Christmas. So all the trouble that I had, I think at the state level, I had six months arrears that was hanging on my head and everywhere you went, they will say Ortom did not pay us and that is why we could not… and even the children were on my neck that Ortom did not pay, so the thing landed at the right time. Luckily the money I had at that time, I paid December salaries and had the opportunity of paying two months arrears during Christmas, it was a big relief and it really helped and I’m waiting for this second tranche, if it comes. The second one is not coming; I don’t know what is wrong. But when it comes, I think it will go a long way in reducing the salary arrears.
What’s the problem between you and Rivers Governor, Nyesom Wike?
I was also confused because we were very friendly when we served as ministers of state under President Goodluck Jonathan. But, I think the problem was when my party sent me to Rivers, for a re-run election for senatorial and we went there and campaigned. He said why should I come to Rivers to campaign? I said, ‘well, we are in different parties now and you can also invite your own party to Benue but, I decided not to join issues with him. I think he was deliberately trying to draw me into something but, whatever it is; he can insult me but I’m a Christian and I’m told, as a Christian, not to pay back. Whatever he has said against me, I have decided to keep quiet about that and I’m not offended.
Do you have any regrets as governor and how has it been?
I must say that as a Christian, the Bible says ‘all things worketh together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose.’ I will not say I’m regretting and that I’m disappointed with what I saw on ground. But, honestly, I met a deficit treasury when I came in – in the midst of very high expectations from the people, especially looking at my track record. I’ve never been a failure, despite the challenges. My last appointment before becoming governor was minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But, the fact is that I met a deficit treasury and having salary arrears and pensions and gratuity of over N69 billion was quite tasking. Almost all the institutions of government were grounded – schools were on strike; primary schools, Benue State University and several other unions were on strike. We were able to borrow money to take off and since then we have been battling to see how we can clear salary arrears. The Federal Government came in with a bailout. We had wanted them to bail us out with N69 billion, only N28 billion was approved and N15.5 billion went to the local governments while N12.5 billion was for the state. These we paid to workers and because of the screening we undertook, we were able to save at the state level more than N1 billion which we injected back into the treasury, for other government activities. At the local government level, we were able to save up to N1.4 billion after screening of staff and it was garnished by an Industrial Court order and so, we had gone on appeal and we’re looking forward that we can inject it back to settle some arrears also.
How many months do your state owe workers now?
At the state level, we have four months, at the local government, we have seven months arrears. And, we are working closely with the labour unions in the state and that is why you’ve not seen any industrial action in the civil service, the reason being that we’re transparent. Whatever comes in from the Federation Account, from the IGR; we put it on the table and we are able to make distribution with the knowledge of the labour Unions. At the local government level, it was the unions that suggested that since what comes in cannot take care of local government staff and teachers, they would sacrifice. For every month, you pay either teachers or local government staff and that is what we’ve been doing. And so, for every two months, the teachers and local government staff get one month salary and there is a shortfall of one month and this is with their understanding because, at a point, we wanted to say ‘let us pay half and owe you the rest’ but, they said ‘no, pay us full salary’ and this is the method we’ve adopted. At the state level, we pay every month and sometimes, when we don’t have enough, we leave some departments out and make it up the following month. And so, this is where we are. This has been the major challenge.
Apart from finance, the issue of herdsmen appears to be the biggest challenge in your state, how are you handling it?
The issue of herdsmen, too, was a big challenge. I inherited it. It was there before I came in. While serving as minister in 2013, my ancestral home was destroyed by these herdsmen and my kinsmen; more than 52 were killed in one day! My village is just about four kilometers from here. They were killed and this town, Gbajimba, was under siege for some days; the militia group came and they dealt with us. In fact, the entire local government of Guma was under siege. It was amazing for something that our people did not participate in rustling their cattle but we were accused that the cattle were rustled within our area and so, these militia men came and took on the helpless and armless people and killed them in that area and so it was a big challenge. By the time I took over, more than 13 local governments were under siege. Some local governments were taken over completely by these herdsmen. So, the point was that the criminality that was going on among the youth, we were able to control them through the amnesty programme, but, the herdsmen were a big challenge.
Although I appreciate the fact that some of them had issues not with farmers; they had issues with criminal elements in our society coming to rustle their cattle, coming to steal their cattle, coming to kill their cattle and even coming to kill the herdsmen and so on and doing away with their cattle. But, each time they came, they didn’t go for the real target, they go for innocent people who know nothing about it. So, it was a big problem controlling these criminals and then, these herdsmen. And, on the other hand, the herdsmen come with their cattle and encroach on people’s farmland and crops and when they complained, it resulted into fighting and it became a very big problem because an average herdsman believes that the law guarantees them access to the entire land in the society. So, for us, as a government, we felt we have the responsibility of protecting everyone who is in Benue state. It was a big challenge – trying to get the herdsmen to understand and trying to get the farmers to understand, too. But, of course, we soon discovered that grazing and agriculture cannot go together and that was what motivated us because after series of security meetings, and meetings with farmers and herdsmen, it was difficult to get the people to understand because, for a farmer who is living on his farm produce, he will go an extra mile to protect his farm produce. And, for a herdsman, whose only means of livelihood is his herd, will go an extra mile when he senses that his herd is in danger. And this is something that we have to balance as a government. So, we decided that the only way out is for the herdsmen to continue to breed their cattle but, they will have to learn the modern way of breeding cattle which is ranching and this is what is being practiced globally. This is what led us into signing the anti-open grazing bill.