After a project tour of Makurdi, Gboko, Otukpo and other communities in Benue State, DAILY POST Managing Editor, Ali Adoyi engaged His Excellency, Governor Samuel Ortom in an exclusive interview on the success of his administration, especially in the areas of security, infrastructure, workers’ salary and sundry issues.
In this interview, the Benue Governor takes our editor on a voyage of his administration’s success story, his challenges and other obstacles militating against his transformation agenda for the State. According to the People’s Governor, despite those daunting challenges, the State has recorded tremendous progress especially in the area of security and infrastructure, an indication that no, ‘’challenge is insurmountable once there is the will.’’
According to Ortom, his people (Benue) must stay alive to enjoy the effort of his administration in the area of infrastructure; the reason he has sacrificed so much in trying to secure them against all forms of incursion by suspected herdsmen and other criminal elements.
In the tour visited the Aper Aku Road in Gboko, the brand new Tor Tiv Palace, the reconstructed Aper Aku Lodge, Government House in Makurdi, Armstrong Road in Otukpo, Awaji rural electrification project in Konshisha LG, some government Secondary schools and LGEA primary schools, the State Primary Health Care Complex in Makurdi, the reconstructed Fire Service, the Bengis Complex, Isaac Shahu Road in Gboko, Prof. Matin Dent Road, Gboko, Capt. Down’s Way, Gboko, Bridge on Ahmedu Bello Way, Gboko, over 300 capacity block for inmates in Makurdi, the Ochi’Idoma Place, BIPC Housing Estate, orphanage buildings, LGEA Primary School, Igede, the Benue Television Complex, new Deputy Gov’s office, BENCEDI, Office complex of the State Governor, Bridge on River Guma, High Court Complex, Gbeji-Afia Zaki-Biam Road, Mobile Barracks Welfare Quarters Road, Makurdi, Sen. Gabrial Suswan Road, Makurdi, Oshigbudu-Obagaji Road and others.
The Gbajimba Road that was under construction in 2018 when the organization visited for an inspection.
Que: I was in Otukpo, Gboko, some parts of Markudi and other communities, and I saw wonderful projects amid the challenges posed by COVID-19, insecurity and paucity of funds. How were you able to achieve all that we saw?
Gov. Ortom: Well, I would say that it’s just our determination and then, I really want to appreciate God for the wisdom to handle the scarce resources and to make an impact in the sands of time. I’m grateful. Commitment also played a major role. I know it’s an extra duty for me to ensure that every single kobo that comes into the purse of government; that gets into the single treasury account is appropriated rightly. There are challenges, no doubt. I still have the problem of pension, gratuity, and all that and even salaries being owed in arrears. Of course, this is what I inherited. When I came in, it was still there because of the scarcity of funds – just as you said, the recession we had in 2016 orchestrated by the fuel and oil crisis led to a huge drawback and also in 2020, we had the COVID-19 setback. So every single step we had taken is to ensure that we address these challenges whether salaries, pensions and gratuity and then the infrastructure because Benue State is an agricultural state and we need the people to be connected. We need some basic things that the people need in order to support them to live well. So health facilities in all our communities are also our priority. We are working towards connecting them with good roads so that they can be motorable throughout the year. We want to ensure that our schools, especially the primary schools that were abandoned are fixed. This government believes that the primary, secondary and tertiary schools should measure up to the standard. The tertiary schools should be very strong but the secondary schools should be stronger. The primary schools must be the strongest because that is the foundation of every child. So if you get it right at the primary school, then you have no problem. We have been able to impact on the primary schools as over N20 billion has been expended in collaboration with the UBEC and we have marshalled all the allocation to UBEC. We have also handed money from the state government to support the schools. So this is ongoing, so we appreciate the impact from our secondary and tertiary and primary schools. At a time, the Benue State University were on strike and we were able to settle with them and since then, they have not gone on strike and we are now paying them faithfully. We are not owing the University as we were able to fulfil our obligations. So what we are saying is that this depends on our determination and commitment to ensure we put something on the ground. In the case of the arrears of pension and gratuity, we have also taken a step back by introducing PENCOM law. We have already been able to invest up to 1.3 billion Naira. Government is paying 10 percent of the staff’s salary and the staff themselves contribute 8 percent. So this administration has found a permanent way of resolving this matter of pension and gratuity and in paying salaries. Because once we have enough money paid into the pension account, we can always find a way of borrowing and paying back. Since 2018, I have been able to pay all salaries of staff. It was recently we were starting to have some problem because of the shortfall we are receiving. We have arrears, but the impression being created that Ortom doesn’t pay salaries is not true. These are lies from the pit of hell. They are not true and the impression being created that there is no single project is false. These are from enemies, from the opposition going round to play down our achievements. Thank God you have gone round and you have seen things for yourself. That is the whole thing.
Que: Let’s talk about the Tor Tiv and the Och’ Idoma palaces. What inspired the projects? Many past leaders never thought of the project.
Gov. Ortom: Just like I said, it’s God’s wisdom and determination to execute what He directed us to do. As for the past leaders, I think it was an oversight. For me, the Tor Tiv palace is a symbol of the Tiv nation, the Och’ Idoma’s palace is a symbol of the entire Idoma nation. Whether you are from Europe, America or Asia, you should be proud that you belong to one of these ethnic nationalities in Benue State. So it should be a befitting place. It’s a reflection of what the people have. I believe that in no distant time, looking at what you saw when you came in 2016 in Tor Tiv’s palace and then in Och’Idoma’s palace and what it is now, I believe that by the grace of God, God is just trying to tell us that moving forward, we are laying a good foundation that will give befitting status to either Tiv or Idoma people. I remember before the commissioning of Tor Tiv’s palace, the Tor Tiv his majesty was very-very happy. I could read it on his face. I could see it around him. He could dance. This is a new beginning for the Tiv nation. And eventually, when we went to do the groundbreaking ceremony in the Och’Idoma’s palace, he was there and he was really excited. He came out in his full self and was excited. Everybody is connected to the palace of the Och’ Idoma or the Tor Tiv, whether Idoma or Tiv. I believe that what God has inspired us to do will go a long way in giving new faces to these two ethnic nationalities.
Que: People say your biggest achievement has been in the area of security; how were you able to do what you have done so far?
Gov. Ortom: About this again, I appreciate God, otherwise, I have been intimidated, I have been vilified, blackmailed and several other things. I mean well for our country Nigeria. I believe in Nigeria and that is why you see me carrying the colours of Nigeria and the colours of major ethnic nationalities in Benue State; the Tiv, Idoma, Egede and then the Nigerian flag. So I believe in Nigeria. United we stand and divided we fall. Our strength is in our unity in diversity. And I believe that our people should work together. But one thing that beholds on us is that I took the oath of office holding the bible, the president took the oath of office holding the Quran and so my understanding about the symbol of holding the bible or the Quran is that we will always say the truth. We will always protect the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This is what I stand for. We will always fight for equity, fairness and justice. This is what we should stand for and so I’m surprised that when I say things that can add value, things that can transform this country and make it better, people take offence against me and vilify me, they insult me, they say all kinds of things against me. The federal government has refused to help me in terms of ensuring that we clear the arrears of pension and gratuity which I inherited. It wasn’t my fault. Aper Aku had arrears of salaries and gratuity, Akume had, Adasu had, Suswan had and I also have. I also inherited it. 70 billion arrears of pensions, salaries and gratuity. It is not a new thing. The federal government gave me N28 billion and I appropriated it and unfortunately, it was not enough. Other people have been given more, but the federal government, because of my stance in saying the truth, they have refused to give me support. People came to me and say if you move to APC, we will support you and I said I cannot sell my people out like others are doing today, I can’t sell my people, I remain committed with the people. They elected me, their pain should be my pains and for whatever reasons with the number of people we have here, if you send them away from their ancestral land and take over, where do you want them to go?
Now, we had a population of less than N40 million in the 50s. Today in Nigeria we have over 200 million people, so those places that people can go and farm and do other things are no more there. So for me, I remain committed to the service of my people. Like I keep saying, the insecurity now is no longer just in Benue State, it is all over the country and if the president wants this problem to finish, it will end, and the day the presidency wants insecurity to finish in Nigeria, everybody will be happy. They have the capacity, they have demonstrated it in the south-east, they have demonstrated it in the south-west and they are demonstrating it right now as I am talking to you in Zamfara, Katsina and all that. My point is why is it that these Fulanis that are coming here can’t be stopped? They are not even Nigerians, yet there are Nigerians Fulanis. They are coming from Mali and Niger and they are not hiding it. They say it. Most of them that are arrested here speak French, they cannot speak Hausa or Fulfide and so it is a matter of the government deciding that ‘look, we must stop this.’ But it is clear to me now and that is why I said that the body language of the current presidency is that they are happy with what is happening. They stopped IPOB in the Southeast, and branded them, terrorists. If I were to evaluate what was happening in the Southeast and the Southwest, what the Fulanis are doing here is worse. The weapons they have are more than what they have in the southeast and southwest. I don’t support all those secessionist agitations by those individuals. I don’t support it, but the truth is that we should ensure equity and fairness. We should ensure justice for all. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. So why are we separating other people as if they are slaves? And then you bring Fulani from outside to come and terrorize your country and you allow them? The president himself accepted that these ones that are terrorizing us are not Nigerians. So why are you allowing them? Why have they refused to brand them as terrorists? Why have they refused to ban them? Why have they encouraged Miyetti Allah to be killing our people? Even as I talk to you, most of our places here in Benue are under their occupation; when the farmers go there, they kill them. We have over 1.5 million IDPs and then you want me to keep quiet as a leader? I am not against Fulani people. President Shehu Shagari was president of this country and nobody in this land ever said anything against anybody. He was fair and ensured justice and equity; so everybody was happy. Here, we had several appointments under him. President Yar’Adua; when he came, he was the president of Nigeria and listened to everybody. But this one that the presidency is doing, will make him look like he is the president for Fulani. That is the whole thing because they are committing more atrocities and they cannot be dealt with. You know that more than 100 security men have lost their lives because the weapons that these people use are superior to even what our security men are using. No adequate funding and all that. Here we are struggling to pay salaries and we have to try to support them. Now, it is limited and that is the truth. The military, police, civil defence, DSS, and others need additional support. But when they said we should not talk, I don’t understand what that is as this is democracy. I am not against any Fulani man but I am against impunity and lawlessness. Here our law prohibiting open grazing allows everybody, Fulanis, Hausa, Igbo and all that do legitimate business. Here we don’t have religious issues. Here in Benue State, people are free but when you want to impose religion on us, we say no. I can’t allow Christianity to be imposed on Muslims and I don’t want Islam to be imposed on Christians or pagans. Here, everybody is free. This is a democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of expression is what I stand for. And that is all, and if the presidency decides that it will do the right thing, everybody will be happy.
Que: On the VAT controversy, what is your position?
Gov. Ortom: I am somebody who believes in the rule of law and due process. The matter is already in court and whatever the decision of the court, is what I will do. I know that here, I don’t have businesses and it wouldn’t favour me, but we have to work hard. It may be something that will help us. You know it is said that ‘necessity and challenges are the mothers of invention.’ So once we know that the kind of money we get from Abuja will not be enough to take care of some basic things, we have to devise other ways. I understand it will affect us if that happens, but I want to leave that to the judiciary. Once they come out with a verdict, we have no choice. I’m happy that my colleagues from Rivers and Lagos States have taken to pursue it legally and it should be everybody’s right instead of being lawless. Instead of fighting to do the things that will bring anarchy and all that, you go to the law court and once they take a decision, you accept it the way it is. So whichever way it goes, it’s fine. I’m not against VAT collection but honestly, people who will collect VAT should use it. The whole thing should be localized; which is okay.
Que: Any final words:
Gov. Ortom: I will say it’s well. God will help us. All these things they are doing; the day of reckoning is coming. I can assure you. All these injustices; all the things that I have suffered on behalf of my people; the day of reckoning will come for all these blackmailers who have come out now to cause confusion in Benue State. The same people had benefited immensely from our people who voted them, but they are now turning our state into IDPs camps. God will judge us. And because they want to be National Chairman, they want to remain as Ministers, they do press conferences, they insult the people and walk on their graves and across their dead bodies. The day of reckoning is coming. Watch my words! I serve the living God.