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11 Jul 2016

Government lacks capacity to generate wealth and employment – Gov Ortom

Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State has accused his predecessor, Gabriel Suswam, of refusing to return his part of the alleged N107billion loot during his tenure. The former governor was among the 52 persons indicted in a report. In this exclusive interview, Ortom said that Suswam rather vowed to fight back instead of returning the money. He also spoke on why he declared Fridays work-free days for civil servants in the state.Some of the internally displaced victims of the farmers/herders crisis in Agatu are returning home after spending several months at the camps located in some neighbouring local government areas of the state. What is the Benue State government doing to resettle the returnees?
 The destruction is a very big challenge; not just in Agatu but in other local government areas: Makurdi, Guma, Buruku, Kwande, Logo, Tarka and Gwer West. People have returned to most of these areas with the exception of Kwande, where a whole council ward is still occupied by the herdsmen. It is a very big challenge. That is at the boundary between Benue and Taraba. But we’re discussing. We will soon hold a meeting with our Taraba State counterpart because of the boundary issues that are involved too. The herdsmen are currently occupying the settlements in Moon council ward. It is unfortunate. 
Government is willing to support and help our people return to their various homes, but unfortunately, it is happening at a time the economy is not favourable. The downturn in revenue generation has brought untold hardship on our people. Salaries are no longer paid as at when due. It is a major problem for a state like Benue. The industry we know is the civil service, so when salaries are not paid as at when due, it becomes a very big challenge. We have tried, but we are down. At the state level we owing five months salaries, while at the local government level it is six months. It is a very big challenge. But it is important that these people return. I have set up a committee to verify and see areas where government can come in and give them support so that they settle down and rehabilitate themselves. I think that by next week, the report should be on my table. If it requires the approval of the council, I will bring it, but if it’s within my limit, I will approve something, no matter how small. We need to help our people have some succour and return to their homes.

What are you doing to permanently secure Agatu and the other affected parts of the state?
The conventional security agencies are available up till today. Soldiers are still there, the police are there, and they are being funded by the state government. It is not easy but they are doing their best. For now, the place is calm as far as we are concerned. However, constant review of it will help. 
Honestly, I must state that the permanent solution to this problem is ranching. This is because there is no way farming and grazing can go together, especially for a ‘food basket state like Benue, where more than 90 per cent of the people are farmers and civil servants. There are no industries, no commercial activities, no investments coming in. It is difficult for us to mix grazing and farming because even the civil servants supplement what they get at the end of the month with farming. Even when there is nothing at all, you know you must eat to survive. 
I think we need the intervention of the Federal Government to rehabilitate these people. This is actually beyond the state. I have mentioned more than nine local governments which are affected by this destruction, so the Federal Government needs to come in. Our children are no longer going to school in those areas. Primary schools, hospitals, churches, houses, farms and economic trees have been destroyed. You have gone there and have been able to see things for yourself, so you can appreciate the magnitude of the destruction that has taken place. We are also calling on good spirited individuals, groups and non-governmental organisations to come in and support the state. We are really down. The state government cannot fund the rehabilitation of these people; hence, if help does not come from the Federal Government and other good spirited individuals, it is going to be very difficult for our people to settle down.

I recall that when you assumed office, you offered amnesty to youths that were in possession of arms and terrorising the state. What impact has the amnesty made so far on the security of the state?

 The amnesty programme was in two folds: the carrot approach and the stick approach. We did the carrot approach successfully, during which we recovered over 600 different types of weapons and thousands of ammunition. Also, over 900 youths surrendered to the amnesty programme. But due to economic hardship, we have not been able to fully integrate and rehabilitate these youths. I have discovered that some of them are being enticed by politicians to go back. The success of the amnesty programme was all over the place. Even the United Nations (UN) gave us commendation and asked us to make a presentation. 
Some of our political opponents were not happy and they went about instigating these youths and luring them back to that life and even supplying them weapons. We have noticed that some of them are going back to their old ways, and that is why we are witnessing the series of kidnappings, killings and armed robbery. But I think it is something we have to reinforce. Now, we have said we are going to use the stick approach. The conventional security apparatuses are going to go after them with the active support of the state government. I believe this will restore peace. There is no way we can surrender our state to criminals. For us, from the beginning, we told our people that what we need to do is to industrialise the state so that we can process the abundant raw materials we have. We will make sure that we develop and encourage micro, small and medium scale enterprises, ensure we encourage commercial activities and make sure we bring investment into our state. All these things cannot strive in the midst of insecurity. That is why security is the priority of this administration. There is no way I will allow criminals to take over and stop me from implementing my programmes. Today, governments at the state, federal and local levels do not have the capacity to generate wealth, create employment and opportunities for the people. 
We are going to fully mobilise and use the stick approach against the criminals now. Yes, those people are terrorising our people again, but it is going to be temporary. Very soon they will see the wrath of the law.

Would you say the amnesty programme has failed?

It has not failed. It succeeded. In fact, we have received several commendations.  Other states in Nigeria had to copy what we did. You can imagine the magnitude of the criminality that would have been going on if those weapons were not recovered from the youths. In spite of the fact that some of them are going back to their old ways, majority of them are on track and they are doing well. So it has not failed. If not for the amnesty, Benue State would have been an abandoned state; people would not have been coming here. Even you that came from Abuja would have been scared.

Why did you declare Fridays work-free for civil servants in Benue State?
 Part of it is to make sure that we maintain our integrity as the food basket of the nation. In addition, we looked at the economic situation of the state and the fact that salaries are not coming as at when due and decided to let the civil servants go back to their farms in this cropping period. Between now and the end of July, whatever they are able to do will add value. Even if you do not have the transport fare to go to your village, find something to do in your backyard. Whatever you are able to do will add value to the development of agriculture in the state and increase your value within your family. So, apart from maintaining our integrity as the food basket of the nation, we think this would add value to our civil servants.
 Do you think the civil servants are actually utilising this opportunity for its intended purpose?

When you make a policy like that you don’t expect 100 per cent compliance, but I am aware that more than 60 per cent of the people are taking advantage of the opportunity, and they are happy about it. Not everybody will be happy and willing to do that, but we have no option than to go back to farming.

Talking about the poor finances of the state, you set up a judicial commission which disclosed that N107 billion needed to be retrieved from 52 persons in the last administration. How much have you recovered so far?
 Just last Wednesday, one of the people indicted over N355 million wrote to us that he was willing to return the money. To him, he was sincere, he was doing genuine business, he had no intention to defraud, but since it has come to this, he offered to return the money. Since it was a State Executive Council decision, I had to take it to them. And they approved that he should return the money. We are about to receive N355 million from him. 
We are urging the other people to also do so. But out of the 52 persons, some have vowed that they would use the money they have to fight this government. That is why you see them peddling all kinds of lies. If a government has ever been transparent in the history of this state, it is my government. We sit with labour unions and disburse the money. Everything is open. Anybody who wants to know how monies are spent in Benue State is free and can have access to this information. At the end of this year, we are working towards making the auditor-general publish our accounts for scrutiny. We are not afraid of anything. We are also going to undertake independent prosecution, apart from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), which we have reported this matter to. The attorney-general is already working on that. We believe that at the end we would be able to recover this money so that we can use it for the development of the state.

  You were quoted as saying that you were not interested in prosecution, and that the executive would exonerate anyone who returned the money. Does this not contradict what you just said about independent prosecution of those indicted?
 Even from the beginning, I asked those people to return the money. That was my appeal to them. If they had done that, I wouldn’t have written to the EFCC or the ICPC, or even gone into prosecution. All I wanted was our money coming back to the state. But that does not stop the EFCC or the ICPC from doing their work. It is their constitutional and statutory responsibility and I am not going into that. As far as we are concerned, we want this money for the development of the state. If we have our money, we are okay and if other agencies of government are dissatisfied, they have their constitutional role to play; I am not interfering.

 Your predecessor is the principal person indicted in that report; have you made efforts to recover the money from him?
 He has not returned the money. Rather, he has gone to town telling everybody that he would use the money to fight me. I have told him to return this money, but he has insisted that he will not. If he had returned it we would have no issue with him.
What do you intend to do?
Well, I’m going to prosecute him as I said. I have sent the commission’s report and white paper to the EFCC and the ICPC, and I am doing independent prosecution on other new revelations on how the state was looted.

Some members of the Benue State House of Assembly were recently arrested and taken to the EFCC. What is the update on that?
Well, they are under investigation; there is no doubt about that. But mind you, this is just an investigation. At the end, the EFCC will come out with a position. For us, due process was followed. I believe that they will also explain to the EFCC what transpired. A petition was written against them and the normal thing is for the EFCC to investigate. But from what I have gathered, the investigation is not yet concluded, so I cannot pre-empt the position of the EFCC.
You recently embarked on town hall meetings across the state, what were the highlights?
 It was a wonderful initiative. It was appreciated. The people told me that it was the first time a governor was coming out to interact with them. They also appreciated what we have been able to do within one year in office. They told us to step up our publicity because they were completely ignorant of the activities of the government. The people were made to believe a lot of falsehood, but we were there with facts and we showed them. They commended us and said we should keep the flag flying. They, however, lamented the issue of insecurity and non-payment of salaries, saying I should do everything possible to pay salaries. This was a good advice which was well taken and appreciated. The people recommended that the town hall meetings should be held every year.

You just dissolved the caretaker committees of the 23 local government areas of the state. When are you likely to hold an election?
 We had planned to constitute the Benue State Independent Electoral Commission (BSIEC), but unfortunately, they brought a budget of N1.5 billion. When I asked them to scale it down, they brought it to N860 million. Unfortunately, there’s no money to even pay salaries and do other critical things. I told them that I would have loved to do the election but there’s no money, so they had to put it off. But as soon as we have resources, I would want our local government election to be conducted.
Meanwhile, we dissolved the caretaker committees because their tenure ended and the law establishing local governments allows them to hand over to directors-general, services and administration; and that is what we have done.  I am discussing with the State House of Assembly on what will happen next after the three months stipulated by the law expires and we are not able to conduct elections. We will discuss and know the way forward.


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