Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State in this interview explained the key headaches of his government. He identified salaried owed to workers, challenges faced by the state as a result of the recent flood that ravaged it and the financial difficulties faced buy Nigeria as major problems. The Governor also aired his opinion on what the federal government must to address the rising agitations by youth.
Your state is facing multiple challenges ranging from coping with the effect of the flood that ravaged different parts , salary arrears and crimes. How have these developments impacted on governance in the state?
I want to thank the people that stood with us during our distress times; the unexpected flooding that took place in Benue state brought a lot of pain to our people. We have seen that we are in the heart of Nigerians because of the responses we got from various corporate organizations. We deeply appreciate and words cannot express our appreciation for all the good things that Nigerians did to give us comfort. We are looking forward to the continuation of this support. 21 local governments were affected, many roads were washed away, most of the local government headquarters could not be accessed including my own local government. The two roads that lead to my local government headquarters were washed away.
Benue State government is making arrangements to repair some of them. But honestly it is beyond our capacity to repair. Some of the damages that were caused as a result of this flood. We are hoping for corporate organizations and industries and individuals to come to our aid. Government at the federal level planned to help but we all know what Nigeria is passing through today especially when it comes to funding.
Let me also say that we are very committed as Benue people to the unity of this country. Yes this is democracy and people are free to express themselves, people are free to move around and do anything; Another word for democracy is freedom. This freedom should be restricted within the laws of Nigeria. I am saying to all Nigerians that whether we are advocating for restructuring or anything, let us remember that we have only one Nigeria. There are laws that are guiding us and as Nigerians, we should remember that it is these laws that keep us in our boundaries. If you decide to do anyhow, you can trespass into someone’s territory. The law is the only instrument that can guide, protect and direct us and also teach us how to deal with eachother.
I think that security agencies should be able to live up to the expectations. Law enforcement agencies should be able to ensure that those who trespass should live up to expectations and that is the only way we can be able to move forward in this country, every Nigerian should work towards that. Again we have challenges and people must come and help us. Nigeria is passing through some difficulties, especially financing and funding of the economy of this Nation, this is our collective responsibility. It so not just about we who are leaders. We all need to have contributions towards the realization of achieving success. Times are difficult and as a leader I have taken responsibility, I am looking for everything under the sun to support this challenge of payment of salaries. My state is more of a civil service state, the economy is being driven by the civil service. When salaries are not paid then Benue state is affected. If there is any solution or way that can take us out of this challenge, I will most appreciate that.
What has been your major headache in the state?
When I came in, I inherited 69 billion naira arrears of salary pension and gratuity. The federal government intervened by giving us a loan of 28 billion naira. We appropriated it very well and because of the screening approach we adopted. Out of the 12.5 billion naira that was allocated to state service, we were able to save up to N1.6 billion which we injected back to the treasury. And at the lock government level, we blocked the leakages and removed all the padding and all of that; we were able to save up to 1.4 billion naira out of the 15.5 billion naira that we received. Up till today as I speak, the money is still in the fidelity bank account. When I hear people talk about misappropriating funds, I tell them that it is not clear to me. The EFCC and ICPC are free to come and check our account, and I challenge anyone who doubts it to go to our books. No single Kobo was diverted from the account, I am making that comment because of the recent outburst of labour leaders.
Today, the only reason I am having arrears of six months at the state level, and nine months at the local government level, is because of the short funds. When I came in, I inherited a wage bill of 8.2 billion naira. This excluded teachers on minimum wage. When we came in, we decide that teachers should not be having a different salary from other categories of workers. So we decided that they to should be paid minimum wage, and the minimum wage is equivalent to 8.5 billion. Meanwhile what we have been getting from the separation account is about 6 billion naira. We went through different processes of screening and biometrics, currently we are doing a modifying table payment. We were able to reduce this wage bill to 7.8 billion, we are having a deficit of 1.8 billion naira every month.
There are natural disasters happening, just like the one that happened to us the last time. There are certain things that government must do. Even as we are owing other categories of workers, Benue state University is around 600 million. They have been paid up to date, because of the importance we attach to education, especially Benue state University. We have more than 25,000 students on campus. And these are young people, we don’t want them roaming the states and begin to involve in several things. So this is the challenge that we have, and as a state we are working out ways. I have the approval of the state House of assembly to borrow money, but I can’t borrow except there is an approval from the Federal government.
I know that many other states are not paying salaries as at when due, but my own case is perculiar because the past administration raised the wage bill to a level that cannot be contained. The wage bill should take 30 percent of your income, that is the ideal thing. The one that came the last time, we applied 80 percent even when the president said we should apply 50 percent. I applied 80 percent but yet it is not enough. This is the challenge that we face, all my projects are suspended because of what is going on, we have declared state of emergency in payment of salaries, but one of the things that sustained me with the labour unions until recently was that; we had agreed more than a year ago that since this allocation is not enough to pay full salary at a time, we combine two months and pay one month full salary.
That is why we have six months arrears in the state level and nine months are the local government level. As regards security, we are in course and we have met with our security Council and steps have been taken and that to make necessary improvements. Despite the challenges that we have faced, I think for me that is where I can drop the curtain.
What do you think about the protest over happenings in the state as regard flood victims ? Why has it been difficult for your administration to offset arrears of salaries owed to workers?
As regards the protest, it is under investigation. I have put up a team and I want the media to be part of it. The civil society is also represented. For now, we have not heard about any diversion. But initially, that was what we heard. Before I was sworn in, before I won the election, my predecessor granted an interview to Leadership newspaper where he lamented the mistake he made by raising the wage bill. It has been a challenge and for me I thought that the economy will improve. The truth of the matter is, with the inflation, what people are collecting now is not enough. The challenge is just the settling of these salaries. We are doing this biometrics and these processes and we have come to discover that people find their ways because it is the same human beings that control this computers. We discovered some leakages like additional ghost workers and those who have retired but still receive salaries. But I believe that at the end of this exercise, we will know what we have to do. If there is any creative way that we can use to get out of this corner, let them show me. Salary must be paid, so that people must eat. Salary payment is a priority. Like I said, about 21 local governments were affected. The other 19 local government, we are also reaching out to them. We directed the chairman to take statistics of the damages that were caused. Some of the materials we got were building materials from NEMAR, we intend to distribute them. Cash is also coming and when we have a comprehensive data, we can determine what goes to where. We imploy all the people to live together and also raise alarm if there is any mischievous person wanting to make trouble. For many years, we have been living together with many tribes including foreigners. So anyone who wants to live on Benue State is free, I can say that nobody will harrass them. I have taken it upon myself and my agencies to protect life and property.
There has been rumour about diversion of relief materials and misappropriation of funds by some officials of your government meant for flood victims , what truly transpired ? How much has your government spent so far?
On the issue of misappropriation of funds, how much has been spent from the state’s pocket? I think around 50 billion naira currently. Like I said, there has been responses from the federal government, state government and other individuals and organisations. All that we needed was just some assistance. We are making a comprehensive analysis, at the end we will make a decision depending on the availability of funds. Since agreed that we can not pay all the salaries, we agreed that we will combine two months and pay for one month, so people can have allowance to do other things. Discussions are still going on and I’m also discussing with other financial institutions to see if we can find a way around it. But I still believe that if this process that we have adopted is the desired one, we still have to go step by step so we cannot inflict pain on the workers. One thing I know is that with this inflation, whatever people get is not enough. The good thing is that we are discussing and as we are discussing, we will find a way out of it.
Beyond crackdown how do you think the federal government should handle agitations across the country ?
As regards agitations, the Biafra issue, it is a very big challenge for any state government, I had known that before I started campaigning to be governor. What is on my mind everyday is how to support this challenge. Some few weeks ago, I did a combined convocation for Benue State University, I graduated 42,000 students and immediately in that convocation ground, I asked myself how these 42,000 graduates will engage themselves. And I feel that these complaints we hear everywhere is as a result of not engaging these youths; because the heart that is not engaged is the devil’s workshop. For me, I think the local, State and federal government must concentrate their efforts to ensure that the youths are engaged. There is a policy of the federal government trying to diversify our economy. I feel that there are opportunities that can engaged these youths. The main thing is for us to encourage the engagements of these youths.
What is your take on claims by some people that APC has not thought outside the box in the handling of the economy?
Of course, talking of thinking outside the box; Agriculture and other areas where we have comparative advantage. If you take solid minerals for example, there is hardly a state without solid minerals in it. We can engage our youths in this sector.