Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, spoke with journalists about workers’ salaries situation and President Buhari’s health as well as his face-off with Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, among others.
Your state is among several others owing workers’ salaries despite collecting bailouts from the Federal Government and benefiting from the Paris Club loan refund. Why is this so?
We have declared a state of emergency on the payment of salaries. This means that we will scale down other things and give attention to the payment of salaries every month as we get resources. We have agreed with workers that we will launch a manhunt for ghost workers. I believe that the wage bill of more than N4bn every month is too much for Benue State; this wage bill includes pensions. Pensions alone are N570m while the overhead is also about N500m. The salaries of workers are about N3bn. We believe that this is too much and there are traces of infiltration here and there. We are going to work together so that no one will complain about victimization.
We must eliminate those ghost workers. Let me give you an instance. I set up a committee headed by very seasoned administrators who are retired. These men of high reputation and integrity did verification and discovered many ghost workers. These workers had retired but their names are still on the payroll. They are using the same account to collect money from different payment vouchers.
The committee was able to discover that N1.4bn was being lost monthly to ghostworkers. This is just in one third of the MDAs where the verification exercise was carried out. We agreed with workers that we are going to work together to eliminate this.
Why are you not paying salaries with the bailout?
The bailout was a temporary intervention to settle the immediate problems that we had when we were inaugurated. For instance, when we took over, we received N28bn from the Federal Government as bailout. N12.5bn was meant to pay workers on the state government’s payroll while N15.5bn was for the local government staff. We were able to judiciously screen people and pay at the state level. We were able to save about N1.6bn which we channeled back to the treasury. We inherited a treasury in deficit.
At the local government level and because of the screening, we were able to save up to N1.4 bn. The money is still in the accounts. I inherited over N69bn as unpaid salaries, pensions and arrears. When we requested for the N69bn, the Federal Government approved just N28bn which was meant for just salaries. The local government took 45 per cent of the Paris Club refund that came, while the state took 55 per cent. I was able to raise money through overdraft and pay two months’ salaries to clear some backlog. I had more than four months’ arrears then. The local government administrators too were able to pay about three months salaries and the people were happy.
All these things are not profit yielding; they are not earning interest. I believe that if we are able to streamline and have a realistic wage bill and scale down some of our expenditure, we will be able to meet our obligations, especially now that we are about getting out of the recession.
For instance, last month, what we got from the Federation Account was an increase of about N400m. At the local government level, there was an increase of N200m. This is something that we have not been getting for over one year.
Despite the challenge of paying other category of civil servants, the Benue State University staff were paid as and when due. Right now, they have gone on strike, they are asking for pensions and six years arrears of allowances which I inherited. The negotiation is ongoing. The good news is that six weeks ago, we were able to do a combined convocation, which led to the graduation of over 12,000 people from that school.
You have been engaged in a spat with Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State. What is responsible for the face-off?
I went to campaign in Rivers State with other governors because I was nominated by my party. That was where the insults started but you see, as a Christian, I don’t want to join issues with Wike. I have allowed the matter to rest. I have even told my aides not to even join issues with him; there is no point talking about Wike. I have no issues with him. We were ministers of state in the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. I think everything is centred on politics. You hear his party saying that (I campaigned against Wike) because of the way the PDP treated me. Though I was the best candidate for the PDP in the 2015 governorship election in Benue State, they treated me in a manner that was not befitting of a gentleman and I left. Till today, they are still dreaming that Ortom is governor. So, this is purely politics. I have displaced PDP in Benue State and they have found an ally in Rivers State.
Are you not worried about the state of health of Mr. President?
It is unfortunate. Buhari remains the medicine for Nigeria. He is a selfless man, a disciplined man, a patriotic Nigerian, who fought for the unity of this country. Despite his age, he is willing to add value to the development of this country, at least by trying to instill discipline and wipe away corruption in Nigeria. Everybody will agree that before his inauguration, we all agreed that our problem in Nigeria is corruption. Nobody was bold enough to stand up to fight it the way he is doing it. So, he is the correct person for this job.
Whatever is happening to him, my advice to Nigerians is what the Bible says in Romans 13. The advice is that we should pray for our leaders. Let us continue to pray for him. The doctors can treat but it is God that heals.
For us in Benue State, we have declared a three-day prayer and fasting for him. We have declared it to pray for the quick recovery of Mr. President so that he will come back and continue to do his good work. We need him in this country to give us the inspiration to go back to our glory; we have no business begging in Nigeria. God has given us so much. The only problem is indiscipline, corruption and the impunity that has been going on. With what Mr. President is doing for Nigeria, I think we will get to the right path. Let us continue to pray for him that God heal him and bring him back to us.
Benue State has also been in the news for clashes between herdsmen and farmers. What is the situation?
Like I keep saying, the land is no longer there. Of course, Nigeria has said there is no way we can continue to depend on oil revenues. There is a need for us to diversify the economy. And once we talk about the diversification of the economy, the first thing that comes to mind is agriculture. In agriculture, you have to use the land and there is no way you can combine agriculture with grazing at the same time. That is why for us in Benue State, we have decided that the way forward is to start the ranching system.
When you ranch your cattle, you restrict them in a manner that they will not go into somebody’s land and cause destruction, which has been the problem over the years. I know that my people like meat; they eat a lot of it, they appreciate it. They are hardworking and ready to sell their farm produce and buy the meat if the people agree to ranch. The problem has been that the herdsmen are not willing to ranch their cattle.
Each time their cattle graze, no matter how hard they tame them – since they are animals and not human beings, they cause damage to farm produce. This has been creating nightmares and challenge to my administration. It has been a very big challenge but we have been coping with it. Through the state security council, we have been able to devise various strategies to ensure that we nip some of these challenges in the bud. We have succeeded to a large extent.