SCRAP BENUE TELEVISION, MAKE CONCESSION OF WATER BOARD TO PAY SALARIES –BARR. OMALE OMALE

Legal luminary, BARR. OMALE OMALE, is the Legal Adviser of the Benue State Chapter of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and managing partner of OM Omale & Co, a law firm. In this exclusive interview with JAMES IBECHI and MORGAN ADIGWU both of The Hawk and jamesibechi.com, he diagnoses the reasons behind the unprecedented developments recorded in Apa/Agatu Federal Constituency under the administration of Governor Samuel Ortom, crediting the state Governor. He also speaks on other salient state issues including unpaid salaries and 2019 Election.  

Excerpts:

Tell our readers who Omale Omale is 

By God’s grace, I am Barr. Omale Omale, the APC Legal Adviser of Benue State and also Managing Partner of OM Omale & Co, a law firm where legal and ADR practitioners and consultants converge to render legal services to the good people of Benue and by extension Nigeria. I am a Christian, married and have a son, who trusts in God. I am being caught out for the service of humanity – that which God has put in our hand will benefit others.

OMALE OMALE 2
Editorial Director of jamesibechi.com, James Ibechi (right) with Omale Omale during the interview

You are a stakeholder from Apa LGA whose people have complained of not feeling the state presence or were being marginalized. Has the present administration addressed these worries in the constituency?

I am from Iga Okpaya, Apa Local Government area of Benue State, and by extension a component unit of the Apa-Agatu Federal Constituency. I am privileged to be born and bred in Iga Okpaya community where I had my primary and secondary education. I have also been privileged to be around, and a key player to the emergence of the Fourth Republic, through youth activism and I can speak authoritatively that I am also privileged to be on ground to experience the several administrations in the fourth republic, particularly as it concerns Benue state. The good people of Apa-Agatu have never had a fair share in governance like now, as we speak. That also engenders us to this government and it is not because the government suddenly finds favor with the good people of Apa-Agatu, but because strategic players were thrown up and this government is coming in at a time when we have selfless individuals who look beyond themselves to collective heritage of our people so as to struggle and ensure that our people’s dues get to them. When I say that, it is not without some statistics and empirical facts. Under the government of George Akume, we can only talk of commissioner several times, special adviser, commissioner from Apa and Special Adviser from Agatu, and that ran through several persons that we had. We were able to step up during the last administration under Suswam where we had SSG and a commissioner from Agatu, but these are not strategic offices that attract benefits to our people. With Samuel Ortom one can now say emphatically that Apa-Agatu people enjoy their pride of place in governance. Now we can talk of a commissioner of Finance, very strategic ministry, SA on Gender now Special Duties, SA on Project Monitoring and Evaluation, among other appointments that we have under this government. These appointments are strategic placements of our people. Yes we have a member in the Civil Service Commission, we have a Rector of the Benue State Polytechnic and we have SSAs and other appointees in this government. That, for me, is an inclusive arrangement that recognizes the human resources that is in abundant in Apa-Agatu and it is because we have consistently made request for hands that are capable to assist and support the government to deliver dividends of democracy to our people. That largely accounts for the present representation of the people of Apa-Agatu and now one can say yes, this government is part of Apa-Agatu people. As I close shop on that, I will also want to say that yes, for a government to make a strategic appointment in a day from a federal constituency out of the several federal constituencies in Benue state speaks volume. Only recently, the government of Benue State, in the area of civil service, saw career personalities of Apa-Agatu – two appointed permanent secretaries one from Apa and the other one from Agagtu; and on the same day the third appointment was made of the office of the Executive Secretary of the Christian Welfare Board. That was what came from Apa. You know other government would have played politics with it. So, we owe the debt of gratitude to this government and to the person of the Governor of the state, Dr. Samuel Ortom. We are only waiting to pay him back.

Apart from these appointments, what about development projects?

Yes, Apa-Agatu like I said despite the scarce resources under this administration can very well boast of tangible presence of governmental efforts and initiatives in terms of projects. In the area of rural openings which is the one of the focal agenda of this administration to expose all the rural communities, and to connect them so that those who thrive in agriculture can also take their produce to available markets and earn value for their produce. When Governor Ortom came on board Apa had its fair share in the area of rural openings. We were connected with our brothers in Otukpo Local Government through the Adoka, Umogidi, Ewili, Opaha Otukpo road. That road connects more than seven communities in Apa Local Government, linking it to a sister Local Government, Otukpo, and again, by the time you take it from Odugbo, Ikobi axis, you bust out at Okokolo that also exposes and opens us up to the people of Agatu Local Government. So, it is a networking of road that this government has well chosen to give Apa people opportunity to connect to sister local government and to maximize the advantage of that connection in the exportation of their goods from our locals to available markets. That is the area of rural roads and of course in Agatu, the Oshigbudu-Obagaji road had suffered neglect in decades but when this government came on board, the governor singled out Agatu next to Guma. He said “Guma shares some common features with the Agatu people and I all that I must do is to expose Agatu and the opportunities and potentials that are there to the people of Benue state and Nigeria at large. Hence he made efforts for that road to be constructed and as we speak that road is Nylon tarred, exposing the seat of power of Agatu Local Government to the Highway and I am very sure you know they will maximize the need of that openings. The phase two of that road is to connect from Obagaji to Okokolo Agagbe axis and then back to Makurdi. So that road is going to be a ring road. By the time the second phase is constructed, I can very well assure of the commitment of the Benue state government in getting the road done because it will be connecting three local governments in one, if not four. Agatu, Apa, Gwer East and Makurdi which is the headquarter of Benue State. When you look at the area of rural electrification projects, Apa-Agatu have had their fair share and that area is worth commending of this administration. Now we can speak of the Opaha, Odugbo rural electrification project. They are currently enjoying electricity courtesy the effort of this administration and there are several areas that are marked out for these lofty projects. Agatu was also carried along. in Ogwule axis there is rural electrification projects that have been ongoing, which suffered neglect by previous administration and this government took it upon herself to ensure that the good people of Agatu enjoy electricity, that among other projects were just done within the first two years of this government in power leaving us with a whole lot of hopes and expectations that this government mean well for the good people of Apa-Agatu.

You said that the Apa-Agatu people are waiting to reward Governor Ortom for his impacts in the area, would you say this applies to other parts of the state?

As a concerned citizen of Benue state and as a major stakeholder in the party administration of the All Progressives Congress in Benue state, we are concerned about a government that will give effect to the manifesto of the party. I narrow down all that we speak only to the Apa-Agatu federal constituency, but I can tell you and from the benefit of hind sight that, the mentioned projects under this administration are not just limited or narrowed down to Apa-Agatu. There are several and numerous rural electrification projects that are going on across all nook and cranny of the state and as well as rural openings. You can see them for yourself as you drive along. If you are making your way out of Makurdi, around Igbor community, there is a connection from Igbor now to Tarka, wannune and that’s a quick opening. That is going to decongests the highway as you reach here and I do know with facts that there are several openings in various communities including Ogbadibo, Okpokwu and if you get to Oju axis they are not also left out in the opening up arrangement of this government and am sure these are just parts of the projects that we are enjoying in Benue state. It is also under this administration that you can see physical and completed MDG projects starting from ground zero to completion, all as a result of the ability of this government to match a counterpart funding and to attract this funding and make judicious use of them. You can see MDG’s cottage hospitals in Agatu, Vandeikya and as we speak there is an ultramodern completed auditorium for skill acquisition here in Benue state. And MDG projects long abandoned, commenced under this administration, completed in record time and put into effective use. I think these are the indications that we are left with hopes that if this government is given the deserving time, patience, support and encouragement the people of Benue state will better for it.

There seems to be outcry in the state over unpaid salaries to the extent that people have become blind to the laudable performance of the administration in other areas. What do you say of the situation?

It is a sort of concern and worry for all of us that the case of salary arrears that are inherited by this administration is still lingering but I speak from a knowing perspective that this government is committed to doing all things possible so as to address this issue. Like I said, we have been on ground and we do know as a fact that before the coming on board of this government, previous administrations were not committed to paying workers for services rendered to the state and that account for backlog of salaries that this administration inherited and I can also tell you because it is government that is sincere that wouldn’t want to play politics with salaries of civil servants and knowing very well that it is a state that is predominantly civil servant driven. The government would have ordinarily commenced payment from where it assumed office in 2015, but it took time because of the backlog of payment and as we speak, the gaps of these salaries are bridged up by the day. I have sat and also confirmed under this government that Benue state parades the highest wage bill in the North central and this fact are lso verified, this fact are ascertain, it left us for worry. The Governor have repeatedly emphasized the fact that the immediate past governor Hon. Gabriel Suswam, did conferred to Governor Ortom that the wage bill was outrageously approved and that being the case it pushed this government in a perspective to identify what the actual wage bill of the state is and to stay committed to it and that cannot be done in abstraction. Being a realist, I do know the fact that the situation before now is a little different with the short fall in oil revenue and what accrues to the state from the federation account makes it impracticable for a government to be alive to this real sincere and genuine commitment or obligations. But again, it then also means that the government must find a way to go about the business of governance and payment of salaries is a must and you must pay those who earn it. So the plan of the government is to be sincere in this ongoing staff verification exercise and where ghost workers are identified they should be weeded out because it will not make any sense for us to say wage bill is on the high side, but nothing is done about it. And I agree with commentators who are of the views that after two, three years the wage bill should drop; you are not employing, there is the tendency that people would have been retired, some have died and others should tell on the wage bill. We have also had benefits of internal antics that frustrates the efforts of government to ascertain these salary variables and to pay as when due. Again, this modernised staff verification exercise that is introduced by the government under the chairmanship of the Deputy Governor. Engr. Benson Abounu, we are very sure that by the time this government is through with the exercise substantial numbers of people who are not entitled to salaries under the Benue state payroll would be identified and weeded up. But what I charge the government of Benue state with is to have the political will to implement every of the findings. if it affects your brother so be it, then whosoever it is affected so be it, whichever section of the state that is affected we must not be guided by fear, favour to keep this wage bill as it is, that the government must do. On a very serious note, I think a realistic approach will be a conscious effort to prune down the wage strength of the Benue state and one of my suggestions has been that the government must identify areas that are no longer viable for government interest. Among them is the Benue State Television. From the conception of the Benue state television authority till now as we speak they have not transmitted and I can very well tell you that the Benue state government has been paying salaries to that area. Why are we keeping the Benue state television? The Benue State Water Board is a utility agency to generate water and distribute water for the good people of Benue state and if it is a utility agency it is expected that it can generate its resources and fend for itself. Where that is not happening, the government should be thinking the area of concession. It should be given to private investors; buy it up, run it at their own expense. By the time government does that, wage bill will be reduced to an extent? Then there is this internal arrangement that we have in developed parts of the world and even in some sections or business venture in Nigeria and that is the policy that the state gives a right of early retirement to its staff and pay them off, for those who have put in a period of 20 years and above, for those who have attained the age of 50 years of age should be given the right to elect or to choose whether they will stay in service or go and if they choose to go they will be paid off, but the government must also manage this policy up with available resources to pay off civil servants who elect to retire before their time or retire before their age of retirement. By the time the government does that we will be expecting that in the long run the government will be better for it. The wage bill must consciously be reduced by proactive government policy. MTN does that, Corporate Affairs Commission does it, banking sector and institution does that and if it is working for them, why not the government? So that new hands can be drawn on board; government can borrow from that. I encourage the people of Benue state to appreciate this policy for the good intention that it means. That is an option that is pragmatic that will put this government in a position to reduce the wage bill so that we will no longer continue these cases of arrears of salaries. Government can no longer put up with the current strength of wage bill no matter what.

If peradventure the government buys into your recommendation as a way out of this unpaid salary challenge and it happens to drop the pursuit of the Benue Television that seems unrealizable and the workers there are dropped, don’t you think it will worsen unemployment?

I do know as a fact that it is not the business of government to give employment, any government who set out employment venture as sole area of interest is heading nowhere. Government must pay those that will carry out the business of the government that is the policy formulation, policy regulation, and policy monitoring and policy implementation. The agency I mentioned among other agencies is moribund, the government has no business to venture into this area of trade. It is a business interest; government should leave business for businessmen and measure a regulatory office. It will lead to unemployment, but if government leaves that sector for the key players, who know the technical Know-how of television business, they will employ much more number of Benue people and pay them well; not what the state is paying them or laboriously trying to pay them.

National Commandant of Peace Corps, Dickson Akor was quoted to have said that he would not support a senator for Benue South senatorial district if he emerges from Old Otukpo District in 2019. Do you support Akor and which district should produce the next senator?

I am from Old Otukpo by reason of the fact that I am from Iga-Okpaya, Otukpo Local ratesGovernment of Benue State and as we speak, senatorial representation from Zone C of Benue state in recent time has been in Otukpo local government managed by distinguished senator David Mark and this is making it the 18thyear and by the time he rounds up this tenure it will take him to 20 years in office. This is our collective share for the people of Zone C and it’s about the effective and efficient representation and it’s about inclusive participations of all the stratas or the component units of the federal senatorial district. That is the case. I subscribe completely particularly from the background of our political party APC, which speaks that in matters of elective/appointive selective representation, and you must bear in mind federal character, zonal consideration, and gender balancing, among others. These are the provisions of article 20 subsection 5 of the APC constitution 2014 as amended. The party is of the view that elective offices must go round so that people can have opportunity to be represented by the natives and applying that from the platform of the APC, there is a need even though Sen. David Mark is not of the APC stock, but in consideration of a zoning arrangement or in the implementation of the zoning arrangement in the APC constitution we will factor in where will predominantly manage this office for the people of Zone C. In recent time, if it is in the Old Otukpo, then there is a need to gravitate towards another area so that the people can have a sense of involvement, sense of inclusion in matters of their senatorial concern. So, I agree with my brother Ambassador Dickson Akor where he opined that he will not support anybody who desires to be a senator of Zone C from Old Otukpo district. I agree with him and I think that Old-Otukpo people should be fair to the other component units to allow them jostle for it and we trust God that the best will turn up from other component units. At the appropriate time we will also advance reason for support of any candidate that will think outside this area that will have the capacity to represent us.

Do you have any message for the administration of which you are by extension a part in the state or Apa-Agatu constituency or a general a general remark?

My general message to the people of Apa-Agatu and  by extension to the people of Benue state is for them to be alive to their civic responsibility; to play their role as concerned citizens, engage government objectively and rationally and draw government attention to areas of paramount importance so that government can identify with their concerns and intervene accordingly. And then for the government of Benue state is to continue the good works they are doing in the area of rendering service to the good people of the state and to assiduously take the salary issue very serious and do all that they can to put it behind, to develop the political will, to address this issue of high salary wage bill in Benue state by conscious and calculated effort so that the story will not continue just as we are currently having. Then to other sectors of Benue state, I will just encourage them to understand the government to identify with the times we are in and approach their legitimate demand with a realistic concern. particularly Benue state university (BSU) another agency who felt that their demand which are of right have not been astray to by the government, they should know that the government is for all of us and they have their several role to play and this were committed to ensure that they play and by the time we all play our role, the government will be better for us.

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