Benue State Governor, Dr. Samuel Ortom, in this interview with select journalists, spoke on the clamour for restructuring of the federation, his second term ambition and other major crucial issues.
Of recent, there has been a clamour for the restructuring of the Nigerian federation. What is your view on these calls?
My personal view on the issue of restructuring is that we, Nigerians, sometimes engage ourselves unnecessarily. We have elected representatives at the National Assembly. We have 109 Senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives representing every part of this country, be it on basis of regions, ethnic or political zones. If people have issues, the National Assembly should take the matter up. It is the best place to discuss whether we are restructuring or not. It is not when an individual rises up with ulterior motive and begins to say I want restructuring and it becomes an issue. The people who are talking about restructuring, if you ask them, they may not even know the meaning of what they are saying. But, it can be done. Provided it will add value to the development of this country, we will support it. But, it is not like those who are looking for cheap popularity by agitating for it. Presently there is no coordinated approach to it.
There are divergent views about the issue. That is why my party came out to say they do not understand what restructuring means. If you ask Mr. A, he will tell you something different from Mr. B. Some people want this country divided across geopolitical zones, others want it divided across the north and south, others want Biafra, others are saying they want Oduduwa. So, these are the issues. There are several things we can sit and reflect on prayerfully and God will give us answers when we begin to work on them, rather than wasting time on things that have no bearing whatsoever. The National Assembly should discuss restructuring and come out with a position. Usually, we embark on public hearings where we make inputs and put it to rest instead of all these noise we make here and there.
With 2019 fast approaching, would you run for a second term?
During my two weeks break, I reflected. I am a divine product. God gives me direction. It is not easy to satisfy human beings. But, what is important is to do the right thing. I keep saying that 2019 is around the corner, but it is not a problem. As a Christian, I always work with the Bible. So, I don’t leave today’s trouble and start fighting for tomorrow when by doing so, you could easily break your neck. So, let me deal with what I have today. When 2019 comes, we will deal with it. Nobody should be worried. I have told my party people that nobody should be worried. Nobody should insult anyone; nobody should fight for me; God is in charge. Let us all be orderly, let us do the right thing and let us be prayerful and God fearing. When that time comes, I will not sponsor youths to carry arms like the last administration did, attacking my supporters. If God says it is me, nobody can stop me, no matter what they do.
If I pray, no matter how bright my chances are and God says I should not run, I will not. I am not going to kill myself because I want to be governor. After all, I am not an idle person. God has given me enough and the people of Benue have been kind to me. I have held several positions and I should be grateful for that alone. I want to assure you that will not be a problem at all.
People have been worrying over how the Paris Fund refund would be spent bearing in mind that the workers are being owed several months arrears. What is your view on this?
I want to assure all the civil servants that I appreciate theirs resilience, perseverance and understanding with me. One thing is that God has helped me to be transparent and open. I was one of the first that declared what I got from Paris Club refund. Even in my absence, I instructed the Deputy Governor, Benson Abuonu, to go ahead and announce what we received. But, I want Benue people to know that we inherited over N69 billion debt in salaries, gratuities and pensions; N28 billion came from the Federal Government as loan to us; Paris Club refund was N12.7 billion, and of course, we borrowed and made it up to reduce the arrears we got and we did. But, it is still there and not cleared.
Former Governor Gabriel Suswam granted in March of 2015 put the salary bill at N8.2 billion, which was minus the minimum wage that was not implemented for the teachers. I was the one that asked that they should be included, which I implemented. Despite that, I have been able to reduce our wage bill through various screening we introduced to N7.8billion. That is, including overheads and pensions. It is not my government that increased the state’s wage bill. It was the last administration that did. Suswam also confirmed that his government made a mistake and couldn’t pay the wage, but because election was coming, they managed to do that. That was why they said the N4.5 billion bond they collected was diverted to pay salaries. We have reducing it from N8.2 billion to N7.8 billion, including the minimum wage for the teachers. We have declared a state of emergency on salary payment and it is still on. We have priorities the payment of salaries and that is why even when the Paris Club refund came, we dedicated 80 percent of it to salaries.
When we got the money, we immediately called the workers to inform them of what we got and we all agreed on the modalities for disbursement. Presently at the local government level, teachers are collecting two months of the owed salaries. At the state level, we have paid full month salary already. So, the state of emergency is on and it goes beyond payment. We prioritise salaries, but we cannot continue to pay ghost workers. The committee handling that assignment is doing a thorough job because I don’t want to victimise anyone. At the end, we will come out with a clean list of our workforce. Already a lot of discoveries were made. We have already discovered that in one year, people were fraudulently taking away over N1.4 billion as salaries. We are implementing minimum wage and we are alternating payment in line with what comes. At the state level, we pay every two months. But when things get better, we will certainly not continue like that.
A prominent man of God in the state reportedly prophesied that you would not continue as governor of the state after your first term. What is your take on this?
Before I became governor, a fake prophet prophesied that if I became governor, he should be stoned. But, God made me governor. He has again come with another fake prophet that I would not continue in office. I know that there are false prophets all over the place. So, his prophecies will certainly not come to pass.
What is your take on the resolution of the recent strike embarked on by staff of the Benue State University?
On the issue of Benue State University (BSU), there must be staff audit. The redundant staff will have to go. We have decided that the IGR (Internally Generated Revenue) of the school will be used judiciously and it will be used to pay the remaining Academic Earned Allowances being owed the aggrieved workers. Thank God that the strike has been called off because having over 40,000 students on the streets was not easy. I was indeed having sleepless nights.
How true is the allegation that you have a snake farm in Makurdi, the state capital?
The opposition is peddling these stories because they do not have anything against my administration. Let me clarify this issue here. There is no crime in people going into faming because it is one of the ventures that the Nigerian Constitution allows even those of us who hold public offices to go into. It is not an offence. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing restricting the kind of farming you do. So, nobody is restricted to go into snake farming or any other kind of farm. But, to tell lies against your governor is another issue.
Firstly, I don’t operate a snake farm. Though it is not illegal, I am aware that the venom of snakes are also ingredients for anti-snake venom. People do it and make money. But, associating me with a snake farm just to castigate and cast aspersions on me is targeted at portraying me in bad light. I know that people say a lot of things, but such people are lazy. The farming I am doing today started over 27 years ago. Whatever I have here in Makurdi and my village has been going on since then. Several people have been there, including the media. It is not hidden and not a crime for me to go into it. But, I don’t operate a snake farm. I told my Attorney General to find out where this is coming from because we must instill discipline in the polity. Let people say the truth and be ready to defend what they say. I want to appeal that the media must always crosscheck their facts to confirm whatever anyone says. My media team is always there to confirm any issue concerning the government or me.
But, how did this story of snakes came about, sir if you have nothing to do with snakes?
We have nothing like a snake farm. The fact is that snake has been a problem on its own. Over 20 years ago, God gave me an assignment when people were dying of snakebites. It will amaze you to know that there is a case that we treated to the tune of over N1million. Most of the victims of snakebites are usually peasant and poor people who cannot afford even N10, 000 for treatment. One day, I went to the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) and saw a young man bleeding from his nostril, eyes and all over his body. I asked what the problem was and was told that a viper bit him. They were there for two days and there was no money for treatment. His parents were about taking him home to die. That day, I wept like a child. But, God gave me that burden though I could not do anything that very day because I didn’t have the money. But God said, look you would have sold your car to preserve the life of that person. Since then I picked that burden. I engaged Saint Theresa Hospital, Makurdi. You can go there and cross checks this fact and Rahama Hospital also in Makurdi, for free treatments.
I also made an announcement by faith for people to access those hospitals for free treatment. This was about 20 years ago. I made it clear that anyone who was bitten by a snake and could not afford treatment should go to the hospitals for free treatment in line with my agreements with the two hospitals. Since then, millions of Naira have been spent on treatment. As I talk to you, by the end of June (2017), I had a bill of over N31million. I don’t know the beneficiaries. But, they could have died. How do you expect a peasant farmer to raise N30,000 for such treatment? It is sad that someone is committed to philanthropy and saving lives and this is being said about him, instead of promoting and projecting what he is doing. How do people you pick on something that has no bearing whatsoever to tarnish my image? It’s most unfortunate.
Those containers of snakes and reptiles that where imported and seized in Calabar were not heading for Benue State. How do you associate that with Ortom and Benue State because you want to tarnish my image? So, the opposition should be talking about issues so that together we can build the state. I will not join issues with them. I have asked the security agencies to ensure that the person who made that allegation should justify and defend it.