Hon. George Alli is the Executive Chairman, Otukpo Local Government Council of Benue State. In this interview with JAMES IBECHI and MORGAN ADIKWU both of The Hawk Newspaper shortly after assuming office, the former member of the Benue State House of Assembly, unveiled his plans to face development challenges in the face of economic debacle. He also spoke on salient state and LG issues.
How do you assess Governor Samuel Ortom’s performance so far?
Governor Samuel Ortom has done well – extremely well, and I know you want to ask how. In terms of infrastructure, he has been able to put it on ground. He has opened up roads; he is done a lot on healthcare, MDGs programmes, Schools of Nursing and Mid-wifery, the School of Medical Science and the number of doctors it has produced. He has done extremely well, but the only thing that people will hold against him now is the issue of salary that he has not been able to pay up to date; but you will be angry with me to say that salary challenge is not peculiar to Benue state alone. Over 23 states by my last count have not been able to pay salaries up to date and what actually happened in Benue too is the bloated workforce that we have, because I don’t see why a state like ours’ should be competing with states like Kano and Lagos in terms of payment of salary. If they are paying about paying N8-9 billion a month of salary, pension and other overhead costs and Benue is close to about that range, it doesn’t make sense at all. I think what he should do is to really sit and look at who and who are working. Like my LG for example, we have started screening; we know some number of people that they have brought to my notice that are actually working in Lagos and Abuja, but who are drawing salaries from Otukpo LG. I have set up a committee. I want to sit and look at all this to make sure that we bring all these people to book. These are people who if the government is not paying, make noise and while the other ones that are even genuine staff are hardly seen at their duty posts. They don’t come; they have other things doing and at the end of the month they will collect salary. So, what I think we should do is to introduce the American system of work force. It’s high time. They pay you for the work that you are carrying out. I know we will get there, it is extremely difficult especially during political era but we will definitely get to that place. Aregbesola tries it in Osun and somebody told me that he has been able to clear salaries because they were able to flush over 40% that have no business in service at all.
You made some three strong campaign promises which bother on agric, cottage industry development, and employment. You also said that payment of salary shouldn’t be an issue or an achievement of government. How do you intend to achieve all these including regular payment of workers in the face of the dwindling allocation from the Federation Account?
What I am going to do is to take your question from the three main basic points. I think it is better I touch on those points before I go to the issue of raising money to pay salaries. You talked about cottage industry. I have a background that is private sector-driven. I had been in the private sector for over twenty years, so I know what is obtainable within the sector. Industries as it is now, I can tell you whole heartedly that we have a modern rice mill farm that is at the office stage now in Otukpo, and I have always believed that building these Industries will literally create jobs for our youths. By the time the rice industry is completed, we are sure of taking many youths off the street, and doing that, we will achieve two things like reducing social vices, because most of these youths indulge in these vices because they are not gainfully employed. When they do not have anything doing they get involved in social vices like cultism, but by the time you take them off and they are employed, they will go to work in the morning around 6am and return around 8pm. By the time they get home, they will want to bath and rest and it will be difficult for them to get involved in some of these things. So, we will have used this initiative to achieve two basic things: employment and taking the youths off the street, so that they will no longer constitute a nuisance, and the third one is that, by the time these industries operate for one or two years, there is what is known as Cooperate Social Responsibility – giving back to the society. They will bring that in too. We have actually used just this one-point agenda of creative industry to achieve three basic things that the community will benefit from and we don’t even need to use the Local Government funds to build these industries. What we’ll be doing is to partner with investors. And how do you do that? We are looking for industries that you can start with as small as N20million or N30million. These are visible and are doable, but people don’t know about it. When you tell them, look I want to build a factory; they will probably be looking at around N300million to build the factory. No, most of these machines are fabricated locally. If you go to Lagos, places like Ikeja, Agege areas you will see good machines that are of Indian standard and they are extremely good just like the German standard. Look at the number of hotels that we have in Benue state; we have quite a number of them in the state. They use a lot of disposables like tissue which they practically buy from Abuja, Onitsha and Lagos. There is no company that manufactures tissue or serviette
papers in Benue. I tell you with N20million to 30, you can start a tissue or serviette
manufacturing in this place because all the machines you will get are probably less than N10million and for you to put a small hall where you can start this production with less than another N10million you have it and your working capital, you are in business already. Take production for example, you want to do a mini-paint plant too, you need less than N20million. Recently, Governor Samuel Ortom in conjunction with the Federal Government gave out over 750 block of classrooms that were built and they used a minimum of twenty gallons of paint of twenty liters each and if you put it on N4,000 per twenty liters then multiply that, it is a lot of money. We should have a paint manufacturing company here, once they meet the standard the government can roll out a policy to say look you must buy from this paint manufacturer as long as they meet international standard and the price is affordable, then you don’t need to rush to Onitsha or any other place to bring in those paint again. That will be done with less than N20million and I tell you, you put in N20million and you are supplying 740 contractors that are handling that, your turn over for a year alone will be close to N50miilion, which means you have even doubled what you invested in the factory and you have achieved three things: you created employment, you have reduced the crime rate because these guys are gainfully employed and the area in which the paint factory will be situated will have to give back in form of tax or doing social responsibilities. That is why I keep saying look I believe in setting up cottage industries.
What about agriculture?
That is another aspect – agriculture. Everybody is going to the farm now, but we must not all be farmers. However, there are areas that we can come in if we cannot farm. You can as well do storage; you can buy from the farmers and store for about three-four months and I tell you that you are going to make hundred percent on what you are doing. It is just for you to cash in by the time they are coming in because we don’t have enough storage facilities in the state. If you have one and you can start with a few rooms, then you store these things. By the time you store, next planting season that will be coming will no longer be bumper harvest again because most farmers would have sold what they have, you can sell this and you can make close to hundred percent in profit. These things are practicable and doable but people are not looking at this. These are things that we will be doing. I believe in creating real amenities for people to benefit from like what we did from the last six months when I was the sole administrator: we were able to put a fire service station on ground. The fire service will not only serve Otukpo LG, but also the whole of Zone C and possibly neighboring states and if we do that we will still generate revenue, because by the time you have a fire service station you have fire service fighters that will teach commercial banks that are operating within that place how to fight or keep fire out. They will have to set fire extinguisher and with this too the Local Government will definitely get some form of money out of that. The money will definitely get back to the LG account which will be used for other things too. With this, we will have been able to achieve, and I tell you within a short time, we should be able to come and commission that project because the building is there, we are working on the fire-fighting truck that will be there, but I know before four weeks we should be able to commission it. We will invite you; you come down to look at it. Aside that, because we believe in education, we have been able to put blocks of classrooms on ground the SUBEB standard and we got that money from an idea because we were able to block and close all loopholes. But the problem is that 80% of the IGR in most LGs goes into private pockets. In our case, what we did was that we were able to divide it into sectors and put very serious staff to manage those sectors, so we were able to monitor what comes in to the LG, by through extra security features on LG receipts, unlike before when people just went out and print receipts and they issued out fake ones to people and collected the money. We have additional security features and we have a monitoring team that goes round to check the receipts that are issued to shop owners. So those cabals that gave out fake receipts were scared and ran out of business. So we were able to put them away.
And all of these can work out without improved Federal Allocation to your LG?
Truly what is coming now is not as much as before; so we are looking inward to see how we can generate revenue on our own. We introduced some measures that will bring in money, but it will not stress the local people living in the community. We started what is known as Otukpo Integrated Land Service (OTIS). In Otukpo for example, there are over 10,000 houses and land but over 80% of those properties are not registered so they don’t pay what is known as tenement rate which is the due to LG and they don’t go out to get C of O, but we have done it in such a way that it’s going to be mandatory that if you have a building you must pay tenement rate and you must obtain C of O from that particular building. And if you have close to about N10,000 and you do a minimum of close to about N10,000 which is very cheap because for you to get state C of O, you are going to spend close to about N100 000. So if a LG is doing a minimum of about ten or maximum of twenty, you multiply that by ten thousand, you probably be looking at close to about two hundred million that you are going to get which I think is very reasonable for any LG that will be projective in spending. If you put that back into the society you will be able to get a lot. So it is just for us to think outside the box and that is exactly what we are doing. We achieved all these within six months, we were able to raise fund, I think with these two years we should be able to do more and up what we have been able to do within six month. It’s very possible.
You talked about storage and also encouraged the indigenes of Otukpo for those who are not directly into farming, we don’t know if you are aware that there is this trend now that since the diversification into agriculture there seems to be buyers who are coming to our villages to buy up the produce to the extent that our local farmers sell almost all they have? Will you introduce tax differential for the people that are coming from outside to buy and the indigenes to encourage the local people going into the storage business?
If you introduce tax differential now, this same people that will be coming from outside that are not indigenes will still use our brothers to go and buy these things at certain rates and they will transfer to them. But I think what we should do is to leave it open but we should try to protect our local farmers, but because they know that our local farmers are very desperate they come in with all forms of tricks and bags. But we are going to introduce weight and measures; we will make sure that we control it because it is not the same bags they buy from our locals that they use in selling outside. So these are things that we are looking at. It’s going to be a standard bag; if it is 50kg not that they will come with sack and trick our locals. So we are going to bring a standard bag and it is going to carry Otukpo LG logo on it. We will achieve two things: controlling and protecting the local farmers and at the same time by the time they buy and take it outside Benue state, you will know that this product is from Otukpo LG because we have been able to sell Otukpo LG produce to people outside. Then one other thing that we are trying to do is that I am talking to Idoma people that they are off takers too and they have people who are into agro business; so we will want to encourage our local farmers that we will bring them into cluster groups, clear land for them, they will farm, we will give them chemicals that they will use in farming. Then this off takers can buy and still leave reserves for them. So these are the things that we are looking at. And it is not a government project, for example Dangote in some states is giving funds to some farmers to farm so that by the time they farm, they agree at certain rate and he comes in as off taker. So nothing stops us as a LG to identify a manufacturing company that uses these products. But then our locals too must be educated. You must not sell everything that is coming out from your farm because by the time you do that the same money they will pay to you, you will take that money to the market to buy at exorbitant rate. Then it will be a circle at the end of the day and you won’t keep anything for yourself. So, we need to talk to them, we need to create town hall meetings and educate them why they too should have their own local storage that will take care of their immediate food requirements.
Your 1000 housing units project, is it going to be affordable for the indigenes? Or how are you trying to see that at least majority of the people that acquire the property will be from either Otukpo or the Zone C or Benue state at large?
What we did is that we are into partnership with Nigeria Army. It is the Nigeria Army that is behind the housing estate. They have a company directly under the Nigerian Army that is known as the Post Housing Service Estate. The director of that company, Gen. Basil is a serving army general, his office is based in Abuja. It is going to be a mega estate of 1,000 housing units and I tell you it is the largest outside any state capital in Nigeria. Otukpo is the first that is doing that. They have been able to clear about twenty five hectares, and it is going to sit on 50 hectares of land and they are still working on it. By the time they finish they will start with infrastructure and I do know that over N700million was budgeted just for creating of roads, electricity, drainage and other amenities that will go before allocation of plots will start. The estate will not just be for Nigeria Army, but it will be both for serving retired and other people that want to tap into the housing scheme. The way it’s going to be, we will have categories for both low and high medium incomers. By the time you come, if you are junior staff and you are interested in owning a building in that place maybe two bedrooms or flat you will get it or fit into any of the categories. I tell you since they started clearance, the number of people that we had showing interest in it already is as if the place is 50% taken off already, so that by the time we start the place is going to be one not for people in Otukpo alone, you know Otukpo is more like a commercial city of the whole of Idoma nation. Also our brothers that are outside Nigeria too, I think by the time it is built they might come to buy off and stay unlike their experiences because the few that called me outside the country said they have nasty experience where they will send in money to relatives back home to build houses for them and by the time they come, it is either the houses are not there or the standard is very low. So if a cooperate organisation like the Nigeria Army will come out and do something like that and the fact that it will take the burden off them, some of them have keyed into it and I want to pray to God that in the next couple of months it is going to be a reality.