From: Fred Ezeh, Abuja Youths and students from the southern part of Kaduna State, under the umbrella of Southern Kaduna Youths and Students Forum (SKYSFOM), have passed a vote of no confidence on the state government for what they described as ‘anti-peoples’ policies’ especially in the education sector. The youths raised their voice on the…
From Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja and Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom in this interview spoke on raging issues in his state especially the dust raised over the Anti-Grazing Bill, rift with former commissioner of police in Lagos state, Abubakar Tsav, restructuring and insecurity.
Your government has been on the spot in the past few weeks over some happenings especially the anti public grazing bill recently signed into law by you. How do feel about the development?
Irrespective of political, religious and ethnic groups, the signing of the bill into law was well received. I have been having various delegations across the states that come to appreciate our stand. The Miyetti Allah (Cattle Breeders Association) has been threatening that they will mobilise their members to resist the bill.
I have received various delegations from all parts of Benue state on the issue. All of them, apart from one man, Abubakar Tsav are happy with what we did. It is only Tsav who came out to criticise that bill. I am not surprised that he did so because he is an enemy of progress
He is spreading false news against my administration just to justify and support the last administration because of the embankment of the justice commission. And the former governor and 51 other people are supposed to return the sum of 107 billion naira, which they diverted illegally from the common wealth of the people of Benue state from 2007 to 2015. So he keeps writing petitions and diverting the attention of the government, but we are not distracted. Recently as a law abiding government we decided to take legal actions against him. He accused one of my aides, we took him to court, and 10 million naira was awarded against him by the high court. And currently all the false allegations of fraudulent practices against this government are before the court. The Attorney General took him to court and he will have to justify all the false accusations he is raising against this government.
For us we were focused, and it took us two years to go through the process. We adopted due process to ensure we get it right. We thank God that today; we sent a bill on anti public grazing to the state House of Assembly. Due process was undertaken, public hearing was conducted and members of Miyetti Allah participated in this public hearing, and so it wasn’t anything hidden.
One thing about the law is that we are not just talking about cattle; we are also talking about livestock. So other forms of livestock are included- goats, pigs and so on. The target is not against herdsmen or Fulani men, the target is against those who will violate the law of allowing their livestock to go about destroying people’s farms. I keep on saying this that the land is no longer the way it used to be in the 50s because of the upsurge in population in the country. As a result of human activities, several things have changed including federal roads and all that.
I challenge anyone who thinks that what I am saying is not true to come to Benue State. I will take such person round at my expense, to show him that we have no open land, almost every part of the state has been cultivated for agricultural purpose. So, it is our duty as government that has the responsibility of protecting lives and property to ensure that we bring policies and laws that can guide the people and everybody who is living in Benue. This law also seeks to protect the herdsmen who will abide by the law. For instance we talk about punishment against cattle rustlers, so if you rustle, you will be penalized. We feel that those who will ranch their cattle will be better.
When is the implementation of the law kicking off?
I have given a transition period to allow people ranch their cattle. Between now and November, I expect that those who want to stay in Benue State to rear their cattle must ranch. If you don’t ranch, the law will catch up with you. I have told my people that for those who feel they will not want to ranch, they should be allowed peaceful exit.
I have promised herdsmen who want to leave Benue that if they need security; the Security Council is ready to provide security for them to exit peacefully. It is as simple as this, I believe in the rule of law and I am following due process.
Talking about Tsav, what do you think would be his gain for accusing your government wrongly as alleged?
I am seeing that all is just meant to divert and distract us from governance. So not much is said about him; I am just saying it for public knowledge, so that people will know when he speaks. If he has knowledge of any iota of corrupt practice by this government, let him justify it now that the Attorney General has taken him before the court of law. He is going to be prosecuted for criminal breach. We will institute a civil suit against him and that is going on.
Nigeria has been celebrating the recent breakthrough in the area of exportation of yam. As a state known for agriculture, how is Benue going to benefit from this?
As an agricultural state, and as a government that is focused and intends to promote agriculture based on the policies and directions of the federal government, the state government is supporting the federal government to diversify the economy from oil revenue to areas where we have comparative advantage. For Benue state we believe that agriculture comes first. There are other sectors like solid minerals, culture and tourisms, and many others. But agriculture remains number one. That is why we are the food basket of the nation. With the present government policy of encouraging export, we believe that Benue state will have so much to make out of it. For the yam export, Benue state contributes more than 46percent of the total yam production in Nigeria today. I believe that Benue state will definitely make so much from this programme from the federal ministry of agriculture. We are committed to ensure that we provide an enabling environment for our farmers.
What is your take on the raging debate on restructuring?
On restructuring, I agree with those who say that most people don’t even understand what restructuring means. For me, I will prefer that we allow our democratic institutions to handle things like these. We already have a national assembly in place, the senators; the House of Reps members are representing you, me and the entire country. And I believe that issues of restructuring should be discussed by the national assembly because there you have people coming from ethnic groups and political parties, from all interest groups. I think we can make our position known to the national assembly and they jump in to debate it and come out with what will help us.
What has become of the Taraku oil mill and the industrialization plans of your administration?
We already had a core investor from morocco, who had done their due diligence. The last visit is expected in August, and we are willing to do everything possible to provide the enabling environment so that they can start, because the concern of government is that work should start, because that alone will give employment to up to 1000 people if they are running full shift. Today the fertilizer plant is working. Our cement factory which we went into partnership with a Chinese firm, the last part of the equipment are about to be imported into the country to complete the installation. We believe that adding value to our primary product will go a long way in helping us.
You were accused by some people in the state of not spending the total amount of Paris Club refund that came to your state. What really happened?
Benue State received N12.5 billion for the state, and N15.5 billion for the local government, amounting to 28 billion; and we judiciously applied this money. And because of the screening process, we were able to save at the state level more than N1.6 billion which we injected back to the treasury, the records are there for anyone who wants to crosscheck. People were sent from Abuja to crosscheck this fact, Benue State came clean. At the local government level, we had a balance of over N1.6 billion, unfortunately we wanted to apply it to settle local government claims that were there; some people who were staff went and garnished the account. The money is still there in the account up till today that I speak to you.
My government believes in the rule of law and the fear of God. We are transparent, we always ensure fairness. We are accountable at all times. The leadership sits with us anytime we come back from federation account. Nothing is hidden about the record of finances in Benue State; everybody knows. That is why despite the fact that I have not been able to pay salaries at the local government level for eight months and at the state level for six months; despite all these, you see people have not gone on strike, one thing we agreed with the labor union was that; for every two months, we pay a month salary including the minimum wage. Because the allocation that comes at the local government level is at an average of N2.4 billion and teachers salaries is N1.8 billion, the local government salaries is N1.7 billion, Pensions is N200 million, so it goes to N3.7 billion. So for every month you have a deficit of over N1.3 billion, this is the challenge we have.