Governor Samuel Ortom speaks to Pulse about his achievements in office thus far, his re-election plans, the herdsmen crisis ravaging Benue state and his loyalty to President Buhari and the APC.
In January 2018, Governor Ortom buried 73 of his citizens in one day after marauding herdsmen sacked farmers and razed entire communities.
A member of the APC, Ortom has been critical of his party and President Muhammadu Buhari over the handling of the pastoralists-farmers clashes.
In this exclusive interview with Pulse, Ortom speaks on his achievements in office thus far, his re-election plans, the herdsmen crisis ravaging his State and his loyalty to President Buhari and the APC.
When this crisis started, I cried out when I was not satisfied with what was going on. But now, I think adequate security measures have been taken. The military remains the last option for crisis like this. They are supposed to protect the territorial integrity but it becomes a serious matter when they are deployed for internal security because that is the last resort. Now that they are here, I expect that we will get justice.
All that we are saying now is that those killer herdsmen should leave our land; they have no business being here. We have no issue with the normal Fulani herdsmen who are here but these ones bringing guns are not even Nigerians and they have no business here. They should go back to their country. I think that this is where the military will have to support because the Police and Civil Defence did their best but they became victims. Nine policemen and two Civil Defence paid the supreme price in the course of securing the lives and properties of Benue people.
We appreciate Mr President for responding to our distress call and sending the military because all that we are concerned about is to ensure that our people go back to their homes. We currently have over one hundred and sixty IDPs in camps and the condition there is not convenient at all. More source of concern is the fact that sixty percent of these IDPs are children who should be going to school.
When my people were being killed, should I not cry? I am leading my people and if they are being killed and beaten, I have to cry out. I cried and the government listened and deployed soldiers to stop the killings. It has paid off and there was no other motive behind it. We are talking about governance and the issue of security which is the prerogative of the federal government.
We know that today, Nigeria’s security system is really overstretched because of the numerous challenges that we are having. This herdsmen crisis is not just in Benue as more people have been killed in Zamfara than what we have in Benue and several other states like Adamawa and Kaduna.
[Laughs] Politics is a game of interests; no permanent enemy, no permanent friend, but permanent interest. So, it is where your interest is that you go. I knew I was going to be a governor in 2015 and I was looking for a platform so when I was rejected in the PDP, I had to move. The APC found me as a candidate to beat and they invited me and I joined them. And today, I am a member of the APC.
Like I said, Politics is a game of interests. For now, I am playing the politics of the interest of my people. Also, all politics is local. Where the votes come is where you drive the system. So, it is about the local people and what they want. Democracy for me is what majority of the people want.
As a leader, it is not just enough to move without looking back. You must look back to gauge where you are going and listen to the people. As long as they are satisfied with what the APC offers, you have no problem. It is the interest of my people that I will always fight for.
In Benue state, the issue of funding is a major problem. My aspiration for the state was to add value to education, agriculture, health, rural development and infrastructure, generally. I also hoped to ensure industrialization so that value addition would be given to our agricultural produce and by so doing, create job opportunities and wealth for our people.
But upon assumption of office, I met security challenges, funding problem and all that at a period when Nigeria entered recession. So, it became a major challenge trying to cope with development programmes that I brought on board. Otherwise, I had a clear understanding of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to go about it. Having the background of someone who grew up from grass to grace, serving at the local government, state and national level as minister and coming back to serve my state as governor, I was clear headed but these were the basic challenges that I had.
A major problem confronting me up till today is the fact that I inherited salary arrears, pension and gratuity. I am yet to surmount this challenge. It is really tasking and challenging especially with the active support of the state civil service.
In the midst of these challenges, we have ensured transparency, accountability and selflessness in the service to our state. Most importantly, no one is kept in doubt as we call frequent stakeholders meetings where we brainstorm on the challenges and prospects for the state.
We have been able to add value to education. When we came, the Benue State University was shut for some months but we were able to revive it by providing all that was needed. Several accreditation of courses were withdrawn, we had to provide funding and that was resolved. A major achievement in university was the School of Medical Science where there was no accreditation and some of the students were stagnated for over twelve years for a course of six years. We succeeded in securing the accreditation and today, we have graduated about five sets. The school alone harbours over thirty thousand students.
Despite the challenges, we have also ensured that our Colleges of Education both in Katsina-Ala and Oju are still functional. Other tertiary institutions like the Benue State Polytechnic, Ugbokolo, and the College of Advanced Studies are also functional.
There have also been renovations of dilapidated secondary schools while the primary schools wear new looks. With the help of UBEC, a lot of new structures are being put up. We were able to match it with N3.8 billion fund that we got from the bank. We had N7.8 billion injected into the primary school system. We have also provided some basic amenities and instructional materials, desks and all that.
On health, we have been able to sustain and maintain the Benue State University Teaching Hospital which has given great support to health services in the state. We have also succeeded in transferring staff from the local government to the primary healthcare board. We have been able to do some renovations at some of our general hospitals. We have been able to put on ground thirty-six clinics for the primary healthcare board.
We have been able to do about 200km of rural roads across the state with other uncompleted road projects that we inherited like the Tarka-Wanune road, UniAgric-Gbajimba road, Daudu-Gbajimba road.
We have been able to fund the road in Ubagaji in Agatu local government which have been abandoned for several years. We are also funding the road project from Oju-Utonkom and several others.
Despite all the challenges, we have been able to keep the government running while maintaining some cordial relationship with the labour union in the state by being transparent. This has reduced tension. At the state level, we are owing about six-month salary arrears and ten months at the local government. But the understanding has been there.
The truth of the matter remains that Benue is one of the highest paying salary states. A director in Lagos state takes N320, 000; N285,000 in Rivers; while it is N280,000 in Benue. Other states pay N150, 000 or less for the same position. This is something that we need to access and review because our wage bill is very high.
We inherited a wage bill of N8.2 billion without the implementation of the teachers’ minimum wage. It became N8.5 billion after the implementation and dropped to N7.8 billion after we carried out some screening. This includes pension and overheads and that is where we are at the moment.
For a long time, what was coming in was N5.5 billion including the internally generated revenue (IGR). I went to N7 billion with the rise in oil prices but dropped back almost immediately. It has been difficult especially with the issue of security.
Why not? I have declared my interest and only suspended political activities for now because of the crisis. I don’t want to face too many things at the same time but I’m seeking reelection.
Why not? In 2015, we were confident that that we will win and we won. I know power belongs to God and he gives it to whoever he wills but I am confident that God will help me to win.
If for nothing, we must commend this government for the way it has handled the issue of Boko Haram in the country. If not the steps that have been taken, I am sure that Benue and other states would have been affected by insurgency. If they claimed that they have won at a point, then they have won at that point.
These people are out to destroy the country. Like the thief, they come but to steal, kill and destroy. This is what they represent. Boko Haram is a replica of the devil himself. They are his agents. Their headquarters in Sambisa Forest was destroyed and they were dislodged. That is winning.
If they move to Yobe to kidnap schoolgirls, that shows that they are moving out and they will still be confronted. I believe that God being on our side, we will definitely defeat them.
Well, he has not made up his mind. But one thing remains that Mr. President is a man of integrity, an upright and selfless man. He believes in Nigeria and fought for this country in the army. One thing about Buhari’s government is some people around him who are not helping him. My prayer is that his eyes will be opened to identify these people and fish them out so that he can make progress better than he has made.
Corruption is a cankerworm that we all must join hands to fight. It is a major problem. Mr President is doing his best but he cannot succeed alone. We must support him because corruption is a cankerworm that has eaten very deep into the fabric of the Nigerian society.