‘My greatest nightmare’
Benue State Governor, Sam Ortom has described insecurity occasioned by herdsmen, farmers clashes, non payment of salaries as at when due and huge debts inherited from his predecessors as the main challenges facing his administration. In this interview, he insisted that Benue has no land for herdsmen to traverse saying they must either have a ranch or look elsewhere.
In the next few days you will be two years in office, how would you describe the journey so far?
I want to say that so far, the journey has been very rough with a lot of challenges but we are on it. There have been security challenges, economic challenges and the social vices that are existing because of youth restiveness largely because of unemployment. The rate is very high. We will continue to have these challenges.
The essence of government is the capacity and ability to manage challenges, to ensure that the people add value to their lives and the state. We have been doing that within the limited resources that we have.
How hopeless was the state of affairs when you took over?
We came in May 2015 and we met a treasury in deficit. Many people may not know that salaries, pension and gratuity arrears were to the tune of over N69 billion. It was a very big challenge but we took it up from there. In contractual obligation, we inherited over N70 billion and up till today, figures are still being reviewed and some are coming up. We are faced with difficult times; contending with workers, paying their arrears and all that. Of course, we started by borrowing and eventually the Federal Government intervened through bailout. We were able to judiciously apply these resources and the Federal Government went further to bail us out to develop infrastructure. That too went a long way in supporting and helping us.
One thing that we did when we came was to woo all the development partners that had gone out of Benue and those who were at the verge of leaving because of the non-participation of the previous administration into their previous activities. To us, we felt that look, development partners are there to add value so it is better whether by borrowing, to go ahead and get this money and get their own portion and contribution. This we did and almost all the development partners are back in Benue State. And they have really added value, when you talk about UBEC, UBEC alone we were able to access N3.8 billion which is their own counterpart funding and we matched it with our own so we had N7.6 billion.
Today in Benue State in all the local governments and villages, you see new structures springing up.
On steps taken to address challenges, we were able to award more than 740 different classroom blocks for our primary schools. We were able to provide instructional materials for the primary schools too. Some of the jobs are on-going though we were caught with inflation somewhere down the line because of due process. But today, we have over 200 of these jobs out of the 740 completed; about 300 are on-going and some of them because of inflation did not go on . We have asked them (contractors) to return to site otherwise we’ve given them a notice to terminate for re-award. And one thing again that we did in education is that we met Benue State University-which is the main industry today in Benue State because everyone is connected with Benue State University. There alone you have a student population of over 30,000.
One, it was a very big challenge leaving these children out of school. We gave priority attention to it. We invited ASUU and the non-academic staff for dialogue, we were able to discuss and arrived at a compromise and they resumed. We had cases of accreditation which we took up. For instance, the School of Medical and Health Sciences, we had a very big challenge. By the time we took over, it was 12 years and no single student had graduated from that school. We took it up, got accreditation and provided all that was required for a course of six years. For our children to be there for more than 12 years, we felt it was a very big challenge to us. By the grace of God, we were able to take the challenge head long, got accreditation and provided all that was required and today, we have succeeded in graduating four different batches of medical doctors from Benue State University, amounting to 152 medical doctors. We got the University back on its feet until recently they decided to go on strike pressing for other demands. We are still negotiating. But in the two years of our administration, the school did not witness any strike. We placed them on top priority in terms of the payment of their salaries and allowances, they are on first line charge.
Despite the challenge of paying other category of civil servants, the Benue State University Staff were paid as at when due up to date. But today, they have gone on strike, they are asking for pension and six years arrears of earned allowance which I inherited. The negotiation is on-going but the good news is that some six weeks ago, we were able to do a combined convocation which saw the graduation of over 12,000 people from that school.
In education, we believe that we have placed it on top priority and we believe we have done well looking at our little resources. Today, we are looking forward to return some of our schools to their original owners and go ahead and concentrate more on the 64 secondary schools we have in Benue State and that is on-going.
To what extent have the recurring farmers, herdsmen clashes which have led to loss of lives affected farming and the status of Benue as the food basket of Nigeria?
On agriculture, as you know, Benue State is the food basket of the nation, we equally placed the ministry on first line charge in the conduct of government business. We were able to provide fertilizers as at when due. Currently, we intend to launch the cropping season in the next few weeks with the provision of fertilizers. The good thing for this year is that we are also providing about 60 tractors to support mechanized farming in Benue State; we want to go back to where God placed us as the food basket of the nation. We encourage everyone around to go back to farm whether you are a civil servant, businessman, a politician whatever you are doing, let us go back to our status as the food basket of the nation. We have gone ahead to give our civil servants an opportunity to go into farming and agriculture. We have just declared three months of work free days for those who are on non-essential services in Benue State to go back to farm. We did the same last year and we believe that it added value. During harvest time, we are going to do the same thing, we will give just one day coupled with Saturday and they resume work on Monday.
So far, the story is very encouraging; they have discovered that government does not have the capacity to give jobs at the local government, the state and the federal level. One thing we have taught our people to do is to use what we have instead of lamenting. If we lament till thy kingdom come, there will be no use. Instead of lamenting, the land is there and it is fertile and the rains come in handy and the harvest has always been good. Whether in grains, tubers or citrus or livestock, you can make a lot of businesses; that is what we are trying to do to reorganize our people so that where we have comparative advantage, we take full advantage of it; thank God the people are keying into it. Today, even as salaries are not coming as at when due, there are no industries in Benue State and the Civil servants are the ones driving the economy of Benue State and when you are not able to pay them as at when due, it becomes a very big challenge. One good thing is that when food is ready and available, you can eat and gain strength even when you don’t get paid as at when due.
Focus on farming is what has informed the major security challenge that we have today in Benue State. Like I keep saying, the land is no longer there of course.
Nigeria has said as a federal, state and local government, there is no way we continue to depend on oil revenue; let us diversify the economy and once we talk about the diversification of the economy, the first thing that comes to mind is agriculture. And in agriculture, you have to use the land and there is no way you can marry agriculture and grazing at the same time and that is why for us in Benue State, we have decided that the way forward is to ranch. When you ranch your cattle, you restrict them in a manner that they do not go into somebody’s land and cause destruction. This has been the problem. I know that my people like meat, they eat a lot of it, they appreciate it, they are hard workers, they are ready to work hard, sell their farm produce and buy the meat if the people agree to ranch. The problem has been that herdsmen are not willing to ranch their cattle and each time they go to graze, no matter how hard they attempt to control their cattle –since they are animals and not human beings, they cause damage to farm produce. This has been creating terrible nightmares and challenge to my administration since I came in .
Benue State is sitting on the green belt of Nigeria because of the two rivers that we have been opportune to have- River Benue and River Katsina Ala. The people will always want to have the green to graze on and drink the water so no matter the challenge or resistance, they are not willing to bow out. It has been a very big challenge but we have been coping with it.
We have done everything under the sun through the state security council, we’ve been able to devise various strategies to ensure that we nip some of these challenges in the bud and we have succeeded to a large extent but there are still pockets of problems here and there arising from herdsmen attacking the farmers when their herds derail and destroy somebody’s farm.
We complain, the next thing is that you are attacked.
We had cases where our farmers or some restive youths go to attack herdsmen or their cattle, that has been a very big challenge. Each time it happened, there is always massive loss of lives and property.
You have been having a running battle with one militant called ‘Ghana’ and his boys, why does the government appear not to have a solution to the issue?
Like I said, one other thing is the criminal element that has been involved in some killings in the state. I initiated an amnesty programme to retrieve weapons from youths especially those who have been using them for criminal activities. And they came in their numbers, they surrendered themselves and some were sincere, some were not. Some have today been turned into good citizens, they are working with us. But some were just pretending and had to go back and so some of these incidences you hear about in Benue State about attack on herdsmen is not really from those communities where those things are done; they travel kilometers away to attack cattle, rustle them and take them away to sell. My dilemma is that, when these herdsmen come, instead of trailing them, they go and attack that village where the crime took place and they end up killing innocent citizens especially old men, young men, children and women who knew nothing about the cattle. We have tried everything under the sun to check it. One of the strategies we adopted was to constitute committees at the state, local government and kindred level and these committees comprise of security chiefs at all these levels, the farmers, the youth and government officials. They are strategic in various locations, they are to take complaints from people who are attacked or infringed upon so that we will now take responsibility from there.
I have persistently told our people that no need attacking herdsmen, that even when they provoke you, report to us,we will take care of it. Even when they destroy your crops, all you need to do is to inform us, we will know what we need to do. Once we know if we cannot hold anybody responsible, we will pay, government is ready to take responsibility and we have been doing this. We have situations where herdsmen destroyed crops and they were held and made to pay, we had situations where some youths went and killed some cattle, we held them and made them to pay and where they were not found, government took responsibility. The other time when some youths went from Agatu and went to one local government in Otukpo Local Government-Adoka and killed 57 cattle, rustled 50 and we could not track the youths despite all the arrangement that we have in place, one thing we said herdsmen, don’t come-these ones were wise, they reported to us and we took the responsibility and we paid the herder as much as N10 million just to solve that problem. We did not witness any reprisal attack. So, this is the kind of thing that we are doing so, any report that comes to us and we verify that it is genuine, we are ready to come in. That was what informed us into submitting an executive bill to the State House of Assembly to ensure that they pass it to regulate the activities of cattle breeders in our land because the land is no longer there. The truth of the matter is that in Benue State today, there is nowhere you can find 10 hectares of land that is not encumbered. There is nowhere in Benue State, now that it is cropping season you will see all the places because we have done a lot of campaign that there is no free money anywhere. People have to work, sweat and eat. And they are ready to do the work but when they do the work, these herdsmen go to destroy it. Since the land is no longer there, we have to regulate their activities, we are not sending herdsmen away from our state, and we are not sending any Fulani man away from the state as is being campaigned against us. The bill is talking about regulating the activities of herdsmen, they are free to breed their cattle in Benue State but you must do it in a civilized manner and a civilized manner for us in Benue State is for you to ranch your cattle. That is the global best practice. By doing it, you are providing jobs and creating wealth for others if you ranch your cattle and it is in one place. Other people will provide the grass, others will provide feed and then there is a chain of opportunity you are providing for the people. And then if the herdsmen ranch their cattle, the farmers are allowed to do their work and in the end, the herdsmen must eat food. You must eat the yam, you must take the grains, then the Tiv man or the Idoma man will also eat meat and in almost all the ceremonies in Benue State today, from burials, birthday celebration, Christmas, New Year, Sallah, Easter, people slaughter a lot of cattle; it is a win -win situation that we are canvassing; if they ranch their cattle and farmers are allowed to farm, they will get money from their farm produce and buy, so everybody will be happy. But when you don’t allow people go to their farm, you create insecurity because it is said that the mind that is idle becomes the devils workshop. When these youths are not able to go to the farm, they sit and begin to imagine how they are going to attack, rustle cattle and make cheap money. For us, we are saying that we must ranch and people must seek permission to do that ranching. All these things that I am saying, I have been practising them. I have been a farmer for more than 30 years. I am into livestock, I am into grains, I am into citrus. I understand the pains one goes through in breeding, I understand the pains of a Fulani man when his cattle are hacked down, I understand the pains of a farmer who labours and gets loans from the local or commercial banks to buy fertilizer, pays for equipment and farms and in the end, the cattle will come and destroy everything, I understand the pains. For us to all win, it is to ranch that is what I know.