Governor of Benue State and immediate past Minister of State for Industries, Trade and Investment, Dr Samuel Ortom fielded questions from LEON USIGBE on the downturn in the nation’s economy and his role in the past PDP administration.
Times are hard. Everybody is complaining of poor economy. What have been your major challenges in your effort to deliver on your electoral promises to your people?
Let me start by appreciating God for bringing me at a time like this. I’ve always known that it’s only when God permits that you ascend to position of authority. The Bible says in John 3:27 that a man can receive nothing except it’s given to him from above. And for me in particular, I came in the name of God and He gave me the victory despite all the challenges that were before me.
God will never make a mistake to bring me at a time like this, coming to meet a depressed economy and deficit treasury, where salaries were not being paid and contracts were not being paid for and several other payments; pension and gratuities amounting to billions of Naira, and coming at a time that the opposition is out blackmailing instead of joining hands with me to work for the development and progress of the state. They say all kinds of lies, bring several allegations of scandalous issues which are completely false. And I have told them that for me, my services at the local government, state and federal levels were very clear.
I have not been indicted accosted for any problem or service throughout my service in party life, in office and in my business life. And I have no reason whatsoever having been given the mandate by God Himself, I have no reason to be talking about trying to acquire illegal wealth. I’m not concerned. My allowances and entitlements as governor, as far as I am concerned, are okay, and I am contented with what I get in this service. I have no business going out to shortchange the people by looting their commonwealth.
But one thing that I have identified also is that when you fight corruption, corruption fights back to try and portray an image that you are not different from them. Me, I’m different from them and I have challenged them, that they should come out with any corrupt thing they think I have done in my government and I will show you where they are.
I have several things. Some are yet to be out. Certain activities that characterised the past administration were not completely captured by the Commission that mandated us to ensure that they refund N107 billion to the coffers of the state, otherwise, the law will take its course.
The Federal Government has a policy of encouraging those who took money not belonging to them to refund it voluntarily. Have you considered such step?
I have said it several times that all that I want is the money. I’m not witch hunting anyone. I’m not intimidating anyone. But what I’m saying is that if you took money that is not your own, if you took money from the commonwealth, bring it back. That is all that I’m concerned about. I have a date with the people of Benue State and I want to see that my promises are fulfilled. That is it. It is not about seeing people going to jail or whatever. But all I’m concerned about is to ensure that the people get dividends of democracy through provision of basic amenities in education, health sector, in water and sanitation, in infrastructure, etc. All those things that the people need. I want to see that salaries are paid as and when due. Why is it that Benue State cannot pay salaries today apart from the general economic downturn which has affected more that 27 states that are battling to pay salaries as and when due? Apart from the general problem, the corruption that characterised the past government has created this loophole for me in Benue State because if I met a state that had no salary arrears. I have no business to borrow.
If I met a state that was up to date in its contract obligations, I have no business dipping hand into what we collected as infrastructural loan from the CBN to pay them. If I met a state that has cleared salary arrears through the sale of shares in Benue Cement Factory, Julius Berger and several other companies that government has interest in, if this money was collected and paid as pension or gratuity to our people, I won’t be having this burden on my shoulders today. But I think that if they are able to refund this money, I’m ready to forget any other thing, I’m ready to allow them. All I’m concerned about is the money because several things are waiting and begging to be attended to.
How do you react to the allegation that you have misappropriated the bailout funds you collected from the Federal Government?
The issue of bailout, it was properly utilised. I challenge anyone. My government is the most honest, transparent and accountable government. It will interest you to know that the civil servants that we are owing are part of my Joint Accounts Committee both at the local government level and at the state level. We sit together to analyse whatever comes into our accounts from the Federation Account and the IGR Account. It’s not a matter of we have been toying with the issue of bailout. Bailout was collected, N12.5 billion, for the state service and N15.5 billion for the local government service. It was appropriated properly.
The one at the state level, because of the screening method we have adopted, we were able to save over N1.6 billion which we injected back in the treasury. But four solid months were paid as arrears to state workers. Same thing at the local government level. Because of the screening approach we adopted, we were able to save N1.4 billion and as I talk to you, that money is still in the account of the local government, though it has been garnisheed by the bank because of one case we had with Taraku Mills arising from non-payment of workers several years back.
They took us to court and they garnisheed the account. The money is there. And the leadership of labour in the state is part of the committee I have put in palace. I don’t see how they will watch bailout being diverted when workers are not paid. This allegation is coming from the opposition and those who were indicted by the various committees I set up to screen them. But some people were ghost workers; some people were receiving salaries; some had several problems with this. They were screened out and they are crying foul. It’s just that I’m lenient enough. But if the blackmail continues, I will be forced to take them to court to account for what they collected illegally and to refund such funds So, the bailout was appropriated properly and I challenge anyone who knows about any fraudulent practice concerning the bailout to come out and expose this government.
Fifteen months after the APC took over power, Nigerians are still expressing disappointment over the inability of the party to deliver its promised changed. What’s the problem? Did the APC over promise?
The problem is very clear what’s is happening. Maybe we underestimated the damage that was caused in the economy. But you will appreciate the magnitude of the problem. When we gave promise of change, we were looking at a normal situation, not this one that we have gotten ourselves into. Everyday, you hear about individuals stealing so many billions. The unfortunate thing is that Nigerians were here and no alarm was raised. We appreciate Nigerians because they too were dissatisfied with the kind of deceit, the looting and the corruption that was going on in the previous government. That was why they all rose up in their number to effect this change.
Honestly, based on what I have seen even in my state, the level of looting and corruption that was on ground until I came on board, the same thing at the federal level, what we are trying to do now is to stabilise. Remember that to build is very difficult. It can take a minute to destroy something but, it will require you to put a lot of things together to construct it back. This is the challenge. But I want Nigerians to be patient. We are just slightly above one year in office. It’s like we have broken down the walls, we are starting from the foundation. Building a foundation can take time. But when the foundation is completed, building will commence and in no time, you will see that things will work out.
I appreciate the suffering. We are going through the same problem. It is not easy with anybody. Let us continue to pray and continue to also advise where necessary, and by the grace of God, we will be out of this. But the damage that was caused by past administration is too much.
People will say you were part of the last administration you now condemn. Why was it impossible to realise that there was a problem with the finances of the country in order to take necessary steps to stop the bleeding?
Even in those days, we identified some of these problems, it’s just that our voices were not heard. You remember that I was a minister of state, I was part of the government, but I also believed in leadership. When you have someone ahead of you, you can advise but if your advice is not taken, what else will you do? The truth of the matter is that for a very long time, we were talking about diversifying the economy from oil to other sectors but, we were paying lip service. You cannot tell me about anything we did, strong indication to show that we were interested in diversifying the economy. People were just interested in taking what was available. All programmes that were designed, people were just making the money for their personal needs and for their cronies, and so on. And so, it became a problem as it’s being exhibited today through the EFCC and all that. Do you ever believe one person alone in Ekiti election could cause the Federal Government and Nigeria that much? Nobody believes it. These things were done in secret. So, some of these things, even when you give your advice, people were not ready to take them.
You were a national officer of the PDP and today as we speak, the PDP is in tatters. There are suggestions that your present party, the APC is pulling the strings because it is scared of a viable opposition. What do you say?
Well, it is unfortunate; it is laughable for anybody to say that APC has a hand in it. I laugh at them when they say that it is President Muhammadu Buhari that is instigating them. Are we members of PDP? Sheriff left opposition and joined them. They should blame themselves. We are not concerned about them. All I know is that in Benue State, thousands of PDP members are decamping into the APC because PDP for 16 years, what is their scorecard? They brought us to where we are today. And Buhari and some of us are trying to correct it. So, you cannot put that blame on us. Were we part of the convention? Are we part of the litigation that is going on in court? It is their own business. They should learn to appreciate themselves like we do in APC. Even in APC, we have our differences but we sit at the roundtable and discuss. We are willing to face any opposition. Let them come. And PDP, for me, I will prefer to have them as the main opposition because they have nothing to offer and they cannot compete with APC.