In this second part of his interview with reporters Musikilu Mojeed and Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, Governor Samuel Ortom speaks about his relationship with Senator George Akume, his battle with Adams Oshiomhole, the corruption allegation against him and the real reason he left the ruling APC.
PT: Do you mean that all the problems you’ve had so far originated from the passage of the grazing law?
Ortom: It is, according to them, a result of the impunity from Miyetti Allah. We have called for their arrest and nobody arrested them up till today. That is a problem. With all the provocative utterances they have given inciting the people, including claiming to have been responsible for the killing that has been taking place, giving reasons that their cattle were rustled and all that. They can’t be killing innocent people. How can a four-year-old go to rustle cattle? How can a 75-year-old man go to rustle cattle? How can a pregnant woman who is about to deliver go to rustle cattle? You’ll come and kill them. We are against any criminal. We are not supporting any criminal in the state. If you want attack them and kill them I have no business with that. But when you come to kill innocent people, that is the point and the main reason why this problem has persisted is as a result of the impunity that has been going on. These people are not apprehended and as I keep saying in any given society the rule of law must be observed, we must respect it, we must observe the rule. It is the law that regulates the activities of human beings. If anybody decides to take the law into their hands then we cannot live together in that society.
PT: I am aware you visited the president a number of times. At what point did you become so frustrated and helpless that you had to start thinking about exiting the party that brought you to power?
Ortom: Well, we have discussed several times. But the issue of exiting the party that brought me to power is as a result of non-integration properly into the party’s system. As you are aware, I was a member of PDP until the dying minute when I was frustrated out of PDP so I was looking for another platform and of course APC invited me and felt that due to my popularity, they were sure if we teamed up together we could make it and I also bought into it. We went there, but the leadership did not allow room for integration and so that has been the point. It is like here in Benue State, because all politics is local, the senator who said he is the leader of the party took control and doesn’t want input from outside. So my supporters and myself were left out and when we tried to insist that look we have to be integrated, I was given a red card. That I am not needed, and everywhere he went, he demonized me, saying all kinds of things.
PT: What were the issues between you and Senator Akume?
Ortom: He felt that he should have a hold on the party and then decide who gets what. This is democracy. We should allow internal democracy. We should allow people to also have inputs
PT: As governor how come it was difficult for you to take control?
Ortom: You see, I told you I came in when structures of the party were alreadly in place. I had no hold on that. I came in like that so the same people were there. I had wanted a process where we can integrate and make sure that we were all stakeholders. That was rebuked and I reported it but the thing continued. I said well I cannot continue in this manner. There were always major disagreements. When we were talking about prohibition of open grazing he (Senator Akume) was against it. He said the people in Abuja are too powerful. That they are too powerful and that if I don’t rescind that decision to sign the law the people from Abuja would move against me
PT: He said that?
Ortom: Yes he told me that and I said no there is no way I can do this. I am representing the Benue people and so if I betray the trust that they had in me by electing me governor by not doing their bidding, by becoming afraid somewhere, I mean that is not leadership. As a leader let me do what I believe to be right. Even if I die, let it be on record that Ortom was killed because of his people. I have chosen to stay with the people and to walk with them. If they crucify me today, if anything happens to me today, everyone will know that it is because I have chosen to stay with the people.
PT: So like Jesus Christ you are ready to lay down your life for your people?
Ortom: Of course I have said it. What else will I do? Whichever way you do one day you will die. But if you die for a just cause, it is okay. Jesus died so many years ago for a just cause but he’s a hero. Just like Abiola was recently recognised as a winner of June 12 in Nigeria. That is what I am saying because all these cattle that we are talking about here in Nigeria that are creating so much panic and problems and killings and destruction and all that are not a lot. We are talking about just 20 million cattle. In India, there over 270 million cattle but they ranch. In Brazil, there are over 300 million but they ranch their cattle. You don’t see them moving about the way you see it in Nigeria. In America, there are over 100 million cattle but they are surviving. In fact go to the states of America you don’t see any cattle. It is only here that even at the airport and offices you see cattle. Even in Kenya, you don’t see cattle moving the way they do here. So ranching is global best practice in animal husbandry. So trying to set a pace by doing something new is a difficult task. One day people will understand.
PT: When you announced your decision to leave the party, the national chairman said that you betrayed the APC. Was there some agreement you breached?
Ortom: I did not have any agreement with anybody. I did not betray anyone. The only thing I wanted was to do the wish of my people which I did. Like I told you, there was major disagreement with the leader of the party in Benue State. The things he wanted me to do, I said no this is not right for the interest of this state
PT: Apart for this issue of ranching, what other things did he (Senator Akume) wanted…
Ortom: There are several other things he wanted me to do, he wanted me to be supporting him financially and several other things that he wanted me to do on his behalf and I couldn’t cope because the state is not buoyant. He wanted me to give big contracts and pay. I gave him one which he tendered for and got. We could not pay. We paid some but could not continue.
PT: How much was it?
Ortom: Close to N5 billion, road construction and about 10% was paid initially to start the work which was not started and we could not fund further because we had the challenge of even paying salaries. So we could not continue. So that was also an offence against me. He wanted me to do several other things which I could not cope because of the lean resources I had. So I became a problem and he started demonizing me, branding me to be a mad man. He was saying all kinds of things about me. Eventually, he started working against my interest. I felt it was not right to continue to work with him because two people cannot work together except they agree. I believed it was better to move on especially when he said he would mobilize people to work against me. I felt here is a party I don’t have the structure of. I came in and promoted him (Senator Akume) and supported him to even win his senatorial elections because if I had not come it was going to be pretty difficult for him. He knew that. That was why he waited and insisted I should come and take the ticket for the party despite what was on ground. When I came in other five aspirants were there. He knew that I was the preferred person.
It is unfortunate that you talk about my national chairman, there are issues that he raised and am going to ask my lawyers to ask him that. Let him expatiate on all those things, all those allegations of fraud he levelled against me. I’m getting my lawyer to write to him.
Of course if we write to him and he is able to explain to my satisfaction, fine. If he doesn’t, I will go to court to clear my name because I think that it is wrong for a national chairman to be talking in the manner he did against me. I think Nigeria would like to know.
PT: You met with him and I think he had the impression that he was going to resolve whatever your problems were.
Ortom: That was what he told me and I put the cards on the table. I said the party was no longer under my control and somebody else is running the party. So he agreed that yes we were going to meet.
PT: But there was party congresses just some few months ago. How come that the man still maintained his control of the party even when you did fresh congresses?
Ortom: Like I told you, the structure of the party was with him before I came in and he had indicated that anyone who attempted to change the structure, there was going to be killings and it happened. In just a stakeholders meeting in Otukpo in Zone C, seven people were killed and I didn’t want a situation where there would be bloodshed. When we are having bloodshed from herdsmen against the people and several other challenges, kidnappings and all that, I didn’t want additional killings. When my people met me I said look lets allow this man, let him have his way, just for people to be safe. Because I think whatever my ambition is, it is not worth the blood of an infant not to talk of a full grown person.
PT: But the national chairman said those of you who left the APC are people who believe in the principle of sharing the money. Then the presidency said those of you who left were bad eggs.
Ortom: Fine if we are bad eggs and if we believe in the principle of sharing the money let them provide a level-playing field. Let us taste our popularity on the ground. We are not in that group. Politics is a game of interest. When your interest is not protected you look for somewhere else. They should have the patience to accommodate opposition even within a family. Within the kingdom of mouth you have the teeth and the tongue. You fight against yourself but you know how to do it. So as far as I know, if you say we are bad eggs, why were we not bad eggs when we were there with them? And the national chairman said what?
PT: That you believe in the principle of sharing the money
Ortom: So what happened when we were there with them? Did he ever say that? It was the same national chairman who was saying that ‘no you are a very strong member of our party you cannot go; we cannot allow you to go’. The same man who is coming to say another thing. You praise me with one side of your mouth and the other side you are castigating me. What is the meaning of that? If you talk about sharing money, can Adams Oshiomhole give account? You are aware that one of his kinsmen is it reverend or bishop from his state took him to court to account for the N10 billion house he built. Where is the one I have here, in Abuja or anywhere? Where he is living in Abuja, where did he get the money?
The Bible says that why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye without noticing the log of wood in your own eye? First remove the log of wood in your eyes so that you can see clearly to remove the speck in your brother’s eye. Adams Oshomole lacks the capacity to talk about corruption. He is in court. Nobody has taken me to court. Adams Oshiomhole is in court, can he come out clean? He that comes with equity should come with clean hands. Is his hands clean? That house he’s staying in, in Abuja where did he get the money? The one he built that somebody took him to court, where did he get the money? So these are issues. I think the national chairman should not be talking in this manner.
PT: The President said all of you are bad eggs.
Ortom: Well, Mr President is entitled to his opinion. Unless he comes out to say it about me, it is a difficult thing to put us together and say we are bad eggs. But if he talks about what he means by bad eggs, about Samuel Ortom then I can respond to that but when you just say that, I think it’s too vague. I respect Mr President. I believe that all that is happening if he’s aware he will not be part of it just like he said during the so-called impeachment that was organised by the inspector general of police and (then) director general of SSS. You come to a state, you have 30 members of the house and you go and give cover to eight members and stop the 22 members from attending their legitimate session and you take the eight members under heavily guided security agencies and you give them cover to just go and make an announcement that we are giving an impeachment notice to a governor. To give an impeachment notice to a governor it should be one third of the Assembly, eight people are not one third of the Benue State House of Assembly.
PT: The impeachment notice came almost at the same time the EFCC came out to say it was investigating you and some members of the Assembly over security vote. What do you make of all these?
Ortom: Well, that is witch hunting, blackmail and intimidation. Nothing more than that because how can you wait all this while. I have been a governor for more than three years and you wait until an impeachment notice is coming when police and the SSS are delegated to give cover to do any illegal thing to say that Ortom is removed as governor and allegation from EFCC is coming. Why didn’t they say these things before? But like I keep saying I have not done anything wrong. I have said that let them probe all the 36 states and the presidency, they should go there, they have access. I’m not stopping them from doing what they want to do but bring the other ones to say that truly that you are being fair to Ortom that you are not witch hunting me. If you are not witch hunting me bring out the security probe for the other 36 states and the presidency too.
Recently Adesina, the spokesman for the president said that how can you probe security that who will ever give account of security votes. The kind of things that are involved in security arrangement are deeper than what you can put on paper. There are several other things in governance and if you ask any other person who has governed too they would explain to you what it means. The complexity is such that it is not known and I am not the first governor of Benue State. Why will you start probing security votes from 2015, when I came in till date. How about the other people, including from 1999. I am saying that if you want to probe this thing, if you’re taking Benue alone start from 1999 when Akume was governor. You check and bring those records out. Then you can bring my own.
PT: So you are saying that you are not a thief as they are trying to allege
Ortom: How can I be a thief? I don’t need to be a thief to survive. I wasn’t a thief before I became governor why should I be one when am getting older? I’m 57. Why should I be a thief at 57? There is no point. I was a man of my own before I became governor. In this state, apart from Dangote, I am the only person providing jobs to more than 1000 people, as an industrialist and one of the biggest farmers here, providing ad hoc jobs to several people, when it’s cropping and harvesting period. So why do I need to be a thief? God has made me before I became governor.
PT: When you came in, were you able to appoint your own commissioner or the leader of the party did on your behalf?
Ortom: Yes I appointed commissioners some of them, he too contributed in making the cabinet and other stakeholders.
PT: So there wasn’t problem at that point?
Ortom: Appointing them? No, no, there wasn’t any problem at that point
PT: Because there were suggestions that he wanted you to just fill your cabinet with his nominees.
Ortom: Of course he wanted everything in the government. He wanted to take everything and those are issues put together that made it impossible for him to be comfortable with me.
PT: So you insisted at that point?
Ortom: Of course! I had a template that I said ‘look this I can concede but others I couldn’t do it. There’s no way you will take everything to be with you on your side’. Then there is the issue of dissolution of cabinet which he was complaining that I targeted more of his people but I made sure that those people affected were not just his own people. For me I integrated everybody. Whether they came from him, it was me appointing not him appointing cabinet. He recommended people to me and I told them that as long as they just do the work the way I want I have no problem with them.
PT: So for the next election, how are you sure of defeating, of disgracing your old party, the APC, in the next election?
Ortom: Let me tell you: politics is game, a game of interest. I left the PDP to APC and I secured my interest that was when my interest could not be protected in PDP. But now they have rebranded, they are reformed and are willing to change from their old ways. They have even gone further to apologize to Nigerians and also to those people they offended. So I think, like we that read the Bible, in the Lord’s prayer, it is said: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. I am not saying I am a saint. So when people come to me and say ‘look my brother am sorry for what I did to hurt you,’ I am bound to forgive them.
PT: And then you have to work with people like former Governor Gabriel Suswam
Ortom: That was even before my defection to PDP. We have reconciled. Our differences were reconciled. We have been working together irrespective of political parties. We were in different political parties but we worked together.
PT: But you once accused him of mismanaging the state during his tenure. You made several cases of corruption against him. So how are you going to resolve that type of differences?
Ortom: Well, we have reconciled. All I can tell you is that whatever differences we had we have reconciled and we have promised to work together to advance the cause of Benue to greater developments and that is what we are doing.
PT: Some of your critics would say that part of the problems of Benue State, even this insecurity issues, are about governance. Especially also failure to pay salaries for some time and all that. What do you have to say?
Ortom: Well, this interview would not have been complete without asking me about salaries (laughs). But like I said, I appreciate God for how far we have gone. When I came in I inherited over N69 billion arrears of salaries, pension and gratuity. Over N70 billion contract obligation and so it has not been easy trying to cope. But I want you to know that Benue State is the third highest in terms of salary payment.
PT: In the country?
Ortom: Yes. In the country. In the 36 states. First is Lagos. A director for instance in Lagos takes home N345,000. That is the average because there are different salary structure. But the IGR of Lagos of course you know that it is over N35 billion. It is followed by Rivers, where a director takes N285,000, but their IGR too is in the region of more than N10 billion on average. Now come to Benue state. Benue state is number three. A director takes N280,000. What is our IGR? An average of N500 million. So, that is the big challenge I have here. When I came in, the total bill for the local governments was around N3.9 billion and N4.3 billion at the state level. That’s 8.2 billion.
Then came the issue of minimum wage for teachers. When they came to me, because of the passion I have for teachers. The figures were not explained to me but I offered to say please because it was one of my campaign promises, I offered to say go ahead and pay them the minimum wage so this took the wage bill to about N8.5 billion. But after series of checks and breaking of linkages and all that we brought it back to N7.8 billion. During the recession what we were having was an average of N5 billion every month, total package.
PT: Is that your entire revenue….
Ortom: Everything! You know an average of that. So it was difficult working out the arithmetic. How do we contain with security issues? How do we contain with overheads? How do you contain with other activities of running government? All these things require funding so it’s pretty difficult. So I entered into an agreement with the workers that ‘look this is the whole money everything is on the table. I have nothing to hide’ and they too appreciated it so they now said okay combine two months and pay us one month salary. I had wanted to adopt a system of paying half salary but they said no that they would prefer that I combine two months and pay them one month. That is largely responsible for the arrears of salaries I have today. We’ve been paying.
PT So what you do is that you pay every other month?
Interviewee: Yes! Every month we pay. As at 2017 when the year got to an end we had arrears largely because of this accumulation and at the local government we had 11 months. At the state level we had 7 months arrears. But from January 2018 to date we have been able to pay.
PT: So what you are left with now is just arrears…
Ortom: Just the arrears. Let me tell you this issue of non payment of salaries is exaggerated because if you check other states they are even owing more than what I am owing. That’s the truth. Today in Nigeria, more than 20 states cannot pay salaries. They are having one problem or the other in coping with this challenge but in my own case it is overblown and my detractors feel they can use this against me. But an average worker here knows because whatever comes is on the table and that is why we had minimum cases of workers rising against me because I have not deceived them. They know that it is beyond me.
But we have now decided on something because Benue state is a civil service state. And so when salaries are not paid everybody is affected. It becomes a big challenge. The clergy have spoken to me. The traditional rulers and everybody who loves me have spoken to me that ‘look concentrate and pay salaries’. So as at now, I have suspended ongoing projects that I fund every month. I use whatever is available for salaries.
PT: So it’s not possible to pay salaries and fund projects?
Ortom: It is not possible to combine the two. Now we are lucky because since the month of January the federal allocation has been better compared to what we used to get. Before then, I was sometimes forced to take overdraft here and there to make up. We are working towards getting other sources of revenue. We should be able to use it to pay the arrears.
PT: But why do you have more staff, more civil servants than the local and state levels can cope with?
Ortom: You know Benue is more of a civil service state. It will amaze you that with all the challenges I have, people are still coming, bringing their children for employment. If you go to my local government for instance, you have close to 1000 workers. This is a local government that averagely the people you see working there are not up to 100. The others just stay back and collect salaries. Not that they do any form of work.
PT: So how do you want to deal with that type of situation?
Ortom: Well it is something that is difficult to contain with. It is a big challenge.
PT: Now there is also the issue of your former party leader who you said you gave some job and he has not delivered. You paid 10% and more. What do you want to do to situations like that?
Ortom: Well with time if they cannot source resources and do it, we can terminate and look for people who have the capacity to do it and when we get money we pay. That is all about it.
PT: Thank you so much Mr. Governor.
Ortom: Thank you too.