Ortom’s New Benue

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Ortom presenting vehicles to security agenices

In spite of the huge security and financial challenges, Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State appears to be pushing ahead to deliver on his electoral promises to the people. Iyobosa Uwugiaren who was in the state recently, writes

In spite of the deadly activities of the bloodthirsty Fulani herdsmen, which attempted to redefine the people and their culture in the past few years, Benue State is a place to be for holidaymakers.

Occupying a land mass of about 32,518sqkm, and lies within the lower River Benue in the Middle Belt region of the country, you start seeing the attractiveness of Markudi, the state capital, from the top of the River Benue Bridge, if you are a first-time visitor entering the city from Nasarawa State.

With a growing population of 4,780,389 going by the 2006 census, the state is made of several accommodating ethnic groups: Tiv, Idoma, Igede, Etulo, Abakpa, Jukun, Hausa, Akweya and Nyifon. But the Tiv always boast and rightly so, that they are the dominant ethnic group, occupying 14 local government areas, while the Idoma and Igede occupy the remaining nine local government areas.

Branded as ‘Food Basket of the Nation’, majority of the people are farmers, while the inhabitants of the riverine areas engage in fishing as their primary occupation.

As many visitors and holidaymakers had attested to, the people, especially their girls, are famous for their “cheerful and hospitable” disposition as well as rich cultural heritage.

Have you been to Enemabia Warm Spring in the state? It is one of the famous attractions in Benue State, which is particularly prized for its warm water; it is available for both night and day for tourists who cherish swimming.

It is these attractive features that the murderous Fulani herdsmen have deviously worked very hard to change in the past few years. And coupled with the insecurity created by the Fulani cattle breeders and the challenges of salary payment in the state, Governor Samuel Ortom, until recently, was regularly criticised for failure to act.

An indigene of the state, former Senate President David Mark while inaugurating some projects in Port Harcourt, Rivers State few months ago mocked Ortom for “distributing wheelbarrows while Governor Wike was commissioning roads and bridges.”

But the state said that Mark’s statements were smacked of a man, who had obviously been disconnected with the very people who voted him; and his utterances exude envy against “Governor Ortom who is succeeding where Mark has failed.”

However, for those who are in a hurry to evaluate the performance of Ortom in the past two years and score him, the governor’s advice has always been: “check the situation of the state before I took over in 2015.”

Before he took over office, the governor said that there was poor security of lives and property in Benue State; government business was sluggish, corruption; brazen embezzlement of funds was so obvious that it could be “seen and touched”, while “lying was the language of governance.”

He added, “Wild parties, orgies, ungodliness, witchcraft, and idol worshipping was common, and Benue Government House was desecrated with all forms of ungodliness. Government of Benue literarily became a sea of political appointees with over 500 Special/Senior Special Assistants, 30 Advisers, 17 Commissioners together with a litany of praise singers.”

The governor admitted that the biggest challenge he inherited was insecurity, where citizens were attacked by hoodlums day and night, saying the big markets in Tivland like Ihugh, Adikpo, Zaki Biam, Tor-Donga and Aliade were closing down because hoodlums used to snatch money from traders who sold their wares at such markets.

Apart from the fatal activities of some hoodlums, Ortom said primary school teachers were on strike for about one year; quality of education nose-dived because teachers were on strike at all levels of the state’s educational system; and there was general labour unrest.

“Our Schools of Nursing and Midwifery as well as College of Health Technology, Agasha were closed. Benue State University (BSU) was closed. Our children who elected to study Medicine were stuck for 12 years because government never provided funds to facilitate the accreditation of BSU Medical School,” the governor added.

“Civil Servants were depressed. Benue State was in a state of anomie and hopelessness. Institutions in the state were collapsing, family was abused, traditional rulers became politicised and acted like members of a political party.

“Selection and appointment of chiefs was arbitrary and was for the highest bidder. Youths were in disarray and able bodied sons of Benue were becoming an army of beggars and some graduating into area boys. Cultism ruled the streets.”

For its fat yams, its plentiful harvests of cassava, groundnuts, rice and melon, among other crops, Benue State is called the ‘Food Basket of the Nation’. But the governor said that agricultural production in Benue was stunted as the quality and quantity of agriculture inputs, including fertiliser was compromised through corrupt practices before he came on board. While Farmers deserted their farms into refugee camps as a result of herdsmen/farmers crisis and both government and the traditional institutions had no clue as to what to do.

As he put it, “Farmers were hungry, angry and frustrated as there was no policy in place to address the crises. Most of the International Development Agencies had left Benue because they could not enjoy the co-operation of government.

“UNDP, UNICEF, IFAD, DFID, USAID, JICA and even those that remained were packing their computers to leave town when we arrived on the seat of governance. Contract awards were inflated, and not completed and businessmen were owed billions of naira.

“Government had questionable bank loans, over drafts, bonds and unclean relationship with some financial and security institutions. Stocks owned by government were sold and proceeds put into private use by top government officials.”

And expectedly, like a lizard that fell from Iroko tree, with full of self-praise, Ortom is pleased after over two years of his administration: “We have come into our half time on the side of victory. We have peace and tranquility, which we never had; we now have security in the land, which we lacked at the time we took over.”

Assessing the present state of the state, in an exclusive interview with THISDAY, he was of the view that there is now enough food to eat and sell, while most of those who were “crying are beginning to laugh.”

From his different presentations in the last few weeks in different Town Hall meetings, repositioning the state were cautiously captured in his blueprint entitled ‘Our Collective Vision for a New Benue’ – his compass for effectively dealing with the challenges of governance in the state.

Collaborating his boss’ view, the Special Adviser (Media and Publicity), Mr. Terver Akase, said the state work had been guided by the five strategic areas: provision of good governance, anchored on the fear of God; agriculture driven industrialisation with a passion; provision of critical infrastructure to facilitate development; STEAM based Education/Health Services; and promotion of gender equality, women, children, youth and people with disability.

Pointing out specific “Change” that has taken place in Benue State in the past two years, he said Benue citizens are now more secured in their homes, on the highways and on their farms than two years ago.

“That is change! We have passed laws like Prohibition of Open Grazing of Livestocks, Prohibition of Abduction, Kidnapping, Hostage-taking, and Secret Cults Law, 2017. We have submitted over 12 Executive bills and five have already been passed by the State House of Assembly to strengthen security of citizens,” the spokesman to the governor told THISDAY.

“We have mobilised armed forces, police, State Security Services and civil defence to all flash points in the state to maintain peace and security. Benue is now one of the most peaceful states in our country as citizens go about freely without molestations.

“Government business is now done in an orderly way and with the fear of God. Benue as a state has been dedicated to God, and Benue citizens have become conscious of God as a Supreme Father and prayer as a way out to solve problems.”

With a small and seemingly effective government composed of a cream of Benue people with a good blend of young and older experienced people, he added that institutions of government that were too weak and corrupt are being reformed. While hope is restored to the youth through opportunities for skills acquisition and income generation activities facilitated by agencies of government like Sustainable Development Initiatives that has skills on the wheel programme in addition to three Entrepreneurship Development Centres in Ado, Guma and Makurdi.

Apparently celebrating the outcome of the on-going enforcement of the anti-open grazing Act, Ortom told THISDAY that his administration had refused to be “helpless” concerning the farmers/herdsmen crisis, saying he pioneered the debate and promoted ranching as the lasting solution to crises.

He said, “Nigerians know and deeply appreciate our contribution on the debate of finding solution to the incessant crisis between herdsmen and farmers in our country.

“In leading this debate, we never looked back, but do so locally, nationally, and internationally calling on Nigeria to adopt ranching as an international best practice in cattle rearing in Africa and other continents.”

Clearing the misconception about Prohibition of Open Grazing Law 2017, the governor said that the intention of the state was not to send herdsmen away, adding that herdsmen can freely live in the state provided their livestock are ranched.

He added that prohibition of open grazing is not only for Fulanis, saying all persons including Benue citizens who have livestock must have them ranched or they would most certainly face a five year jail term or N1million fine as provided in the Law.

Ortom is also proud of his achievements in the education sector: “Schools have resumed and quality is improving; over 740 Primary School projects are being executed. Colleges have regained accreditation.

“We now have graduated 152 doctors in four sets from BSU, Medical School of Nursing and Midwifery has been renovated and accredited with resumption of academic activities after admission of students.”

He is particularly proud of the on-going massive renovation in the Benue Government College, Markudi, where many prominent people from the North, including former Governor Gabriel Suswan of Benue State and the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Dr. Maikanti Baru, schooled. Until the renovation started, the entire facilities and structures in the school collapsed with many dilapidated buildings.

If there is an issue that is clearly giving the governor a sleepless night, it is the backlog – about seven-month unpaid salaries for civil servants in the state.

“It is unfortunate that we have found ourselves where we are today due to the numerous challenges but this situation is not limited to Benue State, it affects the entire country,” Ortom told THISDAY.

“Nigeria went through a recession and just came out of it, though it is still very fragile but we are trusting and believing God that things will work and the economy will blossom and grow and things will be better. We took over power at a time that the main source of revenue to the states went down as a result of the drastic fall in oil prices.”

The governor said he inherited N69 billion arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuity, adding that since government is a continuous he had decided to work with it.

He added, “The wage bill then was around N8.2 billion without teachers’ minimum wage. When we came we said teachers should ideally be treated better than any other worker because of the strategic roles they play in the society, especially in the area of moulding the character of our children.

“And so, we said there shouldn’t be salary disparity, they should also enjoy minimum wage with the hope that things will improve and we went ahead and implemented it, only to discover that what was coming in was not enough to cater for just payment of salaries right from the onset.”

With the various interventions of the federal government and the borrowing, Ortom thought he could redeem the situation to a level, but he could not redeem the whole situation. He was paying a wage bill of N8.2 billion monthly including the additional responsibilities that came on the state’s finances from the minimum wage of teachers, which was close to N300 million.

He said through various screenings, the state government had been able to save up to N700 million, and today having around N7.8 billion as the wage bill of the state, which includes pensions and overheads every month.

Investigation shows that what comes in initially every month from the Federation Account was an average of N5 billion for both local governments and state. But things started improving and today the state receives an average of N6 billion.

As for the IGR, the state currently collects an average of N500 million monthly. So, take it that the state has an average of N6 billion and settling salaries alone in the state, it means it will be recording a deficit of N2.8 billion every month. For the governor, this is a real challenge for the state.

In the health sector, the governor said more than 40 Primary Healthcare Centres had been built; with procurement and supply of ambulances and essential drugs to Agatu, Gboko, Ohimini, Oju, Ushongo and Tarka LGAs; over 500 water projects executed across the state and sanitation in 31 communities.

Others include, roads built across the three senatorial zones; facelift of many government institutions like House of Assembly Complex, Commissioners’ Quarters, Ministry of Justice, Government Girls Secondary School, The Tor Tiv’s Temporary Residence; and training of 2,691 Youth on Digital Marketing in collaboration with Google Nigeria. Additional units of Housing for workers at Owner Occupier Scheme in Makurdi.

The governor also intervened in the accreditation aspiration of the NKST School of Nursing and Midwifery, Mkar, by making a donation of the sum of N10 million for the upgrading of the school to enable it meet the requirements.

Following that intervention, the school has also been granted accreditation.

For many political monitors in the state, the full accreditation granted to the College of Health Sciences, Benue State University, the Schools of Nursing and Midwifery, Makurdi and that in Mkar, is practical testimony of the Ortom administration’s commitment to the promotion of high standard in the quality of healthcare services rendered in the State.