Benue State Governor, Dr. Samuel Ortom, was on President Muhammadu Buhari’s delegation to China recently, after which he anchored a business and investment forum between Chinese businessmen and major stakeholders in the North Central states, as well as financial and investment institutions in both countries. He spoke about the gains of the trip and other concerns. George Okoh brings the excerpts:
Why did you visit the assembly plant in Wuzheng?
You can see that Benue State is the food basket of the nation, and at a personal level, I’m a farmer. This plant is deeply into the production of agricultural machinery and in China here, it’s one of the best. It also has some little presence in Benue State. I felt like coming here to encourage them because they’re already doing some trading in agricultural machinery like tractors and other farm implements in our state.
I’m here to discuss with the President and Chairman of this group in order to ensure that we not just go into trading of these machinery but we can start an assembly plant in Makurdi, the headquarters of Benue State. Apart from the benefits of having the equipment close to farmers in the food basket of the nation, the assembly plant will generate jobs, create opportunities and create wealth because it will be a center to service neighboring states especially those in the North Central part of the country.
I’ve taken advantage of the president’s visit to China, which opened up many opportunities for Nigeria. I’m happy that I was part of the delegation and I want to take maximum advantage of the visit in order to ensure that my state benefits first, that is why I’m here and I’m glad that the agreement has been signed. The chairman has agreed to start an assembly plant in Makurdi and has directed his people to do a feasibility study on how this can be done. I think that within the shortest possible time, the benefits would be there with their practical presence.
What are the other gains of your trip to China?
They are massive, even though we’ve not finished the signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and agreements with different provinces that have indicated that they want to partner Benue State. But I can assure you that more opportunities have been opened up for the people of Benue State because I had the opportunity of showcasing our potential as a state in the areas of agriculture, solid minerals, as well as culture and tourism.
The people here have been quite receptive to these and it’s happening at a time the president visited and signed several agreements of friendship and bilateral issues that affect the two countries. I’ve noticed that the average Chinese man and woman are quite receptive. I’m happy with this visit especially now that they have so much and are looking for opportunities to invest outside their country. I’m discussing with quite a number of them and during the Trade Fair, the chairman of Benue Chamber of Commerce was here with a delegation from the chamber and other government officials, who accompanied me.
We’ve gone into discussions with various investors and businessmen over here with emphasis on establishing their plants and factories in Benue State so that we can get maximum benefits out of these. We’re not just looking at trading, but for members of the Chamber of Commerce in the state, who are willing can start with trading because that will also be of benefit to our people. We believe that this foundation that we’ve laid with the president’s visit, the Trade Fair and the visits that we’ve paid to several provinces will definitely generate positive results for our state.
For instance, we’re discussing with the government and people of Guangzhou about an agreement with them so that Makurdi can become a sister city to Guangzhou, this will bring a lot of benefits. Before you know what is happening, someone who just heard our discussion went into discussion with his government in a different province and they decided that we should come and sign an agreement that they want to partner us, an investor who is willing to come to Nigeria and Benue State in particular by this May.
He’s willing to invest in agro processing, in tourism, and is also willing to invest in solid minerals. We’ve gotten investors, who have indicated interest and I’ve given them invitation to visit the state. The Nigerian Mission here in China is really supportive of these initiatives arising from the fact that our business forum for two days at the Hilton in Guangzhou was a great success. The Chinese investors and the people from the North Central States displayed commitment and enthusiasm to ensure that we go into partnership. I believe that things will work out. The business forum was a very big success particularly for Benue State which anchored it. I can assure you that the benefits are already there.
Why do you keep looking towards China?
Our people say that ignorance is darker than night. When you are not fully informed and knowledgeable about certain things you may be confused. Today, in the whole world, if you go to other parts of the world, in America, go to Europe, go to other parts of Asia, go to the Americas and everywhere in the world, you will see the presence of China whether by way of the people or their products. Gone are the days when we experienced substandard products from China.
Today, they have the capacity to produce high standard and quality products and I can attest to this. Gone are the days when people used to criticize China, they should come here and see. I think that people who criticize me for looking towards China are completely ignorant about what is happening around the world. They should travel to America and go to the shops, 70 per cent of what you see on the shelf of an average shop in America is produced in China, the same thing in Europe, the same thing in other parts of the world. This is where it’s happening and that’s why they’ve made a lot of progress.
For me, I want my state to develop, I want my state to progress, I want my administration to make an impact on our people and I’ve identified and seen that the way forward is here, that’s where the whole world is going. We went to Canton Trade Fair, for instance, and the entire world was there, from America, from Europe, from India and other parts of Asia – they were all here. These people have had a breakthrough and come to think of it, this revolution that we’re seeing in China took place just about 30 years ago, within 30 years it took place.
It’s quite challenging for anyone that comes here if you are someone with a development heart, you’ll be challenged to replicate it back home and that’s the challenge that I have. I’m not just folding my hands, I’ve always told people that please identify something and do. Here, everything that concerns every human endeavor can be found here in China and our people should take advantage and let us together develop Benue State and Nigeria.
What’s your reaction to those who say you’ve spent so much money on the trip in the face of the economic crunch and non-payment of salaries back home?
For me, it’s money that makes good soup. If I folded my arms and sat in one place while our industries were not working, technology has gone very far and we cannot identify this and bring to the state to effect development, then what are we doing? You must not eat your seed if you want development, if you want to prosper, if you want to make progress. You must learn how to use your seed wisely so that in time of harvest you can harvest more, that’s what I’m doing.
In any case, I’ve not spent money outside my entitlements; the same applies to other members of the delegation. Is it the commissioner or the Director of Industries that you don’t want to attend the Trade Fair? Is it me that the president invited because of the strategic role that Benue State has on the map of Nigeria, to accompany him to China that would have said no because we have no money? I want to appeal to those, who seek to make political gain by criticising this government to please reason because politicking is over.
We have three more years ahead of us, let us do governance. Let them bring ideas, let them go back and check what the other government was doing before we came in. I’ve not been traveling, go and check the records. How many times have I travelled out of Nigeria since I became Governor? I can assure you that for this purpose the state stands to benefit far more than even myself and the people who travelled with me. I didn’t make the trip for personal reasons.
I’ve just started my leave for one week and I’ll go back. I’m not the type that travels for fun or for leisure. This is my first time of travelling to attend a Trade Fair outside the country since becoming Governor. But this and the other trips have mostly been at the invitation of the President. In any case, those criticising should go and check whether I’ve done anything outside the rules or outside my entitlements.
Some said you left the Trade Fair in Makurdi to attend the one in China, is that not a contradiction?
I and the Deputy Governor are on one ticket, if the Deputy Governor is present at any function that is me. We are on one ticket, anywhere you see the Deputy Governor that is me. Of course, I did organise that Trade Fair and I told them what I wanted and we’ve achieved results there too and so, what is the essence of two us being there? If I had not come here the achievements we’ve recorded here wouldn’t have been there. I think they’re just criticising for political reasons, I don’t see how a reasonable person would compare the Canton Trade Fair which is worldwide – the entire world was here – and the Makurdi Trade Fair. It is what we get here that we can use to make the Trade Fair of Benue more vibrant next year in terms of empowering them through machinery and several other benefits.
Does your current investment drive have any link with your experience as a former minister in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment?
I started coming to China during my days as Minister of State, Trade and Investment. I believe now that there is a downturn in our economy, we must look outside the box and the way forward is about trade, industries and about investment. We are doing trade in order to ensure that we balance whatever comes in and whatever goes out. We are going into industrialisation so that we can process our primary products, with that we shall be getting multiples of opportunities – creation of jobs, creation of wealth, and creation of opportunities within our state and country.
I believe that all these will support our micro, small and medium scale enterprises. These will support investments to come into the state because standing on our own we do not have enough to do the investments. That is why I laugh at those who say I shouldn’t have come out. How will you get investors when you do not reach to tell the potential that you have? We have reached out and invited people to visit us and see things for themselves, and some have already made commitments. All these are things that I learnt at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment and I’m trying to replicate in my state.
Today, they have the capacity to produce high standard and quality products and I can attest to this. Gone are the days when people used to criticize China, they should come here and see. I think that people who criticize me for looking towards China are completely ignorant about what is happening around the world. They should travel to America and go to the shops, 70 per cent of what you see on the shelf of an average shop in America is produced in China, the same thing in Europe, the same thing in other parts of the world. This is where it’s happening and that’s why they’ve made a lot of progress