In spite of objections from herders massed in the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, the Open Grazing Prohibition Law takes effect in Benue State amidst fears that its implementation may lead to exodus of Fulani nomads from the state. But Governor Samuel Ortom in this interview with Bolaji Adebiyi and Iyobosa Uwugiaren says the law, which seeks peaceful cohabitation between herdsmen and farmers, is a win-win solution to hitherto internecine violence in the state
The law prohibiting open grazing by livestock has just taken effect. What is the response to the law so far?
Let me appreciate God for the courage to commence the implementation despite the intimidation and blackmail by those who feel impunity should continue in this country and that we shouldnâ€™t do the right thing. Anyone willing to do cattle business or livestock business in Benue State will have to put in place the machinery for that business. The law is very clear and those who are not willing or who donâ€™t have the capacity to do ranching can leave Benue State to where they can have the opportunity of doing open grazing. But for us, we are not sending anyone, including the Fulani or any other ethnic group away from Benue State. It is not targeted at any individual or any ethnic group or group of people. All that we want is peace for our farmers and for those who are doing livestock business in Benue State, and we think it is the best option.
I will continue to challenge those who think otherwise to bring to the table any other policy or programme that can ensure peace for our people. Because without peace there cannot be meaningful development. So the grace period of May to November, though it was not the right thing to do because once a law is signed by me it is supposed to take effect from that very day. But like I said, we want the law to have a human face knowing full well that it was a new law, people were not prepared. So we needed to give them time. For us, we were compelled to do it and it remains the only option for peaceful coexistence between farmers and herdsmen because the land is no longer there.
In the 1950s when people talk about cattle, roads and grazing areas, the total population of Nigeria was less than 40 million. In 2012 we jumped to 170 million and by 2017 we should be more than 200 million by my estimation. Benue State in the 1950s was less than one million in population, today, we are over eight million people. Now the land still remains less than 35,000sq kilometres. So, you can see that the upsurge of population has led to land occupation by roads, schools, hospitals, settlements, markets and several other human activities. An average person in the state, which is the food basket of the nation, is a farmer.
There is scarcity of land and itâ€™s just by the grace of God that Iâ€™ve been able to bring down land disputes all over the state. But there are still pockets of land disputes in some places. If you go round the state you will discover that almost everywhere is cultivated, there is no empty land. That is the problem, it is not that we hate anybody. I am a peaceful man; I am a Christian and my way of life is not to intimidate or try to stop someone from doing the right thing. I know that the killings, the destructions and all sorts of evil that was going on became too much for us. So we had to put this law in place. We had tried other ways of finding peace amongst the people but there was none.
Talking about shortage of land, is that not going to be a challenge to the implementation of the law? How do find land for ranches?
No, those who want to do ranching can acquire land. The law provides that land should be made available to those who want to do ranching for lease, renewable every year. The whole idea is to confine livestock in a particular place so as not to allow it go out and intrude into somebodyâ€™s farm. That is always the problem. Once they go out there, they become wild and go into peopleâ€™s farms and if you are a farmer you know that is your own means of livelihood and then somebody is coming with his cattle to destroy it.
The anger will make you react. Most times when they are confronted, fighting ensues and once the herdsmen are attacked, they go and bring their militia. This is one aspect that is very sad. Nigerians we must learn to obey the laws of the land. Why should we allow herdsmen to be carrying arms and up till today security men have not been able to apprehend those militia herdsmen with those arms. These people are not Nigerians, they are not even from here, so why should we allow them to do what they do? What are our security men doing? What are the immigration people doing to stop them from entering the country?
But ECOWAS protocols allow for free movement of citizens across the sub region.
Where are the travelling documents that they have to cross? Even if ECOWAS allows free movement you must have your documents. I travel to Ghana but I have my passport as an identity. So this is a big challenge that ranching will solve for us. I have a ranch and my cattle are confined in one place and the feeding takes place there and this has brought added advantage to the challenge of unemployment in Nigeria today. If you go to the farm, you will see a lot of young graduates who are employed and who are taking care of the pigs, cattle, chickens and goats.
What has been the response in terms of applications for land for ranching?
I think very few people who are mostly indigenes responded by establishing ranches. Like I said, leading by example, I have ranches, ranching my cattle both foreign and local breeds; I am ranching my pigs, goats, grass-cutter and rabbits. These are modern ways globally, this is what is obtainable. Some people have expressed interest and there are a number ranches within Makurdi and elsewhere where pigs are now confined unlike when they allow them to stray and move about and destroy peopleâ€™s farms and all that. I have, however, not seen any of the professional nomads or herdsmen indicate intention to apply for land for ranches.
But they are asking for extension of time to be able to understand the law and comply with its provisions.
We cannot extend the time for implementation indefinitely and allow the crisis to persist. I have not seen them make an attempt to comply even when we offered that when there are difficulties we are willing to help them. We said look: â€˜It is a new thing so we must implement it with a human face.â€™ So you see them not coming fort, they want extension, extension to where? So it is a big problem. I know it is a new thing but let them just try it, they will love it at the end of the day.
That is the only way to go whether they like it or not I know that eventually the entire country will not be ready to harbour open grazing because as I talk to you there are many other states going into agriculture. And itâ€™s the same problem everywhere with farmers complaining about the menace of herdsmen. Some of the farmers are complaining that they cannot pay the loans they collected from the banks because herdsmen came and destroy their farmlands. Ranching is a win-win situation for both farmers and herdsmen. The farmers can sell their waste to herdsman, the herdsmen can sell their cattle to farmers.
Now we are gradually entering an election year. Would you say within the context of the challenges you faced, you have been able to meet the expectations of the people in terms of infrastructural development?
I wonâ€™t say I have met all the expectations of the people. When I came in, there were very high expectations and using the experience I had gathered over the years as a local government chairman, state official and minister of the federal republic, I have been able to moderate our peopleâ€™s expectations. I met a debt situation. There was over N69 billion arrears of salaries, pension and gratuity. I inherited over N70 billion contractual obligations.
It was a big problem having overdraft everywhere. The huge infrastructural deficit in Benue State was a big challenge for people who have businesses. But we have tried our best within the circumstances we found ourselves. We are opening up roads so that we will link them up, the schools especially the primary schools were in a sorry state; Benue State University was shut down for months; the School of Nursing was shut down for about three years; the School of Health Technology was shut down. These are institutions that have been adding value to the Benue people. Several other higher institutions were shut down.
We came in and moved into negotiations. We were able to bring Benue State University back to classes and we also provided all that was needed for School of Nursing to be reaccredited and reopened. Today, the good thing is that the schools are back on track and the students are already attending classes. Apart from working towards ensuring that the university resumed, there was a big problem that was hanging since the inception of the university, especially when the School of Health Sciences was established.
Medical students were admitted and some were stagnated, especially the first and second set, for a period of 12 years. That is a course that you do for six years, some were there for 10 to 11 years and they could not graduate because of non- accreditation. We waded into it and by the grace of God we were able to secure accreditation. Today to our credit we have four sets of graduates from that school who are now medical doctors. We were able to secure loan and match the UBEC fund from Abuja amounting to N7.8 billion, which we have injected into the primary schools development and through a transparent process we were able to award over 740 contracts for renovations and construction of new structures and provision of materials to these primary schools.
We are also able to provide all counterpart funding to development partners, including UNICEF and several others who use to provide the fund but were all gone before we came in. We invited all of them back and paid all the counterpart funding. We are working with almost all of them and they are adding value to our development in their various ways. So I wonâ€™t say that I have satisfied the desires of my people to support infrastructural development by 100% but they also appreciate the fact that we inherited serious challenges.
Still on the state of the schools, we were at Government College, Makurdi. Why would your predecessors allow such a very important school to become so dilapidated?
Let me tell you something that will amaze you. My predecessor graduated from that school. You wonâ€™t believe that. When I saw it the day I went there, I wept. This is because that is a unity school. I queried my commissioner for not drawing my attention to it. I saw where those children were sleeping, oh my God, I said, â€˜chai, how will someone be wicked to this level?â€™ And that is supposed to be a unity school for the entire North. Despite the challenge I had. I had to do something. And I have gone the extra mile to borrow money to start renovating the school.
That was the state of primary schools too. Primary schools were shut for a long time. I donâ€™t want to be talking about the past again. I donâ€™t want to be talking about my predecessor again, I want to concentrate on whatever I can do to add value to our peopleâ€™s life. This is because I believe that whatever you sow in this life you must reap. So people will have questions to answer tomorrow. So if the people do not ask you, God will ask you definitely, especially when you are here to provide service.
Well you said you have paid some of these counterpart funding, which has helped you to make some of these renovations. How were you able to do that with your merger resources?
When we came in and discovered that our development partners had left, we invited them to a meeting and they told us that they were here to help the state and that the only commitment they required from the state was that it pays its counterpart funding. Some of them paid substantial part of the amounts, leaving a token for the state. Some are 50-50. We calculated our commitments and decided we had to do something. There is no crime in borrowing, especially when you borrow to effect development, so we approached the banks, then we needed N3.8billion to match with UBEC to get another N3.8billion. That brought it to N7.6billion, which we are using to develop our primary schools. We needed about N2 billion to match our development partnersâ€™ fund to get access to N5.5 billion. We approached the House of Assembly and got an approval to borrow the N5.5 billion. We are already paying back the money. So far we have been doing well.
Looking at your revenue vis-Ã -vis your wage bill, it is obvious that the trend is unsustainable. What are you doing about that?
I must summon the courage to deal with that. I have no choice than to do it. We must put the records right even if I would be the sacrificial lamb, because for the state to move forward we cannot continue this way. Like you have said rightly, at a point, the total revenue that was coming to my state both federation account and IGR was N5 billion. Now we have moved to N6.5 billion. We get about N6 billion from the federation account and an average of N500 million from IGR. Now when you have a wage bill of N7.8 billion that includes overheads and pensions, and you have N6.5 billion income, already if you were to pay salaries alone you are having a deficit of N1.3 billion. You can imagine the security challenges I inherited.
That was another story that confronted us when we came in and to be able to deal with it, you had to spend money. The policemen, the military you see, the civil defence, their vehicles and logistics were funded by government because there was no provision from the federal government to take care of most of the logistics that were needed for the security men to deal with the security problem. So running government again is expensive. I do minimum travels especially abroad that I can count the number of times I travel in a year. For the whole of this year I have travelled twice, to China and the UK.
And local trips, I donâ€™t just do it because I tried to but itâ€™s expensive doing it. I have reduced the entourage and my convoy to five vehicles, yet I am still having some challenges with the security men insisting that I should have more vehicles and more people on the convoy because of my security and all that. Perhaps when you look at the cost; you try to avoid it. It is expensive but you must travel to do this work and the cost of running government and several other challenges, natural disaster like it happened here you must clear it.
You know that there are issues that affect individuals, which you must give attention to very critically and at same time government must run. So it has been extremely difficulty. But our prudent management of the scarce resources has helped us to be able to put in place one or two projects too. That is why I was saying I have not met the expectations of my people but they too appreciate the fact with the scarce resources. So, the salary matter has to be dealt with. Truly it is beyond me and at the last town hall meeting I held for the whole state, I explained this to them and they also said â€˜look you have to do somethingâ€™ and the instructions from the stakeholders was that â€˜look get all the figures for all the states.â€™ I am doing that stakeholders meeting this November and thank God the National Bureau of Statistics brought the figures out without much labour and nobody can dispute what the NBS has brought out. Because sometimes when people hear this N7.8 billion they say no, it cannot be, that we are making it up. So when it came out I said thank God at a time I want to do a town hall meeting and give report to the people that something has to be done about the huge wage bill.
What do you intend to do about it?
There are two ways out but I am working with the labour unions to understand the situation here in Benue and that we could not contend with the high wage bill. It was an agreement between us and them. Initially I said â€˜look let us pay everybody across the board 50% of their salary so that at the end of every month, people should get something.â€™ But they argued to their advantage and said â€˜look donâ€™t worry we understand your problem, so minus two months and pay us one month when later things improve and we have resources you can pay us the arrears.â€™ So the short fall of five months salaries I have today at the state is as a result of this arrangement. Every two months we are paying one month so we leave one month behind. At the local government I think we have about eight months or so.
So that was the arrangement. We set up a technical committee to analyse what comes in and what goes out and they (labour) appreciated the challenge that I have and they too concluded that something has to be done to bring down the wage bill and also bring down the cost of running government. So that is where we are. We have set up a committee headed by the deputy governor to review the wage bill. The first step is to identify ghost workers and we have done biometrics.
Then we look at those who are due for retirement but keep collecting salary. This is ongoing. I think in the next one week this will be concluded so we can now do something. Now we will look at that if the screening is complete and we have a reasonable reduction we can now put this thing to rest. If they donâ€™t, there are two options available. We still have to go further; one is to convince the workers that we cannot continue to pay this, so let us go back to a percentage that will give us room to be able to pay salaries as at when due every month.
The second option will be that there are so many people who are recruited and are redundant they are not doing any job especially at the local government level. If you go there some local government, like my own, that you just need 200 people to work, you have 1500 and the rest people donâ€™t go to work, all that they come to do is collect money. We will have no option than to look at those who are doing the actual job because the Bible says the worker deserves his wages. If you are working you should be paid as at when due. I go with this category of people. But the Bible also says that if you donâ€™t work you should not eat. So those who are not working and are drawing salary should be delisted from the pay roll. These are the two options that are available. I want to see the deputy governorâ€™s report to see if it will reduce because my target is after looking at the whole thing, for any reasonable government or organisation you should not use more than 30% of your income to pay salaries.
But your predecessor said the problem arose because of your inability to manage your resources?
That is politics, if you ask them they will tell you that truly itâ€™s just politics they know and I have a publication that my predecessor granted an interview in which he admitted that he made a mistake by accepting certain salary structure and doing recruitment that made the wage bill rise to N8.2 billion and this was without implementation of teachers minimum wage. When we came in we implemented the teachersâ€™ minimum wage so it went to over N8.2 billion. He said all efforts he made to bring down the wage bill, when he realised that he made a mistake, was resisted by the labour unions. My government is God fearing, we have no time to blackmail or intimidate people.
One thing I can say is that we are transparent, we are accountable. When I came there was this challenge that whatever the governor said was a lie. It was a spill over from the last administration. We will ensure that everything we are doing is transparent. But now we are challenging everyone that if they know anywhere we have stolen, you can bring it out, blow the whistle, after all, you will get 5%. The issue of salaries is not only an issue of Benue State. You know what is happening all over the country as senior media people. You know Bayelsa and Ondo States. They are oil producing states with 13% derivation and many other states.
One other issue that is low is Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), what are you doing about it?
It is one area we have been looking at. Mind you we have improved from N250 million to N500 million. Thatâ€™s about a hundred percent increase. This is a government that has listening ear to the grassroots. While we want to make money, we donâ€™t want to inflict pains on the ordinary people. We are trying to manage it; we are maximising every opportunity that comes. Just last week I met with the Board of Internal Revenue Service and State Executive Council and we encouraged them to improve. We also set up a committee to review the law itself and see how value-added addition could be made in revenue collection.
Sometimes ago, you said you were still waiting for Godâ€™s direction on whether to run for a second term. Has God directed you?
I am praying to God to signal me. As at now, I am going at the direction that is not bad. I will make the decision at the beginning of next year. Once God tells me to move, I will move.
There is this growing controversy about President Muhammadu Buhariâ€™s second term. What is your own perspective?
There is no growing controversy. For me, I have made my position known. I have said that there is no credible alternative to Buhari at this critical time in the history of our country. He remains the candidate to beat. If he declares his intention to contest, I will be there with him. And I will encourage him to contest; continuity helps to build the polity better.