Time Flies and Changes Everything
On Monday, November 22, 2021, in the new capacity-filled Banquet Hall of the Government House Makurdi, I took the oath of office, as Chief of Staff (COS) to Samuel Ortom, Governor of Benue State. It was administered by the governor and I assumed office as his new COS. I succeeded the former holder of the office who had resigned his appointment to run for the governorship of the state, ahead of the 2023 general election. The event marked my third tour of duty at the Benue State Government House. Makurdi. I had previously served as the Director of Press/Chief Press Secretary under the military administrations of Group Captain Joshua Obademi, and Col. Aminu Isa Kontagora of blessed memory, between 1993 and 1999.
I had equally functioned as Permanent Secretary, Government House Administration, (PS-GHA) for almost seven years under the administration of former Governor Gabriel Torwua Suswam, who is now a Senator of the Federal Republic. I operated in this capacity from June 2007 to January 2014. It is imperative to lay this background to foreground the fact that I have, over the years, garnered the cognate exposure and experience in the workings of government, within the Government House system. With such aggregated insights, many people around me spontaneously assumed that my brief as the COS, the to-go person, to the governor will be a walk in the park. How very wrong they were!
Samuel Ortom emerged victorious in the gubernatorial election of 2015. It was a classic manifestation of what pentecostals will describe as “God ordering one’s steps.” Ortom participated in the primary of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which produced Terhemen Tazoor as the party’s flagbearer. I also aspired to be governor under the same party, but lost at the primary election. Ortom believed he was unjustly treated in the primary where he emerged third, behind former Deputy Governor, Stephen Lawani. He thus crossed over to the All Progressives Congress, (APC). He was embraced by his new political family and handed the governorship ticket.
Having previously retired from my position as permanent secretary from the Benue State Civil Service, l left the state to join the services of the Bingham University, Karu, Nasarawa State in 2016. It was an opportunity to pursue a residual interest which I had nursed over the years, as an academic. I remained an active member of the PDP and one of the major stakeholders and elders of the party, nonetheless. This prominence was duly conferred on me as a former frontline governorship aspirant and a loyal party member. Indeed, in the build up to the 2019 governorship elections, I was pressured to aspire once again to the governorship. While I made the “consultation” rounds, Ortom crossed over to the PDP, convinced the APC government at the centre was not doing enough to check recurring herdsmen’s invasions in Benue State. Nigeria’s political tradition provides that if an incumbent holder of office crosses over to a new party, he is automatically granted the right of first refusal to any office he aspires to, in the new party. To this extent, Ortom was vested with the governorship ticket of the PDP.
Sometime in October 2021, Governor Ortom reached out to me. We had a conversation on the need for me to come back to the state and work with him as his COS. My first reaction was to ask him for some time to reflect on his proposition. After poring through some considerations, I honoured the invitation. Among other things, Ortom and I had worked together on some political projects before in Guma Local Government Area, where we both come from. Secondly, while we all aspired to the governorship position, we remained very cordial and held each other in high very regards. Therefore, the decision to accept the job was easy to make. Some people who didn’t understand my position felt I should have rejected the offer. Others applauded my humility in leaving my new love, the academia, to assist my brother in the home stretch of his service to our people. Understandably, local lore has described my inauguration on November 22, 2021, as the most-attended in a Government House facility, in ages.
Working with Governor Samuel Ortom in the last 12 months has been a potpourri of experiences in leadership and human resource management. It has been a new journey in work ethics and a complete curriculum in the new dynamism of political engineering processes. One is not really surprised that Ortom presents an enigmatic and novel dynamism in the running of government business because of his experiences in life which he is quick to share at any prompting. Governor Ortom is a case study in dogged determination and raw courage to change the course of his destiny. His street-wise philosophy and deep religious beliefs, are manifest in his day-to-day chores. To refresh our memories, not many Nigerians would do what Ortom did on the floor of the “red chambers” of the Nigerian Senate in 2011, when he was screened by the Senate following his nomination as minister, by the then president, Goodluck Jonathan.
Ortom while introducing himself on live television, told the whole world that he started life as motor park tout! As at when he was being screened, however, he was proud to hold a doctorate. Most people with his kind of background would have tried to deodorize their past, to make it smell nice. I have, since assumption of duty as his Chief of Staff, become a student of renewed humility. I had, hitherto, ascribed this toga to myself, but in Ortom I have probably found a much humbler personality. Here is a governor who is quick to apologise to his lowest of subordinates whenever he feels that his actions towards such staff or associates, were untoward. He’s not one of those who carries a chip on their shoulders. But behind this gentle and humble mien is a leader with a strong character and very deep in reilgious philosophy.
I have always wondered where Ortom gets the energy to discharge the daunting task of governing a complex state like Benue. Ours is a state with very poor revenue base, almost 90% dependent on the federation account. We are contending with ethnic suspicion between the major ethnic groups in the state, while also managing an agitated pension populations. The civil service is restive, with a predilection for threats to down tools, at the slightest opportunity. Ortom has indeed demonstrated monstrous energy as the helmsman. He is one governor I have observed at very close quarters who has the capacity to hold a dozen meetings in one day without showing any sign of mental or physical fatigue. In the activities preceding the PDP primary elections in the state, he exhibited such elasticity of stamina and capacity. I was an active participant in the processes by virtue of my position as his COS. As the leader of the party in the state the buck stops on his table. He would never allow complaints from any of the local governments to fester, unresolved. Ortom never slept on any contentious issues brought before him.
Ortom would hold meetings up to 3am and he will be the first to resume work at 7am! On some occasions, he would indeed be observing spiritual procedures such as fasting and praying, during which he abstained from his meals. I recall an incident during one of those days of winding up late at work. We left the government house after 2am with a charge to reconvene at 7am, to resolve some issues concerning both the Guma state constituency and the Makurdi/Guma Federal Constituency. Since we closed late, I took liberty to resume work by 8am. I miscalculated.
By the time I got to the Government House, the governor had already resumed and was rounding up another meeting which was not originally scheduled! And in spite of all these, he never betrayed any sign of drudgery. Ortom is indeed a bundle of energy. At slightly over sixty years of age, his energy level is exceptional. In a lighter mood, just as governor Ortom works very hard he also doesn’t joke with his meal regimen. Meet him at lunch time and you will agree that he’s got a very healthy appetite. Instructively, he probably eats just one major meal once in a day, filling in with fruits and vegetables.
Like I earlier indicated, I have worked with a number of governors both of the military hue, and the democratically-elected. I declare emphatically that Governor Ortom’s memory is sharp and pointed. His capacity to recall issues, no matter how long in time they occurred, has continued to amaze me. He has a way especially with figures. His early experiences in life at the Gboko motor park where the existential credo was that of “dog eat dog,” where people had to be eagle-eyed must have bred this attribute. That apart though, Ortom before becoming governor of Benue State was an astute businessman whose interests spanned printing, manufacturing, farming, agro-business value chain and real estate. To this extent, he kept tabs on the numbers and figures emanating from these various business fronts. No matter how tired or distracted he appears to be, Ortom’s capacity for recall is one-of-a-kind.
His antenna instantaneously switches to the “alert” mode, especially when figures are concerned. If you take a memo to him, the first thing he looks at will be the figures. This may probably be because he doesn’t seem to be in love with very bulky documents. He prefers verbal briefs which speak to the issues and he listens to every detail while taking mental notes. As a corollary to his virile cognitive capacity, Ortom often gives multiple appointments and remembers them all the following day. In his own way, he schedules them accordingly, doing so most times without the assistance of his protocol staff, even if they are within earshot.
Ortom is a very firm and fervid believer in God. He is eternally grateful to his Creator for his progress to contemporary prominence, with the hindsight of his very modest beginnings. Even if I had a hint of this before, working at close quarters with him has further enlightened me. His principles, beliefs and work ethic are derived from the teachings of the Holy Book. His grasp of the Bible is such that he quotes sections of it with effortless ease, while elucidating issues.
He describes himself as a mentee of “King David.” In line with his faith, Ortom reckoned that the state should have a distinct anthem of its own. This became germane after the public dedication of the state to God. The state anthem which is also and adoption and adaptation of a Christian song, was submitted to the state House of Assembly and passed in to law. Governor Ortom also ensures that prayers are offered before he leaves Government House to attend any engagement outside the state capital and on return. Most times, he leads these prayers.
Even as one from Guma LGA which is one of the frontline sections of the state most affected by the incessant attacks, one never really appreciated the magnitude of the havoc and destruction caused by serial herders attacks on the people of the state. In the last five years, massive killings by these marauding nomads have left at each attack a trail of grief and blood. Proof of these attacks and killings is the fact that about two million people including women and children are now sequestered in several camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) across the state. Each time there was an attack, Ortom was moved to wail and lament over the massive killings and the destruction of farm lands by these AK-47-wielding herdsmen. Non-residents of Benue, people who have not had the opportunity to visit and see things for themselves, or who have deliberately refused to empathize with the governor, sadly mock him. Nigerians have indeed lost their sense of humanity. Indeed, the effects of the atrocities of these gun-totting herders on the economy of the state, is best imagined.
Amidst these challenges which have completely ravaged and destroyed the agrarian economy of Benue State, Ortom has recorded significant, albeit silent achievements in critical areas of the economy. These cannot be wished away even by his worst enemies. One never personally conceived of these striking efforts, especially in urban renewal untill I came to work closely with him. Considering the savagery visited on the state and the destruction of the very fabric of its economy, agriculture, Ortom has performed very well. If assessed objectively and without politicisation, he should be ranked among the top five performing state governors in Nigeria. And I say this without any fear of contradiction.
For example, sometime last year while commissioning township roads in Gboko, the national chairman of PDP, Iyorchia Ayu, stated that, no governor in the history of Benue State has done the number and quality of roads Ortom has constructed in Gboko. Same goes to Otukpo and of course, Makurdi, the Benue State capital. Here, Ortom has constructed over 50 kilometers of asphalted roads. Some of these were recently commissioned by his colleagues, the “G 5” governors. They were in the state to lend their support at the flag off of the state campaigns for the 2023 general election.
Very remarkable efforts too have been recorded in the areas of construction of rural roads, building of health clinics and the massive renovation of general hospitals across the state. New equipment like the MRI and Dialysis machines have also been acquired for the Benue State University Teaching Hospital. A general facelift has also been given to decaying structures in the institution. Unfortunately, Nigerian journalists have not been fair in reporting and acknowledging the achievements of the Ortom administration.
This is probably because Ortom has said on occasions, that he was “not interested in commissioning projects because of the massive cost of the ceremonies.” He believes that funds for such fanfare can be channeled in the construction of salutary projects which can impact the generality of the people. Ortom’s endeavours, and indeed the advancement of Benue State post-2015, is best put into proper context, vis-a-vis the peculiar challenges and distractions of the state which has become the *status quo.*
After one year of working with Governor Ortom as his Chief of Staff, I can say it’s been a worthwhile experience thus far. Every opportunity or exposure one gets in life is a learning curve. The vistas and insights garnered working with government at such close proximity are not the stuff of courses or textbooks in government, political science or public administration. You have to be in the thick of it to appreciate that the line from point A to B, is not usually a straight one. Of course, like I said in my preliminary remarks, I am something of an “Emeritus” personnel of Government House. I previously logged about 13 years in the hub of government administration, much as I’ve never been a Chief of Staff before now.
I owe Governor Ortom deserved gratitude for pulling me out of the university system which I was getting to love, to come and share in the present experience, and to be part of his “first eleven team.” As his core personal aides, our duty is to support him to berth the ship of his administration, safely and soundly, after eight years of service to the good people of Benue State. Let me sum up by saying that history will definitely record Ortom positively when the story of Benue State will be written. He will be adjudged to have come, seen and conquered.
Nyitse, PhD, journalist, administrator and communications scholar, is Chief of Staff to Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State.