In this interview, Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom said the ethnic agitations in the country is due largely to lack of employment for the teeming youths. He also spoke, among other issues, about the flood that recently wreaked havoc on the communities of the agrarian state. SOLOMON AYADO was there for LEADERSHIP Sunday.
There are ethnic agitations all over the country as seen in the recent demonstration by the members of the proscribed IPOB. Do you think there is any way out?
If you look at the agitations in the country, the demonstrations from the groups especially that of IPOB that has been proscribed, you will discover that they are being carried out mainly by youths. The other one is the Arewa youths.
To me, I think all these agitations are because of unemployment and it is a very big challenge we have to contend with. I have always known that and even before I started campaigning to be governor. What troubles me every day is how to surmount this challenge. Some weeks ago, we did a combined convocation at the Benue State University and we graduated 42,000 graduates and right at the venue, I started thinking how the graduates can get employed.
I feel that the agitations are as a result of not engaging our youths and you know that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Because youths that are idle will begin to think of ways to engage themselves, we must concentrate our effort on how to have them engaged. The federal, state and local government must ensure that youths are engaged. I appreciate the efforts of the federal government to diversify the economy.
I think that the way to go is agriculture and if we get it right, there are massive opportunities that will give employment to the youths. If you think about the agriculture value chain, from land clearing to cropping and planting, weeding and harvesting, packaging, storage and marketing, all these can provide employment to the youths.
The main thing should be that we encourage engagement of youths and concentrate more on how we can stabilize the economy. If you take advantage in solid minerals, a lot of youths will also be employed and unemployment would be reduced. But we must live together and peacefully too. Our people must live in peace and harmony. And that is why in Benue, we recently held a stakeholders meeting with the Igbo and Hausa communities to enhance peace. This, we believe can foster rapid development..
Benue is listed among the states that are currently owing salaries of workers and President Buhari said recently that governors owing salaries should be held responsible, just as the Nigerian Labour Congress also alleged that your state misappropriated the bailout and Paris club refund. How do you react to this issue ?
When I hear people talk about Benue misappropriating bailout funds, it surprises me because the records are there and anyone can go and verify them.The EFCC or ICPC are free to come. No kobo was diverted and I am making this known because of the recent outburst of labour leaders who were including Benue in the mismanagement of bailout. We are accountable and able to provide facts to anyone who cares to see them.
Today, the reason why I am having six months salary arrears at state and nine months at the local government level is because of the shortfall. When I came in, I inherited a wage bill of about N8.2bn and this excluded teachers minimum wage. And when we came, we said that the implementation should not be different for teachers with other workers and that took about N2..5bn.
Meanwhile, what we have been getting from the federation account is about N6bn. With this huge gap, how are you able to fill it? Now we are having the modified payment system called table payment to identify ghost workers and fill up some of the leakages that are in existence. We were able to reduce this wage bill to N7.6bn and that is where we are now. But take it that you must pay salaries monthly and that means you are having a deficit of N1.5bn every month. And as you know, government must run, we also have security issues which must be tackled and I must travel, my commissioners must travel, permanent secretaries among others must also attend critical meetings that can make things work for government. Natural disasters like the flood also require finance even though people are giving donations, there are critical things government must do. This is what we are doing and this is the challenge we have and as a government, we cannot just borrow money which we cannot pay. I know that other states are not paying salaries too but our case in Benue is peculiar because the past administration raised the wage bill to a level that cannot be contained.
For instance when a permanent secretary is collecting N250,000 in other states, in Benue they collect N500,000. I have tried to find out from my colleagues from Kano, Kaduna, Lagos, Ogun and it is established that Benue wage bill is huge. The Paris club refund that came, we applied 80 percent because of salaries even though the president directed it should apply 50 percent but it is still not enough to tackle the salary issues.
There are indications that the flood disaster in Benue state has been politicised, as seen in alleged diversion of relief materials?
I wish to cease this opportunity to appreciate the Federal government and other individuals and corporate organizations that are coming to aide us in time of this disaster. But I think the permanent solution to the flooding in Benue is for the federal government to implement the dredging of River Benue. The project of dredging needs buoyant financial requirement but the state government lacks the funds to implement it.
The issue of diversion of relief materials got to me and immediately, we directed the removal of the camp commandant at the Makurdi International Market and the matter is under investigation. I foresaw this and constituted a committee headed by the deputy governor to handle the flood but details of the relief materials diversion is yet to get to me. But I want to say that we have no room for such act and we decided to include the media and the civil society organisations to be part of the committee. The challenge we are also having is influx of people who were not displaced but you find them coming into the camps to find ways to steal or throw the relief materials over the fence, but we have strengthened security.
Remember that about 21 local government areas were affected but the concentration is more on Makurdi and Guma local government areas because they were badly affected. As for the other 19 local government areas, we are reaching out to them and I have directed council chairmen to take statistics of the displaced persons and properties damaged. The first relief materials came from NEMA and bunch of it are building materials and we are looking for ways to distribute them.
We are also determining what goes to who and where about the cash donations that we also received. From the state coffers, we so far, have spent about N50m on the flood and that is because donations came from the federal government and the immediate relief materials needed were supplied and corporate organisations also came to our aide.
Why have you not put to rest the strike action of labour unions in Benue state?
I wouldn’t want to say labour is being pushed from somewhere but I think when we agreed that since we cannot pay salaries as when due, we combine two months salaries and pay as one month and that is what we have been doing for over one year but when the shortfall accumulated to six months at the state and nine months at local government level, we are helpless but we are discussing with other financial institutions to see if there can be a way so the these debts can be cleared.
But I know that if these desired measures are not achieved we can still go ahead to find other means. The good thing is that government and labour is discussing and definitely we shall arrive at some thing better. I feel the pains of my people who are being owed salaries because they have families and they must also feed but I am very sure the financial measures we are seeking will yield positive results.