By Ushakuma Anenga
It’s exactly one month since Dr Samuel Ortom was sworn in as Governor of Benue State and it all seems like it’s been a year. There’s been so much activities, intrigues and arguments within this short period that I can only attempt to put into perspective in this review.
Dr Samuel Ortom became Governor out of a keenly contested election which began initially with 26 candidates, the highest number in the country. Also the election drew the most interest from the electorate with a strong conscientisation and mobilisation on social
media, such as never seen before. The conversations, arguments, intrigues and opinions are therefore not surprising, in fact, the governor must have realised by now that he will have to stir the affairs of the state under the radar, under the watchful eyes of the masses as everyone is ready to follow up their votes to fruition.
Even though his predecessor, former Governor Gabriel Suswam ran the government into the ground, serving him a tasteless salad of an unprecedented debt profile and unpaid salaries mixed with strike actions for breakfast, the people still expect Ortom to perform, afterall “government is a continuum”, they say.
In a spirited acceptance speech on May 29, 2015, a freshly inaugurated Governor Samuel Ioraer Ortom said the major policy thrust of his administration will rests on five major pillars, namely: Good governance and revenue security; Agricultural-Driven Industrialization; Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM)-Based Education and Health Services; Investment in critical infrastructure; and Promoting gender equality and empowering women, youth, sports, and persons with disabilities.
These will be the yardstick upon which he’ll be lifted up in celebration or crucifixion.
Governor Samuel Ortom was the first to commit himself to fairness and equity. Quoting from his inauguration speech, he said, “We will constitute a participatory government where citizens will have their say and way. We will work to allay the fear of marginalisation of the minority ethnic groups in the state be you Akweya, Etulo, Nyifon, Ufia, Agatu, Jukun, or Hausa, you will enjoy the rights and privileges of the other better known Tiv, Idoma and Igede.”
Predictably, it was the sharing of appointments among the better known Tiv, Idoma and Igede that became the first bone of contention. In the first series of appointments, the governor announced Targema Takema as the Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Iwanta Adaikwu as Head of Service, Terwase Orbunde as Chief of Staff and Tahav Agerzua, as Media Adviser.
Whilst Tiv had the majority and Igede were contented with getting the Head of service, it was the first time the Idoma of Benue south senatorial zone will fail to produce the SSG in sixteen years and that drew it’s fair share of criticism but after a few weeks, the Governor has somewhat vindicated himself and silenced his critics, albeit temporarily.
Last week, the Governor revealed his list of thirteen commissioner nominees, four went to Benue north-east, four to the north-west and surprisingly, five to the south, thereby balancing the equation with a promise for more twist and turns.
The governor has consistently promised to consider proficiency over prominence in his political appointments but for some who are still aggrieved, it’s a waiting game to see how things unfold.
No sooner had Governor Ortom settled into office, than he started the reversal of some of his predecessors last minute decisions. Even as Governor-elect, he had warned the then outgoing Governor, Gabriel Suswam to desist from such treacherous moves citing the perilous financial condition of the state, but to no avail.
First was the cancellation of all last minute recruitments into the state civil service, and then a directive to the Tiv Traditional Council to suspend forthwith, the process of conferring first class chiefs among which was Suswam’s elder brother, Dr Terkura Suswam.
Ortom also reinstated Chief Abomtse, a monarch who was infamously deposed by Suswam following allegations of gross misconduct, embezzlement of subordinates salaries, unauthorised press releases and complacency during the Fulani crisis.
A committee set up by the governor found the chief not guilty and recommended reinstatement to his position as the substantive Ter Nagi with all benefits.
The Governor went further to approve the dissolution of the 23 local government caretaker committees, all boards of parastatals, non statutory commissions and governing councils of all tertiary institutions in the state with immediate effect, but the one that raised the most dust was the cancellation of the report of the visitation panel to the Benue State University.
Ortom argued that an accurate assessment of work done for five years could not be made in one week thereby rejecting the report, but that didn’t go down well with the members of the panel whose Chairman, Professor Daniel Saror led the barrage of resignations that followed.
Debt Profile, Unpaid Salaries And Striking Unions
Governor Ortom received a state grounded on all fronts. As mentioned earlier, his predecessor, Gabriel Suswam “emptied” the treasury and fled to the UK on the day of his coronation. Suswam claimed he left a debt of N9.3 billion but another look into the books will reveal the true depths of the holes Suswam had created in the state’s pockets.
Governor Ortom, a few weeks into office revealed a debt burden of N90 billion; N50 billion for ongoing contracts, N18 billion for certified ones, N12 billion for salary arrears and about N10 billion for bonds and bank loans.
Saddled with a load of inherited debts, unpaid salaries and pressure from striking unions, Governor Ortom has himself, decided to borrow N10 billion which according to him will offset workers salaries to a tune of two months in two instalments on either side of a comprehensive staff audit. Also will tackle other challenges such as accreditation of programmes at the College of Health Sciences of the Benue State University, BSU, Makurdi and take off of the State House of Assembly as well as other pressing government business.
Striking unions which include Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) and Association of Resident Doctors (ARD) all of Benue State University, however, are insisting on a down payment of at least three months wages before they return to work. How the Governor intends to bring these contrasting ends together is only a matter of time as he has always been optimistic.
“I’m aware of the backlog of arrears of salaries and pensions, I’m aware of strikes especially that of the Benue State University, we shall consult with them and find a way to resolve the matter so that they will resume,” He said on his first day in office.
The Governor has also discussed a bailout from debt burden, arrears of salaries, allowances and retirement benefits amongst other issues, with President Buhari during their trip to South Africa for the African Union Summit, which hopefully will help to alleviate some of these challenges the state is facing.
Early Strides And Promises
Governor Ortom’s desire is unquestionable, so much that he embarked on a one week hunt for investors in far away China, even before his inauguration.
Within this short period, the state government has signed memoranda of understanding with two Chinese firms. Firstly, China Railway Airport Construction, CRAC, for the provision of critical infrastructure in several areas including roads, power generation, and agriculture, and then another group of companies called CGC Alliance, for industrial and commercial revitalization of the state which include coal power plant, potable water and irrigation, renovation of agriculture service centers, construction of Makurdi-Guma road, reticulation of water in Makurdi, Otukpo and Katsina-Ala, airport and industrial park construction, sugar cane plantation and refineries.
If Governor Ortom’s early sprint is anything to go by, Benue State have got themselves a leader in the likeness of Aper Aku – the gold standard of leadership in Benue State.
Rightly so, the Governor has visited some of Aper Aku’s abandoned legacies, pledging to break the jinx of moribund industries in the state. They include Taraku Mills, Otukpo Burnt Bricks Company and Igumale Cement Company. Others he has promised to revive include the Tomato processing company at Anunne, the Agricultural Centre, Mbatie in Buruku LGA and Akperan Orshi College of Agriculture, Yandev.
Just barely 24 hours after the inauguration, the deputy governor, Engr Benson Abounu visited the water works in Otukpo and Katsina-Ala. He carried out a thorough inspection and promised that water will run within two weeks and true to his words, it did. Such is the partnership upon us.
Governor Ortom in line with his commitment to the security of lives and property in the state, has declared amnesty for possessors of illegal arms who surrender them willingly and vowed to put a machinery in place to track and apprehend those who shun the offer.
This move is laudable as it would purge the state of thugs armed by nefarious politicians during the elections.
Another impressive feat was Governor Ortom’s show of bravery during a commercial motorcycle “Okada” riders protest which quickly degenerated into a full fledged riot and was heading for the worse but for his intervention.
The governor made an unsolicited appearance on the streets to calm the situation. By so doing, he underlined the commitment of a governor who owes his election victory largely to the thumbs of “ordinary” people.
Apart from the above mentioned, it’s been pretty much plans and promises, and more promises! Here are a few:
1. That he will intensify dialogue to resolve the protracted crisis between Benue farmers and Fulani herdsmen. This he has already started by meeting with the leadership of Miyyetti Allah Cattle Rearers Association of Nigeria just last week.
2. That he will partner with the private sector to identify and exploit areas in which the state has comparative and competitive advantage.
3. That he will create a conducive environment for the sector to tap and invest to boost its economy when officials of AFRIASIA TRANSATLANTIC services Nigeria paid him a courtesy call.
4. That he will organize an investors’ forum in Makurdi, the state capital when he hosted the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Gu Xiaojie.
5. That he will establish an information and communication technology development agency when he paid a courtesy call on the Director General and management staff of the National Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA.
6. That he would soon convene a youth summit to get their inputs into the youth empowerment program of his administration.
7. That his administration would always pay its counterpart funding for execution of various United Nation’s programmes in Benue State.
Phew! It’s still early days and looks promising however the issues of unpaid salaries and uncompromising striking unions need careful handling. The outcome of those will go a long way in making or marring the credentials of the new administration to deliver on its promises.
Usha Anenga is a Medical Student and a blogger. He can be reached by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org