*What I told President Buhari on grazing, ranching controversy
The past one year of your administration has not really been a bed of roses because you met a lot of problems on the ground; backlog of salaries which you inherited from the past administration and non-payment of counterpart funding for several years. How have you been able to cope since you assumed duty as the state governor?
I want to appreciate the Almighty God for the grace to be where we are today. It has not been easy; meeting a deficit treasury; it has not been easy inheriting many years of unpaid gratuity and pension that was not paid and salary arrears that we inherited from the past administration. In fact, my predecessor told me that I could not run this government for three months before I was sworn in. He knew that he had run the state to the ground and there was no hope according to him. The challenges were much and the preliminary investigation which we did through the transition committee indicated that we had N18 billion certificated contracts not paid, we had over N69 billion pension, gratuity and salary arrears that were not paid, and so many other financial obligations. These created a lot of anxiety and problems but coming from the background that the people trusted me that as a Christian they knew that yes, they had someone who would deliver and the pressure was much and there was nothing to even kick start government. Even on our own bank account, there was an overdraft of over N2 billion and so even the first money that came in May had to be consumed by this overdraft. So, it was pretty difficult but we hit the ground running by securing a N10 billion loan from the bank that facilitated our payment of May and June salaries. So, we continued and luckily by July, we had this NLG funds, so we were able to merge it with the FAAC allocation and we were able to pay and we continued. But as from August last year, it has been pretty difficult because now you have a wage bill of about N7.8 billion, that is at the local government and at the state and since August, we have been receiving an average of N4 billion. So, it has been very difficult trying to cope. But one thing that I must appreciate the Almighty God for is for the ability to be transparent, to ensure that we are accountable; to ensure that everybody knows what is happening around me. So I have less tension and pressure. When the workers rose against me demanding that we must pay salaries as at when due; this is what you promised and this was the change we were looking for and all that. I said well all that I can do is that the change that you need is to sit on the roundtable with us; see what is coming in and so let us appropriate it together and since I’ve adopted that method, I’ve received less tension because we’re working together as a team and I am not interested in what I’ll get as a person. That is not my program for the state, but the workers deeply appreciate it. When the leadership had some challenges with their congresses, they felt that well, may be government has settled them and that is why they are in agreement with them, I invited the entire congress and opened up to them and explained everything. So what we do both at the local government and state level is to allow people to have access to government information especially when it comes to funds and that has helped us a great deal and so they understand with us. This is something that has not ever happened in the past years and so we are able to get on up to this moment. As at today, we are owing salaries at the local government; five months, and teachers, six months; and at the state level, we are owing four months and pension, we are owing three months.
That means you have been able to bring it down a bit…?
I’m telling you that we have been able to do that. Despite all the challenges, one good thing is that because we place education on top of our priorities, because if you cannot bequeath any other thing to your child, you should be able to give him/her education. You are giving him everlasting legacy that will be of benefit to himself and maybe even you, when you get old. And so we jointly agreed that education must be placed on first line charge. So, as I talk to you, Benue State University, we have been able to pay them as at when due and we are up to date in the payment of salaries. What is left is the payment of other allowances. They too understand the economic hardship and so we have been able to cope. And this is where we are on salary payment and we are hoping that with the synergy and the understanding and arrangement we are doing with the Federal Government, very soon we will be able to clear this issue of salaries. But in Benue State, the issue of payment of salaries remains a priority because ours is a civil service state; there are no industries, there are no commercial activities going on here and no much micro small, and medium scale enterprise activities and so it’s a big challenge. It is the civil service that is driving the economy and so when salaries are not paid as at when due, it becomes a very big challenge but I hope that we will be able to surmount this as quickly as possible. Now when we came in, we had agreed and told the people that we knew that the economic problems we are having today will come because having served the nation as a minister, I also perceived that we are going to have some hardship in the future and I did not hide it from my people. I told them that the way to go and I told them that one, we will ensure that we identify the areas where we know we have comparative advantages and one of it is agriculture, the second one is solid minerals, culture and tourism and several other things which can be exploited are still available. And I did not hide it from them. I told them; we must industrialize so that once we are able to process our primary products instead of selling them out; we must encourage micro, small and medium scale enterprises; we must encourage commercial and trading activities…
What steps are you taking toward encouraging all these things?
The first thing we did was to ensure that we endure security of lives and property because no investor will come into Benue State to do any investment if the land is insecure. So, the first thing that we did was to introduce Amnesty Program because the state was completely insecure when we took over. The Amnesty Programme succeeded. First of all, it was the carrot approach which we pleaded with the youths to come with their weapons and we exchanged the weapons for some stipends which we did and more than 600 rifles were recovered and thousands of ammunitions and explosives were also recovered. This succeeded and more than 900 of our youths surrendered but later some of them started going back. But then, the Amnesty Programme was two-fold and we decided to apply the stick approach. We are going after them and by force we will collect these weapons from them and that is what is going on now. At a point some of these youths who surrendered went back. So we had to apply the stick approach and today I can assure you that the state is relatively calm. The rate of kidnappings, killings, assassinations and armed robbery and raping that were going on has been minimized and cultism – anyone with illegal weapons in Benue State will be apprehended; wherever we know. The notorious gang leader who had earlier surrendered to the Amnesty Programme then went back to his old ways of kidnapping and stealing, armed robbery and so on and we declared him wanted. Just a few days ago, we placed a reward of N5million on him and we are going to get him because this is a civil government and it has human face. Whatever we are doing, we must ensure that we work within the rule of law and we have been complying with this and there has not been any casualty outside those who engage the security agencies since we started going on searching for these criminals. We are apprehending them and it has been a success story. Recently, the Commissioner of Police held a press conference and displayed all the weapons that have been recovered and those who were caught. So, it is a major programme of ensuring that investors come in and there is stability and we are processing our primary products. Once these are done, it will create jobs, it will create employment opportunities and will also create wealth in the state so that we don’t necessarily need to look at local government or state or federal government for what to earn. And I think this is the right way to go because globally, that is what is obtained and this is where it is going; it is well embraced but for the paucity of funds; it has been quite challenging because almost everything that comes goes on payment of salaries. But we appreciate God again because the Federal Government, through the Central Bank also offered us N10 billion infrastructure fund and today we have judiciously applied that to develop our infrastructure and the three senatorial zones are witnessing projects going on especially roads infrastructure in all the zones. Most of the contractors that had abandoned their sites and left because of non-payment of contract mobilisation fees are back on site and some of the projects will soon be completed for commissioning. On health, we have been doing quite a lot through the Sustainable Development Goals; we were able to access N1.2 billion counterpart funding which we matched with our own and we had N2.4 billion and we are providing clinics all over the state and also providing skills acquisition centers and then water to various communities that had these challenges. The funds are there and we are working on that. On education, we have done so well. First of all, when we came, Benue State University were on strike; most of the tertiary institutions were on strike and we were able to go into dialogue and negotiations and we had a win-win situation and most of them are back now. Benue State University is back since we came in, we have been able to maintain and like I said their salaries have been paid as at when due and we have no challenge. The School of Health Sciences and the Teaching Hospital that had lost their accreditation and our students who were stagnated for over 12 years and could not graduate; it was within this one year of my administration that by the grace of God, we were able to fulfill all the conditions; the medical school was given its accreditation; the teaching hospital was given accreditation and today we have graduated three sets of medical students from that university totaling 78. Before the end of this year, another batch is going to graduate too and so it’s a major achievement that the people too appreciate. Our primary schools too for more than four years, the counterpart funding from UBEC was not accessed which amounted to N3.8 billion and we were able to secure a loan, to match it with them so we have N7.6 billion in our account just for primary schools for the renovation of dilapidated structures; construction of new ones and then provision of instructional materials and provision of water in those primary schools. We just flagged it off yesterday. And we believe that we have 740 projects across the state that we are going to do. The resources are there. We are going to do that as soon as contractors complete the projects according to specification, they will be paid. We are doing the same thing at the secondary school level; we intend to return secondary schools to their original owners and a committee has been set up which submitted its report and they recommended a gradual return, which we are going to do. And so, that too, we have succeeded and it is ongoing. So we also identified the School of Nursing that the accreditation had been withdrawn for over four years. No admissions were being made and today we discussed with the Council of Nursing and Midwifery and they came out with a proposal, which we accepted. One was to give the school a facelift which we have done and it’s being equipped now and right now landscaping is being done and some finishing touches are being made on the school compounds and we have already applied to the council to come and do the accreditation. Once that is done, we believe that this year, we shall start admitting students into the school. Like I said, quite a number of roads that contractors had abandoned; they are back on site and we also introduced new roads – one going to Gbajimba, the headquarters of my local government; the second one is the Mobile Barracks which had some security issues and of course Rose Ejembi comes from there and she kept appealing and I decided to construct that road and the whole community is so excited. For several years, they have suffered and it’s a wonderful project. We also intend to do a new layout for the town around that road. So, it’s quite a good achievement. House of Assembly Complex; the new one which was under construction and was abandoned; we have injected money into it and it’s going on. The Deputy Governor’s office that was abandoned for several years; that too the project is ongoing. And several other ones that we have been doing and so on the whole I want to say that despite the challenges we have been able to manage the scarce resources that we have prudently and we are transparent. We are accountable and there is nothing to hide because our government believes and we are working in the fear of God and core values that were missing in government – honesty, transparency, equity, fairness, justice, accountability, selflessness, discipline, integrity; are things that we are trying to ensure that they thrive in our government. And we believe that our people will have a new culture, will have more faith in government and will be able to carry on activities as they should. So, so far I must say that it is well. We have heard of recent propaganda and blackmail and mischief coming from the past administration and for a simple reason. We are a government of change and we came in with a programme and we are insisting that issues of common wealth must go to the people; but not to private pockets and we discovered massive fraud. The past administration witnessed the highest allocation from the federation account. This was when there was so much money from excess crude account apart from the federation allocation, there was excess crude account, and there was Sure-P money and several other resources that came. And most of these resources were diverted. So when we came in, we said well, let us give everybody a fair hearing because this is democracy and we believe in the rule of law and justice. So we set up a judicial panel led by a respected judge of the High Court of the State and at the end, they came out with revelations that were startling. From the monies that came, N 107 billion was diverted from the state government between 2007 and 2015 and so they recommended that they should refund this money. Because of shortage of time, they were not able to conclude the assignment but there was another N44 billion that was not verified; that we’re working on. Even after the commission’s report, there are still other revelations that are coming in as we dig deeper into government, and so the former Governor and 51 others were recommended to refund this N107 billion.
How far have you gone with the refund?
Well, the EFCC is tracking that; the ICPC and on our own we are doing independent prosecution through the police and all the processes are going on. One person who was indicted to also refund N355 million has already agreed and returned N175 million and the balance we are told, would be paid very soon. That is what we want. We want the resources so that we can inject it back into various projects that are begging for funds and that is all that we need. But instead of the former governor and his cohorts to return these funds; they have chosen the path of dishonor by ensuring that they work against us and blackmail us. Every day you wake up and see all kinds of publications. They hired one old man and another one who is a junk journalist who everyday, fake news and publish it on social media and send fake news to the press. The fake journalist has been declared wanted by the police here. We want him to come and substantiate those forgeries that he is making. Every single publication he brought out is fake. But all these we have known them. They are meant to distract us from the main thing or give an impression that even this government is not honest. We are transparent. Everything we do is there for everybody to see. And when people ask we are ready to support them and give evidence. For us here, we have not committed any fraud; every single kobo that goes out of this government; because of the challenge we have, passes through me. One naira to be spent in this government passes through me so I know what is happening and we have not committed any fraud. But they want to portray this government as not clean but we are clean and I want to challenge them that if they have genuine documents of any fraud that we are committed, let them being it. But we have documents against them. They are there; we are not just saying it. Everything that Justice Kpojime accused the past government of doing and the refund that they are to make; there are documents substantiating this. And I have challenged them that on my integrity; from my service from the local government, state and federal levels; in politics, in public life and also in my business life; if anyone knows about any fraudulent activity that I have committed; let them bring it out; not just now as Governor. Go back to the past. By the grace of God, I am not in a hurry about life because God has been gracious and merciful to me coming from where I’m coming to where I am today; I have no reason to steal from the public purse.
There is the issue of herdsmen still operating in Benue State to the extent that once you were quoted as saying that the people might be forced to defend themselves and all of that. So, is it out of frustration that nothing is being done about that area? Secondly, you embarked on a trip to China; what is the outcome of that trip and I also heard that there is something coming up again in October?
The issue of herdsmen is a general problem in the country today; it’s not just peculiar to Benue State. All over the place, you wake up and you hear that there have been attacks here and there but I have been saying that we just need to choose modern ways of doing livestock farming. That is the only thing that can help and for us in Benue State here, we have given an advice to states and federal government to adopt ranching, that is what is obtained globally. The main problem is that the upsurge of population in the country. When people give reference to the issue of grazing routes and grazing areas, I say that they are making a mistake; grazing routes and grazing areas were carved in the 50s and the total population of Nigeria then was less than 40 million. But today by 2012 projection, we are talking about Nigeria of over 170 million; if you go to 2016 we should be talking about 200 million. So we have been growing but the land still remains 923,000 square kilometers if not less because of the excision of Bakassi to Cameroun. So this is the challenge. The land is no longer there. For instance in Benue State, as a young man coming up there used to be thick forests; we had several wild animals everywhere; today those thick forests are no longer there. The lands have been cleared and almost everywhere is being cultivated. I don’t know where you can go and find 20 hectares of land that is virgin in Benue State. So that is the problem. I know that the federal and the state governments must come together to find a lasting solution to this problem. The herdsmen, as you see them, that is the only thing they have. They have no house anywhere; that is where they live; they live in the jungle but the jungle is no longer there. So it is a very big challenge. But most times the herdsmen trespass with their cattle into people’s farms and when the farmers come, there are clashes and they start fighting and all that. But worst of all; what has taken a worrisome dimension is the criminality that is involved in this matter and that is what we are saying no to. And the criminality is not restricted to the farmers or to the herdsmen; it is both sides that are doing it. There are bad eggs from the herdsmen and there are bad eggs from the farmers’ side. So it is something that we have to weigh very well because I don’t support killing of our farmers and I don’t also support killing of herdsmen. It is wrong. Two wrongs cannot make a right. We as Nigerians, we must learn to observe the rule of law and due process in all things. So it is wrong and for us in Benue State here we have said we are not sparing anyone. If you are a farmer or a herdsman with illegal weapons if we arrest you, you will be prosecuted. And it’s as simple as that because we are not shielding anyone. But we are saying it is not practicable for farming and grazing to go together because the land is no longer there. It’s as simple as that. And the immediate solution that comes to mind is about ranching. If we have ranches, things will work out better.
Why this upsurge now because we’ve been in this country and there had not been anything like this…?
That is what I’m telling you. Criminality, cattle rustling are major problems that are causing this. But the nomads when their cattle are rustled in a particular place; and most times, these people who are cattle rustlers are not indigenes of those places. They come to a particular place, rustle these cattle and flee to other places. But when the nomads come, they come to attack the indigenes, innocent people – old men, young men, women and that is what is not good. And so if you have ranches in the place; you can have the opportunity of providing enough security and other facilities that will even make life better for the nomads and everybody will be happy. And I’ve always said that in my farm I have a ranch and the cattle are doing well. Government will need to give these nomads a new orientation. The state and the federal governments must come together to work out a plan because globally cattle are grown in other countries. In America, in Asia, in Europe and even on African soil. I went to Swaziland; their major export earning is beef. But they ranch. So why can’t we do it here? You know. It’s a matter of giving these people the proper orientation. The truth of the matter is that the land is no longer there. When people say that it is ethnic cleansing and all that; I say no because the same thing that is happening to Benue here is happening in Zamfara, is happening in Sokoto, is happening in Kebbi, is happening in the South-south, is happening in the South-east, is happening in South-west. So it is something that we need to come together. How can we help livestock farmers? How can we help the farmers? For us, Benue State is the Food Basket of the nation; so we cannot go and farm on the air, we cannot farm on water; it’s on the land and that is where these people come to graze. So restricting this thing to ranching will even provide better opportunities for other people because if you restrict them, the farmers maybe after harvest can bring the waste from the harvest and sell to the cattle breeders. If the farmer wants to eat meat, he will also buy meat from there; so it’s a matter of getting it right; getting the right policy on this matter. I think we need to come together to do that and very soon for us in Benue State we are going to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture and we think that we can take it up from there and begin to work it out. The trip I went to China with Mr. President and after that I stayed back because we had a program which was organized for the North Central Zone and Benue State Government anchored it. It was a huge success. It was meant to have an interface with Chinese businessmen which we did in agriculture, in industrialization, solid minerals and so on. And we Governors of Kogi, Plateau and Benue were fully in attendance and we interfaced with the investors there and some of them have since paid a return visit to us and talks are going on. Various MOUs were signed and agreed upon and in my state, the Benue State Chapter of Commerce, Agriculture, and Industry were there with me; members went up to 30 of them and various contacts were made and arrangements are being made. I am aware that a feed mill for the production of feeds for fish and livestock is already on the way. I personally bought some agricultural machinery which have arrived. That feed mill is a very big big feed mill that has a capacity of five tons per hour, both the animal feeds and the fish feeds. So these are good development and the people have been here and they have indicated interest in Taraku Mills in Benue State. They have indicated interest also in cement production and also agriculture and so it is ongoing. The business forum of the North Central States and China Business Forum is also going to take place again in October and it’s going to be in conjunction with Canton Fair which the whole world visits and we are also going to participate. And then, there is going to be China-Africa Business Forum in Langzhou which we are also going to participate because all these are things that are meant to see if they can support our local industries here because the main challenge of our economy is that we are more of a consuming nation. Almost everything; even the local industries that we have around depend more on foreign raw materials than the local ones. What we are trying to do is how we make use of areas where we have comparative advantages especially in agriculture. How can we process our own products here using our own local raw materials? This is where the chamber is going and Benue State Government is trying to encourage the private sector. But these are things that government alone on its own cannot do because it is no wisdom going into any commercial enterprise today in Nigeria. It is better to allow the private sector; after all, that is what is obtainable elsewhere in the world and so it was a very big success. The fact that Mr. President visited, it was an opportunity for the Chinese; they were excited and some of us who had the privilege to be there with him; the Chinese people saw that as an opportunity of deeper friendship that we can do business.
The Fulani herdsmen are no longer here for now but the Benue people are worried that soon after the rains are over, they will return. What is your advice to the people of Benue and the Fulani?
Well, we have already submitted an anti-open grazing bill to the Benue State House of Assembly. It is being fine-tuned and I believe that very soon it will be out so that we will control them. But as much as possible, I know that the herdsmen need help. So it is not something that can be done overnight so we will continue to engage them through advocacy, through dialogue, through meetings and all that. As much as possible, I have always said that two wrongs cannot make a right. Where there are trespasses, there are the conventional security apparatus of the state and we are willing to work with the security men to ensure the rule of law in Benue State so let nobody takes the law into their hands. We have placed this issue of herdsmen and farmers clashes as a priority and we are taking steps to ensure that we do not have this problem again. I can assure you that it is not going to be over night. What I can assure my people to do is to report trespasses and infringements into their farm lands and whatever happens so that the security men can take the appropriate steps. I know that Mr. President has given directives that both from the farmers and the herdsmen, the hostile militia groups we have around should be apprehended so that the land can be free.
What is happening in the land? People are complaining that there is poverty in the land, it is becoming difficult to survive. Is there any advice for the people concerning this?
Well, I agree because even I, I’m facing it as a person. On my farm and in my private life and everywhere I know the challenges. I’m not a Governor that travels everyday; I am always around with the people. So the pains are so much but we just want to ask our people to be patient. Change does not come easy. We are turning away from the horrible situation we met and these pains which are passing through is not our making; it is the rot that was in the past but we are focused and we are committed to correcting them. One of them is to ensure that we have sanity and there is no corruption. My government, we have a slogan: “when you chop money, money will chop you.” I have no place and I have told all my cabinet members that what we are doing is selfless service and if you want to make money go into business. If I had wanted to make money, I would have gone doing my business and would have no business in government; government is for selfless service. So, our people should be patient. But for us as Christians, the Bible says: “all things worketh together for good…”. So don’t close up yourself. Now that we have this challenge, let people begin to look at other ways and God will create some opportunities that will come. For me, I believe that for a very long time, we have been talking about diversifying the economy to other sectors and we have been paying lip services but today the reality is with us. So, what we need to do is to look outside the box of government and for my people in Benue State, even the civil servants I have given them Fridays off to go to farm. And I am saying that they should take on the entire agricultural value chain. Don’t restrict yourself to farming alone. Identify where you are talented and what you can do to add value to the economy. If it is packaging, if it is storage, if it is processing, if it is marketing; you know. But fit yourself somewhere in the agricultural value chain. If it is processing that you can begin do; it can be done at various levels – at micro level, at macro level and at medium level, at large level; wherever you find yourself farming. Thank God that the CBN through the various commercial banks is willing to support the agricultural value chain with a lot of money. I understand that NEXIM alone has more than N500 billion, Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture and so on. So people can access funds so that you will not really need to be afraid that if you start you will have some challenges; you can access funds all over the place and our government is willing to support such initiative.
Published in Saturday Sun Newspaper, 3rd September, 2016.