<<< By David Bigila >>>
I do not work for Governor Ortom, neither am I his media aide, he has very capable people doing just that, so I do not hold brief for him. I am just here to set the records straight from an eye witness perspective during the period he has been accused of corrupt enrichment in Abuja.
This is not about party or sectional politics, it is just an insider account of Ortom’s everyday dealings at a time he was not as exposed to the public glare as he is now.
Coming from some one who does not work for him, it can atleast be seen as a dispassionate account of what actually transpired during that period. If a Tahav Agerzua or a Terver Akase were to write this, everyone would say, are they not Ortom’s spin doctors?
I am not, so I am free of bias. Infact, during the last gubernatorial elections, I worked against Samuel Ortom, for the PDP and at the highest level too, so this is no attempt at patronage.
Dr Ortom was once my boss, and though he ran on the platform of the APC, I worked for the PDP, the party he introduced me to, at the last guber elections. Since the election results were declared on April 12th 2015, I have since given Benue a wide berth and had very little to do with either the government or people since.
I am not a professional politician, I am only a professional in politics, so save for few short visits to Makurdi and my village since the denouement of that electoral cycle, I have been busy working on Citizen diplomacy projects in America with the US Department Of State and on developmental projects with the US Embassy in Abuja, not forgetting a B2B e-commerce portal, I am collaborating on, with friends.
Like I said, I once worked for Dr Samuel Ortom, at the Federal Ministry Of Trade and at the Federal Ministry Of Aviation from July 2011 to October, 2014- the 22nd of October being the last day we signed off from cabinet- we did so at a dinner reception at the Abuja Sheraton, which’s organizing committee, I was the Secretary.
I was one of six principal aides who worked closely with the Honorable Minister of State, as he then was- all of those aides now hold critical positions in his government- one is his Principal Private Secretary, one is his Commissioner of Agric, another, his Chancellor of the Exchequer- the Commissioner of finance, and yet another his Principal Private Secretary on Knowledge Economy.
Having laid this background, I wish to reiterate that I was privy to a lot of things that happened in both ministries Dr Ortom superintended. I saw a lot of classified documents, Council Memos, secret official documents and was part of several high profile meetings and sessions, travelled severally with the minister to various destinations, both within and outside the country.
I had unfettered access to the Minister’s office and home and was often in his company, so I was in a position to know if Ortom engaged in any shady deals or abused his office during his time in Abuja. The man had no secrets, he was an open book, so no one really even needed to uber close to him to know his activities or how he operated.
The Governor may not be perfect, he may have his faults, he may be many things to many people, but thief he is not. He had an open door policy, ran an open office- office san frontieres- so for the outsider he was no mystery, for the close aide, he held no secrets.
People do not commit fraud in isolation, they use fronts, proxies, surrogates and aides, and none of his aides benefitted fraudulently from his association with Ortom, some aides didn’t even leave Abuja with functional cars, family members never got anything that wasn’t normally due them, most were already doing well long before Ortom became Hon Minister.
Ortom himself left cabinet almost worse off than he came after the campaigns of 2011- and I should know. If Ortom ever helped anyone get anything out of the federal bureaucracy, it means you had to use your head, you must have come with an innovation, you were adding value to the system and invariably strengthening the economic value chain.
There was no awoof, not for himself, or anyone around him.
A lot of people who want sleaze and sensationalism may be looking for dirt on the man, sleaze to go to town with, but there isn’t always sleaze to unearth. When the man says ‘if you chop money, money will chop you,’ am quite sure he means what he is saying. The man lived his life as clean as a whistle as if he was preparing for this day.
When he responded to allegations that he embezzled money at Aviation at the thanksgiving of Prof Ityavyar recently, I was surprised. I mean, what is there to respond to? Those reports must have been baseless, and the Chief Executive responding to old issues, that ought to merit no response threw me. I mean, there was no money to even steal.
To set the records straight or to buttress his denial, I decided to write this piece in defence of Ortom, even though truth needs no defence. I was Ortom’s interface with several Chief Executives of big budget parastatals and several high ranking VIP’s and never for once did he ever send me on an untoward mission, never for once did he send me, or any of the other aides for any ‘side business’ or corrupt enrichment binges. No, never.
Let me digress.
Prior to coming to work with Ortom, I lived and worked in Lagos for several years. I only knew Ortom during the era of Hatoms, much of the intervening years in between, I lost touch with home, somewhat and what he was up to, so the Ortom fable only reached me second hand in Lagos from those with ears to the ground.
He was the ‘Inyamkyume’- the roaring wild beast, the man who crushed any and everything in his way, that was the Ortom image I had in my mind, that was the man I expected to meet when I first walked into his office on December 1, 2009 on my second missionary journey to Abuja, just after Yar Adua took ill.
When I met with him, I didn’t see the wild beast- I expected a brash and garrulous man in the mould of Mike Aondoakaa, who stamped and crushed everything in his way. I rather met a modest and unassuming man, but to me, the legend had already stuck- this had to be the Inyamkyume, he roared, he crushed, he fought, this was just an off day, the beast was sleeping.
So when I started working for him, two years later, I expected the beast to manifest, but it didn’t. I had seen firsthand how Mike Aondoakaa wielded ministerial power in the capital and apart from the short Sam Ode interregnum, Ortom followed almost immediately.
So I had expected ‘his reign’ to follow suit. If Aondoakaa had ridden rough shod over the federal bureaucracy with the confident aplomb of a matinee idol, then the Inyamkyume must have the mandarins and apparachiki of the capital running helter skelter like they were doing the bidding of an oriental potentate.
The first indication that Ortom was not going to operate with such sartorial tackiness surfaced a few weeks into our tenure at Trade. I took from Registry, a file containing folios conveying Ministerial approvals for Chief Executive appointments. I gave Dr Ortom the file showing him what the immediate past ministers had been doing and what schedule they covered.
The folios also contained file copies of approvals dating back almost 15 years where in, the Minister of State sent recommendations to Mr President on who became the CEO of several parastatals in the ministry chief of which was the cherry in the plum- the Bank Of Industry.
Several other folios also showed that the Industry side of the Ministry, where we were, actually controlled all the juicy parastatals where as the Aganga side of the ministry, Commerce, controlled the ‘orphan parastatals- meaning, the parastatals with small budgets or inconsequential IGR.
The man merely studied the file and nodded. He said, yes, he knew, but his approach at the ministry was one of togetherness- the industry and commerce were one, and we were all running one ministry. So no need starting a war about who controlled what or who appointed who. Aganga was the captain, and he, Ortom, was the co-captain, I should understand that very quickly.
I looked at Minister Ortom with incredulity- ‘how can this man say this?’ I cringed. The ministry had 16 parastatals in all- Hon Minister of State, Ortom was by statute, supposed to supervise nine with Aganga, though he was Hon Minister, statutorily mandated to supervise seven. And yet, here was Ortom willing to pass this up. There in my hands was a folio of approvals from Mrs Pauline Tallen, the immediate outgone Minister of State for Trade to Humphrey Abba as a precedent.
Dr Ortom waved away this file without a thought.
Dr Ortom was not interested in turf wars and passing up direct supervision of those parastatals told me one thing- this man was not in any way interested in status, clout or motivated by greed- he just wanted to contribute his quota and get out.
His philosophy was of non confrontation, negotiation and of superior argument. This was the mindset he also took to aviation where he was substantive minister albeit in a supervisory capacity. When the cabinet shake up of February 14, 2014 added the Aviation portfolio to his Trade job description, the man was the least excited of all of us- either at the office or outside- to him it was just another job.
Stella Oduah was the last of the relieved ministers to hand over, but the man was not perturbed, he never went to the Aviation office after handover till almost a month later- all the Aviation directors were coming to Trade to hold meetings. When it was time to move to Aviation, I was one of three aides who made the transition from the Area 1 secretariat to the Federal Secretariat at Central Area.
I say this to also prove that at Aviation, I was also in a position to know.
That was a very controversial office, so Dr Ortom traded very carefully right from the first day- as if he knew that someday, allegations would be thrown at him. By the time we even arrived at Aviation, there were no contracts to be given- the previous administration had given all the contracts- the money in the BASA account and Aviations project accounts were under the direct oversight of the Presidency.
We were there to only defend and begin implementation of the 2014 budget.
The man awarded no contract at the ministry, never received kickback from anybody, never leaned on any CEO to give him, or anyone close to him any contract, never influenced anything unofficial for any of his aides or family. Beyond the normal influence a minister wields within the ambit of the law, the man never did anything outside his mandate.
Had he wanted, he could have revoked all contracts and directed all the contractors to come and revalidate their jobs with a committee he could have set up. This would have opened the way to a N58billion recertification exercise, and had he wanted to peddle his influence, 10% of that amount would have given him a N5.8b campaign war chest.
The man didn’t even think of that. All his approvals always carried the counter signature of the DFA and all permanent secretaries he worked with- Alh Aliyu K Mohammed, Dr Dauda Kigbu and Amb Abdulkadir all at trade and Mrs Jemila Shuara at Aviation.
While Ministers could approve foreign trips and convey approvals right in their offices, Dr Ortom had his Perm Secs convey all approvals for foreign travel so that no one could come and hang anything on him. He was a stickler for due process and was very meticulous in all his dealings.
That man? You can’t hang anything on him- he sees no evil, hears no evil, and does no evil.
I was always frustrated with his modus operandi, but with hindsight now, I realize the man always knew where he has going and where all the banana peels lay. That patience, humility, policy of non confrontation has now catapulted him to government house. When I first met him, I expected a Iyamkyumegh of braggadocio, aggression and brutality, but I rather worked with a Iyamkyumegh of stealth, guile and calculation.
Shortly after we came back from Aviation to Trade, August 2014, and before he tendered his resignation letter to the then President, he called us into his office and told us he was resigning, and officially declaring his intent to contest the Benue Governorship.
He told us God had directed him to do this.
At that point, it was clear that Suswam was not giving him the ticket, infact, Suswam had stopped picking his calls. If Ortom was ever able to track Suswam then- this was the latter part of 2014- it was Dickson Pawa, who always told him where Suswam could be. So, when Ortom told us he was resigning and we should start preparing, I was like ‘How can you want to resign when Suswam is not going to give you ticket?’
I didn’t ask Ortom this, since I knew the answer already- God was giving him the ticket. Since I didn’t have as much faith in God as he had, I kept my counsel. Much later, he told us, God had shown him everything, no one should be worried, he was going to win, despite what Suswam was doing.
With no money, I wondered? I was in a position to know because Ortom often sent me to the bank and he had nothing close to the N5b projected amount that had been touted was the base minimum to successfully run a guber campaign in aTier 2 state like Benue. No ticket from the Governor? Wavering presidential support?
The odds were stacked against him, but he was undeterred.
He said he held no grudges against Suswam, Suswam was under a spell by some close allies and was being misled but we should all wait and see- he will beat Suswam at his game and he, Ortom will be Governor- Suswam will come back and beg him someday- October 15th, 2014.
Ortom was very sure of himself and of God, that the governorship seat was a given. He had hinged his entire ambition on God, and I hadn’t seen any hand of God working so far. If God had decreed this thing, he will surely visit Suswam at night, no? I didn’t believe Ortom and I believed in God much less, so needless to say I was neither part of his ‘change campaign nor his change government.’
But the man was right, as he always was- God was working for him in ways I didn’t think possible. He defected to APC, ran for elections and the rest, they say is history. Up until the PDP primaries, because he didn’t embezzle money, his strategy for keeping his campaign going was largely hinged on a crude form of crowd funding, not what you see on crowd funding engines ofcourse, but a grass root variant nonetheless and am sure he carried on with this during the change campaign.
Ortom is Governor now and I guess he is trying to move the state forward as best he can. I have not taken a look at the Benue till, but if the man is still the same man I worked with, up to the end of 2014, then the Benue commonwealth is quite safe- he won’t be touching any one’s money.
At Trade and at Aviation, where he superintended over 22 parastatals with combined annual budgets of over N300b over the course of four years, he never took a dime that didn’t belong to him and I don’t see him doing that now.
I have always maintained that Benue was spoilt for choice in the last general elections- in the two candidates on parade. Having to choose between an ebullient, energetic and intelligent young Economist and a seasoned politician/ technoprenuer, full of native intelligence (kwaghfan u malami) and wisdom was a luxury only very few states could boast of, but God indulged us.
The Benue people made their choice and like the Chief Executive always says, it should always be about superior argument and constructive engagement. This premise is the only plank that can move our state forward, so I call on all Benue indigenes to join hands with the Chief Executive to put us on our path to self fulfillment and desist from baseless rumors that have no substance both in the courts of law and in the court of public opinion.
This is will be my first and only piece on Benue, her governance intrigues and her leadership recruitment process till 2023. I rest my case.
David Bigila is the Head, Business Development, Bimodular Consulting, Abuja.