FREEPRESS – The Governor of Benue State, Mr. Samuel Ortom, in this interview with DAYO OKETOLA and JOHN CHARLES, speaks on his recent defection to the Peoples Democratic Party, the impact of the herdsmen crisis on his administration and his rift with some political gladiators in the state
Since you moved to the PDP, the aspirants in the party have been saying that they are not ready to step down for you. Do you think you would get the PDP ticket to seek re-election?
If you look at my record, you would see that I’m a democratic person; I’ve never asked for any automatic ticket. For close to 40 years now, I have been in the political arena and I have participated actively. I have served at the leadership position at the party level and at public office level; I was a local government chairman and I was democratically elected and I keenly contested with others at the primary level to emerge as the candidate on the platform of the Social Democratic Party and I won the election. I have held leadership positions in the National Centre Party of Nigeria; All Peoples Party, which metamorphosed into the All Nigeria Peoples Party and the PDP. I was the secretary of the PDP in Benue State for six years and then deputy chairman for one year. I was elected national auditor of the party for three years before I became a minister. So, you can see the process. When I came into the All Progressives Congress, I also contended with others, but the provision for consensus in the APC made me the candidate of the party and I won the election. When I was in the APC, I was given an automatic ticket, but I said no; that this was not democracy. I said automatic ticket was not known in democracy, so I objected to it. A motion was duly moved in the state congress by elected party officials that I should be the sole candidate and it was seconded, but I said no, allow others who have the aspiration to also aspire. At the end, let the people decide. That is me. So, I don’t want to take issues with aspirants. They are free to contest and this is a free era for everyone. You are free to make your views and feelings known; you are free to express yourself; associate yourself with any group and so on. So, I don’t want to take issues with them. But, I have moved from the APC to the PDP for reasons I have earlier noted; that I wasn’t protected in the APC and in the party, it was a one-man show.
How do you mean that it’s a one-man show?
There is a leader there, outside the governor, who presides over the party and does what he wants. That is not democracy, and so, I left. For a party that I have also contributed to building to where it is today, coming back home is not a crime. I’m free to contest and I don’t need anybody’s permission. We have met and spoken and they too are free to contest. I’m not asking anybody to step down for me. We are all free to contest. I know that power belongs to God. John 3: 27 says a man can receive nothing, except it is given (to) him from heaven. If God wants me to be governor in 2019, I will sail through the process, but if God doesn’t want it, I cannot do otherwise. Ecclesiastes 9: 11 says the battle is neither for the swift nor the strong, nor the race for the fastest runner, nor success for men of wisdom, but everything comes as God giveth. So, the fact that I’m a governor today doesn’t mean I would win primaries and win the election. People have lost like that before. I’m looking up to God and I’m not stopping anyone from contesting against me. People are free, if they are determined to do it. If God grants them the opportunity to win, it’s fine and good. I have no issues and I would never go to war with anyone because of election; after all, it is about service. And to offer yourself to serve, you have to be a servant and that is what I have been doing for the past three years. So, if God wants me to continue to serve, I’m ready, if the people would also accept it.
When you left the APC, the party’s national chairman, Mr. Adams Oshiomhole, said a lot of disparaging things about you and he questioned your performance. Do you think he was just angry that you left the party or there was some truth in his observation?
If you observe, two weeks before I left the APC, he was praising me, that I’m a star performer and a key member of the party, not just member; leader of the party. He said he would not just allow me to leave the party. But when I left, it became a game for him. He was speaking from both sides of his mouth; one side was good, one side was bad. But, all the same, he said certain things that portrayed me in bad light and I have decided to take him to court. Let him go and explain those things in court and that is where we will sort it out. The court would vindicate me that those things he said were not true. I believe that all those things he said about me were lies and he was just out to pull me down. It is unfortunate that it came from him.
But there appears to be an issue between you and your brother, Abubakar Tsav. What is the origin of the disagreement?
Abubakar Tsav is not my brother; he’s from Kano. I think he knows how to speak Tiv, but he belongs more to somewhere else. I have no personal grouse and I’m also in court with him. As a Christian, I’ve decided not to play this dirty game that people do. I am civil as much as possible. For me, when you say things that downgrade me or try to spread falsehood about me, I simply go to court. I also know that all those things he was saying were also lies. He was just trying to intimidate me to succumb into accepting him to be a godfather. The era of godfathers has gone for good in Benue State. That is why I cannot subject myself again to George Akume (a former governor of Benue State) and Abubakar Tsav and all those ones.
Tsav said in an interview that you didn’t perform and that was why Akume and the APC were trying to ensure that you are not re-elected?
Ask Tsav what he has been able to perform in his own way. But my performance is there; the ones I was able to do, despite all the challenges. There are milestones in education, agriculture, rural development and several other sectors and people appreciate those things. Yes, the challenge of payment of salary is there, but Benue is not the only state that has that challenge. You are aware of what is happening in other states and in the economy generally. We have tried and we will continue to try. Benue State is a civil service state and when salaries are not paid, it’s a big challenge. We pray to God to help us, but we are doing everything possible to offset the arrears. For now, we have been able to pay from January to July. We are looking forward to getting funds to offset the arrears. As far as we are concerned, we have been prudent and if you go round, you will see the projects.
But, Tsav said one of the reasons you are having issues with your political associates, like Akume, is that you don’t listen to advice and that you are arrogant. Is there some truth in it?
If you go back to history, the Akume that Tsav is quoting, both of them were enemies. In fact, I tried to reconcile them. But now, they have teamed up, based on the ‘birds of a feather flock together’ phrase and I think that is what is happening. They have common interest to run people down. I will not take issues with them. All that I seek to do is to clarify those lies and the falsehood they said about me and that is why I have taken him to court.
He also said there was massive fraud in the Bureau for Local Government and that you were aware but you did not do anything about it. Is that true?
It’s one of the things I want him to clarify in court; let him bring those facts, because all those things are lies. There is no massive fraud anywhere. The man is just looking for money. He wants to use that to intimidate me so that I would be settling him every month, but I said no. He requested for money, but I said no.
You mean he asked you for money?
Yes, he requested for money. That is how cheap the man, Abubakar Tsav, is. The man is a very cheap person and he’s not a person you take seriously. Nobody takes him seriously here.
There were rumours that Akume and Governor Tanko Al-Makura were allegedly planning to use some lawmakers to impeach you. Are you aware of such rumours?
Did Akume not try it; did he succeed? And he cannot succeed in that plot 100 times because I’m on the side of the people. All those people he’s collecting money from in the name of impeachment, he’s not appropriating the money well; he’s using it for his personal stuff, and not giving it to those who are supposed to facilitate the destabilisation of Benue State. Those are the plans, but we are not bothered. The people of Benue State are with me.
Were you jittery when some lawmakers said they wanted to impeach you?
How can I be jittery? I was in the house when they were making that huge joke of the year. It was a huge joke. Up till today, as I’m talking to you, I think they said they served an impeachment notice. Where is the impeachment notice? They are just ‘419’ scammers.
You mean you didn’t receive any impeachment notice?
There is nothing like that; I said it was fraud. Akume collected money from people in Abuja and some governors that he would use it to destabilise the state, and so he wanted to justify it. He got the Commissioner of Police here and paid him to execute that but it did not see the light of day. There was not even a single notice and those people are nowhere to be found today. The other 22 members are sitting and they have even approved our supplementary budget and screened some appointees. We are talking about eight out of 22 people; where will you hear that kind of impeachment? This is not military era; we are in a democracy and I was democratically elected. And for me to be removed, due process must be followed and there is no cause for that kind of thing. All those things they said were false. The former Speaker who alleged that I took N33bn, I have taken him to court to prove it. Now, he’s running away, even for service of notice. Thank God my lawyers have got a judgment to do a substituted service and he would appear in court and explain. These are a bunch of scammers who go about collecting money from people because I have refused to share money. The question is where is even the money to share when we have not even finished paying salaries.
The herdsmen crisis has been a very big crisis and nobody actually prays for such crisis; how has it affected you as the governor?
It is an unfortunate development. We have lost so much. I’ve told my team to try to check the impact, but from an interim report that was submitted to me, we have lost about N400bn in terms of human, material and agricultural losses, etc. It will take years for us to rebuild again and get to where we were. Today, even those that were not affected directly are in pains because the meagre resources budgeted for a year or two or so have been consumed by the IDPs. Over 500,000 persons who were displaced are living with relatives, and then we have another set of over 180,000 persons. Benue State’s economy is serviced by the civil service and actively supported by peasant agriculture, but now they are no more. What do you see coming; famine, hunger and frustration. Our children have not gone to school for seven months. You have stagnated a whole generation and it is very sad and quite destructive, yet they want me to keep quiet. How will I keep quiet? Come and take my life if that is what you want. I don’t want to be the governor who presides over dead bodies and IDPs or over people who are frustrated and have no future and hope. I should be giving hope to them. When injustice is meted out and you want me to keep quiet, why should I keep quiet? Give me justice and let Nigeria be fair to me. Let there be equity and then I would keep quiet. I was elected to bring hope, development, lift up the standard of people’s lives, provide jobs and create opportunities and wealth for our people. This is not what we are meant to see. So, me, I have no apology for anyone. I’m doing what I think I should do. The primary responsibility of any responsible government is to provide security for lives and property.
But the Fulani herdsmen said they had been living like family with your people until the anti-grazing law that your administration enacted?
They can’t say that; was there any anti-grazing law in Benue State between 2011 and 2017? Is there any anti-grazing law in Plateau State, but are people not being killed? Is there any such law in Kaduna, Zamfara, Sokoto, Edo, Delta, Enugu, Imo, Kogi, Adamawa and even Nasarawa states, but do you know how many people these same herdsmen have killed? Let’s not just be playing around with things that are obvious and could cause destruction to this country. The agenda is to take over the land and they have not hidden it. They have said it that it is jihad. They held press conferences. One Fulani socio-cultural organisation said it was about jihad and taking over the land. They said they would mobilise their kinsmen from all over the world to come and kill, destroy with arms and resources and that Nigeria belongs to them and so they could do what they want. You heard what the Minister of Defence and that of Interior said at that time.
How did you feel when those comments came from people at their level, especially in the heat of the attacks?
They are bare-footed ministers. A minister of the Federal republic of Nigeria who took oath of office should be seeking to protect the interest of Nigeria, not an ethnic group. What they did was wrong. You saw what the spokesperson for the President also said the other day, that whether you surrender your land or you are killed, which one is better. These are the issues and when you are told to go and live with your brothers, would you live with people who come with AK-47 and kill you or slaughter you or slaughter your children? Old men, women and pregnant women are not spared. Then, you say they rustle cattle. Can a four-year-old child rustle cattle? Can a woman who is eight months pregnant rustle cattle? Can an old man of 74 years rustle any cattle? Haba! We are learned and it is a pity.
But, do you think your people are behind you, with regards to the anti-grazing law?
I’m doing their bidding, and I have asked them several times that with all these attacks and persecution directed at me, should I set in motion the process of repealing the law and they have told me I should never attempt it. They said they are with me and they would stand by me. All those people looking for pocho (stew) to survive, our people say that this land will consume them.
What’s your relationship with security agencies in the state now, because in the past you have had to complain about them?
I’m a realist; when they don’t perform, I say it, when they perform, I say it. The ‘Operation Whirl Stroke’ has performed and I commend them. I doff my hat for them and I appreciate them for doing so well. If not for that operation, maybe I would not be here today, because the camp of the herdsmen is about two kilometres away from the Government House. They were there in their numbers and they took over the place with heavy guns, but it was the Operation Whirl Stroke that sent them packing. That is the truth. And I tell you that the security men that are here have tried – close to 40 of them have been killed by these herdsmen. Even last month, a soldier was killed and some were wounded by these herdsmen. So, I must commend them; people who have paid supreme prices for trying to keep us alive, secure our lands and help us to live. We should commend them and honestly, I offer my condolences to their families. These are breadwinners, but now they are no more. My prayer constantly is for God to close the gap of these patriots who have paid the supreme price.
What is happening at the IDPs’ camps; are you still planning to close them?
It was my intention to close them but I cannot close the camps because those people have nowhere to go. I cannot pay salaries, and each time I go there and I’m not able to provide for the IDPs to have some minimum comfort, I weep for my people. To close the camp and send them packing to be killed is another challenge. So, I’m between two devils.
Are you getting enough support from international organisations or the Federal Government in terms of feeding the IDPs?
We don’t have enough support. At the Federal Government level, there are challenges as well. We keep talking because the challenges are so many. Even last week, I was asking my Executive Secretary if they had got in touch with the National Emergency Management Agency and I was told that the food items that were meant for Benue were taken to another state, (and that we will have to wait) until they get another one for Benue. And we understand that because it is not only Benue that is affected by this issue; several other states are there too and some IDPs are there. Apart from the IDPs, we also have refugees from Cameroon, and we can’t send them back so they won’t be killed. It’s quite challenging.
Elections are coming, but there is the issue of federal might, which politicians deploy to intimidate opposition. Do you think you can survive that in 2019?
Federal might is not more than God. I’ve told you; John 3:27 says, ‘A man can receive nothing except it is given to him from above’. And the Bible says once power belongs to God. It does not belong to federal might. President Muhammadu Buhari became the President because God wanted him to be there, and behold he’s there. So, my election will not be determined by any human being or any might; international might, or federal might or state might or local government might. It will be determined by God. If God wants me to be there, nobody can stop me and there my faith is. When I came in to contest in 2015, I wrote clearly and boldly on my poster that ‘In God we trust’ and that by the grace of God, I would be governor and today I’m here. So, if God wants me to continue, I will, and if God doesn’t want me to, I’m out and I would give glory to God because the Bible says in all things, give thanks, for this is the will of God. If I die today, let my family give thanks to God for me. I have told my family that if somebody assassinates me, don’t go to the police, go and bury me. Don’t go and waste your time; it means God has permitted it. My life is not in the hands of any human being; that I can make bold to say.
A lot of people have been complaining that there is no direct flight to Benue State, what are you doing in that regard, because we heard there was a time your state signed an agreement with a commercial airline to be plying Benue. What is happening?
As I talk to you, we have completed our agreement with Air Peace, and the Chairman graciously approved it. What we are waiting for now is the approval from the Nigerian Air Force to grant us landing permit with Air Peace. Here in Benue, we don’t have a civil airport; it’s a military airport. So, we need to get permission from them. Once we have that, we have made arrangement for flight to Benue three times in a week; Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That will reduce the pains of our people.
Senator Akume was reported as saying he picked you from the gutter and made you governor. Some found it laughable because you were once a local government chairman and minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Did he truly pick you from the gutter?
When I was a local government chairman, Akume was either Director of Protocol or Assistant Director, or whatever they called him, and he used to serve me beverage in this same Government House.
How do you mean?
It’s a fact, not a joke. Rev. Fr. Moses Adasu was the governor and Akume was his protocol officer or director of protocol and he used to serve me tea in this same Government House. So, how do you say such a person picked me from the gutter? In any case, Akume supported me because of the potential I had and my popularity and he knew that with me, he could win his senate seat and that was what happened. If I was not the candidate of the APC, Akume would not have won his senatorial seat. You would see what would happen in 2019, now that I’m no longer in the APC. I have not hidden my chequered life experience; I dropped out of school in 1979 and I went into Gboko Motor Park as a lout and I moved on my own, as a conductor, and taxi driver and I went all the way. I studied on my own through tutorials, distant learning and conventional learning and I obtained a PhD. By the time I came to contest the governorship seat, I was already a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. At a point, I was supervising two Grade A ministries; Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment and Ministry of Aviation. So, how can a person like that be picked from gutter? I don’t believe that Akume said that because it’s only a drunkard that can say that kind of a thing, honestly. Everybody knows me. Even before I became governor, I was a successful farmer; one of the most successful in this state. I’m one of the very few people who are industrialists in Benue State. I have succeeded in managing my family very well; I have nine biological children and I have 13 adopted children. Some are graduates, married and are working and some are still in school. Last year alone, we adopted about four toddlers. That is what we are doing. In philanthropy, my wife’s NGO has reached out to thousands of people and we have touched lives. One area where it is specialised is in the area of snakebites. We have saved hundreds of lives and we have retained hospitals where we treat people with snakebites free of charge and those with hymenia. We have done this for over 12 years now and God has helped us to touch a lot of lives. By the grace of God, we believe in passion for God and compassion for humanity. We have reached out to people in this regard. I don’t want to believe that Akume ever said that, despite our differences. I’m sure someone is out telling lies. Anyway, I have never been in a gutter because I’m not a drunkard. So, it’s drunkards that you pick from the gutters.
Do you have any fears for 2019, and what would be your advice to INEC?
I want to advice anyone given responsibility to do the right thing, be it the Independent National Electoral Commission or security agencies. We should remember that there is God and the day of reckoning is coming when everyone of us would give account and there would be no hiding place. I will implore us that wherever we find ourselves, be it in government, whether contesting or not, let us ensure that there is equity, fairness, justice, transparency and accountability. We should also ensure that everybody is protected and these are the things to make it happen. And when you appear before God, these are the things that would be cross-checked whether you acted right or you did the wrong thing, and so let us know that life does not end here; rather it consists of what happened yesterday, today and what will happen tomorrow. So, let us know that as we are today, tomorrow is still ahead of us.