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Permanent secretaries in Benue earn N500,000 monthly — Ortom

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Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, speaks with Ashiwaju Media  about the recent flood disaster in the state, the Paris Club refund and the states unsustainable wage bill among other issues
How is your state coping with the recent flood disaster?
Let me seize this opportunity to express our gratitude to all Nigerians, civil society and the media in particular for standing by us during our time of distress occasioned by the unexpected flooding that occurred recently in Benue State. It brought a lot of pain and devastation upon our people but it was a good experience because, for once, we have seen that we are in the hearts of Nigerians based on the responses we got from Mr. President, various corporate organisations, individuals and the Federal Government; we deeply appreciate it. We hope that this support will continue to help us amend the destruction caused by the flooding.

We are taking the necessary steps; we are still making appeals because we need drainage round most of the towns that were affected. The permanent solution for the Makurdi metropolis, which is the capital city, is the dredging of River Benue because 21 out of the 23 local government areas in the state were affected. Many roads and bridges were washed away. Also, we cannot gain access to most of the local government areas, including my own. The two roads that lead to the headquarters of Guma local government, for instance, were all washed away. The Benue State Government is making arrangements to carry out some of the repairs, but honestly, it is beyond our capacity. We look up to good-spirited individuals, organisations, corporate bodies and international organisations to come to our aid. Image result for Permanent secretaries in Benue earn N500,000 monthly — Ort
What is the Federal Government doing to help?

The Federal Government is already planning to help us but we all know what is happening today in terms of the nation’s economy. We need to join hands together to save the situation. We nevertheless, appreciate everyone for the help so far rendered.

Where does your state stand on the ongoing agitations across Nigeria?

The people of Benue are very committed to the unity of this country. This is a democracy; people are free to talk and move about. They are free to do anything because democracy represents freedom. My admonition to Nigerians is that whether we are agitating for restructuring or not, it is important that we must remember that we have no other country other than Nigeria. There are laws guiding the country and we must abide by these laws in order not to exceed our boundaries. The law is the only instrument that can serve as a guide, protect us and help us conduct our affairs. I think that the security agencies should live up to their expectations by ensuring that impunity does not continue to prevail in Nigeria. We have challenges; our people must understand this. We have difficulties, especially in the areas of finance and funding of the nation’s economy. It is our collective responsibility. It is not just about leaders; the led also have contributions to make for us to succeed.

Your state has consistently been listed among those owing workers. Why is this so?

Benue is more of a civil service state and the economy is more or less driven by the civil servants. When salaries are not paid, an average person in the state is affected. What I think we should do is to work together and come up with strategies to address the issue. I have said that anybody with creative ideas that can add value to what we are doing should bring it up. I am ready to go with it. I am not restricting it only to Benue people, but throwing it open to all Nigerians.

What happened to the bailout funds?

When I came in, I inherited N69bn as arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuity. The Federal Government did intervene by giving us a loan of N28bn as bailout. We appropriated it very well and because of the screening approach that we adopted, out of the N12.5bn that was allocated to the state civil service, we were able to save up to N1.6bn which we returned to the treasury. At the local government level, a screening method that was able to block the leakages and loopholes was adopted. We were also able to save up to N1.4bn out of the N15.5bn that we received again. Up till today, the money is in a Fidelity Bank account, though it was garnished by the order of the court because of Taraku mills that we owed up to N1bn. So, they went to court and secured a garnishing order. That is why the money is still in the account.

When I hear people talk about misappropriating bailout funds, I say they are not fair to me. People should go to our account and check; we are transparent. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission or the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission officers are free to come and check our accounts. I challenge anyone who doubts this to go through our books and we are ready to make it available. No single kobo was diverted from the bailout funds. What we get from the Federation Account on a monthly basis is about N6bn and we have a wage bill of around N8.5bn. We went through the process of screening, biometrics and modified table payment to identify ghost workers and some of those leakages. We were able to reduce the wage bill to N7.8bn; that is where we are now. Even with this, we have a monthly deficit of N1.8bn, but as you know, government must make progress. There are security issues, there are other issues to attend to that can make things happen in government. There are issues of natural disaster, which we must attend to.

How did the state get to this point?

The past administration raised the wage bill to a level that cannot be maintained. For example, a permanent secretary is collecting N230,000 in other states. In my state, we are paying N500,000 and it cuts across. I tried to find out from my colleagues in Kano, Kaduna, Lagos, Ogun and so on and their wage bill is around N8bn. You begin to wonder: Kano State has 44 local governments. With that huge population, it has a wage bill of N8bn. So, what business does Benue State have with the same wage bill? This is a challenge. Even the workers know that what they are collecting is far more than that of their counterparts in other states. Many states in Nigeria today have not implemented the minimum wage. I have tried to explain this to our workers. Ideally, a wage bill should take about 30 per cent of your income, but today we pay more than 100 per cent. Sometimes, we borrow. We spent about 80 per cent of the last Paris Club refund received on payment of wages, yet it was not enough.

Were reports of the diversion of relief materials brought to your attention and how did you handle it?

The report of diversion of relief materials got to me and we immediately directed the removal of the camp commandant at the International Market. He is under investigation. One thing I did was to set up a very high-powered committee headed by the Deputy Governor as soon as the report got to us. We asked that he be replaced. Details of the diversion have yet to get to me. Since then, we have not heard of any diversion. The other challenge we had was the influx of people who were not victims coming in to find ways to steal but we have beefed up security in the camps.

You accused the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency of unwholesome practices. What happened?

I accused FERMA of reaping where they did not sow. When we had this flooding, the road between Lafia and Makurdi was washed away. We immediately sent for one of our contractors who went and repaired the damage as part of his firm’s corporate social responsibility but the FERMA officials in the state wanted to take credit. I said it is wrong. In fact, I am calling for the proscription of FERMA. They are of no use to us, the road users. Look at the road from Abuja to Makurdi, what they are doing on the road is simply a waste; they are doing nothing.

One of your aides, a member of the committee looking into leakages in the wage bill, was killed. Is there any update?

The police are handling the case. I have given them the support needed. I don’t want to pre-empt their findings because there are several theories about what led to his death. Until I have concrete evidence, I have to wait for the police.
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