James Ibechi

Discourse: Our Benue Our Future

By Prof. Johnson Ogoda Ona

The above title for this exposition should be too familiar to some people but new to our younger generations that are not very disposed towards reading as a hobby. This title was taken out of a document prepared to serve as framework for the development of Benue State by Gabriel Suswam administrations.
I like to believe that each civilian Governor of Benue State had tried to formulate some kind of guidelines that would inform its governance priorities; the poor performance of Governors over time demands that we ask ourselves whether the numerous documents were serially faulty and to blame or the authors of the documents were not serious enough about their intentions, that is, taking everybody for a ride.
In the light of what has transpired through the successive administrations one would be tempted to through the benefit of hindsight, to ask whose Benue and whose future they were talking about. I want to state without fear of contradiction that Benue State is a comprehensive failure in nearly every sphere of governance. Tarry with me as I shall return to this subject later.

Prof. Johnson Onah

Gentle reader, permit me to go down memory lane in order to place in proper perspective my argument here and intimate the younger generations how all these started. Benue State was created in 1976 (this might sound like a broken record), four months before I graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1976, the Nigerian Premier University. My generation of graduates was ecstatic and boisterous, willing to return and make our contribution to the development of the new State; more so because the discrimination suffered in the then Benue Plateau was most unfortunate. At that time, we were proud to loudly boast that Benue State had more human resources than it needed to be an economically viable State. Agriculture was the principal resource and there was enough and suitable land to produce any crop. I recall that Civil Servants deployed from Benue Plateau, because of inadequate accommodation travelled, some long distances, to work on daily basis.
The first set of administrators of the new Benue State were military men who I might say lacked administrative experience and so did not appreciate the need for strategic planning, or did not have enough time at hand or in fact appeared as if they were on holiday since we were told that Governors were on military postings. On this, one could be sympathetic to the early Military Governors. Our enthusiasm for the State was short-lived because of ethnic rivalry between the Tivs, Idomas and Igalas that introduced a new triangle of forces that had no resultant effect; the polarization created unhealthy situation for any meaningful development. The situation was so bad that Deputy Governor by name Alhaji Isa Odoma was completely cut off from governance of the State. By the time Igala region was detached into Kogi State, the Tivs believed that they have gained total control of the State; the Idomas didnt matter anymore. This rivalry even though diminished has persisted and its one of the causes of our under development.
In spite of this acrimony His Excellency Aper Aku, drew a comprehensive strategic road map for the State and started implementing his policies but was trunked by Military intervention at the twilights of 1984. The military era lasted till 1999 during which military administrators to Benue State were being changed nearly every six (6) months, therefore making it impossible for any military administrator to focus on the development of the State. The issue of time limitations could not have been the genuine excuse of the succeeding military administrators because the earlier civilian administration had prepared a blueprint that was available.
During the first term of Governor Aku he was able to bring Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to Makurdi; prior to this Benue people had to travel to Enugu, or Jos or Kaduna, even just to purchase travelers cheques. Within his first term, he established Lobi bank, persuaded the Air force establishment to allow the use of the airbase for civilian flights; established Agricultural Coporation (ADC); established Ikogyen cattle ranch and developed the blueprint for the establishment of Benue State University. He established Taraku Oil Mill, Otukpo Burnt Brick factory, Benue Cement factory was churning out tons and tons of cement; several other cottage industries sprang up. Agriculture production was elevated to a very high level and there was employment everywhere. No doubt the then Governor left legacies were today dreaming about.
Why then has Benue State remained so under developed after such a brilliant start and nearly after four decades of existence? It was easy to see that Governor Aper Aku’s programme was ignored and abandoned and rivalry became more acrimonious so we have been reduced to this grinding poverty. The following deductions could be made:
Firstly, Aper Aku did not believe in Amala Politics or stomach infrastructure and so resisted all pressures to share State funds; this lead to unprecedented hostility towards his second term campaign.
Secondly, recruitment into government offices at the State and Local Government levels were no longer based on merit but on where you come from and what connections you had. Some ministries and agencies were considered reserved for certain interest groups. This selective appointments that placed square pegs in round holes contributed greatly to mismanagement and poor performance that has placed us where we were today, underdeveloped. To blame this situation or lopsidedness on ethnicity alone is to over simplify the problem and in fact miss the salient points altogether because some sections of Tiv areas were also marginalized. Even today, if you take a bird-eye-view of Benue State establishments, evidence of this still abound, therefore development cannot be enhanced in this kind of environment
Thirdly, after Aku’s administration a small clique took control of the apparatus of Government in what I regard as State Capture. The clique made up of prominent Tiv sons and daughters, traditional rulers, business men, politicians, bureaucrats, Academia and other influence peddlers operated throughout the military administrations and they determined how governance was to be conducted irrespective of the needs of the people. Of course this clique had assumed the role of care-taker / landlords of all the military administrators to the extent that all contracts were given to them many of which were not executed. This unholy conspiracy continued throughout the military era and to the political era. It would not be far-fetched to speculate that there’s yet a group in Tivland that specializes in bringing down Governors and other public officers. It would appear that those people who could not find their presence in the clique resorted to damaging propaganda that was calculated to bring down government. Their motive probably was a dog-in-a-manger attitude.
When civilian administration was restored in 1999, the same clique took hold of political affairs and installed whomever they wanted to be Governor of the State irrespective of the candidate’s capacity to deliver. The less endowed were favored. Somebody must have to be sponsored by a godfather(s). With this strangle hold on political leadership it became obvious why we have remained continually retrogressive. I dare to say that even in the future no governor, sadly, will perform and develop the State for the benefit of its citizens unless this ‘beast’ is exorcised from the body polity.
Thirdly, the general attitude of Benue people has become difficult to understand against the backdrop of Republicanism that is in the blood (DNA); how they could tolerate servitude instead of freedom of thought and self determination. Suddenly, we have become complacent, lethargic and confused about our core values. Those who pilfer from the public purse use their ill gotten wealth to manipulate the already disadvantaged people.

No questions asked
It beats me hollow seeing Benue people adapting a cavalier attitude towards existential situations. Political thuggry has become order of the day instead of decent means of livelihood; because of the self-imposed poverty we are prone to manipulation even by our common external enemies. Visit the internally displaced camps and you will wonder why there is no push back from Benue people.
Permit me to ask this ‘foolish’ question. What can we say are the legacies of Governors of Benue State since Governor Aper Aku (including Military Governors)? I can state that Rev. Father Moses O. Adasu who did not have the luxury of four year tenure, actualized the establishment of Benue State University and this was brave judging by the circumstances of acquiring the license to operate. I really cannot tell the legacies of Governors George Akume and Gabriel Suswam administrations.
You will recall that the present Governor came to office through patronage, i.e. through the godfathers. What is the legacy of the present Governor of Benue State, i.e. His Excellency Dr Samuel Ortom after nearly 7 years in office. I cannot hold brief for His Excellency, but certain verifiable facts are incontrovertible and so would dare to highlight some of them.
It is no more news that the godfathers who sponsored HE Governor Ortom to Government House did not want him to succeed primarily because of stomach infrastructure. When Governor Ortom managed to extricate himself from the stranglehold the campaign of calumny was orchestrated.
The first of the salvos from HE traducers was that he was a college dropout and therefore does not have the mental capacity to run the Government; that his government would not last beyond six (6) months. HE himself made public that he dropped out of college for lack of support (he lost his father midway which happens to a lot of people) but he has gone ahead to train himself to the highest level available in a University (PhD); what mental capacity are they talking about then? Even in a society where there is no dignity of labor, driving a commercial vehicle for a living does not approximate to touting as he used the proceeds to support his family, train his children and himself to the University level. What else represents the can-do spirit of a Benue person?
When finally Governor Ortom occupied the office, he met an empty treasury to the extent that he used his personal money and IOU from friendly banks to kick-start his administration. The Hand-over notes are available and open for consultation even at short notice. Contracts were awarded without proper documentation, The number of public servants smuggled into government employment were in hundred against all protocols of employment, some backdated to five (5) years. There had to be a verification exercise that confirmed the bloated workforce. The issue of irregularity of salaries and wages has been the history of Benue State right from Governor Aper Aku’s time in office. This writer was owed five (5) months salary then. The greatest social sin of Governor Ortom against Benue people as often alleged was his inability to pay for wages, pensions and gratuities as at when due which in this instance was caused by public servants themselves. When he offered to stagger payments so that some kind of roaster was to be implemented, the organized labor took a position of all-or-none, which compounded the situation further. The organized labor yielded to the manipulations of the godfathers just to smear his name.
When Governor Ortom assumed power he recalled all development partners who had previously abandoned the State. He was able to access funds from SUBEB which he used to contract renovation of over three hundred primary schools in the State including rural electrification and water supply through boreholes. Some few critical major roads were contracted out for construction whose intension was to empower the people of the State. He reorganized internally generated revenue only to meet with stiff resistance from the populace on the grounds that he was not current on salaries and wages. How many public servants do we have on government payroll compared with the entire taxable population of about 4 million that should generate revenue for government? In fact, the civil servants who were responsible for padded workforce, mutilated the pensioners’ list, were most strident in criticizing the Governor. Throughout the first term of Gorvenor Ortom, he had regular consultations and outlined his programs to stakeholders who approved his developmental approach.
Governor Ortom in office restored the life of the Benue State University that was already on life support from strikes. Medical students waiting to graduate were held down for five years or more before Governor Ortom cleared all the encumbrances and placed the University on frontline charge with respect to expenditures. Since Ortom’s arrival, the university has remained a peaceful environment for learning. Kindly do yourself a favor by consulting Governor Ortom’s Two Year Scorecard, a pamphlet that is readily available.
Governor Ortom was determined to develop Benue State by mobilizing intellectuals to articulate a blueprint (strategy) of his approach; which today has been incorporated into the Benue State Master Plan domiciled in the Planning Commission. This should be one of his very important legacies just like I spoke about Governor Aper Akuss road map. These are just snapshots of HE achievements all of which took place in the first two years but his traducers will not appreciate this.
What happened to Benue people and to Governor Ortom in the second half of his first term was most horrendous and despicable; indeed wicked. The organized killing of Benue people by Fulani militia started with the massacres in Agatu Local Government Area way back in 2016 which has continued till date; and never got timely and decisive intervention from the Federal Government. Reactions to this initial attack was muted and so one wondered where the Landlords of Benue were The situation continue to deteriorate and out of desperation Govenor Ortom initiated the passage of the bill that banned open grazing of life stock. The first round of criticisms even came from the godfathers and not until the horrendous massacre in January 2018 did people began to take the issue seriously. Even at that the protests were not robust enough from the people generally. The Governor since then has placed his life on the line and remained undeterred in protecting the interest of Benue people as he continues to even receive threats. One can happily observe that his campaign has won the hearts of all the 36 Governors of the Federal Republic to the extent that open grazing of livestock is no more fashionable and legislations have sprung up all over the country. When the history of the struggle to end open grazing of life stock in Nigeria shall be written Governor Ortom’s name shall be written in Gold. This achievement shall be a permanent legacy not only for Benue State people but for Nigerians as a whole. He has already made himself a hero whether we in Benue accept that or not.
As this article was being prepared, there are close to half a million displaced persons in camps scattered all over the State with very little assistance from the Federal Government leaving the burden on the Governor to shoulder. To the shame of Federal Government a pledge of N10billion made in 2018 to assist displaced persons has not yet been redeemed. The Federal might that has the coercive force to crush the criminal has deliberately failed to rout the bandits. As reported from Plateau State recently, many communities in Benue State have also been forcefully occupied and even renamed. In the face of this deliberate neglect, one would like to ask where the Godfathers and Landlords of Benue State are? How many of them had visited the Camps and contributed relief materials for their welfare? In 2019, these charlatans went to the camps to solicit for votes and I figure that will happen again in 2023. Is it not a Shame? How many people have inquired to know how much the government spends on the displaced persons monthly / annually?
As often recognized without security there can be no development in whatever form and this has become the lot of Benue people since 2018. Security is an existential matter for which every other thing comes second. This security situation in the State must have diverted a huge chunk of Benue resource to care for the under privileged which as a result has affected everybody by way of non-payment of salaries, emoluments and other social services. If every family in Benue State can adapt one person in the IDPs for support their situation could be ameliorated and the spirit of humaneness and brother’s keeper would have amply been demonstrated.
No Governor can perform in office without the active support and understanding of the people, particularly in crises and toxic environment that we have found ourselves today. Its my conviction that the Governor Ortom has done well in holding out against the forces of destabilization and destruction of Benue State. What Governor Ortom needs now is understanding and not vilification from the people that he is willing to sacrifice his life for.
As far as I know it is only the Benue State Government in the whole Federation that has had its accounts placed on a garnishee by vested interests. Is there any government in the world that is not indebted? Tell me how low these self professed enemies of Governor Ortom can stoop to bring him down. In variably if Benue State goes down with the Governor what benefit would it be to them; is it really the outcome they desire. Yes the Governor will leave office at the expiration of his tenure meanwhile why do we cut our noses to spite the faces?
The consequences of not cooperating with HE has resulted in the following grim situation about the State as reported by BudgIT.
Here are some points
The Food basket of the Nation was unable to translate its agricultural fruitfulness into fiscal fruitfulness in 2020. In the fiscal performance ranking the State fell from its 32nd position in 2020 to 34th in 2021
Benue State also experienced negative growth: In 2019 Benue spent N12.65 bn and in 2020, it spent 8.40bn i.e. decreasing by 33.59 %. This translates to N1,298 per capita which was the lowest in the Federation. The National average was N8,129.00
Benue State has one of the worst IGR performances in the Federation. It IGR fell from N17.85 bn in 2019 to 10.46bn in 2020.
Ability to meet operating expenses and loan repayment obligation with the total revenue places Benue in 35th out 36 States
Ability to borrow places Benue in 30th out of 36 States
Poverty rate of 32.90 % and unemployment rate 55.5 %
Debt liability: domestic 126.13bn and foreign debt is $32.5bn

Can we in all honesty blame this monumental failure on Governor Ortom alone? For me its our collective failure and this should be expected when a few privileged people hi-jack the instruments of governance to the disadvantage of the greater majority.
It is my candid opinion that the people of Benue State should understand and come to terms with its pathetic state and shift from the status quo by engaging ourselves in the following way:
Rise up against the forces that have captured the State and made it impossible for development to take root.
It will serve everybody better by rallying round the HE in the interest of the people rather than vilifying and condemning the him continually.
It is no secret that Benue people have nonchalant attitude towards governance but expects results they have not worked for.
We don’t want to engage in productive sectors of the economy even farming that gave the State the big name of Food Basket of the Nation. We engage too much in conspicuous consumption to the detriment of savings and investment. Other Nigerians have come to Benue State and made fortunes from here, so who are we waiting for?
The big Men in Benue State should relocate to Abuja where they should network with Federal Officers so they could lobby for projects and other social services to the State.
Benue people should strive to secure employment in the Federal Civil service and represent the State at the highest level of Federal bureaucracy.
We should be our brother’s keepers by waking up to the needs of the less privileged in the society especially our compatriots in displaced camps.
Appreciate His Excellency Governor Samuel Ortom for his efforts against the backdrop of insecurity instigated and perpetrated against the State in the last six (6) years. Without his dogged determination half of Benue State would have been under forceful occupation
In view of my arguments stated above, my last word is that Benue State is a geographical expression yet to determine its future. Whenever we start to implement a genuine development agenda, then we can talk about Our Benue and Our Future and for the sake of future generations the time to change the status quo is now.

* Prof. Johnson Ogoda Ona of Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Jos, wrote in from Jos.

Categories: James Ibechi

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