By James T. Iorlumun
In 2005, the Nigerian government through the intervention of world leaders received debt forgiveness to the tune of $18 billion from the Paris Club. Benue State also enjoyed debt relief of $242 million from the Paris Club and £92 million from London Club of creditors under the same arrangement. Domestic debts to contractors in the state were drastically reduced as well by the previous administration. It will therefore not be out of place to state that Governor Gabriel Suswam began in 2007 on a clean slate. However, in just about over 7 years of the Suswam-led administration, the level of indebtedness of the State cannot be easily ascertained.
First, the Governor Suswam-led State Government secured a N13 billion Bond in 2011. The maturity date of the Bond is 2016, one year after the expiration of his second term in office as governor. The purpose for securing the bond was to refinance existing debts as well as to finance ongoing projects. The proceeds of the bonds were subsequently misapplied and out rightly embezzled. No single ongoing project was financed with the money. In fact, the Governor had on several occasions alluded that he spent so much in defending himself against the various court actions instituted against him just before and after the 2011 general elections. We want to believe as a people that part, if not all the proceeds of the bond were used to accomplish this task.
Second, the government is heavily indebted to commercial banks in terms of over drafts and short-term loans. The level of indebtedness has not been made public.
Third, the State government again in 2014 got an approval from the State House of Assembly to secure another bond of N11 billion. The reason for the bond this time was to pay primary school teachers who were owed over 10 months salaries. The state is in the process of perfecting the bond.
It is instructive to note that most of these loans are tied to the Irrevocable Standing Payment Orders (ISPOs) issued to the Accountant General of the Federation to deduct directly from the monthly statutory allocations of Benue State. Of course the implication is that this debt overhangs, and weighs heavily on the monthly allocations due to the state thereby preventing the government from meeting its minimum basic obligations to the citizens. Benue State is near bankruptcy except something is done urgently to avert the dangerous trend. As at June 30, 2014, the external multilateral debt of Benue State according to the Debt Management Office (DMO) is $28,791,949. 55. The big question Benue people should ask is: how did we get here after the debt relief in 2005 by the Multilateral Creditors?
There is no gain saying that Benue State is an agrarian state whose population depends on agriculture for survival. It is therefore sad and most unfortunate that the Suswam’s administration has neglected this important sector. The administration of Senator George Akume had established and commissioned – fertilizer blending plant, cassava processing plant, a fruit juice processing factory for producing fruit concentrates, tomato processing factory and a plastic factory established to produce pipes, sacks (for agricultural materials), bags, etc. Rather than make these companies function efficiently for the benefit of the Benue people, Governor Suswam decided to sell them to private investors. Two main issues have arisen from the sale of these companies; the secrecy involved in the sale and the whereabouts of the proceeds.
In total disregard to the unprecedented rising debt profile of Benue State, Suswam did the unimaginable, which shocked the citizens of Benue State to the marrow, when he against every advice and schooling, unilaterally slashed the salaries of Benue State workers by 15%, which made the workers to embark on a strike that locked up the whole State for three days.
Suffice to state here that, what necessitated the irritation and the annoyance of the workers was that, the Federal Government shared the allocation for June 2014 in July, and Benue State got the following amount from the Federal Government’s allocation.
Benue State Government had N5,535,958,991.44, Local Government council’s allocation was N5,051,390,452.06 while SURE P’s allocation was N244,400,302.37. In summary, Benue State Government got over N10 Billion only in July from the Federal Government.
So many questions agitated the minds of Benue citizens and workers. What was the justification in slashing 15% from workers salary? How much does Gabriel Torwua Suswam pay a work force of less than 90,000 in the entire State, including Local Government Councils, that N10 billion is not enough for him to pay their wages and run the affairs of Benue State, when the average pay per person is under N30,000.00, requiring only N2.7 billion monthly for such wages.
Groping for answers, but finding it difficult to arrive at any, it was however reasoned that, the man might have been hoodwinked, or is been swindled by con men, who are sucking and siphoning Benue’s resources to finish.
Other Sundry Issues
There are series of constitutional infractions in Benue State caused by the Governor. Recently, the relationship between the Governor and his Special Adviser on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Mr. Solomon Wombo has gone sour. The Governor instead of sacking Mr. Solomon Wombo in line with international best practices, he has resorted in making the Special Adviser redundant. In his place, the Chairman of Logo Local Government who was until his election in 2012 the Personal Assistant to the Governor, Hon. Kester Kyenge is made to be acting in that capacity in addition to his primary role as Council Chairman. He has subsequently presided over Joint Account meetings in the last two months.
Corruption has remained on the increase under the watch of the Governor. He awarded a contract for the construction of the Makurdi inner road since 2007 at the cost of N2.7 billion. The road is about 5.6 km making the cost per kilometer to be N482, 142,857.14. This contract has dragged for years with variation done on the contract every year. The project is yet to be completed and even at that, the quality of work done is very poor. The Governor we understand from reliable sources collected about 40% of the cost of the contract in kick backs hence the delay in the completion of the project.
Makurdi residents, who thought with the commissioning of the Greater Makurdi Water Works by President Jonathan during a visit to Benue State on March 9, 2012, the issue of acute water shortage would be put to rest, now believe the project is a mirage. Notably, there was no test run of the plant, which is customary during the commissioning of a water project. This is because there is no functional pipe network. A contract for reticulation has not been awarded by the government. Benue people were also not aware that the Federal Government had contributed N2 billion to the completion of the project, which was never disclosed by the state government. It was during the “Good Governance Tour” of Benue State that the Honourable Minister of Information and National Orientation, Hon. Labaran Maku made the disclosure. The project was at worst, a conduit pipe for siphoning scarce resources of the state. An initial contract of N4.99 billion was eventually executed with over N7 billion. Why was the contribution of the Federal Government not made known to the public? What has become of it?
The security situation in Benue State has deteriorated over the last 3 years. Thugs who were armed by the Governor to ensure victory for him and his party; the PDP in the 2011 general elections have turned those arms against innocent citizens. We wish to call on the Federal Government of Nigeria to initiate an amnesty programme for armed youths in the state so that they can surrender their arms for peace to return to the state. They harass, maim, rob and kill people at will. The Police have made several efforts to arrest and prosecute the criminals but the governor has always meddled into the activities of the force thereby hindering them from performing their duties.
The federal government monetization policy was aimed at saving government the cost of building and maintaining public houses for civil servants. This was domesticated in the state when all the state government owned houses such as the Kwararafa quarters, Lobi Quarters, Ankpa Quarters and low-cost houses were sold to civil servants and other interested members of the public who could afford them. Incidentally, the government of Governor Gabriel Suswam seems to have engaged the reverse gear on this policy. The government in addition to the government lodges has bought houses of cronies to the governor at exorbitant prices and turned them into government guest houses.
A typical example is the state government acquisition of the duplex built by a Special Assistant to the Governor, Hon. Joseph Tsavsar (a.k.a Joe K) in the Judges Quarters area of Makurdi and turning it into a Government Special Guest House at a cost above N400million.
The Governor has reduced the Board of Internal Revenue Service (BIRS), Benue State into an Automated Cash Machine (ATM). He demands for proceeds of taxes collected by the Board directly from the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Asen. There are no records and even where records exist, they are falsified. The Chairman is summoned by the Governor at any time of the day to bring money either to Abuja or the government house. When people pay taxes, they expect the government to utilize the proceeds properly for the betterment of their lives and their communities. Also, the Chairman has been a regular visitor to the EFCC in Abuja and wish the Commission will hasten their investigation into the activities of the Board and other government agencies in the state.
Ecological funds accruable to the state have also not been applied properly. Drainage channels in Makurdi and other major towns in the state have been blocked and any major rain results to flooding. Should we assume that the federal government has stopped the release of ecological funds to Benue State?
Finally, I wish to remind the governor that whatever goes around always comes around. I wish to also call on the people of Benue State to be very wise in the choice of who would succeed Rt. Hon. Gabriel Torwua Suswam as Governor come 2015. The debts piled up by this administration must be probed. This is why the governor is insisting on handing over to one of his cronies to avoid probe while he will take refuge in the Senate, I therefore call on the sound discerning, and reasoning people of Benue State to stoutly resist this evil scheme, by Gabriel Torwua Suswam, aimed at impoverishing and punishing our people with our children yet unborn, through every available means though legal. Our only wrong, or fault was that, we gave this licentious fellow too long a rope, as he has taken us for a ride for too long.
James T. Iorlumun
Public Affairs Analyst