The quest of Governor Gabriel Suswam of Benue State to return to Government House for another four years is not without difficulties. The defection of his predecessor, Senator George Akume alongside other top PDP members to the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, and other political parties in the state seem to pose a minus to the governor’s re-election bid. Speaking during a political debate organised by the Correspondents’ Chapel, Governor Suswam challenged his political opponents, including Prof. Steve Ugbah, to download their antecedents in the state to the electorate and described the likes of Akume and Joseph Akaagerger as ‘political paper weights’. Joseph Wantu was there.
In watching the political campaigns this time around in the state, it is observed that politicians are not putting issues forward, rather, they engage in attacking personalities involved in the contest . . .
I believe the key issues are whether the incumbent governor has impacted on the lives of the people of Benue, the things he has done to touch the people’s lives in the last three years. I think these are the issues. The issue of the Electoral Act is an academic one; it is not an INEC issue, it is not an issue for rural farmers. It is not an issue for somebody who doesn’t have access to accommodation. All he knows is that the person who is or who wants to be governor should let the people know if he will be able to construct roads or provide the basic amenities. Those are the key issues; it is not the Electoral Act.
I believe that in all the campaigns that I have done round the entire state, I have deliberately raised issues, putting them on the table. The issues that I have raised are that the gubernatorial candidate of the ACN has no antecedent, as far as the politics of this state is concerned, and it is dangerous to elect someone who has no antecedent, after we have practiced democracy for twelve years; nobody knows him here, what he has done before, other than being told that he is a professor in America. We were told that he was an adviser to the governor of California. We have gone to the website, but there is nothing like that and that is an issue, because that touches on the integrity of the candidate and the elections as a whole.
We have also raised issues on the propriety matters. I started election as an independent-minded person. Ugbah has two godfathers, whose past antecedents have nothing to offer the people of Benue. Any person who has two godfathers cannot run a state. Even with one godfather, it is impossible for you to run a state. These godfathers paraded themselves during the rally held in Gboko, saying they are the ones bringing change, the ones bringing the governor. It is absolutely dangerous for a state to have somebody who neither has a mind of his own, nor the ambition to be governor.
I have also raised issues as to the performance of these puppet masters because they are the ones presenting Ugbah. So, I am running an election with them and not Ugbah. The former governor was governor for eight years,but I can point at things that I have done within three years, eight months, in sharp contrast to what he succeeded in doing in eight years. This is an issue, as far as our elections are concerned and I have raised these issues without insulting anyone. I have raised issues that border on performance. For the puppet masters who have presented him, Ayu has been minister thrice. It was when he was minister of industry that Benue Cement was sold. We have all the details of the transaction and we know what went on. This is an issue also.
In Taraku Mills, heavy loans were taken under the leadership of George Akume and Manasseh Joshua was locked up, yet we have no explanation as to where the money went. I had to pay because Taraku Mills was put on receivership. I have paid about two hundred and seventy million (N270 million) Naira – that is an issue as far as this election is concerned. This clearly shows that Akume has nothing to offer the people of Benue because of his antecedents. He said that he awarded contracts for roads and I am taking the credit for it. If you were governor for eight years and you could not construct roads and then you say that the person who succeeded you is taking credit, I don’t know what to believe. There is nothing like that.
In the last six months of his administration, he awarded contracts for the construction of some rural roads, one of which is the Amafu – Ugbah road, to one company called JUKOK. He awarded another, the Nwanune – Igbo road to the same company. He mobilised the contractors with two billion naira (N2bn). Besides the Amafu – Ugbah road, the one leading from Nwanune to Igbo is there for anyone of you to go check whether any grader even went there; yet two billion was given to the man. The case is before the EFCC. He also awarded the contract for the UNIAGRIC – Gbajimba road, to a company called Romix. It is there for all of you to go see whether that road was constructed. There is a contract that was given between Koryan and Vandeikya: that contract has not been handed over, go see whether it has been constructed. It is a failed contract. The road that borders Adikpo and Obudu has also not been handed over; it is another failed one. The total cost for those roads was pegged at fourteen billion Naira (N14bn). Two billion was mobilized and I have had to pay twelve billion Naira (N12bn). I’m almost done with that now, because I contracted the same contractor who was doing it. I never borthered myself about these issues, because I wanted to draw a line and move forward. At the Makurdi Water Works, there was not a block in place. The contract was awarded in 2001 at the cost of three billion Naira (N3bn), to produce forty-five thousand cubic meters per day by 2007. All that was done was some excavation. Seven hundred million Naira (N700mn) was mobilised to the contractor. That is an issue, as far as this election is concerned. Within two years, I have completed the construction; presently, they are fixing the fittings and by June this year, that water treatment plant will be running.
Akume stayed in the annex of the presidential lodge in government house (which is a two-bedroom boys quarters of the presidential lodge). I have finished construction of a befitting government house. That is an issue. That is to show that Ugbah’s puppet-masters have nothing to show to the people of Benue State and they are presenting somebody whom we do not know, a person who I and the people of Benue believe has nothing to offer because the people who are presenting him have nothing to offer as well. These are the issues I am presenting to the people of Benue State as I continue my campaign. I want them to come out with facts. They said I have not done anything. That is laughable, because I have completed the road leading from Adikpo to Ikyogen to Jato Aka. I have completed the road to Ugbokolo up to Eke. I have completed the reconstruction of general hospitals. Consider the dualisation of the Abu King Shuluwa road within the town here and you see a whole lot of difference. I am erecting three water- treatment plants (Katsina-Ala, Otobi and Makurdi). The road between Ugbokpo up to Oshigbudu is there on ground; the road between Otukpo to Igumale is half-way through. The road from the headquarters of Okpokwu local government up to Utonkon is on ground. So, it is laughable when you say I have not done anything. If you come to this building, the way we are seated today is not what it used to be. If you go to Abuja, the governor’s lodge in Abuja is something totally different, not to talk about the increase in salaries of workers and the increased security in the state. When I came into power, Benue State was enmeshed in violence. When you say I have not done anything, the people of Benue would laugh at you. These people have nothing to present to the people of Benue,including Ugbah whom they brought from some place I don’t know about.
If re-elected back into this office, what would be your cardinal areas of interest?
I have mentioned that before. Now that I have substantially addressed the issues of rural accessibility, I want to go into creation of wealth, believing that there would be constant power supply, because it makes no sense for me to set up cottage industries across the length and breadth of this state when I know they will not be operational, because of power supply. The few that we have are either crippled by mis-management or the issue of incessant power cut. Given the seriousness with which President Jonathan has shown on the issue of power, I believe that we will have constant power supply and we will create cottage industries. Now, there is accessibility. Once you have cottage industries where few youths would be employed, there would be commercial activities and a reduction in poverty. So, I am going to face reduction of poverty squarely beyond May 29, 2011.
You’ve been nicknamed ‘Mr. Infrastructure’. You talked about the Makurdi Water Works (although by our own estimation, it should have been completed by now), would you say that anything in particular is responsible for the delay?
We ran into shortage of funds and that delayed it but we have been able to assess some funds and the contractor has been paid. That is responsible for the four-month delay. Baring that, it was supposed to have been commissioned or test-run by February. The contractor has given me June of this year for the commissioning of the plant. If you go there now, they are taking care of the electrical fittings. Every other thing is in place. We believe that by June, that would be test-run.
You hit hard on your predecessor, Senator George Akume for non-performance, notwithstanding that you started on a good note with him, before you two fell out. What really is the problem between you two that cannot be resolved?
In politics, what matters to people is permanent interest. People can change allegiance anytime, so Senator Akume has moved to another party and I remain in the PDP and so, we are operating on two different political platforms. As far as I am concerned, Akume is no longer an issue within the PDP. We are facing the election, he is in a different political party and I am in a different one and at the end of the polls, whoever wins, I have no problem with that.
Do you have any clue as to the reason for the massive gang-up against your re-election bid by the opposition?
That is politics. I am somebody who likes challenges and always at my best when I face challenges in life. Like you said, the former governor has moved to the ACN. Senator Akkagerger participated in the primaries of the PDP and lost to Chief Barnabas Gemade before he defected to the ACN. Senator Akaagerger is a political paper-weight, as far as the party and the politics of Zone A are concerned. He will never win that seat. So, I don’t consider his defection as a point of reference.
You mentioned the former deputy speaker and the former speaker. The former speaker took over from me in the House of Representatives. He also knew he was going to lose the primary in the PDP and also defected to the ACN. As a former Speaker, people are flocking around him, but I want to let you know that he can never win that election in that federal constituency. For the former deputy Speaker, I am not sure he is contesting for anything. I am not also aware of his defection but if he has done that, we also have political heavy-weights in Otukpo (like the Senate President and the minister of state) and he would have to contend with them. If these political actors have defected to the other party, of course, in politics, people must follow someone and you don’t expect that an election like the gubernatorial would be a tea party. I don’t expect that. People are bound to make decisions, but in politics, you don’t force people to do what they don’t want to do. So, they are exercising their constitutional right and I have no problem with that. We are all going into the election. At the end of the election, someone will definitely win, and whoever wins, I believe we will congratulate ourselves and move forward.
As the chief security officer of the state, how do you intend to control political thuggery during the elections?
I am taking some measures. It is very obvious that the ACN are determined that there should be violence, because of their attitude of barricading roads and putting brooms on people’s vehicles. For the first time, you see that instead of putting flags, they tie brooms across major highways. The essence is to provoke people so that there would be violence. I have insisted that the PDP followers maintain their calm. They have desperately tried to provoke violence in the state but we have resisted it and we will continue to do it. We will vote and the PDP will win overwhelmingly, because the people have seen clearly, the act of provocation embarked upon by the ACN. When the President came here, I took him to the venue of the rally but when the ACN presidential candidate came, I was told they hired bikes and drove from here to Gboko, barricading the road up to Gboko. These are acts of provocation and it does not in any way indicate massive support. When you barricade a road, anybody who is traveling and falls behind you becomes part of the entourage
So saying,I want to appeal to the Benue people to take note of these provocative acts by the ACN and reject the party as a party of violence. We are not looking for violence. In the eight years of Akume administration, Benue state was inundated with violence, we do not want to revert back to that situation and that is why I have maintained security. We have taken note of those who are perpetrating this and at the right time, the security agencies would have to do their work.
In your capacity as the coordinator of the Jonathan / Sambo Campaign Organisation in the north central zone, how far has the campaigns been, seeing as there are speculations that you have been replaced by your counterpart in Nasarawa State?
(Laughs) I believe that, you know, journalists embark on investigative journalism when cheap lies such as this are being peddled. I think these are issues that you should dismiss. These lies are a product of envy. To them, it’s a big deal if I am replaced. It then means that it is an issue to them that I am the coordinator of Jonathan in the north central. They don’t replace people through rumour. I have not been replaced and I won’t be. I will see to it that Jonathan wins the north central zone overwhelmingly. It is wishful thinking from the opposition camp. They are worried and they will continue to be worried.
At the beginning of your administration, there was this zeal to embark on projects but at a point, this zeal cooled off. What was responsible for this?
Capital projects are a function of funds’ availability. You will see that by next week, the tempo will pick up, because I am going to flag off the two roads; the one in Oju, through Idele Okposa to Utonkon and the other one between Taraku and Agagbe. Resources dwindled and there was a lull on award of road contracts. Road projects are highly capital intensive, especially when you award it to serious-minded firms, not those like JUKOK or Romix. When it is Dantata and Sawoe or PW, Rockbridge or CCG, you get quality work. When they handle your work, it becomes more expensive, but when you give it to JUKOK or Romix, you know that they will not be done in the way they are supposed to be done and before they hand over, the roads will fail. So, once the resources dwindled, we had to slow down but that will pick up because we have accessed some funds. Ordinarily, if I was somebody who does not have commitment at this time, I won’t be expending money to begin or pay for new projects. I would have been finding ways on how to misappropriate the money for my election. But I am paying contractors, there are new contractors whom we have paid mobilisation fees and they have started moving to these sites. Soon, you will witness the flag off of these major road projects.
One of your basic problems, though you try to shy away from it, is that you still maintain all the commissioners, all the aides and all the top politicians you inherited from your predecessor. And most of them are alleged to still visit the house of your opponent at night like Nicodemus, and whatever you do in government is leaked to the other side. Certain sensitive contractual agreements you engaged in, that are not supposed to be in the open are made public. Why have you continued to carry your baggage for four years, because no governor has done this? Will you still carry them over if re-elected?
Well, let me say that I believe in working with people and in doing that, we all have our failings in different areas. I know that we have this situation that you have mentioned (in which you have some people who are working with me were inherited but that is to show good faith). As far as I am concerned, there is nothing in government that I am doing or have done that should be hidden to anybody. If they are contractual agreements, they are meant for the people, publish them. It’s no big deal to me. If somebody will sneak documents, are you sneaking documents, because I have taken N2bn or what? You are taking documents of contracts that have been approved by the exco of this state and signed by the ministry and the contract awarded. That is not an issue and people should know. I have no problem with that. Some of these individuals you have mentioned believe that I don’t know this but they also have contributed immensely in different ways for us to move forward. As you move along, you continue to adjust government as you see the manner of people whom you are working with. I never wanted to ‘just sack’ people because they had worked with the previous administration. I wanted to see how much they can contribute. Majority of them have contributed a lot but when they visit in the night and pass documents, the people of Benue are seeing what I have done with their money. When you say I have awarded contract for water projects, do you go there and see the water project not being done? The amount was announced on radio and I have no problem with that, because I don’t sign contracts. It’s the business of the ministry of justice and the ministry concerned. You won’t see my signature appended on any of the contracts. They are debated upon by the exco and approved by the exco. I do not approve contracts. It is the responsibility of the exco of the state. I wish them luck. What is important to the man on the
street is that I have constructed the road between Ikyogen and Adikpo. If you take the paper and say, ‘this is the contract’, it is totally immaterial to them. What matters is that they have good roads. I went to have my rally in the late governor’s (Aper Aku) village and you could see the excitement of the villagers. Aper Aku was a governor but there had never been a road leading to his village. The road is now on-going. I have taken electricity to that village and all the villages along that route are benefiting from it. Even the DG to the gubernatorial candidate of ACN, Prof. Iornem, has tapped that electricity to his house. So, what matters to the people is that these things are on ground. I don’t do anything that would embarrass me. Everything I have done in government, I have done openly.
In some quarters, people are of the opinion that you made a fundamental error by allowing Benue State University to increase school fees just few weeks to the elections. What do you have to say to that?
It is not within my powers to increase the fees of the BSU, but I know that something happened. When there was a negotiation for us to enhance the salaries of the staff, we arrived at a compromise. First, the negotiation was done by the federal government and not by the state. You are aware that in the east, universities have been closed down because the governors there said they don’t have money to pay the salary that was negotiated by the federal government but I decided to pay. We reached a compromise that the state government would pay 80% of that salary but the university must internally generate 20%: they (the university management) agreed. It is within their power to look for sources as to how they can generate the 20% to add to the 80% we are giving them in order to pay the salary. Everything here is politicized, that is why we can’t make any progress. First, the university was closed down and they said ‘Suswam has closed down BSU’. We found a way to decide on how they can pay the salaries of their workers. We must make progress. Having increased the fees of the university, the university is sourcing funds internally to achieve 20%, so that they can add that with the eighty percent that we are giving them in order to pay their salaries. I believe that we should not play politics and if you consider private universities, they pay the cheapest fees. You can go investigate; in other places, they pay far more than what we do here. I didn’t increase the fee; the university is sourcing funds internally to make up the twenty percent so that the lecturers further their education. It will put us in a difficult situation if we say that we are paying those fees as demanded by the university.
(Interview excerpts as reported by Joseph Wantu LEADERSHIP Newspaper March 27th 2011)