Governor Gabriel Suswam of Benue State recently spoke with newsmen on his victory at the Supreme Court, the national security challenge and other issues. George Okoh was there. Excerpts:
The Supreme Court recently dismissed the suit filed against you by the governorship candidate of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Prof. Steve Ugbah. What does this portend?
You know that any legal person will know that a supreme court sitting in full comprises seven supreme court justices who delivered the initial judgment that affected the other governors took their own decision. If you look at the history of the case reviewed, it is very rare across the entire world for any apex court in any nation to review a case on previous motion by interested parties. And so, I knew all along that they were only wasting their time and that was why the Supreme Court was not happy and decided to award cost and that is the highest cost that the Supreme Court has ever awarded. That shows the level of anger because that was an abuse of court process.
A decision had been taken and both the electoral law and the constitution are very clear as to the sacrosanct of the 180 days. Yet, people will still go back and ask the same people who passed that judgment to review it themselves. This should serve as a deterrent for people to stop abusing court processes. What I can say is that the entire people of Benue State are vindicated. There has been so much noise. This is the first time in the history of the state that a governor who has won election clearly, will be in court for three years and it is a bad precedence actually, for the state.
If I didn't want to do anything in the state, I would have used that as an excuse to say that I'm still in court. It's not good for the state and they have been put to shame and I believe that next time, no other party or person will do that to any person that will come in as governor. This is a victory to the entire people of Benue State and the deceit of the leadership of the APC will stop. They have been deceiving their followers saying they will soon move into Government House. That will stop and people will concentrate. For me, I was not distracted because I knew it was an exercise in futility.
Are you extending an olive to the opposition considering the level at which they pursued the case against you?
No, we are encouraging all of them to defect. I'm not extending anything. We are ready to receive those who have suffered deceit for a long time and they are in their numbers. We have very prominent former APC sons of Benue who, as men who have served this country and out of anger, left and saw the deceit that it was better they come back to their own family. And a whole lot of this younger generation who initially had their own misgivings. Hundreds of them are defecting all over the local governments. APC is a party where only one person will sit in his room and write the names of party congress and you know the outcome of that.
In PDP, even as a governor, I recognise that there are leaders in each community and when we are conducting any party activity, those leaders are the ones I will rely on. I won't sit down in Government House here because I'm a governor and write names of congress people. But that is what is happening in their party. It is not just in the state here but both at the national level because the party is owned by one person.
So, the people at their branches here also feel they own the party. How do people operate in a party like that? It is not in the military where you have people operating from top to down approach. Here, we expect and encourage participation. So, we are not extending any olive branch to them but we are encouraging them to defect. My arms are wide open to receive anyone of them back to PDP.
You have less than one year to go, how do you intend to complete some of your on-going projects and solve the issue of implementation of minimum wage to primary school teachers who are currently on indefinite strike?
I'm going to prioritise some of the projects and the teachers' strike I hope to end it this month. I have taken some measures which I believe will address that because we cannot keep school children out of school for six months. I don't sleep because I went through the same process like most of us here. A majority of us went through public primary school and so, why should we kill these public schools? What I'm doing is asking everyone to sacrifice. When I came in, some staff who were on level seven, who were taking N19,000 are now collecting N61,000. I'm the one who increased those salaries in that manner and I'm asking that let us take N6000 out of that amount to enable our children return to school.
The permanent secretaries, when I came were collecting N73, 000 and now are taking over N400, 000 and all I ask is that they give us N25, 000 out of that money. I don't think that is too much. There is no other place we can get that money because allocation has gone down by 40% and it is across the entire nation not just Benue. That is not peculiar to Benue because in Ekiti State, Governor Fayemi only started paying the 27.5% which we started paying three years ago. And there has been no strike in that place. Why is our situation peculiar?
All our teachers here needed to do was stay in class and negotiate. But they have been on strike for six months now. It doesn't make sense and I have no other place of raising this money except that I and the leadership of Benue sacrifice. That is the only way. The other alternative which I have given and which I'm going to do if this does not work is to downsize the workforce by 40%. So, we have two options, either I downsize or people sacrifice N6000, N25,000 given the outrageous salary increase that I gave them.
It is over one month since the Chibok girls were abducted and are yet to be rescued despite the intervention of the international community. How do you see this?
Dealing with terrorism is a very difficult thing. You will agree with me that even developed nations like America, Israel, Britain and others that have suffered terrorism, it took them years to come out of it. Even in the UK where the IRS was a thorn in the flesh of their government, it took more than 20 years for it to finally subside. When Al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center in New York, it took them a long time to track down those people. You see, it is a new phenomenon that nobody anticipated and when it comes, you must absorb the shock and then find an appropriate way of addressing it. The Israelis, when they suffered terrorism, when the situation of Black September happened during the games in Germany, it took them a long while to track down those Black September terrorists.
So, I've not slept as I imagine my own child of 14 or 15 years in the hands of those animals. No parent or any reasonable person will sleep. All of us are involved in this situation. The government is doing its best. For a long period of time after the civil war, Nigeria has enjoyed peace. We were not prepared for this at all and the war with terror is different from the conventional war. These are people you cannot see, no access to where they are staying, they don't believe in luxury. Some of them are even ready to die any moment. So, it is difficult to deal with such people. Now, I believe that with the pressure from the international community, we will get result.
The first result is that the man was able to put the girls together and video them and that shows he has moved from threatening to sell them and now knows that there is pressure all over the place. The president was in France recently to meet with the president of France and other African leaders, American, the UK governments and other countries are also interested in helping Nigeria. These are all ways of finding solutions as to how we can address this. So, instead of damning the government, people should sympathise with government. While we demonstrate that the girls should come back, we should also demonstrate against the evil activities of these people.
People seem to forget that as they demonstrate only against government, we are emboldening these animals because they feel that if we do this, pressure will be on government. Let us also condemn the activities of Boko Haram. Let us not play politics with this issue because as long as we continue to play politics with it, it will not work. When the bombing in America happened, both the Republican and the Democrat were sitting on the same table to address the problem and by so doing they were able to address it.
Let us sit together irrespective of our party affiliation and address this problem. It is something that affects everybody – Christians, Muslims and even pagans. My opinion is that let us all join hands together with government and with the help and assistance now being offered by the international community, I believe that this problem will be put to rest once and for all.