Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Truth About Unpaid Workers’ Salaries – Suswam

Benue State governor, Gabriel Suswam, is the Senatorial candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for Benue North-East. In this interview with some selected journalists, the outgoing governor speaks on his ambition, the new Benue and why some state governments are finding it difficult to pay salaries. Muyiwa Oyinlola was there.

You appear very relaxed in this I just feel that as we are campaigning round, when people see you as their leader looking very agitated, you know a lot will happen and I have known that, so I try to look as relaxed as possible. But then, we are sure footed on ground that PDP is going to win the elections here.

Your tenure as a two – time governor of the state will come to an end in the next few months. Looking back, how would you describe your experience and at what level did you meet Benue and at what level are you leaving it?

Well, the past eight years have been quite an experience and it is mixed with some very exciting moments and some sad that sometimes you wish that why did I get myself into this? But you know that is life.

Life is mixed – you don’t expect that it should be rosy all the time, or life of agitation all the time. I would say that I have gotten a load of experience – some bad, some good.

I have gotten to know human beings. I have gotten to know people and human behaviour. Politics is a better teacher even more than psychology as a subject and when you join politics and participate and contest elections, you will get to know who human beings are, so I have gotten to know that. You will also get to know if your father is actually your real father; people will tell you all kinds of things.

For instance, I woke up one day and I was told that I forged form five (5) certificate and to me, initially, I thought it was a joke because I did my secondary school in Government College Makurdi, then went to SBS Makurdi and UNILAG to read Law. So, it became an issue both locally and internationally. Then, I decided that I was going to face the issue. I wanted it to go through the process, so we went through the process up to the Supreme Court and nobody was able to produce a forged certificate. WAEC was also on standby with a subpoena.

To the second question, when I came on board in the state, there was a lot of apathy in people and very high infrastructural deficit and that is why when I started what I faced squarely was that of infrastructure. Now, if you go to villages in Benue State, they are connected with good roads. I invited good construction companies such as Dantata & Sawoe and PW etc and embarked on massive infrastructural projects; roads, water and electricity, even schools and hospitals.

For instance, when I came in, a permanent secretary in Benue state was earning N45,000 a month. Now, he earns N478,000. It’s a wide difference. A director was earning N26,000 but these directors are earning about N300,000 per month now. This is all through my instrumentality. So, even the life of an average worker has changed.

Their working environment, the secretariat which was built by the first civilian government led by Aper Aku; the furniture there were the furniture that were brought in from Benue-Plateau state when Benue state was created.

I met a despondent state with a lot of apathy but I have changed it.

What informed your decision to support the emergence of a governorship candidate who is seen by many as far too young and inexperienced to handle the challenges of governance?

When I became governor, I was under 42 years. I became governor before I clocked 42. You know, age should not be a parameter for judging whether somebody will perform or not. It is the substance in the person that matters. The young man you are talking about is about to defend his Ph.D in Monetary Economy. When he was speaker, I didn’t have issues with the (state) House (of Assembly). That indicates that he can manage people; and even the resources of the House were well managed because under him, we were able to do quite a bit for the House and these monies were given to him to do some of those things so, he can do very well.

Am worried that a former governor of the state, a senator and former minister would all be in the APC. It looks threatening that PDP may not have it that easy. What are your plans?

You see, there is politics everywhere, in the newspapers, politics in the urban centres. Most of what we people read in the newspapers is not the true representation of what is obtainable on the ground.

When I ran for election in 2011 a newspaper brought out an opinion poll and they gave my opponent 75% and gave me 15%, so even in that regard, PDP has 11 House of Reps members while they have 8. In the House of Assembly then, we had 29. Out of that 29, we had 21 and I won the leadership. That was an election that I had only 15% according to polls!

So, even at that point, the former governor and the former national chairman was in ACN, so when they call names of former this, former that, it is not what is on ground. It is only in Abuja and elsewhere that they fear those kinds of names. We are on ground. We know what is on ground so we are working with the people on ground and we are not averred to people moving parties. Elections are just two weeks away and we have no problem with that. So, PDP is going to win elections a 100 % in the state.

I would like to know why you want to be a senator after serving as governor and particularly what you want to do for your people. And secondly, why is the state finding it difficult to pay salaries?

Well, let me start with the issue of salaries. I have been governor for 7 years 8 months now. The issue of salary has never been an issue in Benue before. But like I said, Benue is a small agricultural state and in the entire of the north, we have the highest number of staff, 29,000 with a very high wage bill. The total wage bill of the state quarterly is 3.1 billion monthly. The wage bill of the local government is 4 billion. What we received last month for budgetary allocation for the local government is 2.5 billion. If I need to pay 2.7 billion, I need to borrow 200 million, that is if I were to pay only salaries.

I have carried so much infrastructure so let those my opponents dispute that I have not done that.

Current expenditure is over 95%, for salaries and wages only. So, it is either that I retrench workers or I will take the salary down. It became a problem so I did not hide it. And I said if we do not address this, we will get to a situation where it will be impossible to pay salaries. We have gotten to that situation. So, I’m owing two months salaries but for the local government, I am not owing them. As difficult as things may be, I have been managing it.

And mind you, there are about 24 states now that are owing salaries not just Benue. So, the situation is going to get worse when the new budget comes into operation and I am not sure that the national assembly is going to pass a budget that will put oil on N65 per barrel because it is unrealistic and un-implementable. And so, we as Nigerians must get ready that we are in a recession and we must understand that in a recession, certain drastic measures must be taken.

So, we can’t continue to pretend that all is well. It is not about me.

I have been paying salaries for 7 years 8 months, now we have a problem so we must know that we have a situation.

On the issue of my senatorial ambition, you know I started politics as a legislator and I was very effective. I started a Ph.D programme when I was in the House of Reps and I spent about three years doing it. My intention was that when I finish, I will go to the classroom but by the grace of God, I became governor, the initial temptation was to abandon that Ph.D but my lecturers encouraged me not to back down but make time and I did and eventually, I graduated still with the intention to still go to the classroom then my people started to agitate that I did well in the House of Reps and as governor so I should go to the national assembly as senator. But I know that there is where I belong, that is where I started and with the executive business, there are too many issues.

I know the terrain of the National Assembly very well and am better informed now than when I was in the House of Reps.

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