Saturday, 15 October 2016

In Benue, It’s Governor vs. Ex-Governor

The cold war between Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom and his predecessor, Dr. Gabriel Suswam since the change of government in 2015 appears to be degenerating as a result of the controversy over government’s revocation of a property belonging to Suswam.

Ortom of the All Progressives Congress (APC) won the election against the wish of Suswam who supported the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Prince Terhemen Tarzoor.

Soon after he assumed duty, Ortom set up several panels including the Justice Elizabeth Kpojime commission and an assets verification committee to probe both financial and property matters under Suswam between 2007 and 2015.

The panels came out with reports which indicted the former governor of misappropriation of funds running into billions of naira as well as unlawful acquisition of property with public funds.

Based on the findings, the state government moved to recover the Atom Kpera Lodge at Lobi Quarters in Makurdi (the current subject of controversy) which it alleged was wrongfully acquired by Suswam on the grounds that due process was not followed.

But Suswam swiftly sought redress in court before the government two weeks ago seized the property which hitherto served as his private residence.

The government also erected a signpost in front of the lodge to show that it had been converted to the office of the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In an immediate reaction, the state Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Bemgba Iortyom, condemned the action, saying it contravened the rule of law as the case was still in court.

“The presiding judge of the High Court, Justice Theresa Igoche, had struck out the case on February 10, 2016 for lack of jurisdiction to entertain it, and Suswam, through his counsel, David Iorhemba, leading Barristers M. T. Nyiutsa and T. A. Shija, approached the Court of Appeal in Makurdi.

“We further understand that on June 27, 2016 after adopting the motions of both parties, the presiding judge of the appellate court, Justice Oyebisi Oluwaye,  adjourned the case to October 6, 2016 for the entertainment of written addresses of both parties and further directed against a forceful take-over of the property by government, reiterating to its counsel, Barrister Mike Assoh, the need for compliance and warned against the consequences of disobedience of the directive,” Iortyom said.

The PDP secretary faulted officials of the Ortom administration for forcing their way into the property even with personal belongings of the former governor inside.

A document obtained by our correspondent showed that the former governor was given approval to acquire the property in October 2008 while he was believed to have applied for it precisely one month after approval by the State Executive Council under his watch.

The document also revealed that the council after its approval ordered the renovation of the property at the cost of over N183million before Suswam formally acquired it at N4million.

It was gathered that the former governor made a futile bid for the property during the Senator George Akume administration while the PDP alleged that Suswam rightly acquired the residence from the original winner of the bid who could not pay for it. However, the government committee revoked the acquisition.

Reacting to the PDP’s stand, the state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Michael Gusa, debunked claims that Ortom ordered government officials to take over the lodge, saying the purported allocation to Suswam during his tenure was the decision of the State Executive Council.

Gusa added that the current State Executive Council discovered that the former governor misused his powers and allocated the lodge to himself before necessary tenders and the council directed its revocation and takeover accordingly.

The commissioner explained the former governor took the state government to the Makurdi High Court but the suit was dismissed against him and the property was accordingly taken over.

A group of elders known as Benue Polity Watch (BPW) criticized Ortom over what it termed “Selective prosecution and victimization of members of the opposition, particularly, those of the PDP”.

The group in a statement signed by its chairman, Denen Agbande and secretary, Echikwu Adama, alleged that the present government was being vindictive.

They alleged witch-hunt against Suswam, saying others such as the former Head of Service, Mike Iordye and retired Justice APB Utsaha also bought government houses during the period but were left out.

“We wish to make it known that we are not in support of the type of politics that is presently going on in the state. Since what is good for the goose is good for the gander, we want the governor to make a holistic probe, whether in terms of money or property and hold whoever is liable accountable since accountability and probity do not exist in party toga but in the polity of an entire state.

“Ortom will do well to write his name in gold if he frees himself from the shackles of political lords and jobbers and work hard to move the state forward instead of allowing himself to be used by those who will tomorrow wake up to point accusing fingers at him for non-performance,” the group said.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner for Justice has defended government’s takeover of the property, saying even if the former governor had gone on appeal, no court had issued any stay of execution order against the government restraining it from making use of the affected property.
However, the PDP secretary argued that the irregularities cited by the government to revoke the lodge were immaterial.

He said: “It ought to be noted that the Atom Kpera Lodge, like several other lodges, was sold out during George Akume’s tenure as governor.

He bought one for himself while the then Head of Service, Mr. Mike Iordye, who presided over the sale, also bought one while Mr. Ahom acquired one, another was sold to former president of the Customary Court of Appeal, retired Justice A.P.B. Utsaha and the remaining was sold to a relation of the Och’ Idoma. It is the one earlier sold to retired Justice Utsaha who said he could not meet the stipulated terms of payment that Suswam eventually bought.”

“We will not fold our arms and watch our members treated with impunity and arrogance by the ruling government since we are very much aware of the fundamental rights of our members and the safeguards provided for same by the laws of the land.

Furthermore, we challenge the governor to undertake an open review of the process of the acquisition of the other lodges sold alongside the Atom Kpera Lodge and other government landed properties too, including parts of the Industrial Layout in Makurdi which is alleged has been bought by the Oracle Business Conglomerate owned by Ortom,” the PDP said.

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