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Compelling Conversation with Gov. Gabriel Suswan

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A fortnight ago, the executive governor of Benue state, Hon Gabriel Suswan, who was part of the delegation of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan to the United Nation`s general assembly in New York, sat down with newsmen, including our editor-in-chief

Emmanuel Emeke Asiwe and fielded questions. Clad in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the governor was erudite as he spoke on a range of issues , including the creation of state police, challenges encountered by his administration , court case instituted by the governors forum against the federal government on the excess crude account and rotational presidency.

  Q: May we start by first knowing the challenges you are facing in the governance of Benue State so far?

A : Basically, we face the challenges of funding, because the finances of the country, generally, have dwindled, arising from the activities of some oil theft in the Niger-Delta. There has been a lot of crude oil theft and that has affected, largely, the finances that come to the state and so we are contending with theft that has affected some of the objectives that would have been achieved. That is one big challenge. The attitude of people generally also constitutes another challenge.

There should be positive attitude to appreciate genuine efforts being made by governments to make a difference in the lives of Nigerians. That is the biggest challenge that I think I have: the attitude of people, not just in Benue. Nigerians are cynical, negative in their attitude. To a large extent you can't blame the people because over a large period of time leadership has been about unfulfilled promises, so the people are now cynical.

They do not want to hear you promise 'we are going to do A and B,' they'd rather hear you say 'we have done this and that.' We are getting to a level that we now have to perform first then render account of stewardship later.

Q: With what you have said, oil theft in the Niger Delta, one would begin to wonder how that should have been problems for a fertile plain like Benue, with the famous Benue Basin. Could there be some logic to the demands for true federation in Nigeria, why should oil theft in the Delta affect the fortune of an agriculturally rich state like Benue?

A : There were some mistakes that were made some years ago and what is now happening is that we are paying for them. The resources that were used in the first place, in prospecting for the oil came from agriculture. Those were the days when cocoa from the south-west, the groundnut pyramids in Kano and cotton drew foreign exchange for Nigeria. Nigeria used money that came from agricultural resources to prospect the oil that was later discovered. After the discovery of oil, we abandoned farming completely. And so we have a situation where every single person now depends on that oil. Every state, even where you have plentitude in agriculture like Benue State, like you rightly observed, now depends on oil revenue.

One needs large capital to move beyond subsistent practice to be able to attract revenue. The kind of traditional agriculture we have now would only attract low revenue. It is practically impossible to make any meaning. Produce would have to be processed. For us to be competitive, we need to meet certain international standards. We don't have the resources, we don't have the capital, or we have it but we are refusing to invest properly in order to be competitive in international community market. That creates a fundamental problem. We now rely on oil. Every month, we wait for the federal account, eighty percent of which comes from oil revenue. That is why once there is a breakage in one pipe, the whole country catches cold. Everyone, state, federal government is dependent. Until we get back into re-investing in agriculture, we'll continue to suffer.

The federal government is making some efforts. The efforts would take time. It would take some time before we get some results. Until then, no huge yield can come from traditional agriculture.

Q: Obviously waiting on the federal government cannot excuse your own program level. What are the practical steps you are taking to embrace commercial agriculture in Benue?

A : I have done a lot in spite of the huge capital required. But we need a lot of money to make any meaningful impact. At the moment we are in partnership with the state of Iowa. We have set up piggery farm in Benue.

Recently, we visited Vietnam and we signed a Memorandum of Understanding for us to produce rice. And we are also trying in other ways to build other infrastructure.

You see, when you produce, there is also the problem of processing and marketing. We must process and meet the international standard for us to compete. If what we do is just for the local market and domestic consumption, the revenue will be insufficient. The value chain must be created for us to farm, process and market. Efforts are on to make things work. It is going to take time. We are going to be forceful about our desire to break through.

Q: What is you take on the court case against the federal government on the excess crude account?

A : You see, excess crude was a creation of the National Assembly, which I was a part of. The thinking then was that those were monies that were in excess of the benchmark. For instance, the benchmark could be $60. And the asking price of oil could be $100. So the difference of $40 constitutes the excess revenue. So the excess goes into the excess crude account. It was felt that the then president was indiscriminately spending the monies without referring to the National Assembly. It was a creation of the budget.

The excess crude account has now come to stay because everyone now knows that there is a place where surplus earnings go. I was not a governor then. But the former president ensured that monies accrued and available were paid to the states. And when late President Yar'Adua came into office, he basically did the same thing, ensuring that every state got a fair share.

When the present president came on board, he initiated the idea of a sovereign wealth fund, which was initially problematic, but we agreed to it. But beyond the sovereign wealth fund, there was also some money in the excess crude account; the monies belong to both the federal and state governments. And the states are now insisting that we also have a stake in the funds. It is not for the central government alone. We are now saying that they cannot be expending that money at will. It must be with our consent. And when we have problems, we expect a bail out, that here is some money that should assist in overcoming those difficulties. And the federal government is not very comfortable with that. We, therefore, reached a need a court interpretation. I don't think we are taking the federal government to court. All we are asking for is an interpretation.

Q: The governors' forum must have discussed the rising clamor for state police. What is your take on the matter?

A : I was opposed to state police from the word go and I am still opposed to it. And I have given reasons. One of them is that as a country, we are not mature enough to have state police. Our politics is still stabilizing. You see how we go to court. You see how we spend endless months in court over election petitions. I spent one year in court. Is that how a people who are matured enough to have a state police should carry on in politics?

For instance, if you give me State Police, who would take me to court? You take me to court, I will decide that you have committed a crime and you may end up in jail. And so, yes, for me state police can work in my favor as governor, but it would become a tool for oppressing the weak. I don't support it because it would divide the country. It would totally divide the country because of people who abuse it. In the sixties, the Native Authority police, what did they do to get them disbanded? They were willing to be used for abuses. People used them to haunt political opponents. I opposed it from Day One. It would be good for me to have a state police. If anyone comes to Benue and I don't like his face, one automatically becomes a criminal. As far as I describe him as a criminal, he becomes a criminal and he would be locked up.

So you would now have people become law unto themselves. There would be no opposition in any state. People would be indiscriminately locked-up. If you write or report objectively, even as journalists, you may be set-up. They would say that you committed a traffic offense and they would lock you up. Until we are able to show maturity at the level of leadership, that is when we can have a robust and decent debate on state police. Otherwise, I am opposed to it.

Q: Fulani herdsmen were outlawed in Ogun State because of clashes with indigenes. You face similar challenges in Benue. Are you open to banning nomads in your state as well?

A : Well, if Ogun State has done that, they have committed a breach of the Constitution. No Nigerian has the power under our constitution to ban another Nigerian from moving freely about. I don't think that is right. And I am surprised that state would ban another group from moving freely. I think that we should rather find a solution to the problem other than banning them from entering a state.

In Benue, I think more than any other state, we have had a substantial share of the attacks from the Fulanis. We still have some security operatives in some villages. As I talk to you, who are helping us maintain the peace. They are people we have lived with, they do not settle in any place. They move from one place to another, in order to enable their cattle feed. It is either that as Nigerians, we find a solution to the problem or live with it.

All of us eat meat. The meat, about twenty percent of the protein we consume comes from that. The Fulani shepherds the cow. Only little of our protein comes from fish. We must create grazing areas like it is done in developed countries, localize the herds in a place and provide the infrastructure, so that they don't go out and run into conflict with farmers. You cannot stop them from roving about. It is a way of earning a livelihood for them. There is no way you can justify stopping a farmer from farming, except you create an alternative for him. I don't support banning Fulanis. I have engaged them. For the problem to be solved there must be meaningful engagement. If a person is not a criminal, you cannot ban or restrict him.

Q: Ahead of 2015, there is alignment of politicians and interests. 2015 is still very far, what is your position on alignment on one hand your position on agitation on the other hand? Would you support rotational presidency as it were before?

A : Rotational presidency? Yes. The presidency has always been rotated among Nigerians. That is why, after Obasanjo completed his tenure, the feeling was that the presidency should come to the north. Yar'Adua became the president. And Goodluck Jonathan has now become the president after the death of Yar'Adua. That is what the constitution provides. The constitution provides for a deputy that in the event that the substantive occupant of the office of the president becomes incapacitated or dead, the deputy takes over.

So when Jonathan took over and decided to legitimately contest, a matter of right as well, a lot of Nigerians said that he should go ahead and contest. He won the election. The feeling among northerners who are agitating strongly is that they did not finish the term and that they should be allowed to complete their term in the Villa. But then you have an elected president and he has a tenure that is not expiring anytime soon. So I am rather surprised that the issue of 2015 has taken the front burner. It is pre-mature. It is a characteristic of a failed state because people abandon governance and talk about election. There are so many years ahead, people talking of 2015. They don't believe in governance. All that people want to say is 'Look, I am president. I am this. My people have the presidency'. They are not interested in seeing us settle down and look at the issues and then make a difference. It does not make sense to talk about 2015 now. It distracts us. It is baseless. The man has only done a year. People are free to align. I have no problem with that because politics is conspiracies. And people conspire to attain power. There is nothing wrong with that, but for it to now take precedence over and above serious governance is what I have a problem with. It is too early. We should encourage him to succeed. We must separate politics at the time of campaigning and politics at the time of governance. Nigerians must know the difference.

Unfortunately, it is happening at the level of elites. Our elites play all manner of games. They are talking of 2015 now but they have nothing to offer. Why should they be talking about 2015 when election has not been concluded? It means they want raw power. I am not in support of anyone talking about 2015 now. It is the constitutional right of northerners to agitate for the presidency. Between now and 2015, a lot of water will pass under the bridge. And when we get to the bridge, we shall definitely cross it. It is premature to talk about 2015 now.