Mr Mark Longyen is the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State, In this interview with journalists in Jos, the Governor’s Spokesman bares his mind on the recent altercations between Lalong and his predecessor, Senator Jonah Jang, stressing that Jang should apologise to the people of the state for approving a gazette in 2009 for the creation of grazing reserves and grazing routes in the state, among myriad issues.
Recently, some groups in Plateau State protested against the alleged adoption by the state government of the Grazing Reserves/Ranching Policy of the Federal Government, sir what led to the protests and what is the true position of your government on the issues at stake?
First of all I want to make a clarification here. There is nothing like a grazing reserve policy either at the level of contemplation or implementation by the state government. What the state government keyed into was the Ranching Policy of the Federal Government, which was inherited from the Goodluck Jonathan administration. A Committee of former state governors earlier chaired by ex- Benue State Governor, Gabriel Suswam, had proposed Grazing Reserves or Ranches, but many opted for the latter. Incidentally, the time for its implementation fell under the Buhari administration. States were given the option of keying into either Grazing or Ranching policy and Plateau State opted for Ranching.
I think two things were responsible for the protests. One was pure ignorance about the content of the two distinct policies, while the other was sheer political mischief orchestrated by the Governor’s political opponents, who saw in the controversy the opportunity to score cheap political points by rubbishing the Lalong government and it’s decision to key into the Policy. They did not even take the pain to acquaint themselves with the content of the Policy and it’s attendant socio-economic benefits to the people.
The Governor had only set up a 14-man committee chaired by a renowned professor of Agriculture and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jos, Prof. Ochapa Onazi, and other experts like Professor Sharubutu, an expert in animal husbandry, Prof John Wade, an expert in fishery, Prof. CJ Dakas, SAN, among others with the mandate to meet with the Minister of Agriculture to get further details about the Ranching Policy prior to its implementation. Then, suddenly, like a bolt out of the blues, some people were instigated to protest against what they described as “Grazing Reserves Policy.” They did not and some still do not want to understand its component and the difference between Ranching and Grazing reserve. Now when you are ignorant and you don’t take pain to find out the details and true position about something based on falsehood, then that is where the problem will start and that is where many people initially got it wrong.
The second part was the handwork of opposition political mischief makers, who campaigned vigorously to rubbish the government through lies and falsehood in order to make political capital of the situation. When People hear of Grazing reserves what comes to their mind is Fulani herdsmen because Fulani herdsmen are known for grazing and so when they are deceived that the policy is for Grazing reserves they assume it is a policy that will lead to the government forcefully taking their lands away from them and giving them to the Fulani who would now graze on them. so ignorance was part of it and mischief makers capitalised on it. The modus operandi of the typical opposition that we have in this part of the world can be best illustrated with the behaviour of the devil. You know the Bible says that the devil moves to and fro, looking for whom to devour. Suddenly the opposition who had been in the cold for over a year ago to lick their bloody wounds of defeat after being thrown out of power had to find something doing. You don’t blame them, many of them are jobless individuals who have been surviving on the crumbs from PDP politicians, so now for lack of something doing, as they say, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, they go about looking for such opportunities to deceive the people by rubbishing the good policies of government by making noise to send wrong signals to the citizens of the state. Now following the committee’s report and wide consultations with Traditional Rulers, Religious Leaders, Youth Leaders, Lawmakers at state level and the National Assembly, etc, government is now studying the report with a view to implementing the Ranching Policy, not Grazing Reserves. Ranching is completely different from Grazing reserves, as Ranching entails getting a piece of land with the funding support from both the Federal and State Governments which financially support those who interested in caging their livestock. It does not necessary have to be cows, it can be goats, sheep, pigs, poultry and, perhaps, dogs in future and will be taken care of through the provision of excellent facilities like veterinary services, security, dams for water, etc, with lots of attendant benefits. And this, you know, is part of the empowerment programmes found in the Five Point Policy Thrust of the APC Government in the state, which the opposition do not want to hear.
Governor Lalong and Senator Jang have recently been having altercations over the grazing policy and a gazette allegedly earlier published by the Jang administration, which approved grazing routes and the Governor also accused Jang of being behind the protests. What’s your reaction to this?
Well, for an Executive Governor who has security reports at his disposal, I’m sure whatever the Governor said, was based on the security report before him. An Executive Governor is not like an ordinary citizen on the street, he has a lot of security information at his disposal and for him to have pointedly accused his predecessor for being behind the protests, he must have gotten some credible security information for which he cannot be faulted. But even the timing of the protests which commenced barely 24 hours after Jang released a statement which smacked of one who was not speaking from a well informed position, wantonly condemning the Policy, was very suspicious. A keen observer of what happened at that time will definitely point an accusing finger at the Senator, devoid of any security information. There is this saying in my place that “the evil bird cries at night and then at dawn the baby is found dead in the house.” So the Senator was a suspect based on the timing of the Press Release and the political leaning of those who championed the protests. He issued a statement then the next day there were protests all over the state and they were clearly led by his political allies. On the issue of the Gazette on Grazing Reserves by the past government, I have personally cited the document too, I can tell you authoritatively that it was published in 2009 by the Jang Government and even in the 2014 budget money was allocated for the Grazing Reserves in Kanam and Wase. Very soon, we will publish the gazette to expose his hypocrisy. I think Jang should apologise to the people of Plateau State for initiating the Grazing Reserve Gazette in 2009 and turning around to deny it now. He should honourably do that just the way he apologised to his PDP followers for misleading them when he denied the existence of rotational governorship in Plateau and led the party to permanent perdition.
As a matter of fact, Jang lacks patriotism, his blood is not Plateau-positive, because by virtue of his age and as a former Governor of the state, he is a stakeholder in the Plateau Project, and is expected to rally round the young Governor to ensure that he succeeds in the best interest of the state, instead of being the one leading an unnecessary distractive opposition attempting to rubbish all the policies of this Government for selfish political reasons. And mark you, since Jang got to the National Assembly, where he lost his Legislative voice, he has never attended a single stakeholders’ meeting regularly held by this Government. The Governor has been holding consultative stakeholders’ meetings on virtually all the policies of this administration right from inception. Jang is the only stakeholder, the only former Governor of the state and the only National Assembly member who has never attended any stakeholders’ meeting. Even today, Thursday, July 7, there is another consultative meeting with our National Assembly Members slated for 11 am, I’m going there after this interview and I’m sure he will be conspicuously absent!
Governor Lalong had on assumption of office declared war against corruption and promised to ensure the prosecution of all the officials of the past administration found to have looted the state treasury, but more than one year after, no one seems to have been arrested or prosecuted, why?
These are security issues and you may not be conversant with what has been going on, there have been invitations extended to alleged treasury looters and there have been some financial refunds and recoveries too. Have you not heard of the 2.7 billion naira that “developed wings and flew away” under the last administration and was traced to an account and recovered? Some ex-officials, including Jang himself have been invited and there have been some quiet arrests, I think the EFCC is just taking its time before commencing their prosecution and may for now be overwhelmed that is why it is taking this long.
However, let me assure you that the Governor is not resting on his oars, soon and very soon, I can assure you that a machinery will be put in place by the government to ensure that all those who looted the state funds are brought to book to account for such huge funds, as well as cough them out. We have a quantum of documents indicating some past officials on issues like the SUE-P funds where billions of naira were misappropriated. We also have billions of naira looted in SUBEB, as well as the so-called five kilometres road network and the looting with impunity in the 17 Local Government Areas of the state. So Government is fighting corruption and we have waited for the EFCC all this while and now is time for the state government to complement the EFCC by taking drastic actions to ensure that funds looted are squeezed out of the big bellies of those who looted them.
An online media recently reported that your principal was allegedly duped of five billion naira in Dubai while trying to buy a property there. What really happened?
That story was the most laughable and mischievous media report I have ever read in my entire 25 years of Journalism. When I first read it, I just waved it off as sheer balderdash and mere mischief, but we realised that by keeping quiet without a response we stood the risk of the story being passed for a true story, hence my press statement. It was the handwork of the Governor’s political opponents, particularly those who are being investigated for corruption, you know that when you fight corruption, it has a way of fighting back. They have to plant such stories and disseminate them on various social media platforms to distract you to give the wrong impression that you are not a saint, that you are, after all, dubious like them, where did you get 5 billion in your one year in office so that the people can be misled and be disenchanted with you. As a matter of fact, the story was a mere piece of thrash that was at best a material destined for the dustbin of oblivion. In one paragraph you mention that someone was duped 5 billion in dubai when he went to buy property, after that paragraph nothing else to support it. For instance, how did he pass through the airport with cash or which bank/account number, teller was used to wire the money, who did the transaction, etc? You cannot move cash across national borders like that, and if you say such a thing happened? How was the money moved to Dubai? so it was all falsehood orchestrated to tarnish the Governor’s good image for political reasons. We have challenged the authors to publish documentary evidence, which they have failed to do to date.
Why has the state government not paid its workers’ salaries and pensioners up to date, despite having received about N10 billion bailout fund from the Federal Government?
The problem of the salary arrears is an inherited problem from the immediate past administration, which owed eight months, i.e, almost one year, despite the fact that they were collecting billions of naira monthly from the Federation Account. Sometimes I wonder whether our leaders fear God at all, imagine owing workers for eight months, people whose salaries cannot take them home, yet you were receiving billions. So it was an inherited problem and it took the magnimity of the Federal Government to say, look states that are distressed, come let us assist you with something, which turned out to be the much-talked-about bailout. Now, when you calculate a wage bill of N1.7 billion a month in the state times eight months you know what it means, it is almost N15 billion, so the state applied for N10 billion bailout, but by the last quarter of last year only half of that money was released and the state accessed it and judiciously applied it to clear many months’ arrears. But the CBN never released the balance of about N5.3 billion until just about three weeks ago. So if you are owning eight months and they give you half, which cannot pay up to four months, you have no choice other than look for other alternatives like IGR or simply wait. The delay in the clearing of the remaining balance was as result of the delay in the release and the Central Bank of Nigeria is the chief culprit in this matter. I’m very much aware of what happened, but I wouldn’t go into that, but as I’m talking to you now three months’ salary alerts are already hitting the phones of civil servants covering March, April and May, and only June salaries are being owed.
What would you say have been the major achievements of the Lalong administration since assumption of office?
Great and tremendous achievements in the last one year. First is peace and security. The Governor embarked on Peace building efforts, which is one of the Five Point Policy Thrusts of the administration, which is Peace and Security, by reaching out to hitherto warring factions, religious leaders and preaching just one gospel, which is peace, and it worked like a miracle because it culminated in the now permanent ceasefire.
You know the governor was a Speaker of Plateau State House of Assembly for eight years and he knows the nitty-gritty and peculiarity of Plateau State, so he just deployed that knowledge and experience to bring about peace, and right now, you will agree with me that everywhere in Plateau State, everybody, including the incurably pessimistic opposition, has come to realise that Peace is achievable in Plateau State, and there is peace everywhere. People now go about freely in all the hitherto no-go areas in the state, particularly in Jos City.
Now, why did the Governor do this, it was due to his uncommon wisdom, he felt if he achieved peace, all the other four policy thrusts that will ensure the development of the state would be achieved since you have to have an atmosphere of peace to operate. He didn’t stop there, he went further to send an executive bill to the House of Assembly, thereby setting up the Conflict and Peace Building Bureau, so I would say that the greatest achievement of the Lalong Government so far is the achievement of peace in the state.
Also, on assuming office, the Governor, out of uncommon wisdom, and in an unprecedented way, decided to complete all the multi-billion naira abandoned projects of the past administration in the state. He argued that because the projects were executed in the name of Plateau people and billions of public funds were channelled into the abandoned projects, abandoning them would amount to public money invested there being wasted. And in the spirit of that rare wisdom he continued to fund them to completion, instead of him to embark on new projects in the face of scarce funds.
Thus, projects like the Jos-Maza road, Zololo Junction road, Mangu-Gindiri, Plateau Geographical Information System, PLAGIS, Plateau Specialist Hospital Dialysis Centre, Riyom General Hospital, the Olympic Zaria Road Stadium, Secretariat Junction and Marraraba-British America Junction Road, House of Assembly Complex. The ICT Centre of College of Health Technology, Zawan, renovation of the State Secretariat Complex, etc were continued with many completed and commissioned. Through the painstaking efforts of the governor, the Plateau State University, Bokkos, has gotten the accreditation for 17 courses and for the first time since it was established about ten years ago, the University will hold its convocation this year.
Three new road contracts were also awarded for about one billion naira each. They are the Rantya Road Network, the Kufang -Rafiki Road Project and the collapsed Kalong Road Bridge with additional work there, among many others, which were executed under Direct Labour.
Government has also signed MoUs with some Chinese firms for the exploration of solid minerals, while Agriculture has received a boost with the re-acquition of the multi-billion naira BARC Farms, the resumption of work on the Heipang Inland Container Dry Port for the exportation of agro-allied products. The Jos Main Market, the Jos International Breweries and Highland Bottling Company are being revived under Public-Private Partnership to boost industrialisation in the state.
Plateau State did not get a single slot in the 47-man list of career ambassadors-designate drawn up by the Federal Government, in spite of its having a horde of qualified sons and daughters as career diplomats, why?
It is very unfortunate, to say the list, that of all the 19 Northern states, it is only Plateau State, a core APC state, with comparative educational advantage over others, that those who did the selection said they could not find a single qualified person to make the list for career ambassadors, while some states got more than one on the list. I think somebody did a shoddy job without the knowledge of President Buhari. As a matter of fact, we have career diplomats from this state who are more than qualified to be made ambassadors, such as Mr Alus Tyoden on level 17, currently serving in Uganda, among many others including some female diplomats. Thank God the Senate rejected the list and suspended the screening. The Governor made with President Buhari over the issue on July 1 and the President has promised to address the anomalies. Truth is that no matter what criteria the selection team used in drawing up the ambassadorial list, it clearly breached Federal Character and Quota System,as well as put logic on its head and is unacceptable to Plateau people.
Opposition elements in the PDP are claiming that they literally dashed the governorship ticket to Governor Lalong and APC and so claim that it’s within their power to take it back in 2019, how true is this claim?
This is a very funny and interesting question, I will answer it this way: If, as you have come to my house now, I decide to willingly give you the key to my house including the C of O, it automatically becomes yours, will I come back tomorrow to collect the house from you? Impossible! So it is that the power that belonged to PDP has been taken over by APC and we will never return it to them, I repeat, we will never, because PDP has lost its legal and constitutional rights to the Governorship of the state to the APC. Their ridiculous claim that power is their own, and that they can come anytime to claim it back smacks of beer parlour talk, wishful thinking and incurable political optimism. Let me give you an example, if PDP claim that they have power, why did they lose all the House of Assembly bye elections that were conducted recently? Of course, they fought, tooth and nail, but lost it woefully, or was it not within their power to reclaim the seats from the APC then? Winning election goes beyond going to a beer parlour and, out of frustration, you drink 33 Lager Beer to stupor and start shouting “One Tenure!” as they have been doing. This year we are going to conduct Local Government elections and they will not win, even PDP Senators Jang and Jeremiah Useni, if elections were to be conducted in their Senatorial Zones today they will not return, I want to assure you that APC will clear all the Senatorial seats in 2019, not just the Governorship in the state. Above all, it was God that gave power to Governor Lalong and the APC and he will take care of the administration till the end of the constitutionally stipulated two-term tenure, so anybody who is eyeing his seat in 2019 should know that he will be fighting the will of God.