17th June, 2021.
Nigerians under the auspices of Global Integrity Crusade Network (GICN), a Civil Society Group based in Abuja, have uncovered facts showing that Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State may be in again for another corruption scandal. The group in a letter dated 11th June, 2021 and signed by Cletus ONWU, Esq. acting as its Compliance Officer stated that it has received petitions and complaints suggesting that Ortom led administration is hell bent on using fraudulent methods to circumvent the passing and signing of the 2021 Local Government Budget Estimates presently pending before the 23 Local Government Legislative Councils in Benue State. According to the group, such move if allowed to scale through will give room for wanton looting, mismanagement and unlawful diversion of accrued Statutory Allocations from the Federal Government coffers as well as Internally Generated Revenues (IGRs) which are ordinarily meant for developmental projects.
Integrity Reporters gathered that following the Presidential Directive on Local Government Financial Autonomy which came into effect in June, 2019 Local Government Councils are no longer supposed to be mere appendages to the office of any State Governor. Hence, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) issued a directive that starting from 1st June, 2019 disbursements from the State Joint Local Government Accounts maintained pursuant to Section 162 (6) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) meant for Local Government Councils should be credited directly to their accounts. This is to entrench accountability in the polity and prohibit meddling by State Governors in any form with accounts of Local Government Councils.
In the case of Benue State, evidence abound to show beyond doubt that humongous allocations released to the 23 Local Government Councils since June, 2021 are appropriated by the Governor on fictitious projects with reckless abandon. The group submits in its letter that resources of the Local Government Councils have been drained under directive of the Governor to the extent that they can barely carry out any capital project after payment of monthly salaries.
Preliminary investigation took the group to discover that the Governor usually prevail on the Local Government Councils to make statutory deductions to State Agencies and Parastatals namely; Benue Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency, Benue State Rehabilitation Board, Benue State Action for the Control of Aids, Benue State Vigilante Group, Benue State Livestock Guard, Oracle Magazine, amongst others.
Also, certain postings and deductions made from coffers of the Local Government Councils at instance of the Governor have been found to be nothing but arbitrary diversion of funds meant for developmental purposes to individuals, fictitious companies and organizations within and outside Benue State mainly through Fidelity Bank Plc. Integrity Reporters can confirm that Chairmen of the 23 Local Government Councils who ought to comply with Section 87 (1) and (2) of the Benue State Local Government Law 2007 (as amended) have decided to join the bandwagon of corruption.
Only recently, the Chairmen rather than follow the laid down procedure delivered the sum of N500, 000 (Five Hundred Thousand Naira) purportedly from the Governor office to each Leader of the Legislative Councils, urging them to pass and sign the Budget Estimates without routing same through proper Sittings, Votes and Proceedings on the floor of the Legislative Councils.
This development triggered tension amongst the leadership of Benue State Leaders Forum as well as Benue State Councilors Forum which jointly met at Benue Hotel Makurdi on 22nd May, 2021. According to some Executive Committee Members of the two Forums who spoke with Integrity Reporters on ground of anonymity;
“… the Budget Estimates upon presentation by the Chairmen will only be signed if the demands contained in our letter dated 24th May, 2021 are fully met. Our letter has been submitted in protest to the ALGON Chairman, Benue State Chapter as well as copied to the Chairmen of the 23 Local Government Council and Honourable Special Adviser, Bureau of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs”.
Meanwhile, Governor was said to have threatened to use the Benue State House of Assembly to bypass Section 87 (1) and (2) of the Benue State Local Government Law 2007 (as amended) and approve the Budget Estimates for the 23 Local Government Councils for onward spending. GICN has on its part vowed to lead massive protests to relevant quarters as well as seek redress in court within the coming days if Governor does or attempts to do anything contrary to law in getting approval for the Budget Estimates. The group stated;
“Our decision to write this LETTER OF CAUTION is to prevent you from offending the fine legal principles that accompany implementation of the Local Government Financial Autonomy and we hope that you will be properly guided. TAKE NOTICE that we shall resist any attempt by either your office, the Benue State House of Assembly or Bureau of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs to assail or defile our sacrosanct laws for personal gains”.