Plateau State Governor and Chairman of Northern Governors Forum (NGF), Simon Bako Lalong has given a fresh insight into the unending controversy concerning the establishment of Ruga settlements in parts of the country. In this interview with GYANG BERE, in Jos, Lalong said indeed N100 billion was approved for the scheme by the National Economic Council, NEC, chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo under the National Livestock Transformation Plan, NLTP, of the federal government. He, however, said that because of his people’s objection to Ruga, he has chosen to take the ranching option in the NLTP policy.
The governor also bemoaned the state of insecurity in the North and detailed efforts by governors in the region to collectively address the challenge of criminality in their states.
In the past, Plateau State witnessed crises and violent attacks but peace has substantially returned, how do you intend to change the perception of the people towards embracing lasting peace?
We have done a lot in terms of addressing the causes of the problem and sustaining the peace. Sustaining peace goes along with dealing with poverty. I have noticed that when there is abject poverty, you see stomach insecurity leads to physical insecurity and we have a lot of youths out there who are not working. We have special packages, you can see that Plateau state is the only state that created the Peace Building Agency, the only state in the federation. So we are developing that to sustain peace and conflict management in the state. I have mentioned that you must always find ways of empowering people. When you empower people, you get them off the street; the moment you leave them roaming about, they become very vulnerable, every time, they can be used for peanuts. That is why you see youths engaging in several vices that are detrimental to the society. As part of the scheme, we are talking about industrialization, we must find Plateau state to become an industrial state by creating the enabling environment and people will come and invest in the state. I have always said that each time you sit down and you claim to be driving people away from your state, you lose. If Lagos was like that, Lagos will not be the way it is today. We should not drive people from our state. We are Plateau people but we need investors to come to the state. Why are we calling investors to come if we then turn around to create a non-viable environment? It is the responsibility of the government to sit down and fish out criminals within us, whether they are indigenes or not; we must fish out criminals from within us. We are doing very well with the security apparatus and we are also empowering and expanding our Operation Rainbow in case we wake up one day and the Federal government says they are withdrawing Operation Safe Haven security personnel. That’s why I am preparing. Already, I have an advantage. When people talk about state police, I say I have Operation Rainbow which functions in a similar fashion. All I need is to enhance the capacity of Operation Rainbow which we are doing right now. I am very happy the Federal government is already talking about community policing, which has been an idea I support all along. We are engaging and employing people from each local government or each community to serve as informants and that way we will help in sustaining the peace we have in the state. We are also addressing volatile areas. You can see that we have already established a mobile police squadron in Shendam; we have established Air Force Search and Rescue Unit at Kerang, Mangu LGA, and I am already preparing to finish the establishment of another mobile police squadron in Gashish, Barkin Ladi Local Government Area.
It is a known fact that there are merchants of conflicts in the society who try as much as possible to sabotage the peace process, how do you handle this set of people?
Well, it will be unfortunate if they say that because I know that several times, the police, the army and other security agencies have been parading suspected people for various offences. Even recently, the Commissioner of Police told me that there are some notorious criminals caught that are in detention. As part of facilitating prosecution, we have passed the law, we have amended our penal code and also amended our other relevant laws to facilitate quick and easy prosecution in the state. Our administration of criminal justice law is one of the best in the North now, and because of that, people have come to Plateau State to copy what we have amended. It won’t take time for you to prosecute. Police are doing their best in Plateau State, so you don’t need to take a criminal to Abuja again. You know in the past people complain that they see criminals here and when they are caught, they say when they take them to Abuja, they will never see them again and they won’t know whether they are prosecuted or they are just released. But today, they are in Plateau State, I know that they are here, they are undergoing prosecution. What I am thinking of doing next is to also enhance the capacity of our Ministry of Justice. You can see in the last few months, I have dwelled seriously on the Ministry of Justice. Some of the things they wanted that they were complaining about, we are addressing them.I am building the High Court to make them comfortable. I am a lawyer, I cannot leave this place without a good judiciary. So together with the Chief Judge, we are collaborating, we are trying to enhance the capacity of the judiciary and also the Ministry of Justice in terms of prosecution and also about Operation Rainbow and of course the police. Recently, I bought four (4) Hilux vans and I gave them to the police, that’s apart from the 53 vehicles that we bought and gave the security in the last two years. The vehicles we gave them just two weeks ago were specifically to tackle the problems of kidnapping. There has been an influx of kidnappers into the state. We decided to ask the IGP to send us the Special IRT group from Abuja. They are here and when they came and said, look, what we need is vehicles, I said take vehicles. You can see, every day, they are picking kidnappers from their hideouts. So if we address the issue of kidnapping, the issue of cattle rustling, armed robbery and banditry, our people will be safer than ever before.
You are also the Chairman of Northern Governors Forum and quite a lot is happening in the North; how are you tackling insecurity in the region?
That is another big challenge. When I was elected as the Chairman of Northern Governors Forum, I said wow! I have a headache here in Plateau State and another headache is added. However, I said by the grace of God, I would do my best by applying the wisdom that He gave us to deal with the challenge here in Plateau State. We would extend to the other parts of the North. And if you recall, from the very day I was appointed, I set up a committee on security chaired by Governor of Katsina State, Aminu Bello Masari. Since then, he has also had to contend with insecurity in his state. However, that committee is working very well. I have also prepared that we will soon have a meeting of the Northern Governors Forum which will be my first formal meeting to receive the report of the committee and decide the way forward. Right now, we have the challenges of banditry, cattle rustling, and kidnapping which are very prevalent in the North. We shall be receiving the report of the committee and also preparing for a Northern Security Summit. Aside from that, I have always been in touch with the IGP. He is doing well because part of the recommendations we made so far, they are implementing it. I attended the meeting of the North West Security Council and it was very wonderful. In some cases, you need dialogue to succeed, because it is not always good to respond with confrontation. I will ensure that the success of such engagement is extended to the North Central. The IG has gone to the South West where he did the same thing. We are preparing to have our own in the North Central just like that of the North East is already established even as the situation is being taken care of by the Federal government. Another problem that need to be tackled is the Almajiri system. So we have set up a committee that will bring out how to address the Almajiri system because in a society where you leave a large population that is doing nothing but roaming the streets, that is another cause of insecurity not only in the North but in the nation at large. So we have also set up a committee to look at it, and once we conclude on the issue of the Almajiri which also goes with the issue of employment, we shall have some respite.
Could you explain to us the controversy surrounding livestock management in the country, especially in Plateau State, because there seems to be a lot of misinformation about it? Are you going for Ruga settlement or ranching and what does the state stand to benefit?
You remember I am a member of the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP), which is headed by the Vice President. I am representing North Central. I cannot go and start doing something that is not in favour of Plateau State or Benue or Nasarawa or Kogi or any part of the zone. Now, part of the document was not brought by President Buhari; it was initiated during President Goodluck Jonathan’s time. So it is that same document that was re-presented to the National Economic Council because we were looking for the solution to the farmers-herdsmen crisis. A budget of N100bn was approved for that same scheme. So when I came on board, I saw open grazing, I said the choice was either open grazing or ranching. I said, no, we cannot go for open grazing because when you are talking of open grazing you will also be concerned with the problem of cattle routes and the tendency for clashes with farmers. So, on my own, I came back and set up a 12-man committee headed by Prof. Ochapa Onazi; traditional rulers were involved; religious leaders were involved, CAN and JNI; the Civil Society were involved as well as representatives of youths. They were the ones who developed the scheme. They went to Abuja came back and the recommendation was that Plateau should adopt ranching. When we finished the ranching, we went to the local governments for sensitization, apart from all the various stakeholders in Plateau State. In the end, the conclusion was for us to go with ranching. Now the first issue was to go and get the land. Because the Federal government is going to sponsor the pilot scheme, it does not mean that the Federal government is the one carrying it out. Now a budget for the pilot scheme was announced for those states that wanted to do the entire livestock business according to their peculiarities as a voluntary initiative. No coercion. So we also said any local government that wants to establish it in her local government should provide land. Some local governments agreed and provided land, that was when political manipulation started. Some said we are grabbing land, we are doing this, we have done that; at the end of the day, we suspended land from the local government, but we have a grazing reserve in Wase, we have a grazing reserve in Kanam and from the archive they brought out to us, the number of grazing reserves we have in Plateau is eight (8). Out of the eight grazing reserves, six were taken over. If I embark on recovering them, it will create another problem because past leaders, especially military, shared all the land among themselves. The ones that are left are just Wase and Kanam. If we leave it today, another regime will come and we will not see it again. So I said nobody should go to these areas; they are grazing reserves owned by Plateau State government. If this is the case, we would make sure we use those grazing reserves not for real grazing reserves now but for investors to come and invest in ranching and dairy. While we were doing that, we started hearing the issue of Ruga, and people said Plateau is doing Ruga. I said no, we are not doing Ruga on the Plateau. Here we stand on livestock production through ranching. I have continuously explained to people and said, look, don’t put religion or ethnic sentiments into investment. Don’t, because it will scare away investors who want to bring in their money. My plea to people is if that if you hear a concept, listen to it and understand it. As for Ruga, whatever it is, those who want it in their states, let them do it; but for us, we are talking of livestock production which is not restricted to cows, it’s also sheep, it’s also piggery, it’s also poultry and everything. If there are incentives or palliatives or subsidies for these items from Federal government, I have keyed into them and we are waiting for these subsidies and it will help to empower our people on this so that people will not take it to the mosque and start preaching or take it to the church and start preaching. It’s business, understand what you are going through and don’t throw the baby away with the bathwater.
You have spent more than one hundred days in office since you were sworn-in for a second term, why have you not constituted your cabinet?
Well, let me say that indeed it’s over a hundred days into our second tenure and we are almost concluding on the constitution of the cabinet. People say there is a lot of delays but to me, we had an arrangement where we had to properly prepare for the next four years. In the preparation for the next four years, we had to come up with a development plan. When people ask why we are delaying, my response is that it’s not about rushing and putting a cabine in place; it is about the focus on what we want to do in the next four years. When I came in for my second tenure, I had to engage Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to develop a Development Plan for the people of Plateau State and they have done that. I was waiting for them to come up with their report so I can see from their recommendations what will be the focus and direction of government in the next four years, especially in terms of economic empowerment. It’s based on this direction that I would do my selection of commissioners, I would now decide what kind of ministry, what kind of arrangement and combination will best deliver for our people. I have already started because immediately I got the preliminary report, I set the ball rolling and I quickly appointed the Secretary to the Government and the Chief of Staff who are the engine room. So technically, I have finished the constitution of my cabinet. I am only waiting for Mr Speaker who travelled out the country, as soon as he is back, I will submit the list to him, you know the Assembly is a powerful place, you don’t submit to anyone, you submit it to Mr Speaker. So very soon, you will hear the announcement and screening of commissioners. Once they are screened and confirmed, we would now set the ball rolling and continue the implementation of the economic plan of the state. These are some of the things that delayed the appointment of the commissioners. You know for politicians, some will say, I want to be there, I want to be here, this is not the issue of where you want to be – it’s the issue of what can we do for the people of Plateau State in the next four years. We have finished the first phase of our Rescue Agenda. In the next four years, we are moving to the last part of consolidating and leaving lasting legacies as we take the state to the next level.
People have complained that governors usually send a list of commissioners without portfolios, are you submitting the list with the portfolios?
I was Speaker for about eight years. If you look at the laws, they didn’t say that you must put portfolios before you submit to the House of Assembly. As a former speaker, I know some instances where we screened commissioners with the governor’s mind almost made up on where to put them, but after following the screening, he changed his mind because based on the interaction with the House of Assembly members, the governor came and said, this nominee should be in this or that place different from where he had thought. So when nominees appear before the House, let everyone be judged by his performance because, in my administration, anybody can be put anywhere except of course certain professional departments like the Attorney General of the State which has exceptions. But then let them appear before the House, let them finish the first step. At the end of it, you will come back and make your assessment. Although I would have also thought about portfolios, while they are doing the screening, I am always watching. One thing I like doing a lot is to listen to the people in places you least expect. That is the opportunity for me to gauge the opinion of people outside and know exactly how they feel and what they want. This kind of scenario will at the end of the day help me decide who to put into which ministry.
Your administration was anchored on a five-point agenda during your first tenure, why are you pruning it to three now?
From the beginning, you would understand that the first tenure was also part of taking over from another administration. We created the five-pillar policy partly to look at what we inherited and then examine some of the challenges that were on ground. Therefore, the five-point policy thrust was to help us carry a holistic approach to what we promised the people. You know when you are doing campaign, you will promise the people many things and by the time you get into the office, you see a different picture which you were not privy to. In that scenario, we had to come up with the five-pillar thrust to help us settle down for governance. Now, after staying in office for four years, and we are coming back for another tenure, we realized that we have taken care of some of the challenges we inherited. Having taken care of such things, you now have to remain focused for the remaining four years as you cannot do everything, but at least you must do about 60% to 70%. I always don’t want to say I am perfect but I must strive to do my best to hit within the level of B, or A. If I get B, fine; but if I get A, that is excellent, that is what I am trying to do. Now, we have reduced the five-pillar thrust to a three-pillar policy which includes peace, security and good governance; physical infrastructural development; and sustainable economic rebirth.
You have mentioned quite a number of things that you intend to do, where do you get the resources?
First of all, what you need to achieve anything is confidence and also the will. When I was campaigning for my first tenure, the NLC, Plateau chapter came to me and said we have challenges about the arrears of salaries, I told them, look if I am elected governor, I will pay you all. Somebody drew me aside and said no, you don’t say that because it is when you get there that you will know because if you make this kind of commitment, and you can’t do it then they will hold you for it. I said with God’s grace on my side, I will do it. I still stand by it, today it is history. Now, some of these things we put in place, once you activate them, you keep the determination to realize them. I have said yes, I have put projects everywhere; people ask me how do you intend to finish these projects? That’s why I have engaged a consultant to ensure we boost our revenue base.
So we have a target and by God’s grace in the next one year, you will see a difference because we have N30,000 minimum wage to pay. I have told Labour: I am going to pay. I am waiting for the final decision from the Governors Forum. I am a law-abiding citizen and as a Principal Officer in the Governors Forum, I will not default. We have put in place machinery. We are always ahead to prepare that we would continue to pay salaries as and when due even with the N30,000 minimum wage. The civil servants will also help us to be able to pay. I don’t want a lazy civil service because as I am going to prepare to start paying, they too should be willing to do their part. Remember that I did advertise to employ some new workers but when the minimum wage issue arose, I said let’s wait for the implementation of the minimum wage to start so as to know the capacity we are going to engage. I cannot come here and spend eight years and say I didn’t give an opportunity for the employment of people. I will definitely employ people and will engage some people.