Terrence Kuanum, a Benue indigene and human rights activist, in this interview with a select group of journalists in Makurdi, Benue State, explains why he is leading the crusade for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to prosecute former Benue State Governor, Dr Gabriel Suswam, and 51 others indicted by the Justice Elizabeth Kpojime Commission of Inquiry for allegedly looting N107 billion. JOSEPH JOR was there for the Bar and Bench Watch. Excerpts.
Can we meet you formally?
I’m Comrade Terrence Kuanum. I’m a human rights activist and the President of the Benue Youth Movement for Good Governance. I am also the National Coordinator of the Middle Belt Reconnaissance Movement. I saw a situation in Benue State that was going to a critical level and I felt the need of no longer sitting on the fence but jumped into the arena to bring my contributions so that all of us in Benue State will be relieved of the crises that have suddenly enveloped us. We are living in a very poor state in Benue State, not because we have made it for ourselves but because some people have come and have used the eight years of their tenure to loot our resources for their personal benefit.
As I’m sitting here with you people, all of us have relatives that are pensioners and workers that are being owed arrears of salaries and if you put those salaries together it is not up to one quarter of the money that has being looted from this state. The state government has done justice by setting up a Judiciary Commission of Inquiry that has probed and indicted people, a white paper has been done to that effect and these details have been adequately submitted to the EFCC and the ICPC. But it appears we both agencies are sweeping all these reports under the carpet. The most worrisome aspect of this issue is that our Governor has exhausted all the possible means to compel the ICPC and the EFCC to prosecute these people because there are some evil things which are happening underground and our Governor was almost resorting to an independent prosecution which was going to cost our state another fortune and we have stood up now that instead of spending the money that we don’t even have, we are going to compel the people that have the responsibility of doing those jobs to do it within the law. So we called ourselves together as a Benue common front, those of us who are in the civil society in Abuja and have given the EFCC a 72-hour ultimatum that if they don’t prosecute Suswam and his 51 friends, we will cause a writ of mandamus from a court of competent jurisdiction to be issued to compel them to prosecute Suswam and his accomplices.
We are doing this because all of us who are Benue indigenes have been hit by this crisis because nobody will wake up in Benue today and tell me that he doesn’t have a relative that is being owed by Government. And not that this government doesn’t have money, government has N107 billion that has been stolen and we want the money to come back to the coffers of government. We, from the civil society, have traced this money and the money is not far from us; the money is hidden in places in Abuja and we want the money to be collected and refunded to the coffers of government and the money should be judiciously used. We have investigated and discovered that we have a humble Governor and he can use our money judiciously and to that extent we are demanding that our money should be refunded. Personally, as I’m addressing this press conference, my parents have put in 35 years of service, they are being owed pension arrears and anytime they call me, I always assure them that the money is somewhere and I’m going to bring it back to them and I’ve seen the money and the money is going to come back and His Excellency Governor Ortom is going to pay them and if that assurance fails, it means I’ve failed my parents and they’ll go to the grave cursing me and I don’t want that and I don’t want any Benue child to be cursed. We have to sit up and collect our monies.
This thing is going to be a collective struggle. All of us are affected. It is not today that Terrence has stood up that the money should come back, it is a matter of all our families that are affected, all our children are affected; September is coming, if this money is not collected before September, how will children resume in school? That is when the school fees are high. These people are living extravagant lives; they have private jets, they have helicopters, they build houses that they bring their helicopters and drop on them and are we going to fold our arms and watch that? That is why I have stood up. This is a selfless service I’m offering to the Benue community. God has blessed me with whatever I have and I think I have something to return to this state. I have never met Governor Ortom in my life. The person I can say I have met in my life is the person I’m saying he should bring back this money. So I’m not doing this for anybody; I’m not doing this because I was paid by anybody. I’m doing this as a human rights activist and I need to protect my people and that is why I’m on this mission and whoever feels he’s going to threaten me, the thing is not going to work because I have my facts, I have the justification, I believe in the rule of law.
Some people will feel that you kept quiet all along and you are speaking now; they may feel that you are being induced by Ortom to talk…
I spoke. The media are aware that I spoke. When issues went wrong in Benue, I stood up. When they were stealing lands from people, I came here and told the Commissioner then, John Tondu, that if you steal lands from the people, I will take you to prison and that was how part of the land that was collected from Gaadi was given back to him. I have stood up for the cause of Benue people. Why this issue is going to be so prominent is that, it is a detrimental issue. People are dying because of these monies. By the time I was fighting for the Benue people at that time, there were legacies in government; there was so much money in government that they were covering up certain things that we were doing. At a point we were almost marched out of this state because we were defending the ordinary people. So I’ve never kept quiet. And even on this matter, I have waited for this long because the government was taking the legal means. It was when I heard that government is going to involve and undertake an independent prosecution that I felt that they have intimidated this government to a certain level that they want to make the government bankrupt. The last independent prosecution that took place in Birnin-Kebbi, N853 million was committed to an independent prosecution that never worked. Where will our Governor get N800 million to put into an independent prosecution when there are certain agencies of government that are established by law and saddled with the responsibility to do the work for us?
We heard your life was under threats; we would like to know?
When I addressed a press conference in Abuja, people from the PDP felt the government of Benue State had paid me money to fight them and maybe they believed in using force against people to solve their problems and they wanted to threaten my life because I was doing a protest to occupy the EFCC and they were doing meetings that they would make sure that I was going to be held to somewhere that I would not be able to confront the EFCC because the protest I’m doing is the last warning I’m giving to the EFCC to move to court and they don’t want me to do that protest because they know what they have done. So, they were doing meetings to make sure that I never have the privilege of doing that protest and that was why I was under threats.
I just went back to the archives and my research shows that you were one person who was very close to the past administration and then today it appears as if you are on a protest maybe because you were not treated fairly in the past. Is there anything of that nature or you are doing this based on your perception of what had gone wrong in Benue?
Generally, today I’ve made a statement that the government of Benue State has appreciated; if tomorrow this government is not around, you will still say that I was close to the government. I’ve been putting forward positions for the government of Benue State. I advocated and protested on the issue of ecological funds during the government of Gabriel Suswam and he got those funds. We did a protest. At that time, we said that Benue cannot be removed from the list of states to benefit from ecological funds. I’ve done press conferences for every government that has been in Benue State. If doing press conference for what is supposed to come to Benue means being close to the government, I admit I was close to the government just like I’m doing today. So I have never come to work for a government; I protect government of Benue State for the interest of the Benue people because I know how funds are distributed in this country. If Benue is going to be sustained, I will stand for it and I have to stand with the government.
As a public commentator and a partaker in the Benue development, can you candidly before God and man say that the present administration is toeing the line of enhancing the development of the state…?
I’ve been privileged to follow Governors to this moment. The way we are going in Nigeria, if we don’t recover looted funds, there is no way we will bring development to Nigeria. It is not peculiar to Benue. Money has been stolen in this country to a magnitude that if you have the privilege to know, you will know that this country will soon sink. What they’re doing basically is to now find a way and recover these funds and strategize as a nation beyond oil. With these funds, if I tell you to go now and do agriculture, where will I get the farming incentives to give you if I don’t have money? So, we need to recover money and strategize beyond oil. So we that are fronting for development in this nation, we are fronting that monies must be recovered and then they sit on the round table and strategize and diversify.
This your struggle, is it not all about Benue?
My struggle that we are addressing today is about Benue but they are issues that are not peculiar to Benue, they are issues that are national. The issue of Benue not having funds is not the issue of Benue alone. We have had a country that there was no month that they started with a federal allocation of less than N220 billion; it has never happened. In this country, they told us in the budget office that the bench mark to seek for a federal allocation was N360 billion, they sat with N220 and the federal government told us that they are sitting because they are not going to make deductions; that is the situation we have found ourselves in this country. So it is not peculiar to Benue. So there are certain things that are happening to the nation. The federal government for 11 months borrowed N600 billion to pay salaries; the federal government was borrowing N600 billion every month to add up to what it has to pay salaries.
If actually you love the people of Benue and at the same time the present administration, there is a report on ground and as an individual, can’t you go to court based on that report so that all these people can be prosecuted if they fail to send some money back?
You know, the issue is that we are Benue people. Over four million Benue people; 52 people have been found to have stolen our N107 billion; between me and you, if the court doesn’t act, how will we know who is guilty and who is not guilty? I have the capacity to compel EFCC to prosecute those people through a writ of mandamus. So what I’m doing is for the general interest of the Benue people, it is not for the government. The money stolen is not government’s money, it’s our money and if we don’t know who is guilty or not guilty, then how are we going to operate with these people? That is the issue here. The money belongs to me and you. Four million people, 52 people taking N107 billion, it’s not fair.
So, will you make real your threats to occupy EFCC?
I’m occupying EFCC if they fail to prosecute. And if I occupy and they don’t prosecute, I get a writ of mandamus.
Are you occupying EFCC…
I’m occupying EFCC until the chairman comes out to tell me why he has not prosecuted Suswam and his group of 52. I want to know why he is sweeping the white paper presented to him by the Attorney General of Benue State under the carpet. I have a suspicion. But it’s still a suspicion, because the immediate past ADC to the Governor is an integral security member of the EFCC chairman and I’m suspecting, until I see him before I will confirm, that that is why he is refusing to prosecute that report.
Do you think the EFCC can act on your protest?
They don’t have a choice than to act. Even ghost petitions are being treated by the EFCC. So, why can’t they treat white paper? These are indicted people by the Judicial Commission. So, why are they celebrating ghost petitions and leaving a white paper presented to them by the number one law officer of a state?