Benue: Unending intrigues over Paris Club refunds

DANIEL AGBO writes on the seeming endless controversy over payment of N14.98bn Paris Club Refund and withdrawal of same by the federal government, consequently generating anxiety, among other issues in the state
Recently, the Benue state government received the final tranche of N14.9 billion of the Paris Club refund from the federal government.

Jubilation over salaries, contracts disbursements The receipt of the funds was greeted with great jubilation by the people of the state most especially by the civil servants who had high expectations that the money would be used to at least clear part of the salaries being owed them by the state government.

Governor Samuel Ortom had after receiving the Paris Club refund announced through his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Terver Akase, that 80 percent of the funds will be used for payment of salaries, pensions and gratuities.

He said the remaining 20 percent would be used to make payment for contracts and bank overdraft.

The governor also announced setting up of a committee headed by the Deputy Governor, Engineer Benson Abounu, with leaders of Nigerian Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress and Nigerian Union of Pensioners, Benue State chapters to work out modalities for immediate disbursement of the funds.

Ortom explained that the decision to involve key stakeholders in disbursement of the Paris Club refund was in line with his policy of transparency and accountability.

However, the setting up of the committee by the state government was met with a lot of criticisms by both stakeholders and workers who felt the situation could only amount to delay in the disbursement of the funds.

Concerns, controversy Some persons had argued that the committee earlier set by the government to look into salaries issues also headed by the deputy governor ended up creating more problems than bringing solutions.

Another argument advanced was that records were already available and vouchers of the affected months long prepared hence setting a committee could only be meaningless and waste of the lean resources.

The governor, after listening to the cries of the people disbanded the committee he had set to disburse the Paris Club refund.

The governor then directed the state Ministry of Finance to immediately commence payment of salary arrears, pensions and gratuity from the N14.98 billion Paris Club refund recently received by the state.

He stated that though the constitution of the committee was done with good intentions, owing to public concerns, he had decided to suspend it to pave way for speedy payment of the funds to workers and retirees.

Reversal of payment, shock, disblief But barely a day after the governor had announced the disbandment of the committee and payment of salaries was about to commence, news filtered the state that the Paris Club refund was withdrawn by the federal government from four states including Benue.

Though a clear reason was not given as to why the money was withdrawn, there were speculations that a senator from the state had written a petition which he took to the federal government by himself, accusing Ortom of alleged misuse of the funds.

Another version was that the withdrawal was a ploy by a certain cabal in the ruling APC at the federal level to frustrate Ortom and set the people against the governor so that they will not vote him in the general election.

Following the varying views by some concerned persons, Ortom again issued a press statement through his Chief Press Secretary and urged the people of the state to remain calm, in the face of the decision of the federal government to withdraw the final tranche of Paris club refund sent to the state.

The governor however, expressed shock at the decision of the federal government to withdraw the funds.

He said it was his hope that the decision would be reversed in the interest of the workers and retirees of the state.

He wondered why the decision to withdraw the fund was coming after directive to the state Ministry of Finance, to immediately commence payment of salaries, pensions and gratuities.

“Payment was set to commence, only for the people to wake up with the demoralizing news of federal government’s recall of the funds from the state’s accounts.

“We hope this latest move is not part of the ongoing witch-hunt of the state.

Benue people have already suffered enough impunity and attacks.

“We also hope that the withdrawal order was made in error, because the said funds are not grants from the Federal Government.

“This was a refund of funds the federal government has been owing Benue over the years, so they shouldn’t make it look as though they had given the state a loan or a grant,” he added.

Similarly, Special Adviser to the Governor on Media and ICT, Mr. Tahav Agerzua, described the withdrawal of the Paris club refund as a continuation of the trajectory of intimidation, victimisation and political intolerance taken a bit too far.

He said the decision by the federal government to withdraw the funds was another form of impunity, desperation or intemperance because those behind the act could not tolerate political opponents.

According to him, the withdrawal of the Paris Club Refund is viewed by Benue people as attempt to continuously subjugate them.

Dashed expectations “The Benue people had high expectations that the money will be used to offset part of their arrears only for the federal government to withdraw the funds,” he added.

But again while the state government was trying to solve the mystery behind withdrawal of the funds, news emerged that N4 billion was withdrawn out of the N14.9 billion Paris Club refund to the state.

Rumours was everywhere in the state that it was the governor who earlier withdrew the money and it was the withdrawal of the four billion that made the federal government cease the money.

Pundits however argued that the cash withdrawal of the N4billion was just an attempt to blackmail the governor so that the plans to confiscate the funds could be achieved.

Reacting to the alleged withdrawal of the N 4 billion, the Chief Press Secretary, Akase said the governor had heard of the rumour about a certain N4 billion ‘disappearing’ from the N14.9 billion final tranche of the Paris Club refund to Benue State.

He said it was the hope of the state government and his principal Ortom that the rumour remains a mere rumour.

“Nothing must happen to the N14.9 billion the federal government recalled from Benue state accounts.

If this is a ploy to sell a dummy to the people and later take away the said amount of N4 billion, those selling the dummy had better changed tactics, for their game plan has already failed.

“We will accept nothing less than the N14.9 billion back to the state accounts! “Agents of such rumours should be told that the Benue State Ministry of Finance received withdrawal notification ( bank alert) the very minute the N14.9 billion was taken out of the state accounts by the federal government, so anyone hoping to play games with the government and people of the state needs to come up with another gimmick.

“What we do know is that Benue’s N14.9 billion final tranche of the Paris Club refund is intact in the custody of the Federal Government and will soon be returned to the state.

Despite the controversies surrounding the withdrawal of the funds, one thing was clear the hardship the people will pass through if the money is not refunded.

There seems to be general outcry over the action of the federal government with some persons out rightly condemning it.

Many workers had high hopes that the money would go a long way to resolve at least part of their salary problems and alleviate the hardship particularly by workers in the state, which are owed between six to eleven months of arrears.

Workers lament Mr. Fedelis Hundu a civil servants told Blueprint that he was planning to use part of the money to settle his rent which was long overdue and pay his children’s school fees.

“When we got the news that the state government received the funds and was preparing to pay us four months arrears, we were happy and had a high expectations that the money will reduce the hardship most of us have been passing through.

“Most people had even borrowed money expecting that when the payment is effected they will use it to clear the debts, but their hopes were rather dashed by the federal government’s withdrawal of the fund.

“Our prayers is that the issue be quickly sorted out so that the money will be refunded again to enable the state government pay us.

Mrs Catherine Mfeyima lamented the decision of the federal government to withdraw the Paris Club Refund and described it as irrational.

“This is not right.

This will only bring unnecessary hardship to the people.

“I heard that the withdrawal of the money was political.

Why should they play politics with what belong to the people? “The other day it was freezing of account and now withdrawal of the Paris Club refund.

“This money belongs to the Benue state government and the federal government should separate individual politics with issues that affect the people.

“Let them play their politics with Ortom and leave our money alone.

“It is not a grant given to the state government, so how Benue spends it should not be the business of the federal government.

“I partly blame our governor because if he had disbursed the money immediately this would not have happened,” she said.

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