It was a promising political career for former Governor Gabriel Suswam, who bestrode Benue State’s political space until his failed senatorial bid in 2015, which has resulted to his feeling the other side of life after 16 years in the corridors of power, FELIX NWANERI reports
There are two tragedies in life. One is to get one’s heart desire. The other is not to get it. This, perhaps, best explains the fate of the immediate past governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam, who is presently passing through troubled times.
The Tiv born politician, who before now bestrode Benue political space like a colossus shot to limelight in 1999, when the country returned to civil rule.
The young Lagos based lawyer had then abandoned his wig and gown and headed home, contested and won the Kastsina- Ala/Ukum/Logo House of Representatives seat on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The ease at which he was able to navigate his way into Benue politics amidst several home-based politicians, who had their eyes on the federal legislative seat baffled even his adversaries.
But, those who knew him closely where not surprised. They even “prophesied” that it was a matter of time that Suswam gets to play at the big stage. Between 1999 and 2003, Suswam served as Chairman of the House of Representatives Services Committee, and later Chairman, House Committee on the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
He was re-elected in 2003, and was appointed Chairman, House Committee on Appropriation and later (2005), appointed Chairman, House Committee on Power. After eight years in the Green Chambers of the National Assembly, Suswam felt it was time for greater political calling. This time, he returned home to contest for the governorship and the 1999 “prophecy” came to pass.
He was elected governor of the state that prides itself as the “Food Basket of the Nation” in April 2007 at the age of 41, succeeding George Akume, who no doubt, anointed him as his successor, while he headed for the Senate.
The youth in Suswam and the zeal to make a mark within the shortest possible time, perhaps, propelled him to hit the ground running on assumption office on May 29, 2007. Little wonder, accolades started flowing given his feats in infrastructural development, among others.
But, it did not take long that the undue advantage, which power confers on its wielders, especially in developing countries like Nigeria, manifested and the consequence was Suswam’s infamous fallout with his benefactor and predecessor – Akume.
Like a pack cards, the cozy relationship between the godfather and his anointed successor crashed, justifying the claim by some people that politics is a game of the possible. With the political romance turned sour, Suswam immediately set up his own political structure.
The cold war that ensued later snowballed into a full blown political battle that forced Akume to abandon the PDP umbrella to seek refuge in the then newly formed Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN).
The power game between the two gladiators got to a height in the 2011 general elections. Expectedly, the governorship poll offered Akume the opportunity to seek his pound of flesh from his political son and he did not capitulate.
While the former governor ran for the Senate and was re-elected on the platform of his new party – ACN – without ease, it was Herculean for Suswam as Akume picked and threw his weight behind Prof. Steve Ugba to stop Suswam’s second term bid.
Though Suswam triumphed at the election, narrowly defeating Ugbah by 590,776 votes to 499,319, as well as the courts, after a protracted legal battle, the fallout of the poll was that the stage was set for another political battle and perhaps the biggest showdown as the “relatively unknown ACN” on whose platform, Akume fought the 2011 war later merged with other main opposition parties to form the All Progressives Congress (APC) to confront the PDP, which then held sway at the centre.
Akume seized the opportunity of the balance of power, which the formation of APC offered to lay a political landmine, which an unsuspecting Suswam eventually stepped on, in the 2015 general elections.
Suswam had planned to replicate Akume’s feat of 2007, by anointing his successor as well heading to the Senate. But, in a clear demonstration of political sagacity, the latter, in his capacity as Benue APC leader, handed the party’s Benue North- East senatorial ticket to someone that also had issues with Suswam – Barnabas Gemade, a former PDP national chairman, who just defected to the APC few weeks to the elections, and who Suswam intended to displace in the Red Chamber.
Akume did not stop at that, he also handed the APC governorship ticket to another PDP defector and former Minister of Trade and Investment, Dr. Samuel Ortom, in order to stop Suswam’s anointed, Prince Terhemen Tarzoor.
The consequence was that Suswam lost on two fronts. First, he lost his senatorial bid to Gemade. Second, his anointed lost the governorship poll. Suswam’s loss was however largely attributed to the issue of non-payment of salaries and the levity with which he handled the issue.
Civil servants and pensioners in the state were owed backlog of salaries and pensions, and they paid the man, who ran the affairs of the state for eight years, back in his own coin.
Before then, Suswam was not known to have lost an election. Perhaps, the shock forced the Kpatuma u ii (black cat) as the former governor is known to temporarily relocate abroad to convalesce though it was speculated then that he was on the run to avoid prosecution over alleged corruption. He later returned to the country, but it has been from one trouble to another since then.
Ortom’s four probe panels
The political feud between Suswam and his successor (Ortom), which started in form of accusations and counter-accusations immediately the May 29, 2015 handover, later assumed a disturbing dimension following the latter’s setting up of four probe panels to investigate the eight-year tenure of the PDP administration in Benue State.
Although, the Ortom’s administration said the rationale behind the probe was not to witch-hunt anybody, the body language of the government showed its readiness not to prosecute the former governor. Governor Ortom had immediately after taken over the helm of affairs in the state, launched four probe panels to investigate Suswam.
He was quick to first, raise a Personnel Audit charged with the responsibility to audit the workforce in the state even before salaries could be paid to workers. The aim was to fish out ghost workers and possibly reduce the wage bill.
Ortom also set up a 16-man Transition Committee with former Head of Service, Mr. Mike Iordye, as the chairman. Iordye served as Head of Service under the Suswam administration for six and half years.
The committee was charged to among other things “study the handover notes of the Suswam administration; interact with Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and ascertain the state of affairs; ascertain the assets of the state including physical assets and investments; review the revenue collection machinery of the state with a view to improving revenue generation as well as ascertain the level of indebtedness of the state including commercial bank loans, state revenue bond, arrears of pensions and gratuities, indebtedness to contractors, judgement debts, foreign loans, arrears of salaries and CBN loans.”
But, the Iordye panel deviated from its terms of reference and veered into a probe by visiting projects done by the Suswam administration in the 23 local government areas of the state.
In the report presented to Governor Ortom on July 12, 2015, the committee indicted the Suswam administration of massive looting of state funds and leaving behind a N130 billion debt.
Yet, on the same day, Ortom constituted two other strong judicial commissions of inquiry with the one headed by Justice Margaret Kpojime to probe all revenues that accrued to the state between 2007 and 2015, when Suswam bowed out of office.
The committee’s terms of reference bordered on how such monies were applied, contracts awarded and who awarded them, status of their various jobs, identify any case of fraud and recommend appropriate sanctions.
The probe panel on assets verification was also set up and chaired by Barrister Moses Atagher, with the charge to determine all landed property, vehicles, shares, equipment, factories and their location and to determine whether such assets were under lease agreement, the identity of the persons behind the agreements, their terms and others.
Suswam responded to probes by saying that he was not afraid of being probed, and also tasked his successor to also beam his searchlight on the administration of Senator Akume, who, he alleged collaborated with his estranged political godfather and former Senate President, Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, to sell the state’s only standing company, Benue Cement Company.
Battle with EFCC over alleged graft
Suswam was arrested and interrogated in October 2015, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over alleged wrongful diversion of public funds and questionable financial transactions while he was in office.
Though the former governor was later released on administrative bail, the anti-graft commission gave details of how he and his Finance commissioner, Omadachi Okolobia, allegedly looted over N3.1 billion belonging to the Benue State government.
The prosecution witness and a detective with the EFCC, Junaidu Sa’id, told the court that an investigation by his team revealed that the former governor requested that shares owned by the Benue State government in the Benue Investment and Property Company be sold off for the sum of N10 billion.
According to Sa’id, Elixir Investment Partners was appointed as the stockbroker to carry out the sales of the shares, during which over N9 billion was realised. They were thereafter instructed to pay the N9 billion into three different bank accounts.
One of the accounts, he said, was that of the Benue State Ministry of Finance, where N5 billion was paid, while a total sum of N3.1 billion was paid into Fanfash Resources account.
He noted that when Abubakar Umar, the owner of Fanfash Resources was invited by the EFCC, he confirmed that he received N3.1 billion in his company account and converted the same sum to its dollar equivalent, amounting to $15.8 million and delivered it in cash to the former governor at his Maitama residence in Abuja.
Sa’id also told the court that the Finance commissioner confirmed issuing directives for the payments to be made to Fanffash Resources and Benue State Ministry of Finance.
Arrest by DSS over alleged possession of arms
While the corruption matter is still pending in court, Suswam was on February 25, arrested by the Department of State Services (DSS) over alleged illegal possession of firearms, following a raid on his Abuja residence.
The DSS said items recovered during the raid include a Glock pistol with two magazines and 29 rounds of ammunition. Others were a Mini-Uzi with two magazines containing 10 rounds and four rounds respectively; 42 extra rounds of ammunition in a pack; one AK-47; 21 Certificates of Occupancy (C of Os) and one offer of statutory right of occupancy; 23 luxury watches; and 45 keys to various cars.
The secret security service, in a statement issued by Tony Opuiyo, said: “The Department of State Services (DSS) wishes to inform the public that on February 24 2017, between 2100 hours and 0242 hours, the service executed a search warrant at the property of Dunes Investment and Global Properties Ltd located at No 44 Aguiyi Ironsi Way, Maitama, Abuja.
“The operation was informed by intelligence that some incriminating items were stashed in the boots of cars parked at the property, particularly a Mercedes Benz S550 (BWR 135AH) and Masarati 4.7 (BWR 207 AJ), which were subsequently confiscated.
“Following this discovery, the service launched further investigations, which revealed that the cars and the recovered items belong to the former governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam who has already been invited by the service and is currently helping in the investigations.”
Freedom not in sight
Suswam has been in detention since his arrest after his bail bid failed, but the Federal High Court in Abuja, last Tuesday, ordered the DSS to produce him in court on May 11, for him to answer allegations of corruption level against him by the EFCC.
The trial judge, Justice Gabriel Kolawole, who gave the order, directed that a copy of the order should be served on the Director General of the DSS, Mr. Lawal Daura.
The order followed the refusal of the security agency to produce Suswam in court to be arraigned on a 32-count fraud and money laundering charge the Federal Government instituted against him and two others.
Other defendants in the charge marked FHC/ABJ/CR/48/2017, and endorsed by the Attorney- General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami are a former Commissioner of Finance in Benue State under Suswam’s administration, Mr. Omadachi Oklobia, and the then Accountant of Benue State Government House Administration, Mrs. Janet Aluga.
The defendants were accused of diverting the sum of N9.7 billion part of which was meant for Police Reform Programme as well as Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P).
The Federal Government said it had upon an investigation that was conducted by the Police, uncovered that the fund was diverted between 2012 and 2015, while Suswam held sway as the governor of Benue State. But, the DSS said it will continue to hold the former governor for failing to cooperate with investigators.
The agency, in a statement, said Suswam’s continued detention for over a month was legal. “The case of the former governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam, is typical.
The Service has continued to hold him in line with the dictates of the law – more so that he has not cooperated on the issues concerning the recovery of large cache of arms at his facilities,” the statement said.
No doubt, Suswam, at a time got his desire – first, a seat in the House of Representatives (1999- 2007) and second, the governorship of his home state (2007-2015), but he has fallen from that glory after his failed senatorial bid in the 2015 general elections.