By Hope Abah Emmanuel, Makurdi
The Benue State House of Assembly penultimate Monday suspended six local government council chairmen and two vice chairmen for six months over allegations of gross misconduct, misappropriation of funds and abuse of office.
Those suspended include; Austin Okwoche of Oju local government council, Mrs Juliana Audu of Makurdi, TerdooKenti of Kwande and his vice, Andrew Orvande as well as Francis Ogwuche of Okpokwu, Mrs Beckie Orpin of Gboko, Mrs Comfort Echioda of Agatu LGC and her vice, Joseph Ngbede.
Because they are all of All Progressives Congress (APC), the suspension generated heated debates in certain political quarters.
Before they were ousted during plenary session by the lawmakers, a correspondence from Governor Samuel Ortom requesting the House to grant the approval for the suspension was presented on the floor.
Speaker of the House, Titus Uba, who read the correspondence before members said the request for the suspension was based on the advice of the state’s Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Michael Gusa, that the action was necessary to enable investigation into the allegations against them.
The correspondence was also said to be accompanied by petitions allegedly written by Councilors from the councils mentioned against the affected officials.
Based on the allegations, the lawmakers went ahead to suspend the council heads.
But, one of them, the chairman of Oju LGA, Austin Okwoche, told our correspondent in Makurdi that the action was sudden.
Okwoche said there were no processes or invitation served him, stressing that the suspension was rather a show of might against those who refused to decamp to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) along with the governor and an indication that the opposition has no place in government.
Barely 24-hours after the Assembly acted, the governor on Tuesday swore-in six acting chairmen to replace them.
Ortom while performing the ceremony at the Government House in Makurdi warned the new officials to desist from sharing funds meant for development of their areas to political elders.
“The era of sharing council money to the elders is now over. Government money is meant to touch the lives of the people positively. Be prudent in handling the councils’ finances. Do not embezzle council funds. Money is not everything, do not be in a hurry to grab it,” he said.
While the swearing in ceremony held in Makurdi, news of the suspension and replacement of the affected chairmen filtered into their rural council headquarters, and some youths, specifically in Kwande and Gboko local government areas, went on wild protests which disrupted commercial activities for several hours.
Our correspondent gathered that some youths in the two areas had trooped out with placards and blocked major roads to express their grievances over the suspension while allegedly destroying campaign bill boards.
The suspended chairman of Kwande LGC, TerdooKenti and the DPO in charge of the area were said to have earlier addressed the youths and appealed to them to remain calm and rather seek legal redress instead of protesting.
In Gboko, the situation turned violent with the protesters allegedly burning cars of some perceived political opponents who responded in equal proportion and except for the intervention of the police, the crisis would have escalated.
But before the end of that day, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Michael Gusa, filed direct criminal charges against the six chairmen.
In the suit filed by the Director, Citizens Rights, Ministry of Justice, Makurdi, Peter Agbese on behalf of the Attorney General of the state, the chairman of Agatu LGA, Mrs Comfort Echoda and her Deputy, Joseph Ngbede, allegedly conspired and converted to their personal use, N150 million being local government funds from federal allocation, contrary to the penal code of Benue State.
The state counsel also alleged that the suspended chairman of Gboko LGA, Becky Orpin, diverted and misappropriated N20 million being funds meant for the school feeding programme, and converted N5 million meant for 2018 Christmas celebration to her personal use.
It further stated that the chairman of Okpokwu LGA, Francis Ogwuche, allegedly misappropriated N32 million meant for the mass burial of victims of the Omusu massacre by militia herdsmen last year, in addition to N5 million meant for the 2017 Christmas package.
The chairman of Oju LGA, AustineOkwoche, was accused of alleged misappropriation of N120 million being local government funds from the federal allocation.
Similarly, the chairman of Makurdi LGA, Juliana Audu, allegedly misappropriated N20 million meant for providing security in Mbalagh Ward and her counterpart in Kwande LGA, TerdooKenti and his deputy, Andrew Orvande, allegedly conspired and converted over N168 million being funds from federal allocation.
As the heat rages on, the APC in the state has described the suspension as another display of impunity and vindictiveness.
The State Publicity Secretary of the party, James Ornguga, said, “The suspension of six APC council chairmen is another display of impunity and vindictiveness by the Ortom administration. Remember that there was a subsisting court order given by Hon. Justice Theresa Shija that barred the governor and the state Assembly from further suspension of these chairmen.
“Even the three earlier suspended were to be reinstated but the governor has refused to honour it. He is simply inviting anarchy now that his days are numbered in office. He can go ahead and suspend everyone while the electorate will sack him on March 2, 2019.”
The state Publicity Secretary of the PDP, BemgbaIortyom, was yet to respond to the controversy at the time of sending this report.
In the meantime, the Commissioner of Police, OmololuBishi, confirmed the arrest of four people who he said were principal actors of the Gboko unrest even as he warned that the command would not tolerate any political violence in the state.
The governor, through his Chief Press Secretary, TerverAkase, urged the people of Gboko to remain calm and carry on with their normal businesses, saying the incident in the town, in which youths apparently sponsored by aggrieved politicians blocked some streets and burnt tyres was brought under control.
He charged security operatives to apprehend those responsible for the violence to serve as deterrent to others, stressing that the state government would not tolerate thuggery of any kind.
The governor further advised youths to avoid being used by politicians who have run out of favour with the people and now want to cause political crisis in the state.
Our correspondent recalled that in September last year, the state Assembly also slammed three council chairmen with three months suspension each on alleged gross misconduct, financial misappropriation and other offences contrary to the local government law (2007) of the state as amended.
The affected chairmen included those of Ogbadibo LGA James Akola and his deputy, Gwer East LGA, Vitalis Uhar and Vandeikya LGA, Dennis Akura.
It was gathered that their suspension followed a letter written to the assembly by the governor which requested the approval of members for their suspension after investigation on allegations levelled against them.
The lawmakers during that plenary had decried the rate at which council chairmen spend money not appropriated for, pointing out that between January and March 2018, most of the chairmen spent funds that were unappropriated.
Speaker of the House, Uba, told newsmen shortly after the sitting that the assembly would not condone corruption or impunity as displayed by the affected chairmen just as he dispelled rumours that they were being victimised for refusing to follow the governor to defect to the PDP.