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Profligate leaders, agonising workers and Peter Obi’s example

Engineer Umar claimed he had not received any salary for 19 months. Last week, the Lokoja-based top civil servant sent me a distressing message: “I am married, with four children. My wife is sick of typhoid and malaria fever. We have not eaten since yesterday night because I don’t have a kobo in my hand to take charge of anything. I ran away from my house this morning and where I went to is how I saw your number and I decided to call and appeal to you to please help me with whatever token amount you can afford to help my poor situation this afternoon. Please and please, help me sir.”

I’m not sure if this man is genuine or one of those unrepentant fraudsters. But what is certain is that it was in this same Kogi that a top civil servant in the state’s civil service, Mr. Edward Soje, committed suicide over unpaid 11-month salary. This was barely 10 days after his wife of 17 years gave birth to a set of male triplets in a private hospital in Abuja. The couple had been childless before then.

Many other workers might not have committed suicide, but it’s all been tales of woe in Kogi. The Nation newspaper of November 5, 2017, reported that 30 per cent of the state’s workforce was owed 21 months’ salaries; 21 per cent owed between 11 and 18 months; while about 45 per cent took their salaries up till July last year.

The president of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, described the situation as particularly troubling. He told The Nation, “In Kogi, which is the worst case scenario presently, you have about three categories of workers. You have those with three months’ salary arrears, which constitute about 40 per cent. We have those with arrears of between five (and) 18 months which constitute another 40 per cent and then, you have about 20 per cent with liability of between five (and) 21 months. The same applies to pensioners. That is the scenario we have presently in Kogi and that is why we say it is the worst case scenario because, in other states, all the workers are on the same page.”

Governor Yahaya Bello has denied this allegation though. In his New Year broadcast, he said his administration, last December, paid almost all the salary arrears owed all categories of workers in the state. The few ones who were yet to be paid, he said, were those having issues with the concluded staff screening exercise.

The governor warned civil servants “who defame government with claims of long months of unpaid salaries in order to solicit money from gullible people, or evade their own contractual or domestic obligations,” to desist from doing so.

Salary or no salary, Bello is an epitome of bad governance. The other day, the man announced the dissolution of the State Executive Council. But barely 30 minutes after, he reversed himself, asking the appointees to stay put in their respective offices.

He had also been involved in double voter registration. Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) confirmed this by sacking three of its staff. Currently, he is trying to wriggle out of the controversy surrounding his alleged involvement in the importation of some military items.

Bello is not riding alone in this poor governance train. Across many states, it is the same story. With the exception of Lagos, almost all the states marginalise their workers one way or the other. Earlier in the month, the president of the Trade Union Congress, Mr. Bobboi Kaigama, said 35 out of the 36 states owed workers salaries despite the billions of Paris Club refund they received from the Federal Government.   

According to Kaigama, if it is not one month’s salary, it will be 13 months of gratuities or pensions that have not been paid. Also, it’s either that contributory pension deductions are not being remitted or that there are certain promotion arrears and death benefits that have not been paid.

Of course, most of the governors want to come back for their second term. They need money for campaign and other logistics. So, they swim in the ocean of high debt and find it difficult to meet their obligations.

According to BudgIT Nigeria, a civil society organisation, the debt profile of states increased from N3.03 trillion in 2015 to N3.89 trillion in 2016. Lagos State’s total debt stock reportedly rose from the 2014 level of N500.8 billion to N734.7 billion in 2016 accounting for 24.2 per cent of the total debt stock of state governments.

A dip in oil price is also a contributory factor. There is no excess money to share anymore. And since we have not expanded our revenue base, the poor masses have become the ultimate victims.

But if the governors had not been wasteful, the problem would have been minimal. Some of them find it more expedient to sponsor religious pilgrimages and employ hundreds of personal aides than pay workers or provide infrastructure. They abandon important projects but relish in donating cars and cash to cronies and less worthy causes.

Besides, some states have continued to pay huge pension entitlements to ex-governors some of who are currently serving as senators or ministers. In Lagos, Rivers, Kano, Gombe, Akwa Ibom and some others, there are laws backing up this profligacy.

For instance, the Lagos Pension Law provides that a former governor will enjoy two houses (one in Lagos and another in Abuja) for life. He is also entitled to six brand new cars every three years, furniture allowance of 300 per cent of annual salary every two years, and free medical treatment for himself and immediate family members. There are other allowances that cover utility, house/car maintenance and domestic staff. There are different variants of the same law in Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Gombe, Kano, Zamfara and so on.

The most annoying thing is that some of these ex-governors are serving senators, earning stupendous salaries and allowances. Thanks to Senator Shehu Sani, we now know that each senator receives N13.5 million monthly as running cost, apart from the N750,000 consolidated monthly salary. This translates into about N162 million per annum on each legislator in a country where the poverty level is estimated at 80 per cent and minimum wage remains N18,000 per month. This is in addition to N200 million each senator collects per annum under the guise of constituency projects.

Most of these so-called projects are never executed but contractors get paid for them. These are lawmakers who are inept in their duties but very good in padding budgets to serve their selfish interests. In the heat of recession last year, they increased their budgetary allocation from N115 billion to N125 billion.

There is need for a revolution of some sort. It should start from our political office-holders. They should cut down on cost of governance, debt accumulation, and extravagant lifestyle. The former governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, has shown clearly that this is doable.

Anambra is not an oil-producing state, but the state, under Obi, met its contractual obligations without accumulating any debt. Obi even went further to make huge savings for the state. He was able to do this by living a Spartan lifestyle and drastically cutting down on cost of governance.

Last Thursday, Obi was in his element when he spoke at the dialogue organised by Ripples Centre for Data and Investigative Journalism in Lagos. He said if he revealed how much a Nigerian governor earned, there would be more outrage than what trailed the N13.5 million monthly pay of senators.

Obi said, “America’s GDP is way above Nigeria’s but an American senator earns $174,000 (about N50 million) a year and you can imagine what his Nigerian counterpart earns in a month. In America, governors earn according to their state. The governor of California is the highest paid in America, and he earns $192,000. The smallest state earns $70,000. But in Nigeria, I can tell you because I’ve been there, the cost of just keeping convoys alone is in millions. And when people ask me why I am saying these things, I tell them that even if we made mistakes yesterday, can’t we correct them today?”

Definitely, we can correct our mistakes. The Kwara State House of Assembly has shown the way. Last month, the Assembly halted the payment of pension to former governors and other political office-holders. This is commendable.

Nigerians should wake up from their slumber. They should begin to question the inanities of their leaders. The little outcry in Lagos over the recent increase in the land use charge has resulted in the reduction of the rates by Governor Akinwunmi Ambode. Civil society groups should always galvanise people to do more of this.

If all our leaders could expand their revenue base and swallow the Peter Obi pill, I have no doubt that Nigeria will emerge healthier and stronger. And Engineer Umar would have no reason again to abandon his family.   

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Online Editor: Aderonke Bello
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