By Obike Ukoh
The pronouncement by Governor Alex Otti of Abia State in his inaugural speech on May 29, 2023, to abolish discriminatory payment of salary to Abia workers was reminiscent of what happened in 1984 in old Imo State, when then Brig.-Gen. Ike Nwachukwu was appointed military administrator.
It is unarguable that Chief Sam Mbakwe, then governor of old Imo before the December, 31, 1983, military takeover, was one of the outstanding governors but teachers chewed a bitter pill during his administration.
They were owed a backlog months of salary before Nwachukwu mounted the saddle.
Nwachukwu’s Commissioner for Finance, Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, who was then with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), described the practice as anachronistic. He wondered why a government would discriminate against its own workforce.
To redress the situation, he introduced what was known as Imo Formula. Simply put, salaries must be paid across board, the same thing with owing, if the case arises. The Imo Formula worked, even when Kalu was made finance minister.
Otti, in his inaugural speech, titled “A Time to Rebuild,” sounded like Kalu.
“There shall be no more distinction between the so-called ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ civil servants. This is a disingenuous expression that was used to hide the wicked habit of owing salaries,’’ Otti stressed.
To Abia workers across sectors that were owed several months of salaries, Otti’s pronouncement was indeed a new deal and signalled a new lease of life.
“Within the next few days, we shall commence the payment of May 2023 salaries and pensions to all civil servants and retirees in the state.
“There shall be no more distinction between the so called ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ civil servants.
“This is a disingenuous expression that was used to hide the wicked habit of owing salaries.
“Whether you are a teacher in a primary or secondary institution owned by the state, a staff of the public health establishments, local government, or in the judiciary, you shall, beginning from this May, earn your legitimate entitlements as and when due.
“From June 2023, all salary and pension obligations of the state would be settled by the 28th of every month.
“My commitment during my campaigns to pay off all outstanding salary and pension arrears remains sacrosanct.
“Within the next one week, I shall set up appropriate mechanisms to ensure that all legitimate employees and retirees are identified and paid their due entitlements.’’
Otti also added, “I shall, over the next one month, work closely with my team and relevant stakeholders to design an appropriate framework that will be used to drive the recruitment of about 5,000 new teachers for our primary and secondary schools.
“Priority shall be given to young graduates with requisite qualifications in education, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subject areas and to those who are also willing to serve in rural communities.’’
The governor acknowledged that it was not going to be easy because of the financial position of the state handed over to him.
“I must be frank to inform you that we have a very difficult and challenging road ahead of us.
“Abia State is starting, not from zero, but from an enormously negative position.
“We have a treasury that has been criminally ravaged to the extent that we have an alleged N50 billion in unpaid salaries, gratuities and pensions.
“Our local and foreign debts overhang is reported to be in the region of N200 billion, in addition to other debts to contractors.
“ We have a poorly motivated workforce and, most painfully, our senior citizens, who feel blatantly betrayed by successive administrations that willfully and unconscionably abandoned them to live in wretched sub-human conditions.’’
Otti’s pronouncement was to put to rest the issue of core civil servants, imported and popularized by the immediate past governor, Okezie Ikpeazu.
There was a blame game between Ikpeazu and his immediate past predecessor, Sen. Theodore Orji, on who was responsible for huge salary arrears owed Abia workers.
Ikpeazu had maintained that no “core civil servant was owed any salary,’’ adding that those that have issues with salaries were working in parastatals.
“I have 31,000 workers in Abia workforce and 29,000 of them are up to date as we speak in salary payment.
“ Parastatals receive subvention. I don’t pay their salaries because they are revenue-generating agencies of government,” Ikpeazu said.
According to him, the issue of non-payment of pensions and salaries has been there long before he assumed office and he has done his best to settle them with the expectation that his successor will continue from where he stopped.
“But I don’t run away from responsibility; the issue of pension has been there perennially since the past 24 years. I did as much as I could. This government since inception passed through two to three recessions.
“When I came, within three months of my administration, I paid 11 months’ arrears of salary. Those 11 months were there while I was governor. So, if you take up position as governor, you have accepted to take over both liability and asset and I don’t like to complain.
“I didn’t have to talk about what my predecessors did not do, because what gave me my job in the first place was that there were things they didn’t do. So, for somebody to come and make a sweeping statement that no salary is being paid is a lie, I am not owing any core civil servant salary,” Ikpeazu said.
He argued that, because the parastatals receive money from the government, they should be able to make money, which will enable them pay salaries of staff.
After Ikpeazu’s outburst, Theodore Orji tackled him.
Orji told the immediate past governor of Abia State, Ikpeazu, to stop blaming him for his failure to pay the salary arrears owed workers in the state. Orji explained that when he left office in 2015, core civil servants were not owed any salary arrears, while workers in parastatals were owed not more than four months.
He expressed surprise that his successor had allowed salary arrears to accumulate up to 40 months and he could still point the finger at him.
Orji, in his reaction, never said it was not the responsibility of his government to pay non-core civil servants.
Mr. Ukaegbu Kazi, a retired secondary school principal in Abia and a pensioner, praised Otti for bringing to an end the core and non-core civil servant controversy.
Kazi, who was already in service when the government came up with the idea of the Imo Formula, said it was absurd to talk of core and non-core civil servants, with regard to payment of salaries.
He noted that, during Mbakwe’s time, teachers were singled out, adding that it was corrected by the military administration that followed.
Kazi noted that state’s revenue was centrally collected, while the revenue collected by parastatals and non-core agencies were monitored and most of the time also regulated by government.
“All state workers are employed by the government and ought to be paid from the state’s treasury,’’ Kazi said.
He stressed that the preferences and dichotomy in payment should not be and praised Otti for bringing it to an end.
The retired principal solicited support for Otti from all sections and sectors in Abia to enable him succeed.
Indeed the present leadership in Abia needs support in order to surmount the onerous task ahead.