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States lumber under unpaid salaries, pensions, despite bailout, Paris club refund


State workers during a protest

Kayode Bashir, a pensioner from Osun State turned 70 in August 2017. In a country where life expectancy is plunging at great speed, celebrations ought to be considered, but the Bashirs did not roll out the drums, just as there were no garlands to festoon their patriarch.

Reason: In their household, the year 2017 remains in the league of annus horribilis, and so they want to push it behind them as fast as possible.

With Pa Bashir among the thousands of pensioners begging Governor Rauf Aregbesola to have mercy on them by settling their pension arrears, his two sons, Dayo and Supo were swept off their bank jobs in January 2017 by the gale that accompanied the Muhammadu Buhari government-induced recession.

In view of all these bad memories, they could not be happier when the curtain fell on 2017 as they looked forward to an exhilarating 2018.

Across the country, there are millions of families like the Bashirs, who had a bleak 2017, bleak Yuletide, and who are currently wallowing in want on account earned, but unpaid salaries as well as sundry emoluments owed them by their states and local governments.

For a long time, state governors have been playing games with the salaries of public service workers as well as pension for retirees. Most former governors while in office were never frugal in managing scarce financial resources at their disposal. And their financial recklessness is what has now made them regular guests of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other anti-graft agencies.

Many analysts are of the view that huge wage bills did not just suddenly become an albatross to state governments, to the point that they began to pay half or modulated salaries. In fact, they are of the view that the failure to manage their fiscal operations properly and set their priorities right by both previous and incumbent governments are some of the key factors that gave rise to the unpaid salary syndrome. 

For instance, shortly after the inception of this administration, it emerged that public service workers in more than half of the country’s 36 states were being owed salaries of between three and eight months by their governments.

Among the debtor states at the outset of this administration were Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bauchi, Benue, Cross River, Ekiti, Imo, Jigawa, Kano, Kastina, Kogi, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Rivers, and Zamfara.

Much as this brought to the fore the leadership deficit as well as the harrowing experience that Nigerians had to put up with over the years, the malady of unpaid has simply refused to give way nearly three years into the life of the incumbent administration.

Even though some state governors have been pleading helplessness and seeking the understanding of their workforces in the face of the country’s sliding economic fortune, due largely to falling oil prices, they have not themselves lead by example as they keep on making illicit donations to their political parties, travel on chartered private jets and generally lead luxurious lifestyles akin to those of vacationing billionaires.

Teachers, who are responsible for the society’s advancement through knowledge renewal, have equally been subjected to a life of penury by the tier of government responsible for their pay. As at January 4, 2018, 22 states were owing their teachers at least three months’ salaries.

This development prompted a Professor of Science and Computer Education, Lagos State University, and Chairman of Council, Crawford University, Peter Okebukola to express the worry that the callous act of owing teachers their salaries would surely spell doom for education in a short while, if not addressed.

Okebukola, who is also a former Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), added that the country also runs the risk of losing its pride of place, as one of the countries with the best educational systems in Africa, which the UNESCO and other international agencies accord her.

When the news of Paris Club refund to states by the Federal Government broke, many long-suffering workers were overjoyed that their days of misery would soon come to an end. But despite the payment of money totalling nearly N1trillion to states, many still owe their workers several months of salary and pension arrears. Some of these indebtedness dates back to 2000.

The Paris Club became popular in the country about 12 years ago when it rated the Federal Government’s economic reforms as far-reaching and focused. This led the club to cancel about 60 per cent of the country’s $30bn debt.

Between 1995 and 2002, that is before the debt was written off, the Federal Government had agreed with state governments to deduct certain amounts from their monthly allocations to service the debts. So the Paris Club refunds were a partial settlement of long-standing claims by state governments relating to over-deductions from the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) allocation for external debt service between 1995 and 2002.

The last tranche of the refund came in the last days of 2017, and was done alongside the allocations from the FAAC.

The Accountant General of the Federation, Idris Ahmad, who announced the release of the last tranche in a statement last month said it was done so that Nigerians could have a better Christmas.

Before the last tranche of payments was made, President Muhammadu Buhari had in September made a passionate appeal to state governors that are owing salaries and pensions to defray their indebtedness as the workers depended solely on the money for their upkeep.

Buhari at a meeting with members of the National Council of Traditional Rulers, had decried the way the Paris Club refund was spent by some state governors.

At that meeting, he particularly frowned on the inability of the affected state governments to pay the retirement benefits and outstanding salaries of workers with the refund saying, “We have to digress this much because I would like to convince you that I’m living with the problems of this country day-by-day, and mostly those of the ordinary people.

“There are Nigerians that haven’t been paid for six months; there are Nigerians that have not been paid their retirement benefits for years. I’m appealing to the governors, (that was why we voted money, we borrowed money), please make sure anybody under you is paid because most of them depend on that salary to pay rent, school fees,” he said.

Shortly after the presidential directive, the 36 state governors after a meeting with the president and the governors on the Paris Club refund at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, accepted to clear the backlog, but with a caveat.

The Chairman of the Progressives Governors Forum and Governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, said after the meeting, “The issue of the outstanding Paris Club refund was discussed and that was taken care of to make sure that workers in states everywhere in the country get to celebrate the Christmas …We are looking at getting the balance of Paris Club refund thrashed out once and for all. We also made a request for Mr. President’s approval that the balance should form part of our 2018 budget because we can’t include it until we are sure that the money is coming. That was also sorted out. So, as it is now, the issue of workers took the centre stage because Mr. President felt much concerned about those who depend on their salaries to feed their families and pay their house rents and he had the assurance of governors that we will meet up those obligations.”

Sadly, despite all the assurances, and the payment of the last tranche of the Paris Club refund to 27 out of the 36 states, millions of civil servants in several states of the federation still had a bleak Christmas as the backlogs of their salary and pension arrears have not been cleared.

For instance, while workers in Ebonyi, Edo, Kaduna and a few other states are not owing workers salaries, they are still grappling with pension arrears dating back to over a decade in some cases.

In almost all states that workers and pensioners are owed arrears of their entitlements, both the state governments and the workers/pensioners are almost always never on the same page when it comes to the actual number of months owed. This is the case in states like Bayelsa, Zamfara, Abia, Ondo, Ekiti, Benue and Kogi, which is the worst-case scenario.

Only last week, Gov. Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State authorised the release of N5.6 billion out of the state’s share of N13.5 billion Paris Club refund for the payment of one and half months salary arrears owed workers in 2016.

Currently, the outstanding salary arrears to workers in the state civil service stands at four and a half months, while workers at the local government level are owed between 14 and 16 months arrears.

A statement by the Special Adviser to the Governor on Media Relations, Mr. Fidelis Soriwei, stated that the government received N14.8 billion from the Federal Government. The breakdown shows the state received N13.5 billion while the local government councils received N1.37 billion.

“About N5.6 billion of the fund is being spent to defray the one and a half months salary arrears out of the four and half months owed workers in the state in 2016,” the statement added.

In Cross River State, not all workers are up to date with their monthly salaries. Most of the affected ones are from government departments and agencies. Pensioners in the state are worse off as the state has a lot of issues with gratuities and pensions.

This scenario perhaps led an All Progressives Congress (APC) governorship aspirant for 2019 and former member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Paul Adah, to last week berate the state government for alleged selective payment of workers’ salaries. 

While speaking to party faithful from the Southern Senatorial District, he said the non-payment of salaries to workers in some government departments was an affront to the people of the state.

“You can imagine that it is only few government workers that were paid salaries. There are others who are owed some months like workers in the Cross River Geographic Information Agency,” he said.

Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello, who has been having a running battle with workers and pensioners in the state last week claimed that he borrowed N10 billion in addition to the last tranche of the Paris Club refund to clear four months salary arrears.

Bello, who spoke to State House correspondents in Abuja, claimed that the state is no longer owing workers’ salaries.

“In Kogi State today, we are up to date as far as salary is concerned. In the month of December like Mr. President magnanimously assisted us with another tranche of Paris Club refund, our figure was N1.2 billion and some other change on top … We didn’t just stop at that, we borrowed up to N10 billion and we added the November/December allocation to our figures and we were able to clear four months at a stretch before Christmas and some leftover was cleared before this January.

“As you all know the salary was very bogus and according to the figure we had, we were able to distribute it among these months. So, glory to God as far as Kogi State is concerned, we are not owing salaries,” the governor explained.

However, since Bello’s claim of securing a N10 billion loan to clear salary arrears, many in the state are wondering why he elected to plunge the state into further debt, when the bailout funds were enough for the exercise.

But an obviously unperturbed governor during a state-wide broadcast, warned workers in the state to desist from blackmailing him over an non-payment of salaries.

“It is also important to sound a warning to those 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,” he said during the broadcast.

Bello continued: “As the governor of Kogi State, I do not know of any circumstance under which any cleared civil servant, whether at the state or local government level can be owed even three months’ salaries after several months of being cleared, let alone six, 10 or more months as some continue to claim.

“Our investigations show that those making these claims were caught in one offence or the other by the screening exercise and were dismissed or suspended from service without pay. In other cases, they were sanctioned for offences, and granted pardon subject to regularisation.

“In all of these cases, due process is applicable. While we are making efforts to avoid collecting our full pound of flesh from those who robbed our state in the past, through the civil service, we will no longer hesitate to make an example of those we catch compounding their criminal conduct with duplicity in this manner. Government will do her best to pay salaries as and at when due in 2018.”

In what appears like contradicting his principal’s position, Director-General, Media and Publicity to the Governor, Kingsley Fanwo, admitted on national television that the government actually paid 60 per cent of four months to state workers and 40 per cent to local council workers to enable them to celebrate Christmas and the New Year.

The Executive Director, Centre for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Miliki Abdul, took a swipe at Bello for taking a loan of N10billion for the payment of workers’ salaries without following due process.

Abdul in a press statement said the government could not unilaterally take loans without the approval of the State House of Assembly, adding that the issue was never a subject of debate on the floor of the assembly.

He said: “The biggest issue here is the N10billion claimed to have been borrowed to offset the salaries of Kogi workers. Who approved the said N10billion and when? Can a state government obtain a loan of N10billion without the approval of the State Assembly?”

Another group, Kogi Democratic Group (KDG), debunked Bello’s claims of stable security arrangement and up-to-date payment of workers salaries in Kogi State, in a statement released by its spokesman, Abdul Abdul.

The group said Kogi workers and pensioners had left the governor to God’s judgment for his consistent lies and misleading utterances after refusing to pay them their entitlements, but resorting to the payment of half salaries from one month to four months when it was owing some of them 21 to 24 months salary arrears.

For the state chapter of the People Democratic Party (PDP), “For anybody to say that he has borrowed N10billion for the payment of staff salaries, when the time comes, he would show us the book, it is as simple as that. By the grace of God, whenever we get to the bridge, all of us will be alive to witness it. When he fails to give account of all the monies borrowed on behalf of the people of Kogi State, then he will face the consequences.”

The publicity secretary of the party in the state, Mr. Bode Ogunmola, told newsmen in Lokoja, “I can assure you that somebody will go to prison for this because one day immunity will no longer be there and he will be called to account for his sins in the past.”

But in a swift reaction, Fanwo said transparent people don’t go to jail. “Only those who shared the SMSE loans meant to empower women and youth are candidates of jails. The administration of Yahaya Bello has displayed glowing transparency and cherubic financial probity since inception. Financial bumps are erected in the financial management system in the state to ensure compliance with global best practices.”

Organised labour in the state has equally accused the state government of reneging on all the agreements entered into with it before the suspension of the industrial action in November 2017.

The state chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Onuh Edoka and his Trade Union Congress (TUC) counterpart, Comrade Ranti Ojo gave the indication in a joint statement issued in Lokoja, in which they maintained that the arrears due to some staff owed between six to 22 months before August 2017 were still hanging. They wondered why the state government would utter such misleading words that workers in the state had been paid up to date.

The organised labour, which said that the N6billion Paris Club refund, in addition to the monthly allocations for October and November 2017 would had been enough to pay complete salaries to all categories of workers, going by the wage bill of N2.6billion, described the Bello’s pronouncements that workers have been paid up to December 2017 as a mere political statement that could not be justified.

Secretary-General, Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), Alade Bashir Lawal, is of the view that there is no economic reason that should warrant a state government to owe workers’ salaries when the state chief executives and their lieutenants are basking in filthy lucre.

He specifically pointed at Osun State as a very bad example of how to treat workers and pensioners, stressing that some pensioners were dying owing to their inability to access medical care, or their inability to purchase prescribed drugs.

“Governor Aregbesola will tell you point blank that this (referring to Paris Club refund) is not for workers salaries when he knows full well that President Buhari had instructed that this refund should be used for salaries in the interest of workers’ welfare. In some of the meetings, you need to hear him out and even see his countenance when it comes to the welfare of the people. He is a very wicked man and he will pay for it.”

He continued: “Being owed salary arrears would obviously impact the workers’ output because a hungry man is an angry man. Go to Osun State for example, the whole place, including its economy is dead. The state is a civil service state and once workers are not collecting salaries, the artisans, food vendors would not make sales, and schools that are supposed to be taking care of children would send the children back home. It is quite a vicious circle, and the workers are having it very rough.”

On Saturday December 31, 2017, the Joint Labour Unions in Osun State called off their three-day-old strike after a meeting with government officials, where the government acceded to some of their demands (including the payment of full December 2017 salary) and a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed.

Apart from having a sustained battle with pensioners in the state over pension arrears, the Aregbesola-led government has been arguing back and forth with workers over the actual salary status of workers in the state.

The government recently explained that going by the modulated structure of salary payment as conceived by the government, and endorsed by various labour unions in the state, full salaries were paid to workers on Grade Level 1 to 7, while workers between Grade Level 8 to 12 got 75 per cent of their salaries.

Outside the category of workers on Grade Level 13 and above, it maintained that no other worker received half of his or her salaries, and workers in this category are just about 20 per cent of the state’s workforce.

But the ASCSN chieftain believes that workers and pensioners in the state would have had a better deal if the state government considered them an integral part of the state, as against his preference for settling contractors’ bills instead of workers’ entitlements. “With the agreement that has been signed recently, let us see whether he will implement it faithfully.”

Bashir, who wondered how an oil-producing state like Bayelsa could be owing workers’ salaries at all, said “we have told them (governors) that at the end of this year in some states, and next year in most of the states, we’ll make very loud statements so that those people who don’t mean well for workers would be consigned to the dustbin of each state, let them go and rot there, and they will pay for these acts of wickedness, I’m really sure of that.”

“In Nasarawa State workers are currently being owed the same in Kogi State, where the governor is a very problematic governor, Benue and Oyo are owing, Ondo State is equally owing workers, and Governor Rotimi Akeredolu even said that he met a backlog of salary arrears from the past administration, which he is not ready to pay, despite government being a continuum. Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State wants to become president, yet he’s not paying workers’ salaries,” said Bashir

He lamented that what the unfortunate trend of states owing their workers salaries would only succeed in doing is bring about a surge in crime rate, raise the level of unemployment and foster illegal migration of youths abroad because a breadwinner that cannot provide for his family cannot stop his children from leaving the country.

Also speaking on the salary arrears saga, General Secretary, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Peter Ozo-Eson said, “Our understanding of the situation is that those states that are owing workers’ salaries are those that are not managing their affairs properly.

The resources are available to all states, and those who manage their resources properly and set their priorities right are able to meet their obligations to their workers as at when due.

Those that have not, even in the face of bailout and Paris Club refund are those that are able to set their priorities against their workers because they are meeting personal obligations; these are states that their governors are taking billions of naira in security votes.

So, clearly states that are not meeting their obligations are states that have not been able to manage their fiscal operations properly and set their priorities right, and we do hope that workers would mobilise themselves effectively by using their voters cards to vote out such governors in those states.”

He regretted that most states hide under the argument that as a federation, they have the ability and autonomy to carry out their own fiscal operations. “But I think one thing that they need to realise is that when workers are unhappy, even at the states’ level, it creates a general anti-government and anti-party position, depending on which parties these are. Mr. President can bring the morale of his office to bear, particularly those governors that are within his party because whatever rubs off on them will also rub off on him and the party.

To him, it is up to what political strength he can muster, but fortunately, we believe it is a political solution and that is why we say that workers must commit themselves to obtaining their voters’ cards and getting ready to vote and vote properly so that those who have not performed can be shown the way out.”

For state governors, who are expecting workers that are owed salary arrears to perform creditably, Ozo-Eson said, “You are just deceiving yourselves because workers that cannot meet their basic needs; transport themselves to work or feed in order to have the energy to work cannot perform magic.

So, clearly, the whole economy loses when we carry out these types of obnoxious policies and owe salaries to workers. Productivity falls and the economy suffers.”

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