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Employment crisis in Cross River pits civil servants, labour against govt

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Ayade

Since Governor Ben Ayade came into office a little over five years ago, employment is seen as a highly political issue that always pits labour and civil servants against the government.

On many occasions, the governor would make pronouncements on employment, which would turn out to be mere political gimmicks. At other times, the governor or his deputy would give approvals and employment would be made, but later such approvals would be denied by the governor, leading to protests. The deputy governor would also give approval to the Civil Service Commission (CSC) but such approval would be disregarded by the governor.

In the state’s civil service, 2,500 personnel were said to have been employed at the instance of the governor and his deputy but government later denied such employment, saying there was no approval to that effect and the names of the employees would be delisted from the payroll. Such employments are usually termed ‘fraudulent.’

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Angered by this, the embattled workers, who have been owed salaries for over 13 months, embarked on a peaceful protest, barricading government offices at New Secretariat along Murtala Mohammed Way. In the wake of the magistrates’ crisis last week, government still insisted that the 2,500 workers were fraudulently employed.

One of the aggrieved civil servants, Mr. Francis Inah, said; “We were duly employed in 2015 and due process was followed, as many of us wrote different examinations and were given employment letters by the Cross River State Government but, surprisingly and for no reason, many names were dropped from the payroll in 2018 and others in August 2019. The government said many of us entered through the back door.”

In the judiciary, 30 magistrates, who had been in the employ of the state government for over two years without salary, embarked on a peaceful protest to get their salaries paid. For three days, the magistrates protested in front of the governor’s office, demanding payment of their salaries.

It was gathered that the magistrates borrowed monies from banks and individuals to the tune of N2 million to N3 million for their personal upkeep. Some of them have died as a result of hardship.

One aggrieved magistrate said, “we are owing banks and individuals and organisations over N60 million.” This was confirmed by the leader of the protesting magistrates, Mr. Solomon Abuo of Court 15, who said; “We borrowed from individuals, banks and begged to survive.”

But the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Tanko Ashang, in a statement described the recruitment of the magistrates as fake and fraudulent. Ashang reminded the magistrates that their employment had irregularities as it did not have the necessary approvals required for the engagement of any officer into the public service of Cross River State and challenged them “to bring forward any approval that was obtained, if any, prior to their engagement or take the government to court if they strongly feel they have a right.”

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Ashang insisted that as lawyers, it was wrong for the magistrates to blackmail government through public protests to coerce it into endorsing illegality and, “as a member of the Judicial Service Commission, I am aware of the many petitions that trailed that purported employment and the investigations that revealed that some of you do not possess the necessary certification to have been so employed in the first place.”

Ashang, however, assured the magistrates that he would work with the JSC to regularise all the irregularities that exist while hoping that governor Ayade would exercise his usual magnanimity and give approval for their employment in “the same way he recently regularised the employment of over 2,500 staff that were smuggled into the payroll by improper means.”

The spokesman for the magistrates, Abuo, countered the state government’s claim, saying, “our employment was neither illegal nor fraudulent. The Judicial Service Commission advertised for vacancy for magistrates. When we saw the public notice, we bought the forms and we applied. We were screened, interviewed and those of us who were successful were sworn-in by the Chief Judge of Cross River State, who is also the Chairman of the JSC. After our swearing-in, we were sent for training by the Cross River State Judiciary. It lasted for about three months and that included a one-week induction course in Abuja. We were issued certificates of participation by the National Judicial Institute.

“Upon returning to the state, we were posted to different courts and we resumed sitting. To my knowledge, what was expected of us was done. Ours was to follow the process, apply for the job and make ourselves available to be screened. When we were not paid, we wrote a series of letters to the government. We wrote to the office of the Secretary to the State Government, the Judicial Service Commission and the House of Assembly. Three times, the state government set up different screening exercises and we participated. If there was anything, they would have made it public since. Why now?”

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“The law does not give the governor any right to approve the appointments of magistrates before it can be made. It is the JSC that has such powers. It is not correct that our employment is fraudulent.”

Similarly, top officials of the Civil Service Commission (CSC) have debunked claims by government that the 2,500 jobs by the commission were fraudulent.

Pleading anonymity, they said, “employment of staff into the state civil service by the CSC (2016 – 2019) under the then leadership of Mrs. Rosemary Obanya followed due process.

“The allegation of illegal employment of about 2,500 staff into the Cross River State Civil Service by the CSC is untrue. The CSC followed due process in the employment of staff into the State Civil Service and the number of staff so employed is below the alleged number of 2,500. The employment by the commission was either by the re-absorption of ad hoc and casual staff said to be already working in different MDAs, the recruitment of new staff or appointment of contract staff.

“Such employment of staff was done by the commission with the approval of either the governor or the deputy governor. Activities in respect of the employment of these staff were also carried out at different levels by the heads of the MDAs, as the initiators of the process, the special adviser (Budget), the Ministry of Rural Transformation, Establishment and Training (MRTE&T), the Head of Service (HOS), the accountant general and the auditor general. The names of employed civil servants pass through these offices before inclusion into the state payroll following due process.

“While some approvals were granted by the governor, others were granted by the deputy governor. The approvals, if not provided for in the annual budget of the MDAs, were supported by budget clearance, signed and issued by the special adviser (budget) to cover the payment of salaries of staff to be employed. The CSC received the approvals granted by the governor or the deputy governor.”

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ON the issue of approvals granted by the deputy governor, which the governor rejected, the top civil servants argued that “the Civil Service Commission accepted such approvals because within the two and half years tenure of the commission, the deputy governor handled all matters relating to the commission. Moreover, the applications written by the heads of MDAs were addressed to the governor and received and stamped in his office.

How the applications got to the deputy governor’s office for approval was not within the knowledge of the commission.

“The governor granted approval for the employment of 635 (454 were for the Water Board) out of about 1,700 persons employed by the commission. The deputy governor granted approval for the balance. Almost half of these staff were neither on payroll nor paid salaries as of June 2019 when the CSC was ‘dissolved.’ The CSC followed due process in carrying out the employment of staff within the ambit it was permitted to operate. The commission was not a party to any illegal employment and as such did not smuggle names into the civil service.”

For instance, some of the approvals by the governor, with instruction to follow due process include “Transfer of the Cross River State GIA staff to the main service,” dated May 4, 2018, approval by the governor for the “Re-absorption of casual workers of Cross River State Haulage City Agency in the main stream of civil service,” dated December 2, 2016. “Request to absorb casual staff into the main stream to fill the manpower need,” dated October 2, 2018. Approval of “List of contract staff of Cross River State Water Board Limited for regularization of appointment” dated May 21, 2018. Approval by the deputy governor dated January 11, 2018, for “Absorption of temporary staff of the Ministry of Power.”

The state government, in a surprise move last week, stopped the magistrates from sitting. In a letter dated January 4, 2021 and signed by the Chief Registrar of the state High Court, Mr. Edem Okokon, said; “I have the directives of His Lordship, Hon. Justice Eyo Effiom Ita, to inform you that, in view of the state government’s inability to pay your salaries since your appointment in February 2019, you are hereby withdrawn from sitting in court till further notice.

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“There is no conscientious reason to have allowed you work without pay for all this while as you may be tempted to fall into corrupt practices in order to survive. Accordingly, you are advised to stay at home until the issue of your salaries is settled.”

In reaction, the state Chairman of Trade Union Congress (TUC), Comrade Monday Ogbodum, said; “Labour is aware of the matter and since they were already on the payroll before they were removed, they have reinstated them since October last year.”

On the issue of government always coming out to deny employment of civil servants by CSC or JSC, claiming no approval was given hence such employment being deemed fraudulent, the TUC chairman said it smacked of wickedness.

According to Ogbodum, “this is a government that says it wants to put food on the table of every Cross Riverian, yet these are people that were fully employed and for two years you deny them their salaries. So, is this theory or policy of putting food on the table a realistic one or is it putting food on the table of politicians who just stay at home and get alert for doing nothing?

“But these are people who are genuinely employed like the magistrates, who preside over sensitive cases, and you say you are not paying them. We are on it even though government said they have given them letters to stay at home. It is not acceptable by labour.”

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