Osun And Governors That Owe Workers’ Salaries
WHEN the Osun-Osogbo festival held this year, it would have been proper if the prevailing economic and social circumstances had broken out to the present dimension. Adherents to that ancient religion repose much faith in the ability of the deity to cleanse and prosper its followers.
But certain things have a way of defying prescience. Even in the Christian religion where the Bible talks about seven
lean years succeeding seven fat ones, it remains inscrutable to correctly situate when the change of baton, so to say, takes place.
For instance, given the current stress being laid on the performance of Nigeria’s economy shortly after the 2015 election had been won and lost, it is left to conjecture to say whether the seven lean years predated the elections or that the change-over combined with the hand-over of political power from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The present ugly social situation being experienced by workers in Osun State seem to present the APC state as the worse hit in the ongoing fiscal perambulations. But recalling that prior to the 2015 elections, Benue State took the prize of the pre-eminent state where workers’ salaries were owed, gives the idea that the seven lean years may have actually preceded the change of guards in the Presidency. States that found themselves in the unenviable list of salary default included, Abia, Bauchi, Benue, Cross River, Delta, Ekiti, Imo, Kogi, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau and Rivers. But while other states decided to rough-it over and live in somewhat aloofness, Kogi and Benue decided to chew on the development and devise some response mechanisms.
What the Kogi governor did was to ambush the workers’ monthly entitlement by 40 per cent. However, when the workers cried out against such surreptitious reduction the governor, perhaps, realising that he has an election to win, back-tracked and restored the normal salary.
In the case of Benue State, the then Governor Gabriel Suswam took to the approach of loan, stressing that he was targeting additional monthly loan of N200 million to pay workers’ salaries in the state. Though the former governor regretted that workers in the state were owed salaries for several months, he maintained that borrowing was imperative since according to him, “non-payment of workers’ salaries was a global issue and not peculiar to Benue State.” Despite his recourse to one-sided logic, Suswan said he resisted the option of downsizing to settle for borrowing. But if the former governor did not want to undertake a mass sack of workers, he must have forgotten the saying that he, ‘who goes a borrowing, goes a sorrowing’.
But as it became obvious, governors found it easy to dismiss the agony of workers on the charge that “there is no money”.
The situation has raised public attention to the literacy and numeracy levels of state chief executives. Most commentators point to the development as a ready indicator of fiscal rascality on the part of governors owing workers arrears of salaries. Nigerians should take note of this crop of governors because even though most of them may be enjoying second and final term in office as governors, there is always the likelihood that they may aspire to elective or even appointive offices in future. The question these governors ought to answer is why they neglected their budgets? Since it is generally agreed that salary should be the first line charge on the state’s revenue and a constant feature of the annual budgets, defaulting in settling that obligation amounts to fiscal indiscipline. It is left to be seen whether governors of those states failed to draw their own salaries or the exclusive security (slush?) votes for the number of months they owed their workers.
Intriguingly, the decline in revenue did not take the governors by surprise. For instance, in the month of April when the Federation Accounts Allocation Committee, (FAAC) shared N282.06 Billion, the then minister of State for Finance, who doubles as the Chairman, Dr. Bashir Yuguda, explained that if not that the April fund was augmented with N72.154 Billion from Value Added Tax, (VAT) and from the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, (NNPC) refund of N6.330 billion, it would have been lower. But dismissing the weak argument by governors of declining earning as basis for their failure to pay workers’ salaries, the then Chairman of Forum of State Finance Commissioners and Commissioner for Finance, Ebonyi State, Mr. Timothy Odaah, declared that governors owing salaries were to be blamed. Odaah contended that the governors ought to have set payment of salaries among their priority, pointing out that instead most of them “fritter state funds on electioneering campaigns.” “Why should states owe workers’ salaries when they have been regularly collecting their statutory allocations from the Federation Account; what have they been doing with their allocations? Payment of salaries is not an achievement. It is not a thing that a governor would pay when he likes. The salaries are built into the allocations that the states collect every month and so the governors are supposed to pay regularly as a priority,” he stated.
Odaah noted that if Ebonyi State, with its poor earning could not owe workers and the government went ahead to undertake upward review of salaries as demanded by the workers, no responsible governor should shamelessly owe. He said most of the governors were able to fund their elections only to owe workers. Going by Odaah’s line of reasoning, it beggars belief that governors should blame their indebtedness on the current poor financial condition of the country.
That was the impression the APC governors wanted Nigerians to swallow when they visited the then President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari. Leader of the progressives governors who is also Governor of Imo State, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, told Buhari on behalf of his colleagues that the issue of concern “to all of us is the state of the Nigeria economy, which is really in a bad shape and we have come to notify the incoming President of the challenges ahead of him.”
He added: “Most states of the Federation have not been able to pay salaries and even the Federal Government has not paid April salaries. That is very worrisome and by May and June, that will be cumulative of about three months and we wondered that with the huge expectations from Nigerians and people who voted us into power, we are hoping that the President-elect will do all the things that are humanly possible to bring about a bailout, not only on the part of the states, but also the Federal Government, so that people can get their salaries and turn-around the economy.”
But perhaps, noting the tinge of blackmail contained in the APC governors’ position the then Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, insisted that governors should take the blame for defaulting to pay salaries, revealing that they were told through the FAAC to make the issue of wage a priority.
Notwithstanding the contrasting positions and adversarial relationship that seem to subsist between the governors and the former Finance Minister, the fact that her office alerted the governors that income outlay was on the downward plunge ought to have elicited some discipline and reassessment of expenditure profile and governance style. Even in personal finance, declining income usually necessitates belt-tightening measures. Most often than not, prestige and expenditure on articles of ostentation are first to be taken off the family budget. But instead of eating the humble pie to observe prudence in the face of the paucity of funds, the governors remained diffident in servicing political considerations and other expenditures that are neither allowed by the Constitution nor known to their annual budgets.
This is where the situation in Osun becomes very worrisome. Governor Rauf Aregbesola, has a peer in history. Around 2001, workers, especially teachers went on an indefinite strike over the non-payment of salaries for nearly more than one year. Dr. C. C. Mbadinuju, who was Governor of Anambra State then felt helpless by the elongated strike action in the state. However, while the workers where agonizing over unpaid wages, the government spent huge sums of money on the maintenance of the unorthodox security outfit called the Bakassi Boys.
There is a correlation between the denials of second term ticket to Mbadinuju by the PDP in 2003 to the general feeling of dejection by the masses in Anambra then. Nothing more than backlog of unpaid salaries makes the masses “feel the negative impact of the revenue drop on the economy” as Okonjo-Iweala stated.
That is where the situation in Osun where workers have relapsed into another round of strike raises concerns. When strike action degenerates to street protests, it would be left to be seen how APC could contain such uprising and negation of its promise of better life to Nigerians. It is curious that the governor remained adamant on cost cutting measures, including auctioning of the helicopter it purchased to fight insecurity in the state as put forward by some stakeholders. Or is there anything in Osun State balance sheet Governor Rauf knows that others do not?
It may be out of frustration that the governor does not want to empathize with the suffering workforce in the state that a Judge in the state, Justice Olamide Oloyede, decided to petition the House of Assembly to consider the impeachment option. The governor’s recourse to sophism seems to feed the impression that in the haste to avoid losing the 2014 second-term election, he must have negated his scale of preference to service the stomach infrastructure of voters at the expense of workers’ salaries.
Justice Oloyede had accused Aregbesola of financial recklessness and asked the lawmakers to impeach the governor. It is good to hear that the governor has responded to the allegations contained in the petition. But as happens in such instances, given the allegiance of state legislators, not much may come out of the House of Assembly. Already, a so-called Coalition of Groups for Good Governance has risen to condemn the judge. The coalition may feel for Governor Aregbesola, but the feelings of the families of Osun workers and that of their defendants that have gone without their monthly salaries surpasses whatever sentiments anybody could hold. The situation in Osun should not be allowed to spiral into a possible catalyst of Nigeria’s version of Arab spring!