OSUN: An Economy In Coma And Embarrassment

AregbesolaTHE fate of the over 21,000 civil servants, local council employees, as well as workers in the state owned public secondary/technical schools and tertiary institutions and several other pensioners, who retired from the public service, is hinged on how fast the state governor, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, can muster enough goodwill to get a relief either from willing financial institutions or the All Progressives Congress (APC) controlled- Federal Government.

On May 25, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) directed its members in states whose government owes its workers to commence industrial action to press for a quick solution to the wage crisis.

The huge debt burden, which has become a big problem to Aregbesola’s administration, has been further compounded by controversial outstanding bank facilities running into several billions of naira.

Disturbed by the debt challenge, which has crippled activities in the state, Aregbesola openly admitted that his government would soon pay the salaries. This unhealthy situation has affected the erstwhile cordial relationship between him and the workers. He had told the media that Osun State government spends about N3.5 billion as monthly wage bill to settle over 21,000 workers, including the salaries of political appointees.

The financial challenges in the state have not only affected payment of workers salaries, but has also caused stoppage of capital development projects, including the road infrastructure and construction of ultra-modern school buildings initiated across the state. In addition, the economy of the state is in comatose, as virtually all the sectors are feeling the negative impact non-payment of salaries because Osun is mainly a civil service state.

The embattled governor had, on several occasions, said his inability to pay workers’ salaries was as a result of shortfall in the state’s share from the federal allocation. However, the failure of Aregbesola to meet the statutory obligation of payment of workers’ salaries has been described by his political opponents and public commentators as self-inflicted due to alleged financial recklessness, wrong financial projection and hasty desire to execute infrastructural facilities when there is no readymade funding to take care of other exigencies such as settlement of workers’ wage bill.

Signs that the state was in financial stress became manifest last year before the August governorship election, when the government began to default in the payment of salaries. Hitherto, the state government was drawing from a separate account and savings created for the oil windfall largesse accruing to Osun, to augment the state wage bill. This became impossible later when the source became dry.

Aregbesola blamed the Federal Government, alleging deliberate plan to cripple Osun and other APC-controlled states through excessive deduction from their share of the federation account. The then Peoples Democratic Party-led central government was forced to debunk the allegation, insisting that Osun, like other states in the federation, collected its due from the federal allocation regularly.

The PDP said the financial challenge the state is undergoing was the result of huge financial commitment in the last general elections.

This, Aregbesola has denied, saying his administration has put necessary machinery in motion to ensure the survival and sustainability of the system. For instance, as part of the cost-saving measures to ensure fulfilment of electoral promises and meet its other obligations, the administration suspended the appointment of cabinet members and other political offices. The state has only appointed few key government functionaries including, Secretary to the State Government (SSG) and the Chief of General Staff (CoS) and retention of key heads of parastatals and agencies.

Some labour leaders in the state have also accused the government of alleged outright neglect and sidelining the welfare of workers in order to satisfy political commitments. They queried the governor’s failure to paint the true picture of the debt portfolio, instead of going to the press to defend his inability to pay workers.

They argued that even with the shortfall in the state’s share from the federation account, the state could still manage to pay workers given the marked improvement in Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), which recently grew from barely N600million to about N1.6billion.

The workers are also worried that the state government is still holding onto their various deductions, including remittance of contributory pension fund and cooperative contributions, when their counterparts in other states enjoy these facilities.

A former labour leader, who preferred anonymity, told The Guardian that workers and retirees are going through serious hardship on the issue of non-payment of salaries. He said, “a worker died recently because he could not afford to buy an inhaler for his asthma, this is the pathetic situation we are facing here in Osun.”

Also, the Director, Bureau of Communications and Strategy Office of the Governor, Semiu Okanlawon, said, “what is required at this stage is for everybody to bear with the government, rather than seeing it as a deliberate act on the part of the government.

“A government that ensured prompt payment of salaries on or before 26th of every month since inception; a government that introduced 13th month salary and a government that had commenced augmentation of salaries with it’s hard earned savings to prevent it’s workers from tasting the bitter pill of revenue crisis cannot suddenly wake up to deny workers their legitimate earnings,” Okalawon said.

Though, Osun is not the only state in the federation that is facing financial difficulty and owing its workforce, the ugly situation in the state appears to have been further aggravated by the fact that the authorities have not been truthful about the situation.

While tracing the genesis of the state financial problem, Aregbesola said, “problem began in 2012, when our expenditure increased as a result of hike in minimum wage. This was when we applied the increase to junior workers only. Then our total emoluments rose to N2.7billion from the N1.4 billion that I met in November 2010.

He continued, “by December of that year, it hit N3.5 billion. At the same time our statutory allocation increased marginally from N2.1 billion to N2.5billion. By July of 2013, our total emoluments hit N4billion while our statutory allocation was N2.1billion. By then we had extended the increase to other cadres of workers.”

The explanation offered by the governor, notwithstanding, the workers appear to have been fed up with the usual answer to their question from the authorities. They also want to know how many months they should expect payment when the governor is ready to pay.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP), whose candidate, Elder Segun Akinwusi, contested against Aregbesola in the last governorship election, has faulted the excuse of the state government.

Akinwusi, who was the immediate past Head of Service (HoS) and served in Aregbesola’s administration before his retirement noted that given the benefit of hindsight, Osun has no genuine reason to owe workers.

The party’s chairman in Osun, Ademola Ishola said SDP is ready to assist in a probe to unravel several alleged financial recklessness engaged in by the APC administration in the state.
His words, “few days ago, my party called for the resignation of Mr. Aregbesola as the governor over the deplorable state of affairs in Osun but the response he gave was weak and unacceptable.

“We did not find ourselves in this pitiable situation in Osun due to the dwindling revenue from the federal allocation alone, we are where we are today because of the reckless manner our finances had been handled in the last four years.

“Now that the new government is settling down to work, we want President Buhari to help us look into how the over N350 billion allocated to the state from the federation account has been spent.

“We must also know how the over N436 billion allocated to the 30 local governments in the state, the N61.7 billion excess crude oil funds and the N14.4 billion SURE-P fund were spent.

“Osun people need to know how the over N43.6 billion of Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), the over N400 billion loans and the N60 billion bond were used by Aregbesola’s government,” he stated.

According to the SDP chieftain, indigenes of the state had watched with bewilderment how the governor’s son was allegedly awarded N8.6billion Opon-Imo (computer tablets) contract and how the governor’s wife had allegedly being in charge of multi-billion school uniforms project.
He alleged Aregbseloa has been running Osun as a family company querying, “Where are the 150,000 Opon-Imo tablets Aregbesola said will be provided for all students of secondary schools in the state? We doubt if there are 2,000 tablets in the state today.”

He also accused the state government of spending about N4 billion on Dagbolu Market project, “but the place remains a jungle. The governor spent over N1.2 billion on his Moshood Abiola International Airport, but nothing was on ground till date apart from the fence,” he stated.

Ishola alleged that most of the projects done by Aregbesola were at exorbitant rates. “For example, the governor used between N750 million and N1.1 billion to build new schools but we discovered that it will take less than N250 million to complete each of the buildings.

“In Osun, a kilometre of road costs over N1 billion as if we are constructing roads in riverine states like Bayelsa, Delta or Rivers. If President Buhari is serious about his zero-corruption campaign, then, he must not spare anyone. He should help us to know how much that had gone into several abandoned projects that litter the state and reasons why Aregbesola was unable to pay seven months salaries to the state workers,” he added.

The SDP chairman insisted that his party’s stand on Aregbesola was that he should resign as the state governor immediately, accusing him of bringing untold hardship upon the state indigenes due to his alleged mismanagement of state resources.

To survive, The Guardian learnt that the state government may be considering merger of ministries and parastatals, prolongation of constitution of cabinet members and increased drive in internal revenue generation among others as part of cost- saving measures to bail the state out of its current financial embarrassment.

The state chairman of the Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP), Dr. J.A. Olunlade, while speaking to The Guardian, recounted the ordeal of senior citizens. He said about 236 members of the union had suffered preventable death due to their inability to raise money for medical treatment. He said a particular retired school principal in Ilesa area died recently due to the inability of his family to raise about N3,000 health bill. To this end, he appealed to the state government to take urgent measures to bail retired and working officers out of poverty, preventable illnesses and sudden death.

Worried by the plight of the workers over the backlog of unpaid salaries, which he said has become noticeable among worshippers, the Pastor of the Living Faith Church, Osogbo, otherwise known as Winners’ Chapel, Olumuyiwa Emmanuel, made a passionate appeal to the congregation to come to the aid of Osun workers, by donating money and foodstuffs to be distributed to the affected members of the church who are public servants as part of efforts to be their brothers’ keeper.

The appeal has started to yield positive dividends as about 100 workers who registered for the scheme have begun to benefit from the distribution of relief materials and money donated for the purpose.

The call by Pastor Emmanuel has enjoyed the blessing of the umbrella body of Christians in the state, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which called on all Christians in Osun to show love to the civil servants by donating their widow’s mite to support them in time of need.

The state chairman of CAN, Reverend Elisha O. Ogundiya noted that churches in the state should accept the challenge by making financial and material contribution to assist the workers.

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