NIGERIA’S UNPAID WORKERS: THE DILEMMA OF A RICH NATION

Mr. Dan Obioma

Sometimes, democracy does not make sense. The legendary Abraham Lincoln once painted a ludicrous but true picture of democracy as follows: “Demo —cracy is like someone who killed his father and mother and went to court to plead for leniency because he is an orphan”. Brought home to our situation in Nigeria, “democracy”, to me, “is like some public office holders, who committed untold political tyranny and brazenly looted the treasury, but cannot be prosecuted because they are protected by an immunity clause in a constitution they swore to uphold”.

The two scenarios above largely capture the scandalous situation in which four out of 36 states of the federation can no longer pay staff salaries in cumulative arrears. Yet many of the immediate past governors who plundered their states are now “distinguished” senators in the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly, or “re-elected” to serve another term. The poor condition of their states and the agony of workers hardly prick their consciences because they are only accountable to their political parties and godfathers, not the deluded citizens. Once a state governor is in good terms with his party leadership and takes good care of the State House of Assembly, for fear of being impeached, he has nothing more to fear, the people can go to hell. This unconscionable mind-set of our political leaders, not only makes them detached from the people but also deny them dividends of democracy with impunity.

It is no longer news that many of our state governors are multi-billionaires or potential billionaires, with mansions, hotels, refineries, skyscrapers and estates at home and abroad. They spend their federal allocations as they deem fit or as they would want the public to believe. In addition, they treacherously collect  allocations meant for local government councils in the state, and declare whatever they like as monthly internally generated revenue, (IGR). That explains why most local government roads and infrastructure lie waste and desolate. The governors are just lords unto themselves with no authority or institution to effectively supervise them. We shall return to this subject later.

Workers in 24 states of the federation are grappling with the pain of unpaid salaries and allowances running into several months. Worst hit are Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bauchi, Benue, Cross River, Ekiti, Imo, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kogi, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Rivers and Zamfara states. In fact, according to Adams Oshiomhole, governor of Edo State, the federal government is in the same insolvent boat with the states, as many of its parastatals and agencies are equally heavily indebted. It’s on record that the previous administration under Goodluck Jonathan allegedly borrowed trillions of naira from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), not for capital projects but to pay salaries.  This has generated viral speculations that Nigeria, the touted largest economy in Africa, may after all be bankrupt. The simple logic is that Nigeria cannot be in the best state of economic health whereas its component units are terminally sick. Some reasons have, however, been adduced for the shocking bankruptcy of our states.

One, the monthly revenue accruing to states from the Federal Allocation Commission (FAC) has dwindled drastically due to fallen oil prices. It is noteworthy to say that oil accounts for more than 80 percent of Nigeria’s revenue.

Two, huge external and internal loans taken to finance gigantic, white-elephant projects that dot the landscape of many states have devastated the economy of those states. Each governor would not want to continue or finish the predecessor’s projects. He prefers to award his own inflated contracts and collect astounding kick-backs that further injure the state financially. Worse still, payment for these contracts is tied to federal allocation which itself fluctuates or even nose-dives dangerously as is the case now. Again, as the allocation comes, irrespective of how much it is, the percentage loan payment and interests are deducted at source, leaving the state with mere pittance.

Three, except probably Lagos and a few others, most Nigerian states are not self-reliant or self-sustaining in terms of IGR accruing to them. This is due to poor industrial development capacity, frustrated small and medium enterprises (SMES) and lack of basic infrastructure, especially electricity. This calls to serious question, the recommendation by the National Conference last year for the creation of additional 18 states in Nigeria, in order “to bring government closer to the people” without considering the resources to drive their economies.  The solid mineral resources which abound in most states belong to the exclusive schedule, not the concurrent. The states have no constitutional power to develop them. This is one vital area that should be restructured in the constitution in the spirit and letters of true federalism.

Four, state governors are known to be very flamboyant, with a penchant for executive recklessness and corruption, because of the protective immunity clause in Nigeria’s constitution. Whatsoever loan they take, ostensibly for development purposes, are easily diverted for selfish interests. For instance, a lot of money was borrowed and squandered in the do or die electoral extravaganza; the huge excess crude account, which should have been kept for the rainy day, was shared and squandered on governors’ selfish insistence. The question is, in all of these, how much was actually spent on the people’s welfare – roads, schools, hospitals, power/energy, water, environment among others. Now, the same governors are looking up to the federal government for a bailout option to enable them pay salaries. Whatever name you call it, this boils down to another form of loan, and when you borrow money to pay a debt, the debt remain unpaid.

The way out: The sharing formula of our national cake/federal allocations is clearly skewed in favour of the centre; it should be reversed to reflect true federalism. A situation where the federal government gets 49-52 percent cut, while the rest of the states/local government councils share the balance is unacceptable. States should receive allocations or make contributions in proportion to their productive capacity. The same principle should equally guide their expenditure. As a matter of priority, states should be empowered and encouraged to develop their own solid mineral/tourism potential, instead of constantly looking up to the centre cap in hand.  More importantly, governors should woo foreign/local investors to their states, and create the necessary environment for sustainable development, not only in infrastructure, but also in human capital asset. That way, they will cease from being mere receptacles to generators of income.

Finally, a constitutional mechanism, rather than the grossly ineffective state Houses of Assembly, should be created to check-mate the excesses of state governors. Obviously more powerful than the National Assembly, the Governors Forum should be held accountable for the financial/economic management functions in the states. The recent clamour by some governors in favour of only two tiers of government in the constitution (federal and state) should be thrown out. As they control and manage state resources at the expense of the people, the governors should know that a reasonable parasite does not kill its host. To keep workers in trauma without pay for several months is a crime against humanity. It is rather ironical that states in an oil-rich nation like Nigeria should owe workers their wages. All hands must be on deck to resolve this issue.

Daniel Obioma is an Associate Editor with TheEconomy

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