By Sunny Ngwu
Not until the organized labour in Imo State called out their members for a five-day warning strike over unpaid arrears of workers’ salaries, did the enormity of the problem nationwide, come to the fore.
It afforded the opportunity to expose the stark statistics that of the 36 states and the Abuja Federal Territory, only 13 states are up-to-date in the payment of their workers’ salaries while the remaining 23 states are in arrears ranging from three to 10 months.
The issue became such a national embarrassment that President Buhari was constrained to intervene by raising about N700 billion to enable the debtor-states to settle the salary arrears.
It is a doubt if their share of the fund would reach some of the states in bulk given the possibility that the banks could slice due amounts to service the loans taken by the states.
All of which means that the plea by state governments to workers to exercise patience for the relief funds might not materialize as they could not cover the arrears of salaries.
So, there is no cause for optimism for Nigerian workers even where the salary and pension arrears are cleared by some states, thanks to the presidential relief fund. Because, regular salaries for workers in these states are not assured thereafter.
The common alibi among the debtor-states is the drastic reduction in allocations from the federation account owing to the enormous slump in the price of oil in the international market. And since Nigeria’s monocultural economy is dependent on the product with its fate in the international market still dicey, a reasonable conclusion is that the discontent among Nigerians workers in many states over unpaid salaries would continue for some time.
But it has to be observed that the timing of the upheaval in the oil market was inauspicious for the state governors. It happened in a general election year in Nigeria. And the unpaid salaries and pensions accumulated within the period, confirming what Nigerians have long suspected- that political leaders at all levels dipped their hands deep into the public tills for their electioneering.
Surely, had that fall of oil-price in the international market happened in a non-election year, the impact could not have been so immediate and far-reaching.
Again, it would have amounted to an unpardonable financial profligacy had the core oil-producing states of Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers been among the salary-defaulting states given their mammoth monthly earnings from the federation account during the oil boom. While the four states received an average of N1.5 billion monthly, the peripheral oil-producing states of Abia and Imo received an average of N100 million per month.
On the other hand, Lagos State is a special case. Her receipts from taxes and internally-generated revenue are stupendous.
Added to ex-governor, Fashola’s financial husbandry, Lagos can conveniently do without the federal allocations as indeed was the case when former President Obasanjo, rather unconstitutionally and unilaterally, with-held the states’ local government allocations for years.
But the most impressive case among the clean states is Anambra State. A non-oil-producing state, their buoyant financial health is solely credited to the former governor, Mr Peter Obi, an embodiment of simplicity, humility and transparency which he fully brought to bear into governance.
The bottom-line was the unprecedented feat of his handing over of N70 billion to his successor after paying civil servants and teachers up to the month of his honourable exit after his two-term tenure.
Many Nigerians feel that he fits squarely into the noble men president Buhari says he is seeking to serve in his cabinet.
So, why did the warning strike by Imo State workers attract such a national attention though their colleagues in some states had been on strike for months without as much publicity:
It got to the public domain that in some states some workers were owed salaries for nine months yet the organized labour did not make even a whimper about the ordeals of their members.
That must be why Imo State government spokesmen made comparisons to the effect that the situation in the state was better.
They also recalled that when the going was good, government did not only pay workers’ salaries promptly but paid them Christmas bonuses and wardrobe allowances. Workers conceded to such rare favour but a pregnant female worker argued poignantly that “you do not allow your children to starve for even one day because you have been feeding them well for years”.
Therefore, that the agitation for payment of workers arrears of salaries and pensions is strongest in Imo State is reflective of the fact that the people are politically enlightened, socially aware and eternally sensitive to their rights. These attributes were eloquently attested to by two historical landmark events. Firstly, in 1996, in an action reminiscent of the French revolution of 1773, the entire population of Owerri rose against the con-men that for years had besieged the city and chased them out of the metropolis, leaving their ill-acquired properties in flames.
Secondly, in 2011 the Imo electorate voted out an incumbent governor, the first of such in Nigeria.
Understandably, the state has the most vocal, vigorous, implaccable and to some extent unobjective political opposition in Nigeria, waiting to make a political capital out of the salary issue.
But whether this would work when the chips are down, is another matter.