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Following the decision of organized labour to declare an indefinite strike in Benue state over backlog of unpaid wages, Governor Samuel Ortom in an interview in the state owned radio station explained why his administration was finding it extremely difficult to pay salaries. He also spoke on the challenge of ghost workers and salary padding and moves being made to address the problem.
Workers in Benue state are not happy over the inability of the state government to pay them backlog of unpaid salaries and have therefore embarked on an indefinite strike. Why did the government allow the issue to degenerate to this level?
It is unfortunate that we have found ourselves where we are today due to the numerous challenges but this situation is not limited to Benue state, it affects the entire country. Nigeria went through a recession and just came out of it, though it is still very fragile but we are trusting and believing God that things will work and the economy will blossom and grow and things will be better. We took over power at a time that the main source of revenue to the states went down as a result of the drastic fall in oil prices.
Let me also say that I inherited N69billion arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuity. It was a very big problem but government is a continuum and we had to work with it. And the wage bill then was around N8.2billion without teachers’ minimum wage. When we came we said teachers should ideally be treated better than any other worker because of the strategic roles they play in the society, especially in the area of moulding the character of our children. And so, we said there shouldn’t be salary disparity, they should also enjoy minimum wage with the hope that things will improve and we went ahead and implemented it, only to discover that what was coming in was not enough to cater for just payment of salaries right from the onset.
So, with the various interventions of the federal government and the borrowing, we thought we could redeem the situation to a level, but we could not redeem the whole situation.
Now paying a wage bill which is N8.2billion including the additional responsibilities that came on our finances from the minimum wage of teachers which was close to N300million became a challenge. Through various screenings, we were able to save up to N700million, so today we have around N7.8billion as the wage bill of the state. This includes pensions and overheads every month. Now, what comes in initially every month from the Federation Account was an average of N5billion for both local governments and state. But things started improving and today we are talking of an average of N6billion as what comes in. As for the IGR, when we inaugurated the Benue Internal Revenue Service, BIRS, Board things started moving well and we were doing an average of N600million monthly, but there was huge outcry from traditional rulers, the clergy and the people over taxes. As a listening government we took the advice of stakeholders and decided to mellow down and this also affected our IGR.
So take it that you have an average of N6billion and you are just settling salaries alone in the state. That means we will be recording a deficit of N2.8billion every month. But as you know, there are several other issues. You must service your loans, you must ensure that government operates and works and there must be attention to security issues. You can imagine having N6billion to service debts and also do all these and government officials must run government in order to keep the government going. And there must be attention to certain emergency things that might crop up. So all these are the things we have to contend with. With the figure I mentioned earlier, if you have to pay salaries and do other important things, the deficit will obviously be more than that.
But the truth of the matter is that there was a problem which my predecessor accepted and also warned me before he handed over to me. During the negotiation of the last minimum wage before we came in, the salaries were raised to a level that government could not afford. That was the negotiation. So it’s a problem that we inherited.
When we came in, we saw this challenge and we called labour leaders and told them that there was no way we could continue to fund them in this manner. It was therefore our collective agreement to bring labour into our Joint Financial Allocation Committee so that everything that is done is known to all because we felt that in order to protect our integrity and be on the same page with labour, we needed them to know what is coming in and what is going out. So we had proposed that in view of these difficulties we should pay 50 percent salaries to all categories of workers but the workers preferred that because they had commitments with their full salaries, they opted that full salaries should be paid and that it should be alternated. Allocations of two months should be put together to pay full month’s salary and the other one could be in arrears. This was our agreement and that was what we have been doing and with the understanding of labour we have been able to manage it well.
As for the option to reduce salaries, it was not tenable because there is high rate of inflation and I honestly feel that what they are getting is not even enough. And so reducing the salary was not an option. But at the same time, the other option was retrenching or reducing the workforce. But for Benue state that is a civil service state where the economy is driven by the civil service, it is very difficult to talk of retrenchment. Presently, we need a wage bill of around N4billion to be able to contend with the challenges that we have and then move forward.
When you talk about reduction of the wage bill, are you saying you intend to reduce the salaries of workers?
I did not say I intend to reduce salaries, that is an option that is available. But for us we felt that with the high inflation, reducing now will cause more hardship for the people. But we are hoping that things will be better so we will continue to pay as we met it. But it’s really high and much higher than several states in Nigeria.
We had a seven day warning strike before this indefinite strike, what efforts did the government make to avert it?
We met when there was a warning strike and we also met after the warning strike and we appealed to workers to come back and continue the same way we were going about it over a year ago because going on strike will not help. .
The Deputy Governor’s committee is working and we are hoping that at the end, there will be substantial reduction in the wage bill. At the last meeting I held with labour union representative from the national secretariat we agreed on what to do. Our agreement was that we can put together the allocation of September and pay one full month salary to all category of staff in Benue state. I was therefore surprised that the President of NLC, whose representative was at the meeting where an agreement was reached had to come himself and directed that workers should down tools. We will continue to dialogue, I have set up a committee headed by the Secretary to the State Government, including the Head of Service and other government functionaries to continue to negotiate with workers. We are discussing with financial institutions including PENCOM on how we can find a way out of this. We feel very strongly that for us to have a sustainable wage bill we must find a way of reducing the wage bill from where it is today.
In doing that, those who are legitimately employed and are also working and have schedules should not entertain any fear but those who are ghost workers or those who found themselves in government and are not doing the work but are just collecting salaries will have no choice but to leave because I’m already pushed to the wall and we don’t know where to go. Do you know that so many people are residing in parts of the country but they come here to draw salaries. I know of a chief who has 15 wives with over 20 children some of who are in secondary schools and tertiary institutions and they are all drawing salaries. These are areas we must touch so that those people who are working legitimately and are doing their jobs can get their salaries as at when due. But those who have nothing to do working with government should find their way out. So we will do everything while we are talking to other agencies. We are committed to ensuring that we reduce the wage bill through a genuine process that will not victimize anyone, that will help to give us a wage bill that is sustainable.
But honestly, I feel pained, I’m not sleeping either because there is no way I can have my peace when I have a challenge like this affecting everybody in Benue state including my own family who are also on my neck to ensure that salaries are paid, that is how traumatized I am over the matter.