Benue: Ortom, politics of bogus wage bill

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The big challenge confronting the Benue State government in the last two years since coming into office of Governor Samuel Ortom has been how to achieve payment of salary to all categories of workers in the state as and when due.

Recall that on assumption of office, the Ortom- led administration inherited salary wage bill to the tune of N8.3 billion with arrears of salary owed workers for three months.

Since then, and with concerted effort at pruning down the wage bill through staff verification exercises, the wage bill of both state civil servants and local government workers and pensioners was brought down to N7.8billion.

But this was still a far cry when compared with the federal allocation of between N3billion and N5billion accruing to the state, including the internally generated revenue which is pegged around the neighbourhood of N250 million.

And before long, arrears of salaries owed workers continued to rise while every effort by the state government to address the issue including taking bonds was becoming increasingly challenging.

It was as a result of this that Governor Ortom, at a recent stakeholders’ meeting held at the Government House in Makurdi revealed plans by his administration to reduce the monthly wage bill of the state from N7.8 billion to N4.5 billion while also promising to prosecute the cartel behind the over bloated wage bill.

The decision, according to the governor, stemmed from the fact that the state, from the inception of his administration, had been grappling with meeting up with its constitutional obligation to pay workers their salary as and when due and still be able to embark on capital projects.

Governor Ortom at the event which was attended by various stakeholders including traditional rulers, academics, religious leaders as well as politicians among others posited that there was no way he could continue to pay the inflated wage bill which ranked third highest in the country after Kano and Rivers States.

While the governor maintained that two years was enough for any government to strategise and put things right, he also said that one way to resolve the knotty development was to look into the issue of ghost workers and their backers.

Quoting from the bible, the governor said the workers deserve their wage and “we should not muzzle the axe that threaded the corn.” He however confessed that the non payment of salary as and when due to workers in the state was not deliberate.

“The bible says the worker deserves its wages and we should not muzzle the axe that threaded the corn but this salary issue is beyond me. I have not been sleeping or comfortable with this issue but I’ve been thinking on how we can surmount it.”

He went to further to posit that the bible equally said that those who do not work should not eat, adding that “we have done everything possible on the issue of salaries yet, it’s still high. Figures coming from the National Bureau of Statistics in its recent analysis rated Benue third among states with the highest wage bill in the country.”

He said when the Bureau looked at three states with high wage bill and another three with low wage bill, Kano came first, followed by Rivers and then Benue ranked third among states with high wage bill in the country.

“Kano with a population of over 20million and a large land mass and an industrial base with large internally generated revenue came first. Number two was Rivers State with equally fat treasury and then Benue ranked third with a civil service driven economy with peasant farmers and with N7.8 billion as its wage bill. Hence, there was need to do something about the total wage bill of the state,” the governor added.

He said it was for that reason and the need to urgently address the anomaly that a committee on staff verification and biometric headed by the state Deputy Governor, Mr. Benson Abounu was set up.

Giving an interim report of the committee at the stakeholders’ meeting, the deputy governor held the gathering spell bound while he reeled out the various sharp practices within the system that were responsible for the over bloated wage bill in the state.

Abounu in the report gave a shocking revelation of how some cabal had devised various means of padding salary which he noted were largely responsible for the high wage bill of the state.

Some of the strategies devised by these cartels, Abounu revealed, included the collection of shift allowances by all categories of workers in some parastatals, a right which should have been the exclusive preserve of some staff who run shift duty.

The Committee Chairman said in the course of its duty, the committee also discovered that some retired staff dubiously found their way back to civil service as contract staff and have remained so for ten years and above.

He submitted that staff of some tertiary institutions in the state who were by right, supposed to be collecting SIWESS allowance once every year enjoy that undue privilege on a monthly basis adding that some staffers whose courses were yet to be accredited also mobilise their students for SIWESS so that they too can partake in the SIWESS allowance.

He explained further that although the state government had for many years placed embargo on recruitment into civil service, the committee discovered that every successive administration have continued to engage workers without appropriate approval from the state chief executive.

“The only time approval was granted to fill vacant positions was in October, 2006 under the administration of former Governor George Akume. But to our consternation, about  7,746 local government staff across the state with a total emolument of N530 million were recruited without approval by the chief executive of the state.

“At local government level, when we carried out screening exercise, many came up with papers which added a total of 7,746 workers who were recruited without any approval to the existing workforce bringing the total of workers to 20,976,” Abounu revealed.

While also looking at the issue of pensioners, Abounu said there was need to screen pensioners again to ascertain the exact number since they were last screened two years ago. He agreed that some civil servants would have retired and joined the list of pensioners; he nonetheless said some pensioners too have died within that period.

The deputy governor further disclosed that the committee also discovered that there were some purported local government workers who were drawing salary, but are not resident in the state.

He said the committee was also faced with what to do with medical students of Benue State origin who were paid monthly salaries as if they were already working and contract staff of Benue Internal Revenue Service (BIRS) who were converted to civil servants some years back.

Based on the foregoing, Abounu who posed two rhetorical questions to the stakeholders: whether to reduce workforce or reduce wage bill. After extensively identifying areas of loopholes responsible for the over bloated wage bill in the state, the committee recommended the following in doing its job to bring down the wage bill of the state.

It recommended that contract staff who were converted to civil servants by the BIRS be laid off while medical students who were placed on salary as if they were already working, the total of amounted to N144 million per month be placed on government scholarships.

While also recommending screening of pensioners, the committee said SIWESS allowances should now be paid yearly to deserving staff even as it recommended the merger of the state owned College of Advance and Professional Studies (CAOS) with the Benue State Polytechnic among other recommendations.

Stakeholders react

Former governor of the state, Senator George Akume in his reaction supported the decision by Governor Ortom to prune down the wage bill of the state through a reduction in the workforce stressing that it was not the first time a sitting governor would take such decision.

“The proposal by government was not the first of its kind since the creation of the state. Previous administrations in the state, the likes of Atom Akpera and Obademi both military governors reduced workforce out of necessity. We should all accept that there were errors committed in the past and we need to correct them. During Shagari’s administration, the then governor of Imo State, Mbadiwe came out with IMO formula. Whoever loves this state will support this move.

“It is good to do what is right when you are on the right path. The rots in our civil service, particularly, at the local government level are unhealthy. The deputy governor in his submission said that some people engaged in the council areas without approval backdated their letters of appointment. This is criminal,” Akume said.

While harping on the need to sanitise the workforce, the former Senate minority leader also cited the ugly situation in Gboko local government area of the state where a party chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) had 60 names of ghost workers on the payroll.

“As small as my local government (Tarka) is, I never interfered in the affair there, yet that local government has huge workforce of over 1,000 workers. We need to correct these anomalies and clean the system for successive administration to operate”, Akume added.

In his contribution, a one time senator in Zone A senatorial district of the state, Senator Jack Gyado lamented that salary issue was the bad leg inherited by Governor Ortom from the previous administration which needs to be operated upon.

And to do this, the APC chieftain who noted that it would not be good to reduce the workforce however suggested a 50 percent reduction in the salary of workers.

“Benue was not created for only workers but for everyone. There are many competing demands in the state and so, I would suggest that government reduces salary by 50 percent and not the workforce. This issue of salary requires chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” he said.

In their separate reactions, former Minister of State (Education), Prof. Jerry Agada, a former gubernatorial aspirant, Prof. Mvendaga Jibo as well as a onetime local government chairman under Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP), Godwin Donko threw their weight behind the decision of government but advised the government to do so not by reducing workforce but by removing ghost workers from the payroll.

But reacting on the matter in a chat with our correspondent, former Lagos State police commissioner, Alhaji Abubakar Tsav said what he expected was for Governor Ortom to identify owners of ghost workers and prosecute them.

“If there are any such persons like ghost workers, where will he (Ortom) get them for prosecution since ghosts are intangible? We expect rather that he said he would identify owners of ghost workers and prosecute them because there are no ghost workers but there are owners of ghost workers. This is what is expected of a leader who knows what he is doing.”

Also reacting separately, Labour leaders in the state, Comrades Godwin Anyan and Ordue Tartenger of Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC) and Trade Union Congress, (TUC) told newsmen in Makurdi that they were yet to be officially informed of the proposal to either reduce workforce or workers salary.

When reminded that the issue was discussed at a stakeholders’ meeting, the labour leaders described the meeting as “political meeting” which had no effect on workers for now until the state government formally notifies the labour leaders about it.

The NLC boss, Anya said he was still waiting for a formal invitation from the state government to avail the organised labour of its plans to reduce workforce or wage bill.

On his part, the TUC boss, Tartenger who maintained that there was nowhere in the world where salary of workers is negotiated downward however said that the government was free to weed out ghost workers to realise its goal.

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