By LUCY ONYANJO EIGEGE
Benue State citizenry during the last general elections in 2015 had vehemently voted in favour of the All Progressives Congress (APC). The reason for voting out the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) may not be unconnected with the unpardonable sins allegedly committed by the then Gov. Gabriel Suswam-led PDP government, which owed civil servants backlog of salaries up to eight months towards the end of his regime.
However, the high expectations of workers from the government of Suswam’s successor, Gov. Samuel Ortom have not been met more than a year since his administration assumed office. Instead, the situation worsened in the midst of inflation, despite being owed backlog of salaries. The salary crisis is not limited to Benue though. Only a few States in Nigeria are said to be viable and independent of federal allocations. These States generate internal revenues well enough to take care of their labour forces and other expenditures.
Lagos State, for instance never owed its workers a dime even when the then democratic government of former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, stopped the Federal Allocations to Lagos State during the reign of Bola Tinubu as governor of Lagos. Following the drastic fall in the global oil price, many states in Nigeria have been plunged into wage crisis because Nigeria relies on oil as its major source of revenue.
The revenue is shared among the federal, state and local governments on a monthly basis during the Federation Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC) meeting. Now that the dwindling of revenue from oil has refused to stop, states have continued to struggle to pay salaries of workers despite bail-out funds they received from the Federal Government through Central Bank of Nigeria. The fall in global oil prices has resulted in a serious economic recession which dire effects have left untold hardship among the majority of Benue indigenes as prices of goods and services have skyrocketed over the months.
The government in trying not to be over-reliant on the federal allocations, introduced several revenue generating measures such as commercial motorcycle tax and tax on traders’ goods. Traders’ goods attract multiple layers of levies from the Benue State Internal Revenue Service (BIRS). The most painful part of the whole quest to generate Internal Revenue is the increase in Tertiary Institutions’ fees. Students of BSU Makurdi and Ben Poly, Ugbokolo recently embarked on peaceful demonstrations respectively in protest against almost 100 per cent hike of their school fees. They protested that their parents’ meagre salaries are still being owed after many months. Some placards with inscriptions that read “Our parents are still being owed salaries”, “Say no to tuition fees hike”, “Reverse school fees increase now” amongst others were held by the young protesters.
Notwithstanding, the government of Gov. Ortom cannot be said to be asleep while the people suffer. In an effort to address the issue of owed salaries, the governor sought a bailout loan of N10 billion from the Federal Government out of which he was said to have expended N7.5 billion on payment of two months salaries to workers. Ortom had claimed that he inherited a total debt of salaries, pensions and gratuity which stood at N69 billion before the federal government came to its rescue with a bailout of N28 billion out of which a proportion of workers at the State level and a few at the Local Governments have been settled. But the story is not the same for local government workers, teachers and pensioners as many of them said they were still being owed between eight and ten months’ salaries.
However, the state’s Special Adviser on Bureau for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs (BLGCA), Mr. Titus Zam, explained, at a news conference in Makurdi that the delay in the payment of some workers’ salaries was as a result of the verification exercise carried out by his office to determine the accurate number of staff on payroll.
Zam said that the Bureau discovered about 5, 000 ghost workers in its ongoing verification exercise of all 23 councils in the state, claiming that the ‘people who came in through the backdoor’ were the ones complaining about non-payment of salaries. “Those complaining now are those people under illegal employment. But a few might be correctly employed. It is just that they were not captured in the first exercise in 2012 for the reason that they didn’t present themselves for screening based on health matters or other related issues,” Zam said.
According to him, the current administration inherited at least 29,000 local government workers which has now been trimmed to 24, 000, following the screening that detected the illegal workers. He assured that the recently constituted complaints committee would attend to people with genuine complaints who had hitherto been counted as ghost workers. He confirmed that N13 billion out of N15.5 billion bailout received by the Bureau for local government staff had been disbursed, adding that the remaining N2.4 billion was left in a bank account to sort out complaints.
Meanwhile, Governor Ortom has promised to discuss the possibility of getting another bailout with the president to enable him pay pensioners. It will be recalled that the governor, during an occasion marking his administration’s one year in office on May 29, dedicated the agrarian State to the Almighty God stressing that only God will deliver the State from its current predicament. It is argued in some quarters, however, that Gov. Ortom should work harder to put an end to the salary crisis in the State.
The argument is based on the premise that Benue State is blessed with vast mineral resources that are untapped all over the State. “Even our fruits such as mangoes and oranges alone can be harnessed and turned into a big fruit-juice producing company which will not only provide revenue for the State but will as well provide employment for the Benue people” according to an anonymous respondent who wouldn’t want his name in print.
*Eigege writes from Department of Mass Communication, Benue State University, Makurdi.
He further said that Benue must emulate Lagos and other States that are not relying solely on the Federal Government for income stressing that only these measures will make workers smile home at the end of every month.