By Cosmas Okereafor
LIKE nationals of other countries far away from China’s Wuhan province, many Nigerians must have felt somewhat insulated from the potential hazards posed by the outbreak of a deadly virus in a remote region. But February 27, 2020, changed all that. On that day, Nigeria recorded its first case of Covid-19, as the new virus would later be called. The spread of the virus from that index case eventually led to a lockdown which totally transformed life like Nigerians had never experienced, from commercial activities to social and academic. Only perhaps the social dislocation occasioned by the civil war compares to the experience.
On March 25, 2020, the Enugu State governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, announced a policy directing public servants to work from home. The directive also included the shutting down of schools, bars, night clubs, and suspension of cultural and social gatherings such as marriage and burial ceremonies, as well as sporting activities. It was just as well, because just three days later the state recorded its own Covid-19 index cases.
The state had a month earlier commenced payment of the new N30,000 minimum wage with its consequential adjustment. Given the global shutdown of economic activities, Nigeria’s earnings took a sharp hit as the price of oil fell to unprecedented level. This also impacted adversely on the monthly allocation to states, with many becoming virtually insolvent. Governor Ugwuanyi’s speech while presenting the 2021 budget estimates at the Enugu State House of Assembly last December, best highlights this dilemma. “We had adjusted to this new cost centre and set in motion procurement processes for the delivery of services to Ndi Enugu as appropriated by this honourable House. Suddenly, we slept in one world and woke up in another, confronted with the unpleasant news of a strange illness.
“On the heels of this public health emergency, new cost centres that were not envisaged in our 2020 appropriation took front burner as we struggled, alongside other national and subnational governments, to contain this pandemic and protect our people. Consequentially, resources at the disposal of respective governments of the world dropped, with the available limited resources being channelled to combat the deadly virus. Enugu State was not spared this public health challenge and its attendant economic burden.”
At the time the payment of the new minimum wage commenced in Enugu State, many state governments had yet to conclude negotiations with their workers. So, the pandemic-induced austerity became a ground to keep the issue of wage increase in abeyance in those states. Even a few states that began its implementation before Covid-19 later made varying downward reviews which saw workers in some states receiving half salaries.
It’s a measure of the governor’s commitment to workers’ welfare that the fall in revenue did not result in a review of the new minimum wage or delay in payment of salaries. This is despite the fact that Enugu State is among states that receive the least sum from the federation account. The state’s chairman of the Trade Union Congress, Comrade Benneth Asogwa, further puts this in perspective. “It’s instructive that Gov. Ugwuanyi is recording such feat at a time when many states could not pay their workers’ salaries,” he said, when workers in the state paid a thank you visit to the governor after payment of the new wage commenced last February.
Indeed, the workers had good reasons to be jubilant. As Comrade Virginus Nwobodo, the Nigeria Labour Congress chairman in the state also noted during the visit, it was the first time workers in Enugu State will be receiving a national wage increase without having to go on strike.
But the governor wasn’t seeking any acclaim for his action. “A worker deserves his wage,” he told the excited workers, adding that the payment was consistent with his administration’s policy to make workers’ welfare a top priority always. “In my inaugural address, I said that we will deploy government services to create fair and equal opportunity for every willing citizen to make a living and create wealth, educate our children, and enjoy life in a peaceful and secure environment. We remain committed to this.” Given the fall in monthly allocation to states experienced nearly all through 2020, attention naturally turned inwards as states, perhaps more than ever before, began to view shoring up their revenue base as imperative. Governor Ugwuanyi understood that businesses were just as distressed due to the slump in commercial activities that persisted for months. To him, boosting internal revenue should never be a zero-sum game, especially not in a climate of general economic despair. Nothing illustrates that conviction better than his decision to announce a tax waiver for small businesses at the height of last year’s lockdown.
In response to the economic challenges imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ugwuanyi administration carried out a reordering of priorities, which included a review of the 2020 budget of N169,557,658,300 downwards to N146,374,641,080, to reflect the prevailing reality. These radical steps enabled his administration to record several milestones especially in the health sector and general infrastructure development. It is significant that the development of the New ESUT Teaching Hospital Complex, Igbo Eno, as well as construction of various classroom faculty buildings for the ESUT College of Medicine, began during the very challenging environment of 2020.
Other projects include the renovation and equipping of Isolation and Treatment Centres in Nsukka, ESUT Teaching Hospital Parklane, Enugu, as well as equipping of the ultra-modern Enugu State Medical Diagnostic Centre which was re-purposed as an Isolation and Treatment Centre for COVID-19.
The massive reconstruction, redesign, construction and equipping of new structures in the former Colliery Hospital, Enugu, is also a major achievement in the sector. The facility now designated as Enugu State Infectious Disease Hospital has almost been completed. It wasn’t only about structures, as the Governor Ugwuanyi administration provided Life Assurance policy for frontline health workers in the fight against Covid-19. In a year that continues to be lived under the shadow of Covid-19, it is remarkable that Enugu’s 2021 budget could still reflect such an ambitious appetite for growth. The scale of ambition can be seen in the fact that capital expenditure takes a larger chunk of the budget compared to the allotted sum for recurrent expenditure, standing at 60% and 40% of the total sum, respectively.
The pandemic may have severely depleted the sources of governments’ revenue, but the weight of expectation in the society has by no means lowered; neither has the need to expand infrastructure. The Enugu State governor has no illusions about that. He understands too that he was resoundingly elected to solve problems in the state, not to offer excuses why expedient development challenges cannot be solved. This resolve to retain a people-centric philosophy devoted to improving living condition reflects in the sustained payment of the new minimum wage. While many – including Governor Ugwuanyi himself – may discountenance this, being as it is a statutory obligation, its import can still not be ignored, especially at a time that workers in 18 states are on the verge of a strike for non-payment of the new minimum wage. It should be noted that among those are states which draw higher income from the national purse than Enugu.
So, the construction and equipping of 1,595 classrooms with necessary learning aids like computers, libraries and laboratories, expansion of rice production and creating the Enugu rice brand (Coal City Rice), indeed, every capital project in the state’s 2021 budget such as construction of a flyover bridge at the perennially-gridlocked Nike Lake Resort/Nike Road junction and completion and landscaping of the International Conference Centre boldly reaffirm a commitment to his social contract with the people.
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