President, Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba has accused state governors of diverting into private accounts billions of naira given them as bailout fund to pay workers salaries. The labour leader in this interview with TUNDE THOMAS also noted that if the ongoing clamour for the restructuring of the country is not well handled, it may create serious problem for Nigeria. Wabba also spoke on other national issues.
As at today, how many states still owe workers salary and pensions, and what is the NLC doing about the situation?
In this challenging period of our economy, it is very unfortunate that workers and pensioners are the worst hit. However, the situation couldn’t have been that bad if our political leaders especially state governors have got their priorities right. Our leaders here regard payment of salaries and pension as a waste but in other spheres, payment of salaries is accorded top priority.
Let me state here categorically that federal government has been making efforts to assist the states with regard to payment of outstanding salaries and pensions being owed workers. In the first tranche of bail-out given to the states by the federal government, more than 26 states benefitted, but the irony of it all is that the more federal government gives bail-out to the states, the less you understand what the states do with the money. A lot of states have been diverting bailout meant to pay outstanding salaries and pensions to other things, and this is why we are in the present situation. If the state governors have not been diverting the bailout they got from the federal government, the issue of workers and pensioners being owed would have become a thing of the past, and this is why NLC has now insisted that before federal government gives further bailout to the states, the state governors must be made to account for how the previous bailout they collected was utilized. There is a need to insist on transparency and accountability on this issue, otherwise most of the state governors would not use the bailout for the purpose for which it was intended to serve.
Recently, the report and the news was all over the place about how a state governor diverted three million dollars from a previous bailout collected from the federal government to build a five-star hotel in Lagos. This is very unfortunate. This shows high level of political irresponsibility on the part of our political elite. It shows clearly that the issue is not about whether resources are available for the state governors or not, it shows whether the governors are able to get their priorities right or not.
There are many states that still owe workers and pensioners but Kogi State is almost the worst. The state government is owing workers between eight and 15 months salary arrears. The state government has been hiding under verification exercise to delete some workers names from the state payroll but these workers are not ghost workers, they are bonafide civil servants in Kogi State, this, we the labour leaders explained to no avail to the state government. The so-called verification exercise was a sham, it was a ploy to reduce the state workforce but NLC is not taking it lightly with the state government. During the last May Day celebration, the workers protested this injustice by Kogi State government. What is happening today in Kogi State is a big threat to the survival of workers and pensioners.
I think it will be better for our political elite to change from their present way of treating Nigerian workers with levity, otherwise the consequences that will follow nobody can predict. Nigerian workers are being pushed to the wall, and the saying goes that there is a limit to human endurance.
Kogi State is a peculiar state. I don’t know why workers and pensioners there are being treated like that. With the way things are going in that state with series of other social upheavals like kidnapping, abduction, armed robbery and other vices being recorded almost on a daily basis in the state, Kogi State is gradually falling into what some people will describe as a failed state.
In the North Central geo-political zone, Benue State is also another bad case among states owing salaries and pensioners. Benue State is one of the states documented by ICPC as being among the states that diverted the bailout meant to pay workers salaries. For now, about 10 states are not paying workers and pensioners as at when due.
Bayelsa State is also on the list of debtor states. The state is owing pensioners, teachers and civil servants. In the case of Osun State, the state has been paying workers on the basis of percentage and that has also brought pains on workers, the same thing Oyo State is doing. Ondo State also has accumulated salaries that have not been paid.
But we also have examples of some states that are doing extremely very well and are workers-friendly. For example, Jigawa State does not owe workers, in fact the state has not collected any bailout from the federal government. The state pays salary and pension of workers as at when due, and if you retire today, you get your gratuity without delay. So you can see that it is a matter of state governors giving priority to what they are doing. It is sad and very unfortunate that most of these state governors have little or no regard for workers interests – most of them regard payment of salaries and pension as a waste, and yet they live opulent lifestyle feeding fat on the sweat of Nigerian workers.
We must commend those states that are paying workers as at when due while we will not relent in defending the rights and interests of Nigerian workers. You wonder what is happening when states that are receiving less monthly allocation are meeting up with their obligations to workers like in the case of Jigawa and at the same time states that are receiving high allocations like an oil producing state like Bayelsa is owing workers and can’t meet up its obligations to civil servants – this is why I said earlier that it is a matter of state governors getting their priorities right.
In order to save cost, and make more fund available to enable state governments meet up with some obligations like payment of workers salaries and pension, some have canvassed the scrapping of security votes which runs into billions of naira being collected monthly by state governors, what’s your own view on this?
Security votes should be abolished. What do these governors do with billions of naira they collect monthly as security votes? More so, the money is not even accounted for, security votes negate principles of transparency. Nothing is transparent about security vote and this promotes corruption, therefore it should be abolished.
If a state is not at war, why should a governor collect N1 billion monthly as a security vote, which is not even accounted for? This is nothing but corruption – security vote is another avenue for looting.
However, we will not continue to lament about the evils being perpetrated against workers in Nigeria by the political elites, what we have resolved to do now is to engage Nigerian workers and pensioners in political education. The leadership of the NLC is now enlightening workers about the enormous power they wield using their own political franchise, that is their voting power to determine the fate of bad leaders. What do I mean by this? We are now telling workers that beyond lamentation, that they can also use their voting power to remove bad leadership. The population of Nigerian workers is over 10 million, and how many of these politicians got elected with 10 million votes? I believe that with the enlightenment of Nigerian workers, workers will be able to see that they can determine who and who they don’t want to be their political leaders.
On the issue of state governors diverting money meant to pay workers and pensioners, how do you tackle that?
It is really embarrassing. It is very embarrassing that some state governors could be involved in that – it is like committing crime against humanity. Do you know how many workers and pensioners that have lost their lives as a result of salaries and pensions being owed by these governors? It is very callous and inhuman – governors involved in diverting bailout should seek forgiveness from God. In a situation where we are fighting corruption, governors diverting state funds should be treated as criminals. They should be put on trial. It is sad that politicians in Nigeria unlike in other climes see political office they occupy as an avenue to loot, to steal and to plunder state resources, and not as an avenue to serve the people.
Politicians in Nigeria regard political offices as an avenue to amass wealth and to impoverish the citizens. It is sad that politicians in Nigeria look at political offices as political investments where they must not only recoup their investment but also make profits. All politicians are the same, their mindset is the same. You can’t trust them, they are self-centred, and this is why Nigerians must wake up with determination to make a change, to see how we can reform the system. In politics in Nigeria, we need men of integrity. People who will place nation’s interest above self interest.
Talking about the casualty arising from non-payment of salaries and pensions, can you give us the number of workers and pensioners that have died as a result of being owed by state governments?
It is difficult to give an exact figure because we don’t have a reliable data bank to give exact figure, but definitely many workers and pensioners have lost their lives as a result of being owed.
Even at verification centres set up by some state governments, several workers and pensioners have lost their lives while waiting on the queue to be verified. Even at a time in Kaduna, several workers lost their lives when there was a bomb explosion near one of the centres but where some of these tragedies occurred including that of Kaduna, NLC has insisted that the families of the workers that lost their lives must be compensated.
These workers and pensioners that have lost their lives as a result of unpaid salaries and benefits, we will continue to fight for their interests until their families are compensated. Let me also say this, the blood of these workers are on the head of the state governors and political leaders who failed to do the needful.
Federal government has promised to release another tranche of N500 billion as a bailout to assist states in clearing outstanding workers salaries and pensioners benefits, but it was learnt that the release is being put on hold as a result of NLC’s insistence that state governors must be made to render account of how they spent the first bailout given to them, how true is this?
Yes, we insisted that the state governors should give account of how they spent the first bailout. What is baffling to us is that the more you give money to these governors, the more you don’t understand what they do with this money. We have found out from both EFCC and ICPC reports that some state governors actually diverted the bailout. This is not only unpatriotic but very shameful. Some of them put the bailout they collected in fixed deposits where they now collect huge interests, while workers continue to wallow in hunger. Some of them awarded bogus contracts that don’t have meaning or relevance to the life of citizens. This is why we insisted that federal government should not release another bailout without accountability being followed. Those governors that had earlier received the first bailout should be made to account for how they utilized it before they are given another one. What NLC is after is transparency and accountability, and good governance. We believe that both the high and the lowly placed in the society must be subjected to accountability – without accountability and due process, this country can’t witness any meaningful development and growth.
Amid economic recession, and even the current situation where several states are still owing workers, NLC has demanded wage increase, a N56,000 minimum wage, how realistic is this in view of the present challenges?
I’ve told you earlier that the issue of payment of salaries and pension as at when due is not only about availability of funds, it is about states getting their priorities right. Secondly, the recession issue is not an excuse at all. All over the world, economies bubble and also got burst. Everything is about planning and having foresight, and these are what our leaders lack. Visionary leaders are few in this clime.
In 2011, we signed a minimum wage of N18,000, but it was mutually agreed that after a period of five years that there would be a review – this was mutually agreed to by all parties. If you also look at the present economic challenges, inflation is soaring with the attendant results – some of these include high cost of goods and services, what all these mean is that N18,000 is no longer realistic.
In 2011, N18,000 was equivalent to 119 dollars, but today the value of 119 dollars is less than 46 dollars. So on the basis of fact and on the basis of economic reality, it is very clear that N18,000 is no longer realistic to take care of a worker and his family. This is the fact we are putting on the table, and it can’t be controverted.
Nigerian workers are passing through very difficult period. You are also aware that during the same period, federal government increased the price of fuel, a commodity that determines the price of nearly every other commodity in Nigeria. Fuel price was increased from N86 to N145. Not only that, electricity tariff was also increased by more than 50 percent and workers salary has remained on the same spot, so how do you expect worker to cope with these challenges?
Nobody can controvert the fact that workers have even been pushed to the wall. They can’t pay their bills, they can’t maintain their families. Most of their children can’t go to school. The purchasing power of a Nigerian worker today has been virtually reduced to zero. Even how do you want to address the problem of corruption if workers are not well paid to enable them meet their own domestic obligations?
All over the world, the empirical data that is being used to address the issues of salaries are inflation, cost of living index, purchasing power parity and these are some of the things the NLC take into consideration before demanding wage increase. We have even been very moderate to demand N56,000 minimum wage considering the present economic challenges. We made this demand since May last year but up till now we are still waiting for federal government to do the needful. Nigerian workers are patience but they have been pushed to the wall.
What has been the response of the federal government to the wage increment demand?
Federal government has agreed in principle. A technical committee to work out the detail has been set up, and the NLC participated fully. The report of that committee has been transmitted to the Presidency, and we are expecting that the Federal Executive Council should immediately approve the recommendations of the committee. The ball is in the court of the federal government.
Of recent, clamour for restructuring has become a big controversial issue between its advocates, and opponents, what’s your take on this?
For the organized labour, we look at Nigeria as one. A big part of the challenge we are having in this country is not about restructuring it is about good governance. Many other countries that were at par with us before have surpassed us, and part of the frustration Nigerians are having is that our system have not been able to deliver, especially to meet our expectations as citizens.
How can we be canvassing for regional government when we have passed that stage several years ago. The essence of devolution of power is to get government closer to the people. Because of frustration, people are advancing a lot of agitations, some real while some are diversionary.
Even if you restructure without good governance there will be crisis. NLC is not in support of any idea that will polarise us. We will only support idea that will promote cohesion, unity and harmony. NLC is a pan-Nigerian organization and we will always advance issues that will unite us, and not issues that will divide us. We will not be part of any group that will canvass division or cannibalization of the country.
We oppose anything that will portend bad omen for the country. Issues will always arise but then there will always be platforms to address such in amicable way that will help to unite us rather than polarizing us.