By Uwakwe Abugu
Arguably, resolving the nagging issue of funding the 774 local government councils constitutionally recognised in the 36 states of the country has remained one of the major crises that have caused enormous concern to succeeding administrations in the country in the past few decades. Anyone who has followed recent developments in that tier of government across the country could easily attest to the fact that funding crisis has not only rocked the system but has actually degenerated into a grisly situation.
As a result, disillusioned employees of many of the local government councils have become victims of forlorn hope in the face of the situation marked by not just non-payment of salaries but other untoward developments like the bug of ghost-worker syndrome, causing heavy haemorrhage in the already anaemic lean resource base of the local government authorities, among others. Reports have had it that in many of the councils across the nation, bewildered employees, who have been heavily pauperised, having been owed arrears of salaries for many months, some going beyond one year, have long since stopped going to work.
However, while in most states, it has been a plethora of such woeful tales by leaders and workers in the system who operate under Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), in the contrary, the workers and their NULGE leaders in Enugu state are singing a new positive song. They are awed by the pleasant turn-around in which arrears of salaries owed them by the authorities of the 17 local government councils in the state have been cleared. Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, according to the president of NULGE in the state, Comrade Ken Ugwueze, showed a rare exemplary leadership when he stamped his feet to decide that funds that accrued to the local government councils in the state from the Paris Club Refund Fund be released 100% to them.
Besides, Governor Ugwuanyi had last year taken a fundamental step to tame one of the major monsters, wreaking havoc in the local government system, not just in his state but actually in the country. And that is, the scourge of the fraud of planting ghost workers in the payrolls of the local government councils. He had set up a high-powered committee that embarked on staff audit and biometric data capturing of staff of all the councils in the state. Headed by the Speaker of Enugu State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Edward Ubosi, the committee turned in its report to the governor in July last year.
It had announced on the occasion of the presentation of the report that it discovered a total of 3,916 ghost workers, ghost local council workers, ghost teachers in the primary schools and ghost local government pensioners. From the exercise, a whopping sum of N161,494,530 has been saved monthly being the sum paid monthly to the ghost workers in the system. The NULGE leadership in the state has also pointed to other positive indicators that have been introduced by the Ugwuanyi administration to make the careers the council workers worth the while.
Hence, on Friday, June 30, 2017, Comrade Ugwueze led a massive rally of the teeming number of local government employees in the state in the university town of Nsukka. They declared that the rally was in solidarity with Governor Ugwuanyi for his clear good governance in the state. And it was a day Nsukka urban stood still for NULGE, as the residents also keyed into the solidarity rally, tagged: Solidarity Rally for Good Governance. The workers said they were surprised that after the Federal Government had on November 21, 2016, approved the release of the first tranche of the Paris Club Refund, which is refund of over deductions on Paris Club Loans on the accounts of state and local governments, the money was released intact to the local councils in Enugu State. Hence, their new song contrasts with the situations in some states where certain untoward stories have trailed the administration of the funds refunded.
Following Governor Ugwuanyi’s directive, the state government had disbursed its share of the refund, totalling about N3.9 billion to the authorities of the 17 local government councils in the state. The chairman of the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), Enugu State chapter, Mr. Cornelius Nnaji, during a symposium organised by the state chapter of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), in Enugu, recently also confirmed the release of the total refund fund to the local council authorities.
During the rally at Nsukka, NULGE informed that the news of impending payment of the arrears of salaries owed was taken as one of the political statements when it was broken to them at first but that the pleasant reality dawned on them when they started receiving bank alerts.
When the state president of NULGE, Comrade Kenneth Ugwueze, addressed the mammoth crowd of members, who converged on Government Field, Nsukka, before the takeoff of the rally, he articulated the intention of the solidarity rally thus: “When the Paris Club Refund Fund was received, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi ordered that 100 per cent of the money be used to settle the arrears of salaries and other allowances owed our union members. This is the first time it is happening in our state”. Mrs. Uchenna Asogwa is one of those workers who never believed that arrears of salaries could be settled, narrated her unpleasant experiences in the hands of the previous administrations in the state: “I didn’t know it would be a reality. In the past administration, I was owed 21 months arrears and when the tenure of the administration elapsed, the money went with it. So, when I got this cheque, tears of joy flowed from my eyes because I never believed it would happen,” she said.
The experience as narrated by Mrs. Asogwa was the reason the workers turned out en masse to declare to the world that the unexpected had happened, courtesy of Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi’s good governance in the state.
But it is not only the transparent utilisation of Paris Club Refund and the cleansing of the system hitherto bogged down by fraud and ghost worker syndrome that have continued to endear the governor to the hearts of the local government employees. They are equally celebrating the governor for approving the implementation of their scheme of service, which allows for their promotion to Grade Level 16 in the service. Some of them have already become beneficiaries. The scheme was approved in 2006 to be implemented by the 36 states of the federation, but not until the emergence of Governor Ugwuanyi, the scheme had been dumped and bound for the official trashcan from where the governor has dusted and implemented it. It has reduced anxiety and fear of penury after service to the fatherland.
The NULGE leaders further pointed to the governor’s benevolence, recalling their former state president, Comrade Eugene Odo, who was dismissed untimely from service about nine months ago. Yet, the general feeling and practical reality of good administration offered by the governor in the state since he assumed office has also endeared him to the union’s leadership. The state NULGE president said that considering how Governor Ugwuanyi uses the lean resources, accruing to the state from the federation account, there is much hope for the future of the state under his watch.
If this model that has brought tranquillity to the local government system in Enugu State could be applied across the federation, the current expression of frustrations and growing anger among council workers in those less fortunate councils could become a thing of the past. And, of course, the growth of the nation’s nascent democracy would be the better for it.
•Abugu wrote from Enugu