I was delighted to see President Muhammadu Buhari confess, for once, that the inability of states to pay workers’ salaries was not only a national disgrace but also a practice that has brought international opprobrium to the country. It is shocking that state governors, who are quick to take home their monthly salaries are quick to deny workers their pay. It is often said that every worker deserves their wages. This maxim might apply to workers in other cultures. In our environment, political leaders have turned the statement to read “Every worker deserves their wages in heaven”. The message is quite clear: Don’t expect to be paid while on earth.
Buhari expressed his disappointment over the way some state governments have continued to delay endlessly payment of workers’ salaries. This was during a get-together he had with State House Staff on Wednesday, 22 June 2016. Promising to continue his crusade against officials, who loot national reserves, Buhari said: “This is a disgrace to Nigeria. It is a disgrace that up till now, most of the states cannot pay salaries. What happened to all we have gotten over the years? We look up and down, left, right and centre, what have we saved? There was nothing because we developed a consumption culture that we were not supposed to develop.”
Continuing further, Buhari said: “All fraud must stop. This exercise (anti-graft war) will continue as long as this leadership is here. Whoever takes anything that does not belong to him or that he is not entitled to, will be documented and taken to court. This is the only way I think we can bail ourselves out. We are determined to rehabilitate our country for the sake of our children and our grandchildren.”
It is alright for Buhari to restate his commitment to his anti-corruption campaign with clinical determination but I would argue he should focus on state governments that fail to pay workers’ salaries. Failure to pay workers’ salaries is sufficient evidence that money meant for that purpose has been diverted by corrupt officials. Buhari must look state governors in the eyes and ask them a simple question: What do you do with the money you receive from the Federal Government?
Buhari said the failure of 27 of the 36 states in the country to pay workers’ salaries regularly should be condemned. I don’t believe condemnation alone would solve the problem. Buhari must go beyond mere condemnation to find ways to compel state governors to pay workers. It is a moral obligation the nation owes all workers. Of course, I am fully aware that in our society, moral principles have been tossed to the refuse bin because political leaders are cold-blooded, heartless, insensitive and uncaring. They are also selfish because their own interests come first before anyone else’s.
Rather than serve the people who elected them, state governors expect the people to serve them. Once state governors have taken care of their own welfare and the wellbeing of their immediate relatives, the rest of the citizens can burn to hell because workers are seen as simpletons, who don’t count and do not matter. In political leaders’ twisted manner of thinking, there are more important things that should engage the attention of governors. Workers’ salaries, welfare and happiness are not on the priority list.
It is this careless mindset that has been extended to the payment of workers pension. People who worked for many years for their fatherland are denied their well-deserved pension while other officials, the leeches in official government robes, feed off retired workers’ benefits. This is injustice of the worst kind.
Take, as an example, the scandal over the police pension fund that attracted media headlines in 2012. An organised criminal gang was alleged to have misappropriated billions of naira intended for payment of pension to retired police servicemen and women. Newspaper reports suggested a permanent secretary in a Federal ministry was discovered with N2 billion cash in his possession. A report in the Daily Sun of 19 March 2012 indicated four senior public servants were implicated in the swindle. We often assume incorrectly that people who hold high offices are emblems of responsibility and transparency in our society. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
Sometimes, you have to wonder whether we are better off as a democracy or as a dictatorship. At least in a dictatorship, everyone knows they have no rights to question state officials. In a democracy, however, citizens’ human rights, which are enshrined in the constitution are violated with impunity by political leaders. Through rampant fraud, corruption, and cheating, public officials and elected politicians aspire to be rich overnight. In most cases, they want to attain their all-time ambition through express but illegal routes. Corruption is evil because those who perpetrate it deprive workers their much valued pay.
State governments’ failure to pay workers’ salaries is dishonourable conduct. It is a violation of workers’ fundamental human rights. Buhari, as the anti-corruption poster president, should go beyond expressions of regret. He should go after states that default in paying workers’ salaries. While the constitution guarantees state governors immunity from prosecution while they are in office, there are other channels through which a president, who preaches accountability and transparency in government can get governors to do the right thing and to fulfil their obligations to workers in their states.
Workers do not serve their states and their nation on the erroneous understanding that they would be owed salaries. Workers are not engaged in charitable trust. They deserve their wages. How would workers, who are owed months of salaries feed their families? How would workers who have not received their salaries be able to pay their bills, such as their rents, their electricity bills, their phone bills, their children’s school fees, their families’ hospital bills, their transport fares, and how could those who own vehicles buy petrol to power their cars if they are continuously owed months of salaries? This is inhuman and intolerable.
If state governors could take home their salaries regularly and on time, so too should workers receive their salaries. What is good for governors is also good for ordinary workers, who are struggling to put food on their dining tables. Ironically, some of these workers put in more efforts at work than many of the state governors do.
I am particularly outraged that the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has not seen reason to fight endlessly and vigorously to get state governors to honour the rights of workers to be paid their salaries at the end of every month. And yet the NLC proclaims on its website (http://www.nlcng.org/) that its mission is “to organise, unionise and educate all categories of Nigerian workers; defend and advance the political, economic, social and cultural rights of Nigerian workers; emancipate and unite Nigerian workers and people from all forms of exploitation and discrimination; achieve gender justice in the work place and in NLC; strengthen and deepen the ties and connections between Nigerian workers and the mutual/natural allies in and outside Nigeria and; lead the struggle for the transformation of Nigeria into a just, humane and democratic society.”
These are towering ideals that continue to expose the ineffectiveness of the NLC, as an active and proactive labour movement. If the NLC is committed to fight for the interests of workers across the nation, it must take on state governors that fail to pay workers’ salaries. Why would workers be owed many months of unpaid salaries and the leadership of the NLC has not bothered to campaign against the odious practice?
The NLC is the official representative of workers across the country. It must, therefore, lead to restore workers’ dignity. I would argue the NLC has been sluggish in championing workers’ rights and privileges.
The question of workers’ salaries has dragged for years. In July 2011, the nation came to the verge of a major warning strike by workers over non-payment of the so-called minimum wage. At the time of the strike, the Federal Government had argued that money needed for full implementation of the minimum wage scheme was not included in the 2011 budget. Therefore, the argument went, another budget would have to be endorsed by the National Assembly in order to legalise the full payment of the minimum wage effective from 2012.
Another sour ground for dispute at the time was the admission by some states that they could not afford to pay the miserable minimum wage of N18,000. Isa Yuguda, former governor of Bauchi State, for example, argued at the time that some states could not afford to pay the minimum wage and still hang on to some money for capital projects. It was something of a scandal that some state governments could not afford to pay the minimum wage of N18,000 to the least paid workers. The argument appeared to be more devious than honest.
It is not the responsibility of workers to worry about how state governors would find money to pay the minimum wage. All that workers want is prompt payment of their salaries. Again, workers deserve their wages. Regardless of the arguments made by states that have failed to pay workers’ salaries, state governors are obliged to pay workers their monthly salaries. There must be an end to the ongoing political absurdity over workers’ salaries.