Comrade Ayuba Wabba, President, Nigeria Labour Congress, in this no-holds-barred interview with Tony Akowe clears the air on the level of insolvency at majority of the states owing workers backlogs of salaries vis-à-vis the intrigues and political undercurrents. Excerpts:
FROM records available to the Congress, what is the situation with the payment of salaries by the state governments at the moment.
The issue of regular payment of salaries and pensions has been very problematic in some states. By our records, it started with about 18 states where you have liabilities ranging from two to 21 months. But the worst case scenario at the moment is not more than six. Those are the states we are now trying to give more priority because other states have some level of arrangement with their workers to continue to pay and they also have a Standing Committee that will always look at the challenge as they arise. They have also worked to improve their internally generated revenue. Importantly, there is a transparent process where whatever comes in, priority will be given to the payment of workers’ salaries. There are states where we have major problems. Last week, we were in Benue because they have a huge liability. What we tried to do there is to see what we get in the interim for the workers and pensioners to stabilise them while working out modalities on how these liabilities can be paid. We reached an understanding that two months salaries and pension should be paid immediately across board, including primary school teachers, local government workers, civil servants, pensioners and all. After that, we looked at the liability and agreed that within the next two months; let us have a committee in place. They advanced a huge wage bill which we thought was contestable given the size of the state. The internally generated revenue was also contestable but we agreed that the facts and figures be put on the table so that we have a permanent solution to make sure that the issue of payment of salaries and pensions receive maximum attention in the state. We signed an agreement with them and that was how we were able to move forward. We have Kogi state which is the worst case scenario presently. In that state, you have about three categories of workers. You have those with three months’ salary arrears which constitute about 40 percent. We have those with arrears of between five to 18 months which constitute another 40 percent and then, you have about 20 percent with liability of between five to 21 months. The same applies to pensioners. That is the scenario we have presently in Kogi and that is why we say it is the worst case scenario because in other states, all the workers are on the same page.
How did we get to this level in Kogi state?
This happened because since the administration came in, they have been on continuous verification. When you are verified, you then begin to count your arrears and it is only when you are verified that you begin to receive salaries and the workers are verified at different times. That is how this liability arose and I think it is deliberate just to evade the payment of pensions and salaries.
Besides Benue and Kogi, what is the situation in other states?
We have the issue in Ekiti that owes between five and eight months between the state and local governments. That is an issue that is also of concern to us because the decision we took at our National Executive Council (NEC) meeting in Sokoto was that any state that is owing liability of more than three months, the workers should start an action and we will be there to assist them. It is the same scenario with Bayelsa. They have liability of between five and 12 months. I am aware that local government workers in the state have just resumed the action they suspended and we’re putting that on our priority list. The issue of Osun is different from the ones I have mentioned. After the receipt of the first bail out, we made an intervention there. Our founding president and the rest of us tried to work out a strategy to make sure that whatever comes into the state, including internally generated revenue is put on the table. We realised that because the state borrowed from the banks whatever comes into the state, the banks first remove their share and so on. We had to work on the internally generated revenue and what is left of what comes into the state. As we speak, they are being paid, but in some cases, not in full. What they have done is that some category of workers will receive their full salary this month and the next month, they will receive a fraction while others receive full salaries. That is what has been going on there, but the beauty of it is that whatever comes is out on the table and no worker goes home every month without receiving something.
We hear that entitlement of workers and pensioners have been slashed in Imo state. Is the Congress aware of this?
In the case of Imo, what the governor did was to unilaterally reduce the workers’ salaries by certain percentage as well as pensioners and has been paying the balance as and when due. But in collective bargaining process, that is not a decision that is binding. Whatever is the outstanding that has not been paid is a liability. But the issue of the pensioners is worse because he just printed an indemnity form and compelled pensioners to sign under duress. If you want to get a percentage of your pension, you need to forfeit 50 percent of your pension. This is somebody that has not been paid for two to three years and therefore liabilities have accrued. You cannot imagine that some of their pension is less than N4,000. That is the situation there and that is why I said it should also count because it is not for you to determine whatever you want to pay because when we made an intervention there, the understanding we had was that because there was no resources, let us work out a temporary arrangement, so that when the resources improve, he should pay. But with the bailout and subsequent Paris Club refund he has collected, he has not deemed it fit to redeem that and restore the full payment of workers’ salaries. The worst part is the issue of pensioners whom he has forced to forfeit half of their accrued benefits. That is not something that should happen.
I must make the point that some states have done very well. While condemning those who have not done well, we should also praise those that have done well. But in the list that has not done well is Zamfara state where the Chairman of the Governors Forum comes from. You will recall that when the second tranche of the Paris Club refund was to be given to them, he made a pronouncement on behalf of all the governors that they are committed to using the refund to offset salaries and pensions. Unfortunately, even in his own state, he is economical with the facts and has not allowed anybody, including organised labour to know what happened to the two tranches of the Paris Club refund. You are aware that our workers in that state had to go on a three weeks strike and the elders of the state had to intervene before an agreement was signed. But till now, he has not been able to disclose what has happened to the two tranches of the Paris club refund and he has not been able to honour the agreement mutually entered with Labour.
Are we saying that only few states have not done well because there is a report that only four states can successfully pay salaries?
On state by states basis, there are states that owe one or two months. But among states that have done well, we must salute Plateau state. Before the coming of this administration, Plateau was one very problematic area that was not paying salaries. In fact, he inherited about seven months salaries arrears and he has judiciously utilised the bailout and the Paris Club refund and as we speak today, he has actually cleared any liability that he has.states like Bauchi has done well, Adamawa is doing well. Abia is one other state where we have problem because some of the parastatals and local government workers are owed huge amounts t of salaries. Even though it started before the coming of this administration, we expected that he should be able to do his best to address some of those issues.
On a zone by zone basis, in the north west, apart from Zamfara, all other states are paying salaries and pensions as and when due. In the north east, Bauchi is doing well and they did not access the bailout fund. About 33 states accessed the bailout fund, while the rest did not because they said they don’t need it. Bauchi is one of the states that did not access the bailout and yet it is doing well. In the south south, Akwa Ibom is doing well, Cross Rivers is also doing well. Rivers is doing well, but arising from verification, there is two months salaries still outstanding. I have met the governor and he has agreed to offset that.
Also some categories of pensioners who have not been rolled over are being owed. Delta has some challenges with local governments staff and teachers. They are paying the core civil servants as and when due, but teachers and local government workers have some challenges and so, are having some liabilities which they are working to address. All the states in the north east are meeting their obligations. In fact, Gombe is one of the best example in that axis and in spite of the insurgency, Borno and Yobe are paying as and when due. I do have have challenges with about five to eight months arrears which the present government inherited. You can see that the problem has nothing to do with the quantum of resources available to them. Some are receiving so much, like Bayelsa, but have not been able to pay because it is not their priority. Some have also over borrowed which has affected their revenue. This is the challenge and we will continue to prioritise the issues from one state to the other.