Less than two weeks to May 29 hand over, non-payment of workers salary arrears is still a burning issue in Abia State. In this piece, OKECHUKWU KESHI UKEGBU writes that unless the outgoing governor, Chief Theodore Orji, does the needful by paying up workers salary arrears before vacating office, he may leave a burden for his successor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu
Non- payment of workers’ salaries arrears assumed the front burner during the recent Workers Day Celebration in Abia State. Parallel faction of the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, Abia State called on the state government to kindly clear all the arrears owed to government agencies and parastatals before 29th of May 2015.
Chairman of the faction, Uchenna Obigwe while addressing workers loyal to his faction at Ibeku High School, Umuahia, observed with dismay that staff of Abia State University Teaching Hospital, ABSUTH were owed eight months salary arrears, while their counterpart in the Health Management Board were owed seven months.
He also drew the attention of government to the non- implementation of consolidated salary structure CONHESS and CONMESS to health workers and LGAs and partial implementation in ABSUTH, HMB and Social Welfare Officers.
Obigwe also lamented what he described as partial payment of pensions and gratuities for retirees, among other demands.
Last week, Abia chapter of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners said it was going to demonstrate more if government failed to pay pensions to every pensioner.
Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners, Umuahia branch, Deacon Dan Amugo told newsmen in Umuahia that the union had informed the secretary of the Pension Board of the decision of the union.
It will be recalled that the union had penultimate week shut the offices of the Abia State Pension Board and the Union secretariat in protest of the arrears of pensions owed them by Abia State government but the offices were unlocked.
Amugo said that they had to lock the offices as a way of drawing government attention to the trauma their members were going through as a result of the delay in the payment of their pensions.
He lamented that “gratuity is in prison in Abia State” adding that even the monthly pension has become a matter of government insensitivity to the plight of the pensioners.
According to him, the problem of arrears of pensions started in October 2013 when they introduced half payment “and has remained the custom since then, no change.”
“For example, our people are being owed from four to seven months arrears and when they pay it is haphazard; they pay A they will not pay B and we want the February pension to be paid to everyone or else we go back to the street. This makes the pensioners angry, that is the reason we locked the offices,” he said.
Amugo said that retired permanent secretaries whose pensions range from N500, 000 and above collect their pensions by hand just like any other person “and by the time about a 100 of them is paid they would say money is finished.” He wondered why such huge amounts would not be paid through the bank.
Nigerian Pilot reports that over 300 workers of Bende Local Government Area in Abia had some time ago marched to Government House in Umuahia to protest the non-payment of their five months’ salary arrears. Mr Gabriel Ukpai, one of the leaders of the peaceful protest, said that the aim was to bring their plight to the attention of state government.
Ukpai alleged that the council workers’ problem started when an official of the transition committee returned N3.5 million to the state government shortly after his appointment.
He described as false, claims by the official that the money was saved from the council’s allocation following the elimination of ghost workers from the council’s payroll. Ukpai alleged that the returned money was part of workers’ check-off dues and welfare levies.
He said that the negative impact of the refund was the noticeable shortfall in the monthly allocations to the council.
According to him, Bende local government currently receives about N15 million as monthly statutory allocations against the earlier N45 million monthly.
Ukpai also said that the “refusal” of the local government to pay the workers had nothing to do with the newly introduced biometric data system for payment of salaries. Some others workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also called on the state government to intervene in the matter.
Recently, Abia State gov¬ernment allegedly introduced a new system of sharing allocation from the federation account to lo¬cal government areas in the state. The essence of this new system christened “balloting” is that when at the Joint Account Commit¬tee, JAC, meetings lots would be drawn with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ written on them and put in a ballot box. Then the transi¬tion committee chairmen would be called upon to pick. Any local government which is lucky and the TC chairman picks ‘yes’, would get money for the workers’ sal¬ary for the given month but those that were not lucky and their chairmen picked ‘No’, would not be paid.
By twist of fate, TC chairman of Bende LGA whose workers were still being owed four months’ salary in 2012, was said to have picked ‘No’ for the month of December 2014.
So, frustrated by the development, the workers matched from the Bende local government headquarters to Government House, Umuahia with the intention of seeing Gov Theodore Orji to intimate him of their suffering. But security men could not allow the workers who carried placards and sang songs of sorrow access to the seat of power.
One of the affected workers, who craved anonymity, lamented: “I have never seen this type of arrangement anywhere before. Local government workers have suffered so much under this government. The past ad¬ministration in the state never owed us even one month salary, but now we are owed up to four to five months arrears of salary de¬spite the fact that we now have enhanced allocation.
“What we cannot understand is this intro¬duction of giving allocation accruing from the federation account through balloting when, in fact, funds allocated to each coun¬cil by the Federal Government was enough to pay workers salary.
“We are talking about our December 2014 salary at this time and as we speak, we are not sure it will be paid even in this May. Our counterparts in other states were paid before Christmas while we celebrated on empty stomachs.”
It is alleged that the state got into this ugly mess through its indebtedness to a bank, which receives its money at source, immediately the monthly alloca¬tions are made. The implication of this is that the state is virtually run with internally gener-ated revenue.
However, the state government has taken a bold step to shore up its internally generated revenue through the deployment of Geographic Information Systems, GIS in land administration and management.
The project is a Public Private Partnership ,PPP, project involving the state government and the Cyrux Global Consortium of private sector partners.
The question remains: how far can the government of Okezie Ikpeazu, the governor-elect go in offsetting the huge amount of salary and pension arrears facing his administration? Analysts have suggested that if he (governor-elect) wants to start on a heartwarming note, he must do all within his powers to assuage these workers and pensioners by bending backwards to offset these arrears. It is a huge task, but one that must be done.