Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, yesterday appeared on Radio Benue and interacted with the people of the State on the current strike action embarked upon by workers in the state. Accompanied by some key lieutenants in his administration he spoke about the challenges of paying regular salaries and the understanding that had existed between labour and the state government. He stated that the current industrial action was politically motivated.
Moderator: It’s one minute past eight, you’re on to the management service of Radio Benue, Makurdi. Hello listener, you’re welcome to this very special edition of our Current Affairs program, Issues of the Moment hosted by the management service of Radio Benue, Makurdi. On this very special edition we shall be hosting the Governor of Benue State, His Excellency, Samuel Ortom. Sir, you’re welcome to the program.
Ortom: Thank you, good morning listener.
Moderator: He is accompanied by his lieutenants in the persons of Professor Anthony Ijohor, SAN, who is the Secretary to State Government, sir, you’re welcome to issues of the moment.
Professor Ijohor: Thank you and good morning dear listener.
We also have Engineer George Ede, he is the head of service, you’re welcome to the program.
Engr. Ede: Thank you and good morning.
We also have Honourable David Olofu, the Commissioner of Finance and Economic Planning, you’re welcome sir.
Olofu: Thank you and good morning listeners.
The Honourable Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Honourable Lawrence Onoja Jnr is also with us.
Onoja Jnr: Good morning listener.
And the Special Adviser on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Honourable Titus Zam, you’re welcome sir.
Zam: Thank you and good morning listener.
The last but not the least is Dr Sunday Edo, he is the Special Adviser on Gender, Employment and Labour.
Edo: Good morning listeners.
Anchoring the program are Owanyi Olegede and myself Nguamo Kputu. Our focus today on this very special program is the issue of the present challenge facing the state in the area of payment of salaries of civil servants and the ongoing workers strike which commenced on Tuesday, 2nd October, 2017. You can be part of this programme as we progress by calling this number 070 38267479 or you can send a text message to 080 34787173. The line will be opened up on the programme as we progress.
Moderator: Your Excellency sir, it is no longer news that people are not very happy with the challenge presently experienced by the State in the area of payment of salaries, hence the strike. What is your reaction to this?
Ortom: Thank you very much and good morning listeners and Benue people. I want to appreciate the management for creating this medium to communicate with the people. I’m equally very sad. I’m not happy too along with the people because as a leader, it’s when the people are happy that I’ll also be motivated to be happy. It’s unfortunate that I’ve found myself where I am today, but as a child of God and someone who has faith in God, I believe that this too I’ll overcome. This is not the first time I’m facing challenges in my life. I’ve passed through several challenges in the course of my life; in my academic pursuit, in my working life, in my business life, in my political life, in my farming life and in my family life. But at the end, God has always helped me and I believe that this will not be an exception too. King David said that “I look unto the hills where will my help come from, my help will come from the Lord God Almighty.” I trust and believe that I’ll be out of this.
The Root of the Challenge
But let me say that it is unfortunate that we’ve found ourselves where we’re today due to the numerous challenges of not just Benue State but Nigeria. Nigeria went through a recession and just came out of it, though it is still very fragile. But we’re trusting and believing God that things will work and the economy will blossom and grow and things will be better. We took over power at a time that one, the main source of revenue to the State went down as a result of the drop in oil prices. Oil that was sold for $140 per barrel was selling at $30 and at a point even $28 per barrel. Today, we have made progress. I think the last I saw last week was around $56 per barrel and I think that is progress. And that has also shown the difference in the increase in the Federation Account, the accrual that came in was better than in the past. So we’re trusting that things will pick up and we can discharge our responsibilities very well as a government.
But let me say that I inherited N69 billion arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuity. It was a very big problem but government is a continuum and we had to work with it. The wage bill then was around N8.2 billion without teachers’ minimum wage. But when we came, we said teachers should ideally be treated better than any other worker because of the strategic role they play in the society; moulding the character of our children. We said there was no point for salary disparity. They should also enjoy minimum wage with the hope that things will improve. We went ahead and implemented it only to discover that what was coming in was not enough to cater for just payment of salaries, right from the onset. So the various interventions by federal government and then the State borrowing was able to redeem the situation to a level but we could not redeem the whole situation. And now, the wage bill of N8.2 billion plus the additional responsibilities that came on our finances from the minimum wage of teachers which was close to N300m became a challenge. We through various screenings and we were able to save up to N700 million so today we are around N7.8 billion as the wage bill of the state. This includes pensions and overheads for every month.
Now, what comes in initially, was, every month, we received from Federation Account an average of N5 billion for both local government and state. Things started improving and today we talk about an average of N6 billion. That is what comes in from the Federation Account. The IGR when we inaugurated the Board of Internal Revenue, things started moving well and we were getting an average of N600 million but later, there were huge cries from traditional rulers, the clergy and the people. As a listening government, we took the advice of stakeholders and decided to mellow down. Although the law is there but since there was so much cry from the people, we decided to suspend some aspects. That also affected our IGR. But it has never gone above a billion naira except in very special cases where people intervene, like one particular month where Dangote Cement was able to pay us N700 million, then with the other one, we had over N8 billion. So, if you have an average of N6 billion, take it that you have an average of N6 billion and you are just settling salaries alone for the State, that means you will be having a deficit of N1.8 billion every month. But as you know, there are several other issues. One, you must service your loans. Two, you must ensure that government operates at all times. Government must function, there must be attention to security issues. One thing that we should also appreciate is that the security agencies you see here are not agents of the State but agents of the Federal Government. The FG employs them but they are supposed to provide service for the State. One thing that is interesting to know is that almost all the vehicles you see the security operatives using in Benue State are funded by Benue State Government. Their allowances are funded by Benue State Government. That is also a very big challenge. All the deployments we have in several locations in Benue State all over, are funded by Benue State Government. So you can imagine having N6 billion to service debts and to do all these. And government officials must travel to keep government going, to keep government running. And there must be attention to certain emergency things that will crop up in the State which we do. All these are things we have to contend with and so taking it that you are paying salaries alone, you are having a deficit of N1.8 billion monthly but if you have to pay salaries and do other things, then you need more than that because every month you must reserve some funds to take care of these issues I have mentioned.
But the truth of the matter is that there was a problem which my predecessor too accepted and told me or warned me before he handed over to me and I was sworn in. During the negotiation of the last minimum wage before we came in, I think there was a gap. And somehow, the labour were able to have their way and the salaries were raised to a level that government could not afford. You will recall that during the tenure of the past administration, they attempted to reverse the negotiation but labour resisted and of course, it was an election year so everybody allowed it. But the problem is still there.
A Comparison between Benue and Some States
Now, someone who is on level 10 in Benue State is receiving higher pay than someone on level 14 in Taraba, Bauchi, Plateau and Niger States and so on. Nasarawa lifted the negotiation from Benue State but at a point, they could not afford, so they had to renegotiate. Workers were on strike for a long time, I think they resumed now; they have come to terms and agreed that there is no way we can move forward. In Imo State where a Permanent Secretary is receiving N230,000, Benue State is receiving over N500,000. That was the negotiation. So it’s a problem that we inherited. So when we came in, we saw this challenge and we called the labour leaders that look, there is no way we can continue to fund you in this manner. Although we were optimistic that the economy will improve, things will be better because the funding that was coming in is no longer coming the way it used to be because of the drop in oil prices.
The Understanding with Labour
And so, it was our collective agreement to bring the labour to also be on our Joint Financial Allocation Committee so that everything that is done there is known by all because for us we felt that for us to protect our integrity and be on the same page with labour, we needed them to know what is coming in and what is going out. So we invited them at the State and Local Government levels. So all the information concerning our finances that we get they are open to the leaders. And on the Joint Committee of the Local Government, the labour leaders sit with the chairmen to distribute the funds that come in. We had proposed that in view of these difficulties, let us pay 50 per cent of whatever comes across the board to all categories of workers. But the workers preferred that in view of the fact that they have other commitments when full salaries are paid, they opted that full salaries should be paid. And salaries of two months should be put together to pay full salaries of one month, the other one can be in arrears. This was the agreement and this is what we have been doing. We have been able to manage it well. With the understanding of the labour, we have been able to manage it well and any time there are misconceptions, I am always very open to even address the congress of the labour unions. This has been going, there wasn’t any problem because they too know that we are not shortchanging them. I have always said that if I had the resources, as a Christian, I know that the Bible says a worker deserves his wages. I have no reason whatsoever to keep money away from workers. But this was the understanding and so they have been receiving this. For every two months we do that and any time the allocation improves, we are able to do more than just combining two months to pay. Any time we have interventions like Paris Club and so on, we are able to do better than that. So this has been going on.
And I also want to say that the labour in Benue State appreciated the problems because for us, the option of saying that let us go back, revisit and reduce the salaries was not tenable for reason being that there is high rate of inflation and so even what they were getting, to me, I feel that it is not enough. So it wasn’t an option to talk about reducing the salary. But at the same time, the other option would have been retrench or reduce the workforce but this too, for Benue State that is civil service based, the economy is driven by the civil service, it becomes very difficult when you talk about retrenchment. You will be putting a lot of lives in danger, so we weighed this options and said let us continue to manage and since we were very open, out accounts are open to everybody to see, we said ok let’s continue to manage and we were managing. I think that the challenge we have today, we appreciate the problems and an average Benue worker also appreciates the problems that we are having too because we have been open to them.
External Influence and the Wage Bill Benue Needs
But there are infiltrations. Politics is beginning to get in, otherwise I have been discussing. Even when there the signs of warning strike, I called the congress and we sat with the leaders and discussed. I opened up to them and told them the efforts we are trying to do to see if we can offset the arrears. We also told them that Benue State’s wage bill is very high. The Head of Service is here I have commissioned him to try to do analysis. I didn’t want to get into that but I had to because here I am pressed to the wall, so I have to open up. Do analysis of what other states are paying monthly as wage bill and it will amaze you when these result comes out. Because I talk with my colleagues and at every given time, they keep wondering why our situation is as high as that. Benue State wage bill of N7.8 billion is too high. Kano State that has 44 Local Governments with a population of over 20 million and have a far better allocation with industries and commercial activities going on where government collects revenue and all that, their wage bill is just around N8 billion. That’s what their governor told me. And in Nasarawa State here, it’s N1.8 billion. In Taraba State, it’s around N3 billion and Plateau State the same thing. So there is a problem. That was why out of concern, we had to find a way around it and we declared state of emergency on salaries. The implication of the state of emergency on salaries was one; to ensure that we give priority attention to payment of salaries. We said if there is any intervention that comes, we appropriate 80 per cent of that resources to payment of salaries. And that Paris Club Refund that came, that was what we did. We appropriated 80 per cent of it. And we said the second one will be that any time we identify those who are ghosts and we identify things like salary padding and all those fraudulent activities, we will find ways of blocking it. And that was why we constituted a committee headed by the Deputy Governor and the committee is doing its job. From the interim reports I have received verbally, I am told that there are a lot of revelations that are going to come out of the report which we think we need to reduce the wage bill. From where we are today, we need a wage bill of around N4 billion to be able to contend with the challenges that we have and then move forward.
Moderator: When you talk about reduction of the wage bill, are you saying you intend to reduce the salaries of workers?
Readiness to Continue Negotiations With Labour
Ortom: That is what I’m saying. I’m not saying I intend to reduce but that was an option that was available. But for us, we felt that high rate of inflation and then reducing it now will cause more hardship, but we are hoping that things will be better so we will continue to pay where we met it. But it is really high, very high more than several states in Nigeria. So, here we are and we were discussing so we met when there was warning strike and we also met after the warning strike and we appealed to workers to come back to continue the same way we were doing for over a year ago because going on strike will not help so let us continue to dialogue. And I’m very open to superior positions that can add value to what we are doing, that will help us make our workers happy and all that. I’m very open from workers or from any source that can help us achieve our goal. The Abouno committee is working and like I said a lot of revelations are coming and we are hoping that at the end, there will be substantial reduction in the wage bill after looking at all the issues because we are doing the modified table payment which we think will help us.
But currently, I think that we are on the right path because the last meeting I held with labour union and their representatives from the National Secretariat of the Nigeria Labour Congress, we had closed ranks and agreed on what to do. When they demanded that I pay four months and I told them the challenge I had, that the resources were not there but I was ready to work with them. The allocation of September, we can put it together and pay full one month salary to all categories of staff in Benue State. That was the agreement and I’m surprised that the National President of Labour Congress had to come to Benue State after sending a representative who was in that meeting where an agreement was reached and then he came himself that workers must go on strike. I think that is not the best way because we can do better. We will continue to dialogue. I’ve set up a committee headed by the SSG including the Head of Service and other government officials to continue to negotiate with workers. I call on them to come back. The pains are there but we can do better. It is said that half a loaf is better than none. It is true we have not been able to meet our obligations as at when due but we have never abandoned workers and we will never do that. We will continue to talk to them, we will continue to work with them and to find ways around that we can make things better.
The Permanent Solution
We are discussing with other financial institutions including PENCOM on how we can find a way out of this. But we feel very strongly that for us to have a sustainable wage bill, we must find a way of reducing the wage bill from where it is today. For us, those who are legitimately employed and are working and have schedules there shouldn’t be problem with them. But those who are ghost workers, who those who found themselves in government and are not doing the work but are collecting salaries, those people will have no choice than to leave because the eyes are red. I’m pushed to the wall and we don’t know where to go. So we have to find ways. Several people are in Abuja but they’re collecting their pay here in Benue State. Some are in Lagos, some in Kano and all over the place. I know of a chief who has 15 wives and all of them are on the payroll of the local government. The children are over 20 something and all of them are there. And some of them are in school. In secondary schools, in tertiary institutions but they are there drawing salaries. These are areas that we must touch so that those who are working legitimately and doing the actual job should get their salaries as at when due. But those who have nothing to do with working with government, they should also find their way out. So we will do everything while we are talking with other agencies, we are committed to ensuring that we reduce the wage bill through a genuine process that will not victimize anyone but will help to have a wage bill that is a sustainable.
But beyond that we are doing everything possible to ensure that we have these arrears cleared. Just last week, we met with a consultant whom we commissioned to try to work to see even if it is about floating bonds like the labour leaders met me the other time and tried to advise me to see if we can float bonds and clear the arrears and so on. That will be done, but honestly, I also feel pained. I’m not sleeping either because there is no way I can have my peace when I have a challenge like this affecting everybody in Benue State.