By; AKIN OYEDELE
These are indeed challenging times for state governors, majority of whom, indubitably, are not ‘sleeping soundly’ because of the financial dire straits currently buffeting the country. At the end of each month, the state’s helmsmen are, expectedly, torn between committing the available pittance to the backlog of benefits of the dark and grey-haired on their pay role and fulfillment of their electioneering promises to transmute their states into the El Dorado.
Since 2015, regular payment of salaries and pensions had become a daunting task, forcing states to evolve several strategies and formulas to defray the accumulating arrears. The timely intervention of President Muhammadu Buhari, through the payment of budget support facility, bailout fund and the Paris Club refund to states to cushion the effect, has been heartwarming. By this sheer altruism, the president has shown himself to be a caring leader and father of the nation. Curiously, some commentators, who are seemingly pontificating from their comfort zones, have opposed the release of the last tranche of the Paris Club refund on a rather superficial premise. In their jaundiced views, the states deserve no further pity because majority of them did not utilize past interventions judiciously. This is tantamount to cutting the nose to spite the face. Surely, decapitation is no solution to migraine.
That the Nigeria Labour Congress could be in the league of those with this pernicious stance still beggars belief. Permit me to join President Buhari in asking the NLC and the other antagonists if they ever pondered ‘how the workers feed their families, pay their rents and even pay school fees for their children’ in these trying times. Do they spare any thought for the senior citizens, particularly those in their dotage, who need to buy drugs regularly to keep their enfeebled bodies in shape? How many more Citizen Soje’s self-annihilation cases must the country record before we realize the intolerable levels of hardship assailing many families?
For this Christmas to be merry for workers and pensioners, let those concerned fast-track the release of the Paris Club refund. Although, the cushioning effect may be for a fleeting period in states where salaries and pensions have piled up, but half bread is better than none. The payment will not stop the anti-graft agencies from poring over the financial records of the 36 states, as was done in the past, to sanction those harbouring roaches in their cabinets.
Since 2011, it’s on record that Ajimobi has kept faith with workers and pensioners. In adversity and prosperity, the governor has made workers the capstone of his administration.
Oyo State has about 101,000 public servants and pensioners on its pay roll, which, unarguably, is one of the largest workforces in the country; with a monthly wage bill of about N4.5bn. The figure had dropped from the erstwhile N5.2bn due to the suspension of some budget components, in agreement with the labour unions. Suffice to say that the oscillating monthly allocation from the Federation Account, in the region of N3.5bn, and internally generated revenue of about N1.5bn is grossly insufficient to meet the growing developmental needs of Oyo State. Today, 100 per cent of the allocation from the central vault is committed to payment of salaries in a rare gesture by the governor, while other recurrent and capital expenditures compete for the IGR. Thus, Ajimobi deserves plaudits for successfully navigating the conundrum of managing the expectations of the workforce, state-owned institutions and those of the more than six million other citizens of the state. To all intents and purposes, citizens crave the dividends of democracy, notwithstanding the vicissitude and vagaries of the economy.
To the governor’s credit, only few workers with bogus credentials and other grave violations have so far been relieved of their appointments after a forensic audit, in spite of the cash crunch. And those that suffered collateral damage in the process of the purge, but with proven innocence, were reabsorbed into the system and paid arrears of their salaries.
For the record, the Ajimobi-led administration was the first to pay 13th month full basic salary for three consecutive years (2011-2013) in the history of the state before the pervading paucity of fund made the largesse unsustainable. The governor has also increased workers’ salaries by 300 per cent in the last six years. Before the economy began to experience a downward trend, the governor made payment of salaries on or before the 25th of every month a policy.
On the receipt of the N17.3bn bailout in 2015, Ajimobi ensured that all the four-month arrears of salaries, spanning May to August 2015 were cleared. And to liquidate the freshly accumulated arrears, he had in December 2016, as well as in January, March and July 2017 paid double salaries that left the arrears at just two months as at July before rising to the current three months.
Whereas, the FG appealed to states to utilize 50 per cent of the first tranche of the Paris Club refund for payment of salaries and pension, the Ajimobi administration used 60 per cent of the N7.2bn received; while it committed 100 per cent of the second tranche of N5bn to the payment of salaries, as against the proposed 75 per cent. Thus, out of the total N12.2bn received, about N9.3bn was used to defray salaries of state and local government employees, representing 76 per cent of the total sum.
Convinced about the transparent utilisation of the first bailout, the Senate Committee on State and Local Government Administration, led by Senator Abdullahi Gumel, had, during an oversight visit to the state on January 25, 2017, given the state a clean bill of health.
To incentivize the workers, over 30,000, including teachers, have been promoted in the last six years. These included those that had been condemned to the awaiting list between 2008 and 2011. Similarly, more than 8,000 workers have received car loans, which was jacked up to N500,000 from the erstwhile N200,000; while close to 1000 got loans of N2m each to put roofs on their heads; up from the N1m they used to get. For effective service delivery, over 16,000 civil servants have been sponsored on local and overseas training under Ajimobi’s watch.
Ajimobi is also the first governor in the history of the state to purchase shuttle buses (10 units of 63-seater) for the transportation of workers to and from work, free of charge.
The governor, who is known for his excellent sartorial taste, has also successfully changed the dress sense of workers, including political office holders. Not only this, the once-squalid Governor’s Office has now been transformed into a picturesque edifice with tranquil ambience. Today, the roving courtiers of praise singers, drummers and rapacious beggars that used to serenade past governors and VIPs, dawn to dusk, have been banished from the façade of the Governor’s Office.
Without any equivocation, the fortunes of senior citizens have been enhanced under the Ajimobi-led administration, starting with the implementation of the 142 per cent increase in pension, which gulped about N2bn, plus arrears. Also worthy of note was the payment of six and 15 per cent pension increases in 2013, donation of operational bus to the Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP) and harmonisation of the pension of retired heads of service and permanent secretaries.
In an unprecedented move, the union had, during their congress on February 4, 2015, conferred the award of ‘Best pensioner-friendly governor in the history of Oyo State’ on Ajimobi. The General Secretary of the NUP, Elder Actor Zal, who stood in for the National President, Dr. Abel Afolayan, had decorated the governor with the prized award.
At the event, the then State Chairman, Alhaji Ganiyu Azeez, and State Secretary, Comrade Olusegun Abatan, waxed lyrical about the governor’s gestures.
“They (past governors) told pensioners that no governor can implement 142 per cent pay rise for pensioners. But you and your government have proved them wrong by implementing it. By the time some pensioners collected this money, many of them became millionaires overnight. Some even collected up to N8 million, even when they did not collect up to N100,000 as gratuity when they retired.”
Therefore, this passing phase of adversity, characterized by the current wonky economy, calls for understanding and support of all and sundry; and not condemnation of the same government that had put smiles on many faces in the season of buoyancy. We should not allow adversity to crush our can-do spirit; rather, it should strengthen it (ala Jonathan Huie). Let citizens be inspired by the admonition of Lee Lacocca that ‘In times of great stress or adversity, it’s always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive.’
Paradoxically, among the vociferous latter-day critics of the Ajimobi-led administration are some incorrigible individuals and corporate tax evaders who are culpable in the leakages stymieing the development of the state. Their ilk includes public officials aiding and abetting tax evasion. Some of these economic saboteurs even print their own receipts, which they substitute for official ones. Those adept at cutting corners by patronizing touts at revenue collection centres or bribing collectors instead of paying appropriate levies and rates cannot also not be exonerated from this group. Among these unpatriotic citizens are residents who hide under the cover of darkness to dump refuse indiscriminately, particularly on median strips.
As part of its financial reengineering, the state government had taken bold steps to enhance its internally generated revenue. Therefore, efforts must be intensified in this direction. Although, this may not be the best of times to increase taxes and rates, it is nevertheless the most auspicious time to aggressively expand the tax net by co-opting every taxable citizen. Those entrusted with this task should brace themselves for the challenges, while every loophole in the process of collecting and remitting must be plugged. Let citizens be alive to their civic duty of paying taxes, while corporate bodies should be socially responsible. An Indian philosopher, Kautilya Chanakya, once said ‘test a servant while in the discharge of his duty, a relative in difficulty, a friend in adversity, and a wife in misfortune.’ May we all pass this acid test of patriotism.
Please join me in toasting to the continued good health of the quintessential leader and game changer, Governor Abiola Ajimobi, as he celebrates 68 years of God’s abiding grace.
Akin Oyedele is Senior Special Assistant on Media to Oyo State Governor