One’s first reaction on reading some newspaper headlines out of Nigeria is one of incredulity. It simply can’t be true, one declares.
Such was my reaction last week when I saw a report in the Guardian newspaper. The report, written by Charles Ogugbuaja, was titled “Imo Pensioners Owed Over 20 Months Arrears.” For a few minutes, I just stared at the headline, unable to come to terms with the sheer absurdity of it all. Was it even possible that a government, any government, would leave pensioners in the lurch for so long, without any income? Would such a government not simply collapse under the weight of its own contradiction? Would the abused pensioners and their supporters not stake out the grounds of Government House, daring the delinquent governor to step out of his office?
Eventually, I was able to shake off the initial shock. I began to read the report. In an instant, my reaction went from disbelief to disgust to outrage.
“As many pensioners and unpaid workers were groaning, the Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, on Wednesday, traveled with about 100 persons to Turkey on what he called industrial fact finding trip. Industrialists and others were on the trip. It was the second time in months [that] the governor was leading such a large number to the same country,” the Guardian report disclosed.
According to the report, retired civil servants in the state were being owed arrears of eight months while retired primary school teachers claimed that they had not received any pensions for 22 months.
Even so, the state government’s share of the monthly allocation from the Federation account came to slightly more than N3.9 billion for July. In addition, the state received more than N3 billion in the name of 27 local government councils.
Going by the report, Imo State had got some significant financial breaks from the Federal Government. It said Governor Okorocha had recently revealed that the Federal Government had restructured the monthly deductions from the state’s allocations that went into debt servicing. The restructuring meant that the state now spends N480 million on debt servicing instead of N1.2 billion. Besides, the state had received bailout funds for payment of workers salaries and pensioners’ arrears.
Even though the governor had not divulged the exact amount of the bailout, figures released by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) indicated that Imo State “received about N26.806 billion,” the Guardian reported.
Apparently, Mr. Okorocha, who recently told state workers that his administration spends N1.2 billion each month to pay salaries, wants certain state-owned agencies to commercialize their activities, earning enough revenues to cover staff salaries. And apparently, the 20,000 workers employed by these agencies are opposed to the option of commercializing their operations.
According to the Guardian, the governor has alleged that “more than 40 per cent of those who parade as pensioners are ghost[s], adding that they had been allegedly colluding with some treasury officials to defraud [the] government.” The state government has called for “another round of verification exercise,” to separate the real pensioners from ghost leeches and imposters sucking off public resources. The pensioners are unimpressed. They told the newspaper that they “had been verified in 2011 and 2013 respectively under excruciating conditions.”
Let’s be clear: Imo State is not alone in owing workers and/or state employees arrears that run into many months. In fact, unpaid salaries are one of the gravest, if little discussed, scandals in Nigeria. And it’s not only governments that often treat salaries and other financial commitments as if they were a favor to workers, rather than the rights of men and women who have done work. The Nigerian private sector is also plagued by unpaid entitlements.
Former Governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju of my home state of Anambra, a lawyer and journalist by training, gave a haughty dismissal of pensioners who showed up at his office to protest their unpaid pensions. Declaring them dead wood, he reportedly told the pensioners that they should have children abroad who should be taking care of them. My mother, who put in more than thirty years of service as a committed teacher, was one of those pensioners Mr. Mbadinuju told off.
At one point, she had not received a kobo in pension for 14 months! The same governor’s failure to pay state teachers led to a yearlong strike. It’s the kind of tragedy that’s become commonplace in Nigeria. Not only are workers dehumanized by public and private sector employers who don’t pay them; the future of the youth is mortgaged when they are subjected to malnourishment and months of receiving little, no or wretched education.
The argument is often made that too many Nigerian workers are indolent and delinquent. There’s little argument there. And there are, indeed, too many “ghosts” on payrolls, put in there by unscrupulous bureaucrats who make a killing at the expense of the collectivity. Imo State and other public sector employers deserve to find and erase these ghosts. For that matter, it is not unreasonable for the governor to insist that certain state agencies raise the revenues to meet their recurrent obligations.
Yet, allowing for the existence of “ghost” parasites and the argument for significantly beefing up internally generated revenues, there is no excuse—repeat, absolutely no excuse—for owing workers and pensioners even for one month.
It is about time Nigeria criminalized this pervasive practice. A government that shirks its responsibility to pay its workers or pensioners has lost its salt, its legitimacy. In fact, a president, governor, or local government chairperson who is unable to manage the “minimal” task of paying salaries and pensions should be deemed worse than a ghost leader. Such a person should immediately step down, and make way for those who understand the elementary principle that salaries and pensions are a statutory and moral obligation, and that to deny people such a basic entitlement is to degrade them to the level of lower animals.
When a governor doesn’t pay his workers or retired workers, he might as well be saying to them—as Mr. Mbadinuju might—“Go, eat sand!” Such a governor should not be junketing to Turkey or any other address governed by competent men and women who truly understand how to spell the word “leader.”