Benue pupils home alone!

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No end to six months teachers strike

BY PETER DURU, Makurdi

Governor Gabriel Suswam of Benue State faces an uphill task finding solution to the state government’s dispute with striking primary school teachers who decided to down tools some six months ago.

The grouse of the teachers is the inability of the state government to implement the national minimum wage in primary schools in the state.

Though the Benue government has variously appealed to the striking teachers to see understand the financial implication of their demands, all interventions by major stakeholders in the state have failed to convince the teachers to reconsider their stance.

Suffice it to state here that the state government was been the first state governments to implement the 27.5 percent increment in teachers salaries.

This is aside the increment in the wages of the teachers which presently rank them among the highest in the country, however their demand for minimum wage has certainly opened a new vista in Benue’s wage system.

Only recently, the Special Adviser to the Governor on Local Governments and Chieftaincy Affairs, Prince Solomon Wombo, did a break down of the financial implication of implementing the demands of the aggrieved teachers.

He disclosed that no teacher in the state earns less than the N18,000 minimum wage being demanded by the striking teachers owing to the various increment carried out at the inception of the administration.

“The wage bill of teachers at the moment stands at over N1.1billion and the minimum wage teachers are asking for with a new 27.5 percent increment would push the amount to about N2.2 billion”, Wombo said.

”And if you put that together with the salaries of local government staff, you would have far over N3 billion monthly wage bill at that tier of of governance.
It then means that we’ll have to borrow every month to pay the salaries of local government staff and teachers without doing any projects at all.

”It’s not that we collecting huge amount of money and resort to telling people stories. The allocation that goes to local government accounts   on a monthly basis are always published in national dailies for everybody to see.”

Also speaking on the issue, Suswam, at a recent stakeholders meeting, disclosed that local governments in Benue get an average of “N2.8billion and Value Added Tax, VAT, of N450million monthly”, saying that cannot accommodate their demands in the present circumstance.

“The governor stated: I vividly recall that at the inception of this administration, we met a backlog of unpaid teachers’ salaries. That issue was tackled. That was followed by upward reviews of teachers’ salaries because there was enough money to take care of the issues, unlike the economic crunch we are facing today.”

He explained the increment and adjustments he affected in the salaries of civil servants in the state which according to him had made them one of the highest paid in the country.

According to a salary schedule between 2006 to 2011, the least paid worker in Benue enjoyed three  salary adjustsments which led to   over 240 percent increment in salaries amounting to N18,000 as against N5,000 that was paid before the Suswam led administration came into office.

Same is the situation with the highest paid, who are the permanent secretaries; who, before the advent of the administration, took home N73,458 but now earn N436, 784, amounting to over585 percent increment.

Suffice it to state here that this salary adjustments stretched across all the cadres and salary grade levels in the civil services.

Given the troubling situtaion, Suswam, at the last Workers’ Day rally in Makurdi, announced the decision of his government to slash his annual salary and those of political appointees by 25 percent.

He also proposed five percent cut in the salaries of civil servants to enable government augment the salaries of the striking primary school teachers.

He said the new policy would affect officers on grade levels seven and above, stressing that, at the end of the day, it would enable government meet the demands of the striking teachers.

While reiterating the government’s commitment to the welfare of its workers, he urged them to support the decision in the collective interest of the children of the state who had been at home for close to six months.

His words,”Though the decision might be painful, what we are slashing from salaries is meagre when compared to what each worker goes home with at the end of the day.

” We plead for the understanding of everyone so that we can meet the financial implication of implementing the demands of primary school teachers.
”We must all make sacrifices at this time of our development given the dwindling resources at the disposal of government.”

Laudable as this decision maybe, however, the position of the state government seemed not to have gone down well with civil servants.

In his speech at the rally, the state chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Comrade Simon Anchaver, cautioned that the decision to slash salaries of workers was unpopular and would be resisted.

Ancahver advised government to look inwards in its drive to   ensure that it raised funds to meet the demands of the primary school teachers. Given the position of workers, pundits believe that another option to the Suswam administration is to downsize the Benue staff strength at the state and local government levels.

This is the devil’s alternative , but it remains a choice that should be accepted by all if properly implemented, and if Benue children who have been at the receiving end of the lingering   dispute must go back to school.

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