By Yinka Ajayi
Mr. Oseloka Obaze is the PDP candidate in the forthcoming Anambra State gubernatorial election. In this interview, Obaze speaks on the condition of labour in Nigeria and Anambra State, prescribing what should be done to improve the condition of workers.
As somebody who has worked before, can you tell us your conception of work and of labourers?
There is a philosophical and practical dimension to work. Work and labour have similar meanings. We have many biblical passages that talked about work and labour. When Adam and Eve sinned, God told them that by the labour of their hands they shall eat. Even if our work is to quarry stones or engage in the weeding of our farms, we are enjoined to respect that which allows us to live and get the basic things of life. However it is not work, work and work. We are all familiar with the saying that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”; even God when at work, rested on the seventh day. All I am trying to say is that work is a positive human endeavour.
Having worked with the United Nations for many years, and also in Nigeria in the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Government of Anambra State, would you compare the working conditions in the UN with what is obtainable in Nigeria?
Civil service is about service. Your first obligation is to seek to add value. Any nation without a vibrant civil service will not progress. Nigeria, I must tell you, has a vibrant Civil Service; a Civil Service that knows its onions. The problem we have is that we do not have enough tools to work with.
Yes, I worked with the UN for over 20 years. You cannot compare the conditions of service in such organizations or advanced countries with those of Nigeria. What we bring to the table are lessons learned and best practices. All that people like me say is that we shall look up to those organizations and model our own after theirs by making sure that workers are treated with fairness, compassion and the respect they deserve as people that contribute to the generation of the wealth of a nation.
There is nothing wrong with Nigerian workers, I remain one of them. Our conditions were better in the seventies and eighties because corruption was less at that time. What has happened over the years is that due to corruption and other vices, productivity started to decline. Now transaction rather than public interest drive policies. When workers are not paid living wages, that will allow them live the lives of frugal comfort; they will start abusing even the very work they do.
Workers oil the wheel of progress in any society and for us to get it right we must start by improving the conditions of work. We must be ready to provide them with the tools to work. We must be able to treat them with every decency by considering their standard of living, vis-à-vis the salary/wages we pay workers.
Let us narrow it down to your state; are you satisfied with the condition of labour in Anambra?
If I am satisfied with events in Anambra State, including the condition of workers, I should not be contesting for governor. One of the burdens that I bear is that having travelled to over 65 countries, I am in a position to compare and contrast the working conditions among nations and states. The condition of Labour in Anambra is not cheering at all. What has happened is that those in power play politics with the psyche of the people without looking deeply into what will make for the real growth of the service.
I served two governments in Anambra State and I can use them to show you example of the true position of workers in the state. Under Governor Peter Obi, he looked at the entire architecture of Civil service in Anambra State, determined what was lacking and genuinely applied himself becomingly towards solving them. Before Obi, Anambra did not have a secretariat, except the one they inherited from the Federal Government when the state was created, which barely contained 20% of workers. What Obi did was to start the construction of the two new giant secretariats for the state. Today, over 90% civil servants are quartered in the place. During his time, even the Housing Corporation that provides houses for the people ironically operated from a rented apartment. It was Obi that built an office for them.
You may not be aware that Obi spent over 37 Billion Naira settling arrears of pension and gratuity from 1990. During his time, it took the maximum of three months to process gratuities for retirees. He was the first person that bought vehicles for Permanent Secretaries, directors, the judiciary and most parastatals in the state. He even went a step further to assist the Federal Government agencies on the logic that they provide services to the people of the state. This was how he bought vehicles for the Police, Army, Navy, Civil Defence, Road Safety, Customs, among others. These are subtle ways to incentivize the staff, and improve work culture by improving the environment of work.
When he did all this and got to the end of his tenure, he felt it was time for recruitment, which was done. Because he knew that people would argue that the exercise would encumber his successor, he set aside the 2-year salary of those he employed. Upon all this, he did not owe salary to any worker.
We expected his successor to build on what Obi started, but his own has been window dressing, coming up with things that would make the people to clap for him even when the real issues are neglected. They buy and publicize the increase in salary three times, but the fact is that after announcements, those things are not implemented. Today, with so much noise made about salary, you would hardly believe that the entry salary of a level 8 officer in Anambra isN36,000, Abia is N39,000, Imo is N38,000, Enugu is N36,000 and Ebonyi is N35,000. The way they talk about salary, you would think he pays double of what these people pay.
The common noise in Anambra State is that the man there pays salary on the 24th of every month. Is this what should be celebrated, I mean from 24th to 24th of every month is 30 days (one month). If you chose to be paying every 15th, what it means is that you have chosen the date as your own one month..
As to the celebration of paying of salary, I am always ashamed of that.. It is in fact an insult to workers. Are you paying them for work done or as charity? Every workman deserves his wages!
Beyond gimmicks, we have to look inwardly at the condition of workers, especially in Anambra State. You may not be aware that sometimes in a full week, the Secretariat, which is supposed to be the engine room of the government, goes without light. Meanwhile there are over 30 generators in different part of the state powering street lights. What do we call this?
If you become governor, what is it that he does you will do differently?
Plenty of them! First, my government shall not celebrate paying of salaries, it is not an issue. The issue of giving them rice at the end of the year is not so good. When I was in Government, I argued against it. I noticed they simply use civil servants to do business. At the end of the year, they give them – some 10, some 15, some 20 and some 25 Kg of rice – as one bag and somebody somewhere signs it off as 50 Kg. This is why when civil servants rejoice over such gestures, I am pained. Do investigations and you will be shocked at the identity of those given such contracts. If you want to appreciate civil servants and decide you want one bag of rice, pay it to them as 13th month salary, that will add to their disposable income.
I have said it on several occasions that Anambra state has been hijacked and is being down. Hype and heavy propaganda is used to cover a lot of things. While workers rejoice over quarter bags of rice, they are not even aware that Government is impoverishing them by not remitting their contributory pension schemes to the banks. Why should this be so? This are anomalies I noticed while I was in the system, which our interventions were rebuffed. I want to correct all that from the vantage position of a principal participant.