By Peter Duru, Makurdi
Then Governor Gabriel Suswam had, at a function in Government House, few days to the handover of governance of Benue State to then incoming Governor Samuel Ortom, warned that the administration was coming at a time when it would be almost impossible to pay workers.
The outgoing administration had defaulted in payment of about four to five months at the state level, over seven months at the local government level while pensioners had backlog of arrears of between 53 to 70 months, according to figures obtained from the Coalition of Local Government Retires/Pensioners.
Two years down the line, as if Suswam saw the future, the Ortom administration has continued to battle albeit unsuccessful to tackle the challenge of timely payment of salaries.
Despite fiscal interventions from sources outside the monthly allocations from the federation account, government continues to grapple with six months salaries owed workers while those at the local government and pensioners are owed several months.
The situation is the result of what has been described as the “ghost workers/ghost owners’ syndrome”.
The ugly development left the state bleeding with a huge wage bill inherited from the last administration which was put at over N8billion though the administration failed to incorporate teachers into the new minimum wage. This has meanwhile been extended to the teachers by the Ortom administration.
This shot up the wage bill of the state to over N8.3billion. Worried by development, the government resorted to a biometrics screening of workers which led to the reduction of the bill to N7.8billion.
In the face of this, government was left to grapple with dwindling monthly revenue accruals which hovered around four to six billion Naira monthly.
The situation early in the year forced the administration early in the year t constitute another salary verification committee headed by the Deputy Governor, Mr. Benson Abounu, to undertake another round of screening to bring down the wage bill which according to figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics ranks the third highest in the country
Though that committee is yet to turn in its final report, an interim report transmitted to government indicated that the state’s resources were being drained by a yet to be identified cabal.
Abounu said, “What we have seen so far in the course of the assignment is mind-boggling; we saw that people who are not supposed to be in service are there drawing salaries.
“Retirees are drawing salaries; others are busy doctoring documents in order to extend their stay in service; even the dead still draw salaries. People are also drawing allowances that they are not entitled to”.
Before the startling discovery of the Abounu committee, the Executive Chairman of the Benue State Universal Basic Education Board, SUBEB, Dr. Philip Tachin, had raised the alarm that he had, through an in-house committee, discovered over 2,000 ghost workers on the payroll of the board.
The state’s Teaching Service Board, TSB, was also caught in the web of the ghost “workers/ghost owners’ syndrome.” Only recently the Executive Secretary of the board, Dr. Wilfred Uji, noted that the Benue’s huge wage bill was nothing but a conspiracy against the Ortom administration.
Uji said, “The wage bill issue, which is giving Governor Samuel Ortom sleepless nights, is a conspiracy that is targeted at pulling down the government. There is a lot of politics going on with the wage bill.
“I will give you an instance. I resumed in this office a year ago and, within this period, I have signed the retirement letters of not less than 500 persons but our monthly wage bill remains static.
“It is expected that the wage bill should drop if that number of staff have retired. And these are staff within grade levels 13 and above, but that is not the case. It is a conspiracy against Governor Ortom’s administration.”
Also speaking on the matter, the state Commissioner for Finance, David Olofu, acknowledged that a cabal was behind the huge wage bill of the state.
Olofu said, “Yes, the cabal in the sense that it’s being done by some people. But we are investigating to know who these people are, and also investigating to know the people benefiting from this pilfering of resources or who the resources are going to.
“Once we do that, I can assure you that Governor Samuel Ortom, who I’ve known for over 30 years, will do the needful, nobody will be spared. Be rest assured that everything that we will do will follow due process.”
Worried by the huge wage bill, stakeholders in the state, at their last meeting presided over by Ortom, urged him to take all legal means to dislodge ghost and redundant staff on the payroll of the government.
All those who spoke at the meeting, including a former Minister of Education Prof. Jerry Agada, Senator Jack Gyado, Prof. Mvendaga Jibo, Godwin Donko, asked the governor to do needful to save the state from a looming crisis.
Ortom, in his response, assured that his administration would ensure that the wage bill was pruned to N4.5billion in no distant time.
“We will thoroughly screen workers in Benue and ensure that all those who have no business in service do not draw salaries from the coffers of government.
“Every legitimate worker on the payroll of the government with assigned work schedule should harbour no fears but those illegitimate workers milking the state dry should have every reason to fear because we are determined to bring down our monthly wage bill to N4.5billion.
“I know that the cabal behind the menace and the ghost owners will rise up against the government, they should be prepared because we are ready to face them.
“The issue will be tackled decisively. I keep asking, how can you have a local government council that is supposed to have not more than 150 staff accommodating over 970 staff? That is the picture in Guma the local government where I come from and several others.
“The funny part of it all is that if you go to the local government councils, you will not see up to 20 people at the secretariats, some of them are not even based in the state, all they do is to collect salaries illegitimately.
“The rule is that, for all local governments, staff on salary grade levels one to six should be indigenes of that particular local government. So what happens is that somebody will sit somewhere and fill the payroll with up to 500 fictitious names and, at the end of the month, he collects the salaries.
“You can imagine the insults I receive daily because the state is finding it difficult to meet the salary needs of workers. So I have no choice now but to bring down the figure of the workforce because that is the only way out.
“The issue of Benue State University comes handy. I send N600million monthly to that school. But in Nasarawa, Plateau, Ebonyi and other state universities, they spend less than N200million every month. We will also screen them.
“On this matter, nobody will intimidate me. I have the mandate of the people since 2015. They demanded open grazing prohibition, it was done; they have now mandated me to fight ghost workers and their owners and bring down the staff strength in our civil service so that our monthly wage bill could come down to N4.5billion”.
Meanwhile, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in a statement credited to its Benue State Publicity Secretary, Mr. Bemgba Iortyom, condemned the decision of government, saying it’s designed to sack legitimate workers.
But in a reaction, the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, through its Publicity Secretary, Samuel Agbo, maintained that government had no intention of sacking legitimate workers.
The ruling party accused the opposition of sponsoring the “ghost workers/ghost owners’ syndrome” in the state service to undermine the Ortom administration, assuring that government was not downsizing but out to flush out ghost workers from its payroll.