By Anthony Ekanem
THE Accountant General of Akwa Ibom State, Pastor Uwem Andrew- Essien, recently disclosed that the state government had paid pension and gratuity arrears spanning 10 years for the state’s civil servants.
According to him, the arrears have been cleared till 2015, thus leaving outstanding payment to be that of civil servants who retired in 2016 alone. He further explained that the payment is being done in batches because of the huge sums of money involved.
Available records in the state showed that this year, a total of 7,780 retirees have collected either outstanding gratuities or pension as the case may be. The accountant general said such payment would continue to remain a priority of the Governor Udom Emmanuel led administration as a demonstration of its commitment to the well-being of the people of the state.
Presently, the state government has commenced the compilation of names of civil servants who retired in 2016, so that they can also get their retirement benefits.
Ordinarily, payment of workers’ gratuities and pensions should not be celebrated as it is being done these days. After all, workers according to the Holy Book surely deserve their wages. But that has been far from the experience of workers in Nigeria today. Only the fortunate ones get theirs probably six times in a year. For the most unfortunate ones, they can be owed for a whole year. Some state governments owe workers as many as 36 months salaries. Some local governments have not even paid their workers for more than three years.
It beats the imagination the kind of productivity an employer can expect from workers that are denied even the most basic incentive for going to work. Unfortunately, this aberration is fast becoming a norm in the country. The other day, the chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum, and Governor of Zamfara State, Abdulaziz Yari, shamelessly declared that governors were not elected only to pay salaries of civil servants. Thus, justifying non-payment of workers’ salaries by state governments. He contended that there was no way the governors could perform magic if there were no funds to pay workers.
Such is the level of arrogance often displayed by some of our leaders when it comes to discharging their basic responsibility to their workers, especially seeing to the welfare of civil servants. What is generally accepted as the norm in employer-worker relationship especially in a capitalist society like Nigeria is that employers provide work for their employees and pay them in return for the services they render. That is why an employer thinks it through before engaging extra hands knowing that such action has financial implication. Simply put, no sane employer hires just for the fun of it, but they do so to maximise their returns. But sadly, some Nigerian workers have been reduced to begging for what is legitimately theirs. Some even go into a frenzy of excitement when they are paid four months out of probably 36 months salary arrears owed them by some of their governors.
In fact, salary payment has become such an issue in today’s Nigeria that states that pay workers regularly now count it as a major achievement. Despite the release of the London and Paris Club refunds to states to offset outstanding salaries, many states still owe their workers today.
The foregoing are some of the reasons why the decision of Governor Udom Emmanuel to pay pension arrears of Akwa Ibom retirees is not only a big deal but an uncommon feat. To start with, the gratuities and pensions arrears cleared have been there for over 10 years. He got elected less than four years ago, meaning he inherited these debts. They were a liability on the state at a time when everybody is complaining of dwindling financial resources. Granted that government is a continuum, this realisation prompted the state government to offset the huge burden of salaries owed pensioners by previous administrations; a demonstration that it takes a responsible government in touch with the plight of the common man to take such a bold step. No doubt, a lot of efforts must have gone into planning and generating the revenue required to meet this obligation. This is more so especially in an era when allocations from the Federal Government have continued to dwindle. It must have been a rare and deep commitment for the welfare of the people of Akwa Ibom State for the governor to have taken this step. So, it is commendable.
It is out of place for civil servants who have worked for years to be denied their gratuities or pensions. There are even stories of pensioners dying due to lack of money to treat themselves when they are sick or others dying in the queue as they await the so-called benefit that is even too small to accomplish anything reasonable. The local governments appear to be the worst culprits when it comes to non payment of salaries. Fortunately for them, the public rarely put them on the spot. Although Nigeria runs a three- tier government, many people only talk about the state and federal governments. Thus, exnorating the local governments from such responsibilities. Yet, they collect allocations from the Federation Account every month.
It won’t come as a surprise if some of the workers being settled by the Akwa Ibom State government worked for the local government. For a lot of people, every worker is being owed by the state. So, when there are issues of workers being owed gratuities or pensions, the state government naturally bears the brunt.
But beyond the payment of pensions and arrears by the Akwa Ibom State government, it is about time state governments begin to work on finding a permanent solution to the problem of non- payment of salaries and allowances of civil servants in the country. No doubt, a lot of state civil services are over-bloated. There are many people in the civil service who have no business being there. There is problem with efficiency as sometimes, ten people could be on ground to do the work meant for just three people. For many state governments, employment in the civil service is merely political- a sort of party patronage. That is why they over-employ and also find it difficult to pay salaries.
But, while it may be difficult to advocate an outright reduction of staff strength in a country struggling in and out of recession , it is the responsibility of state governments to make civil servants more productive.
There are too many under-utilised people in the civil service. This has to change. Civil servants can offer Nigeria a better deal than we are currently getting, but that can only happen in an environment where everyone is on their toes to add to the quality of lives of the citizenry. Britain, Nigeria’s colonial master, that bequeathed the civil service culture to us, still operates one till date and it works for her. There is enough work for civil servants to do even in Nigeria. For instance, there is a Works ministry in every state, yet there are potholes everywhere. We have agriculture ministries that do not have any farm plantation. The era of lazy civil service should be done away with and the earlier our governments at all levels realised this, the better for everyone.