By Eghebi Williams Lince
Every worker deserves his or her wage. Our faith books also agree with this adage. It is however unfortunate that there are many workers whose daily drudgery are not rewarded as at when due. Staff of local government councils in Delta State are owed between three and ten months depending on the local government area. For staff of local government councils and primary schools, the calendar is not an instrument to determine when salaries are paid but a counter on salary arrears. The funny thing is that many of them do not even know who their debtor is. The pains of non-payment of council staff transcend far beyond their immediate families. Using a particular local government council for reference could succinctly make the message more poignant. The monthly salary of Ika South Council oscillates between fifty-five and sixty million naira. So, with about ten months’ salaries unpaid, the local economy is denied about six hundred million naira. The negative effect of this cash deficit is colossal considering the damage to several linkages. From this figure, the net effects on the entire state can be pontificated.
Who owes the council workers? The society appears to be more confused as many, especially those with opposing political inclination, accuse in reverse. To address the puzzle on whose responsibility it is to pay council staff, it is pertinent to find out who employs them. After all, he who hires, fires. For any council staff to be recruited, the state through the Directorate of Local Government Affairs, gives approval. The same procedure holds in the employment of primary school teachers. Does this suggest the two tiers are responsible? I guess nobody is getting goose pimples already. Having known how recruitment is undertaken, let’s find where the money to pay comes from. If we are able to trace it, we can be led to who pays.
About twenty years ago, salaries of primary school teachers were directly wired from Abuja through council authorities. During this era, local government authorities, give periodic feedbacks to the federal authority on the wage bill in terms of changes due to promotion and retirement. Council bosses allegedly diverted the money to execute phoney projects and settle political parasites instead of paying the teachers. It was also rumoured that at that time the figures were upped by some rogue council bosses with a view to receiving more than was required to pay the teachers.
As the unpaid teachers continue to embark on strikes at the detriment of pupils and infancy education, governors lobbied for the funds to pass through the accounts of state governments. The governors got what they wanted just as the primary teachers were happy, but not same for council authorities and their staff. Welcome, the joint accounts. Sources say, this was how the trouble started. In order to justify the figures councils had earlier given to the federal authority on teachers wage bill, retired, resigned and death teachers were secretly replaced. We are now aware that funds for councils from federal accounts go to bank accounts jointly managed by councils and state government.
It is therefore obvious that the money with which primary school teachers and council staff are paid belongs to local government areas. The use of ‘areas’ instead of ‘councils’ is deliberate. Local government area is the geographical entity of the third tier of government and the structure that manages the entity is the local government council while those hired to manage it are the council staff. In other words, the money earned through allocations and locally sourced revenues belong to the local government area with which to perform statutory duties and pay those employed to perform such roles. It is erroneous to posit that revenue accrues to local government council; it is for local government area. This money belongs to the cobbler, the groundnuts hawker, the hobo, the palmwine tapper, the wheel barrow pusher and any other human being that resides in a given local government area.
However, some commentators are hoodwinked that since there was no employment over the years, there was no basis for the steady rise in the wage bill of local government councils. This opinion assumes that gains from yearly retirements, deaths and resignations are annulled by the burden of increments due to promotions. This postulate hardly can be true due to aforementioned illegal hiring of staff. With the increased burden to pay salaries, successive state governments supported the councils through monthly grants. Today, the difficulty to pay salaries has extended to the state government such that it has become almost impossible for her to sustain the financial bailout. It is this inability to sustain the leverage that has created media misrepresentations against the state government by council staff including primary school teachers and political opportunists.
There is a popular adage that whoever peels roasted yam for a child must whistle to ensure he is not feeding on it as he peels. The state government has not been able to convince council workers, especially the unions, that there is whistling while the peeling of yam is done. Without fear of unbridled vitriolic opposition, this is the crux of the matter. It appears the state is willing to hands-off from been a signatory to council funds like Kaduna State but signals suggest that primary school teachers frown at this tendency. Be that as it may, there are fundamental realities confronting council administration and funding. These include over-staffing, mismanagement, political interference and poor revenue drive.
It is no longer difficult to prove that our councils are bloated in terms of staff. This was created by the political class that continue to push their thugs into local government service immediately elections are won without recourse to whether there exist vacancies or not. It is sad that these politically-induced recruits do not report to work. Another breathe-down against the councils is mismanagement. An applicant is recruited with his First School Leaving Certificate as a labourer (menial) in January. In September of that same year, he tenders ‘Senior Secondary School Certificate’ which qualifies him to be upgraded to a clerical staff. The next year, he tenders ‘Ordinary National Diploma’ certificate. Behold, he is now admin staff. The weeds in the council premises deserve attention. You know what? Casual labourers are hired from outside as recruited menial workers have become senior officers within a year. Don’t be surprised that a council has thirty drivers with five functional vehicles.
The Nigerian constitution is flawed as it relates to council administration. It comes with the conjecture that the state assembly shall make law for the administration of the councils. It is based on this that the state legislature churns out laws regarding tenure of council chairmen and councillors and approval for various appointments such as secretary of local education authority. This skewed legal framework appears to have made local government administration under the whims and caprices of state government.
There are no signs of returning to yester years where there appeared to be enormous funds for councils. The hard truth is that the debtor is no longer having the potentials to pay the arrears in the foreseeable future. It is obvious that the most likely solution is to take difficult decisions. One of such decisions is to rationalise. To do this with optimal benefit, the state government must be a very active collaborator. Against the backdrop of shortage of teaching staff in the public secondary schools, local government staff with teaching qualifications should be drafted into the Post Primary Education Board with a view to posting them to public schools where vacancies exist.
Moving beyond teaching, there are several other council staff well-schooled to occupy several positions in core civil service and professional government agencies. Rationalising council staff does not suggest that the core responsibility of the third tier should be erased. The few local government councils with good internally generated revenue are those that contracted its collection. In the area of waste disposal and management, there are initial reports that the partnership deal is delivering on expectations.
Far and above the theoretical framework, it is necessary to shop for interim solution. It is not possible to settle the backlog of salaries but one-off assistance from the state could ameliorate the agonies they presently face. Children and wards of council workers should be granted relief from paying fees in government schools and hospitals. It is a difficult ask but I am confident that our governor who is perceived to be humane, can bend back a little to save some souls. Above all, the council workers should stop responding to clandestine drumbeats in the salary imbroglio. It is not the state and by the extension the governor that is owing council workers. It is unnecessary to grandstand for a man who is not you debtor. God bless my beloved Delta State.
(Published in Ika Weekly, culled from William Williams Eghebi’s facebook wall.)