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Imo: A state in a quandary (1)

Despite still smarting from the crippling effects of the coronavirus outbreak, residents of Imo State, particularly business owners, artisans, farmers and petty traders, are burdened by multiple taxes and levies by different organs of the Imo State Government. This is in addition to civil servants and pensioners owed months of salary and pension arrears, reports STEVE UZOECHI

Given its educational ranking over the years, Imo State is one of those states in Nigeria many take for granted. Although it is peopled by very informed citizens and as such has a great potential for producing knowledgeable leaders, the state has not been that fortunate. In recent years, Imo State has experienced such tumultuous leadership which has largely left its citizens literally gasping for air. After May 29, 2019, and for the seven months that followed under Chief Emeka Ihedioha as governor, not a few persons in the state heaved a sigh of relief with the return of relative sanity to the state and a sense of order to governance. But that administration was short-lived. Since January 2020 when Senator Hope Uzodimma took office after Ihedioha was deposed by a judgment of the Supreme Court, it is not so hard to tell that Imo seems to have returned to the treadmill.

The beginning

The popular posturing of most Nigerian politicians when they assume new political office is to ‘hit the ground running’, but Governor Uzodimma, after assuming office in January 2020, didn’t bother with those pretenses – he simply ‘hit the ground owing’. Under Uzodimma, owing workers’ salaries seems to have been the most notable act of government. From February 2020 civil servants started complaining of non-payment of salaries. Uzodimma is now seven months in office, yet workers and pensioners owed salaries and pensions are in a vast majority to those who have been paid their entitlements.

While the governor claims to have set money aside to pay salaries and pensions, the state clearly appears financially crippled under him. This is a state that was verifiably paying salaries and pensions without any deduction, controversy or shenanigans for the seven months Ihedioha was in office.

The cash-crunch economy

It is an unspoken consensus that fund circulation in Imo State has shrunk considerably since the advent of the present administration in the state and it is not without reasons. With Imo being a predominantly civil service state, government is considered a major source of cash flow and liquidity in the state. With the absence of big production companies and industries, circulation of fund across sectors in the state is largely dependent on the state government’s recurrent activities and policies.

Illustrated simply; government pays the more than 25,000 civil servants in its employ, market forces pick it up; demands for goods and services increase, more supplies and services are rendered, more business deals are closed and a lot of money change hands.

Money in circulation spikes. With salaries paid, small and medium scale enterprises get a gust of fresh air. These small businesses depend on daily patronage to thrive and most struggling families who engage in small businesses depend largely on their daily sales to stay afloat. Sadly, from February till date, most salary earners and pensioners in the state have been locked in a financial crisis due to the nonpayment of pensions and salaries to most workers. At the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, it was a heart-rending situation in Imo State as most workers and pensioners were locked down hungry without salaries and pen-sions respectively. So with the poor salary payment culture, businesses and service providers in Imo are gradually asphyxiating, economically.

The feast of protests

There is hardly any unit of government that has not raised its voice in protest over the non-payment of salaries. Most have gone a step further and had taken the protest to the streets to press home their grievances. Presently the Imo State government is owing salaries across board. Civil servants are being owed, staff of parastatals of government who constitute the bulk of the state workforce are still being owed salaries till date. While some are owed for three months, others are owed upwards of six months’ salaries by a government that is barely seven months in office.

Imo State University (IMSU), Owerri, has no fewer than 170 staff members who allegedly have not received their salaries since January 2020 while many others are owed for upwards of three months. The situation is the same in Imo State Polytechnic, Umuagwo, where salary and pension payments are still deficient – while workers are owed more than two months’ arrears of salary, pensioners from the polytechnic are owed upwards of 12 months’ pension. For the Heartland Football Club of Owerri, it has been a long walk in the cold.

With no salary to the club since February, the Naze Millionaires have been so pauperised since Uzodimma took office that more than eight choice players have had to dump the club for other serious-minded clubs in neighbouring states. Primary and secondary school teachers in Imo had lamented their situation so much they were constrained to convene a one-week prayer meeting to call on God to intervene in their plight. Since March 2020, teachers have not been paid their salaries despite having done everything the governor asked them to do, including the submission of BVN. While Imo judiciary workers are paid in staggered format, with different levels of indebtedness, health workers in the state, most of who were part of the battle against COVID- 19, are presently facing a raw deal with the government.

They have supposedly been paid up to date but most of them are paid far below their statutory salaries. In the Imo Specialist Hospital, Umuguma, most health workers had their salaries slashed by almost 50 per cent. A worker earning N100,000 monthly now takes home N56,000.

The worst hit are the pensioners who have had to march the streets on more than five occasions, demanding to be paid their pensions. On one occasion, the government reportedly unleashed whip-wielding thugs on the senior citizens who flogged the pensioners with canes and horsewhips for marching toward the Government House. Most recently, another band of thugs allegedly mobilised by a special adviser to the governor and deployed to the Freedom Square, venue of the pensioners’ weekly meetings, barricaded the square and locked up the pensioners inside against their will for more than five hours because they were afraid the pensioners might march the streets again in protest.

Condemning the treatment of pensioners in Imo State by the government, the Executive Director of Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), Mr. Okechukwu Nwanguma, said: “Watching pensioners march the streets in protest for what is rightfully theirs and considering all the indignities they have been put through by the Imo State government, shames all of us. It denigrates our humanity and insults the fact that we were derived from these senior citizens. No excuse is good enough and no politics can rationalise this.

The day any government elects to owe and starve pensioners, that government dies and everyone, who remains silent in the face of such evil, becomes an active accomplice.” Also, not even the staff of the cash-cow agency – Imo State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (ISOPADEC) – were spared the salary drought. Consequently, they have recently been in the news for allegedly attacking the governor’s convoy while protesting the four months’ non-payment of their salaries.

While the workers’ union have vehemently denied the allegation, 15 workers of the commission have been remanded in prison custody in connection with the matter. The ISOPADEC workers’ union has also raised serious concerns over the slashing of its members’ salaries by a whopping 80 per cent without any consultation or engagement between the government and the workers. The spokesman for the commission, Chinedu Awuzie, said it was not discussed with the staff.

He said: “We did not see any circular to that effect. It was only insinuated but eventually it materialised in the staggered salary payment of July where less than 20 per cent of the staff were paid. For instance, workers earning N182,000 were paid 56,000.” This was after the Chief of Staff to the Governor, Mr. Nnamdi Anyaehie, had assured them that no such plan was in the offing. Before the ISOPADEC workers commenced their protests, contractors, who have been working with the Imo State Universal Basic Education Board (IMSUBEB), had also taken their protest to the IMSUBEB office on Port Harcourt Road demanding to be paid their complete contract sums after many completed projects.

Some of the contractors brandished letters and proof that banks and angry creditors are closing in on them while government has not fulfilled any part of their contract obligations. Under the Uzodimma administration, commissioners, special advisers and other aides are owed salaries for months much the same way members of the state House of Assembly were owed their salaries for months until a few lawmakers could not bear it much longer and cried out. Commenting on the situation,the Chairman of the state chapter of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Austin Chilakpu, lamented the non-payment and haphazard payment of some workers by government. According to him, civil servants and pensioners have undergone all manners of screening, assessment and due diligence and there is no valid reason to continue to owe them.

He said: “I can boldly tell you, there are no ghost workers or ghost pensioners in Imo State. The problem is with the government and its systems, particularly its flawed pension administration in the state. Government has demanded BVN from workers, demanded all manners of documentation and verification from pensioners yet has been unable to pay. Only a bad workman quarrels with his tools. No serious government will toy with workers’ salaries and pensions in Imo State. Once you fail there, you have failed in all.

“Consequently, we have enumerated and got the figures of civil servants and pensioners still being owed by the state. We have more than 11,000 civil servants still being owed by government and about 19,000 pensioners who are still being owed pensions by the Uzodimma administration. We have taken pain to do what is not our responsibility to prove to government that those workers and pensioners that have not been paid are not ghosts as government had earlier alleged. We have handed over the document to the governor for guidance and necessary action.”

Reacting, the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Print Media, Modestus Nwamkpa, said government was not unaware of the plot by some interest groups to politicise the issues of pensions and salary payment in Imo State. He added: “But I can tell you that this government is responsible and up to date in the payment of salaries. We are rejigging the pensions administration to be less cumbersome and more effective and efficient.

As we all know, the Imo State government is automating payment of salaries and pensions and this requires meticulous inputting of data with the attendant hiccups that may arise here and there until the process is completed. Anywhere else you find issues of non-payment of salaries and pensions, you know it is largely due to mix-up in documentations of relevant particulars, and this is being ironed-out as we speak. “People should understand that we all passed through the peak of a pandemic and it affected every facet of life and government. And the decent thing to do at this point is to approach issues with patience and the understanding that Governor Hope Uzodimma means well for Imo people.”

Governance by chaos

It is yet, rather difficult to convincingly state the direction or policy thrust of the Uzodimma administration. There is a persistent air of chaos and disorder in its overall mode of operation. Beyond the glib mouthing of the 3R (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Recovery) and ‘Shared Prosperity’ mantra, there seems to be no substance to their preferred policy initiative and general idea of governance. Most functionaries of government seem to be operating without any job description with the attendant consequence of functionaries running into each other in conflicting roles, while a few others are just going round in circles.

For instance, the Special Adviser on Market Development, Blyden Amajirionwu, had been on a collision course with the Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Kingsley Ononuju, over issues connected to market management and development. Also, at the Egbeada Market, while Ononuju had made moves to set up structures to collect revenues from the market, the Mbaitoli Local Government Chairman, John Eke, had warned the commissioner to steer clear of the market as it was by law, a major revenue source for the council.

The commissioner and the chairman, both appointees of Uzodimma, eventually dragged themselves to the ‘Scorpion Squad’ unit at the Imo State Police Command Headquarters where the case festered as if there was nobody in-charge of government who could call them to order.

Finally, the case has snowballed into the three government functionaries – Ononuju, Amajirionwu and Eke – laying claims to the control of the market, now trying to set up parallel management structures in the market. They have scheduled three different dates for the election of the leaders of the Egbeada market union.

This union leadership is the major avenue for collecting tolls in the market. The Mbaitoli Local Government Chairman, Eke, had scheduled Tuesday, August 25 for the election on the market premises; the Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Ononuju, scheduled Saturday, August 29 while the Special Adviser on Market Development, Amajirionwu, announced Saturday, September 5, as his own date for conducting election for the Egbeada market union. It’s a scenario of conflict and confusion by officials of the same government. Ononuju also had a similar clash with the Owerri Municipal Council Chairman, Ambrose Nkwodimma, over the control of Owerri Relief Market leading to unsavoury accusations and counter-accusations while the government watched, detached, as the show of shame escalated to a full blown media war.

TO BE CONTINUED

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