Saturday, November 4, 2017 10:39 am
As salary payments are in the breach in Kogi, workers in the state face hardship and those who are not considering suicide and crime devise means of survival, even as Governor Yahaya Bello grows more bellicose
By Richard Elesho
The group of middle aged men that sat under a tree, close to an MTN mast at Takete-Ide junction in Effo on Friday, 27 October, was anything but happy. A Ford Focus saloon car sped pass them. Yinka (not his real name) hissed and retorted, “I don’t blame them. It’s just Four years and they will pay for all their misbehavior.” With this prelude, everyone present started bringing their frustrations to the table. Their woes consisted in unpaid bills, hunger, wards being sent home for school fees and inability to afford medical treatment for simple ailments. In short, poverty was the common leveler for all of them.
Welcome to the world of Kogi State Government service, where the least owed workers have three months in arrears and the most unlucky have salary arrears in excess of 22 months. An average worker would fall anywhere in the range of 3-22 months. In no time the discussion of the band of men in Effo centered on the bags of rice and other relief materials being expected from National Assembly members in Abuja and some well meaning individuals, meant to assuage the plight of the workers, appropriately described as Internally Displaced Persons. IDPs.
Yinka is a level 14 staff of Mopamuro Local Government Council. In his hey days, he was an upward mobile gentleman, full of vigor and vision. But his vitality has been tampered by 17 months of unpaid salaries. With poverty staring him in the face, the father of Five, took to farming. Daily, he wakes up and takes a long trek to Agbabere, where he has a farm. He works all day on the farm, eating whatever he could and walks back to the town in the evening. The result of the hard labour is not disguised on his physique. The 40-year old former elite is now gray haired, haggard and bears the general appearance of a man in his 60s. Yinka is not alone in his travails. Months of unpaid salaries and bad governance have pushed many lives on the edge in the Confluence State.
Things got to an abysmal low recently when a civil servant, Edward Soje hung on a tree in order to disconnect from the myriad challenges of life. Late Soje was a 54-year-old level 16 Director with the State Teaching Service Commission. The exact number of months he was owed was unclear. Whereas media reports put it at 11, the state government admitted Nine months only. Whatever may be the correct figure, Soje had suffered enough to sell his personal effects including an on-going Three bedrooms bungalow at Otokiti village, which he gave away sometime in April, for N1,500,000 to survive the tough times.
To compound his travails, his childless wife of 17 years conceived and gave birth to a triplet. The deceased was overwhelmed by his frustrations and unable to fathom a way out of them. After seeing to the naming ceremony of the children, Soje closed down his bank account and handed over his life savings (N30,000) to his wife in the hospital. Next, he went to their apartment, wrote a suicide note, dropped his handset and proceeded to an isolated farmland around Maigumeri Barracks, Lokoja where he ended it all. His body was found Ten days after the naming ceremony of the infants.
Al-Hassan, a Deputy Director in the state civil service has stayed 21 months without pay. His wife, also a civil servant is luckier as government is owing her only Nine months. The family’s small provision shop is in coma. For months they have been living on it, taking items from there without the ability to replenish. To augment the lean resources, Hassan decided to put his Audi 80 car on the road for commercial services. He used to ply either Abuja or Anyigba scavenging for passengers. But for about a month now, the car has not been on the road on account of a major fault.
“Things are difficult. I have not paid my children fees for last term. The school proprietor has shown reasonable understanding since I don’t use to owe before. But for how long can I depend on that good will? My main problem is the car. If I can fix that, it will reduce hunger.” He told TheNews in Lokoja last week. Surely, fixing the car will also put some food on the table of his auto mechanic. Most auto repairers in the state are going through difficult times.
Abdul, a Japanese cars expert told this magazine there has been a lull in his business for a while. He blamed the low patronage partly on the government, which he accused of killing local industry. .”This government service and repair all their Ford official vehicles in Abuja. Unfortunately, even individuals no longer come to repair vehicles. Oga, only someone who has eaten can think of repairing a car. Many times we just sleep in the workshop…no work.”
Hunger is palpable in Kogi. The situation is compounded by the fact of it’s being a civil service state. There are very few industries. Thus, any time government is unable to discharge its responsibility to workers, the economy slips into coma. The spiral effect of unpaid wages rebounds in all sectors of the state’s economy. Following months of unsuccessful appeals to government, organized Labour have been on an indefinite strike in the state. The strike is in its Sixth week, and the end does not seems in sight.
Government’s initial response was a flat denial. Even up to about two weeks into the strike, Kingsley Fanwo, Director General on Media and Publicity to Governor Bello claimed genuine civil servants were in their duty posts and that there was no strike. His boss, Bello, echoed the same refrain when he went to Aso Rock on a visit to President Buhari. When State House correspondents nagged him for comments on the strike and allegations of unpaid salaries back home, he declared his infamous ‘political civil servants’ lines. With an air of arrogance, he educated the journalists that “those workers that are on strike, are political civil servants. The real civil servants are coming to work and we are trying our best to keep up with the payment of salaries. We are up to date in term of salaries. We are owing only August and September as we speak.”
It took the death of Soje for government to acknowledge there was a problem. Following the media barrage that accompanied the unfortunate suicide, the Head of Service, Deaconess Deborah Ogunmola issued a statement. She claimed that Soje “continued to receive his salaries till December 2016 even while the staff screening and verification exercise was ongoing. His pay was stopped after proof emerged that he falsified his age records.”
Enraged by government’s indolent defense, President of Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, Ayuba Wabba lampooned the Bello administration and called for concerted efforts to cushion effects of its policies against workers. He wondered how two months which the Governor claimed was the liability of its administration to workers, will do hurriedly metamorphosed into Nine months within two weeks. He appealed to the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA and other charitable bodies to extend their mercies to the hungry and dying workers in Kogi State. He also revealed of plans by the NLC and its affiliate unions to embark on an occupation campaign in Lokoja.
“This is the same state where a member of the House of Assembly raised question on salaries and how Paris Club refund was spent. We all know what happened to that member. He was attacked on the floor of the Assembly by thugs and ended up with a bandage on his head. We are very resolute. We are going to mobilize our structure across the length and breadth of the country. We are going to visit the state. We learnt that he is so much enshrined with using thugs. We will be there. We will be ready for him. We are sending a signal that workers should not be taken for granted.” Wabba said at a press conference in Abuja.
Wabba may continue to rave in the nation’s capital territory. The Kogi governor has so far showed that he is unperturbed by the Labour leader’s remarks. After several unsuccessful attempts to force workers back to work through threats, two weeks ago the Governor issued a proclamation prescribing trade union activities in all tertiary institutions owned by the State.
Since the current situation entered crisis level, many inhabitants of Kogi State have devised new skills for survival. Those lost to conscience have embraced stealing, cybercrime and other easy virtues for survival. Many have thrown away their self esteem in preference for street begging. Not a few of the workers in Lokoja and the hinterland have embraced this practice. It is therefore not unusual to find well dressed men and women hanging around restaurants, bus terminals, worship centers and other pliable locations asking for alms. Others take up more respectable ventures, converting their motor cycles, Keke Mawa (tricycle) or vehicles into commercial ends. Edward Soje’s suicide and the strike opened the eye of the world to the humanitarian disaster gradually incubating in Kogi.
In addition, the government bought generous pages in the Leadership Newspaper where it published what it claimed to have paid each civil servants. The publications ran for Five days, with each publication containing not less than 72 pages. TheNews gathered from a reliable source who preferred anonymity that each publication cost N42,000,000. Thus while workers may go to hell over unpaid salaries, Bello spent N210,000,000 on the publications. “The question now is, why spend that type of me to convince people on what you say is true? I belief you spend that way only when you are lying and need to desperately cover the truth. God will judge this administration.” The source added.
Since the current situation entered crisis level, many inhabitants of the state have devised new skills for survival. Those lost to conscience have embraced stealing, cybercrime and other easy virtues for survival. Many have thrown away their self esteem in preference for street begging. Not a few of the workers in Lokoja and the hinterland have embraced this practice. It is therefore not unusual to find well dressed men and women hanging around restaurants, bus terminals, worship centers and other pliable locations asking for alms. Others take up more respectable ventures, converting their motor cycles, Keke Mawa (tricycle) or vehicles into commercial ends.
The former Director’s death and the strike opened the eye of the world to the humanitarian disaster gradually incubating in Kogi. Dino Melaye, Senator representing Kogi West in the Upper House of the National Assembly and former die-hard supporter of Bello. made a dramatic display in the National Assembly. The Senator knelt down and wept openly on the floor of the Red Chamber begging his colleagues to rescue hungry Kogi workers, from the jaws of Bello’s tyranny. Moved by Dino’s appeal, his colleagues donated more that 1,200 bags of rice and other relief materials to the dehumanized Confluence State workers. Some churches, other well meaning groups and individuals are also said to be donating food, drugs and other relief materials to the traumatized Kogi workers.
Indeed Yinka and his fellow wayfarers in Effo were patiently waiting for the Dino relief materials. They were however worried about unconfirmed rumour making the rounds that some thugs have been paid to prevent any relief materials from entering the state. Some concerned citizens began efforts to intervene in the Labour dispute. Deputy Governor Simon Achuba, Speaker of the House of Assembly, Mathew Kolawole and Senator Smart Adeyemi began consultations with labour last week. However Labour pulled out of the consultations alleging insecurity and threat to the lives of its members, following the gruesome murder of one of its leaders, Mallam Abdulmumuni Yakubu, branch chairman of Non Academic Staff Union of Secondary Schools, AASUSS. He, along side a friend was gunned down in Okene on Wedneaday 31st October, by yet to be identified persons.
Chairman of NLC in the State, Comrade Onuh Edoka and his Trade Union Congress, TUC counterpart, Comrade Ranti Mathew Ojo in a statement said the murder of the activist was a confirmation of the fear that lives of labour leaders in the state were daily threatened because of their agitation for better welfare package. They said they will return to the negotiating table when there is full assurance of their safety and that of members of their families.
For now, life remains short and brutish. For Kogi workers, it is hunger galore.