George Okoh, in Makurdi, looks at the continuing controversy over the sack of some 4, 000 local council workers in Benue State
The recent decision of the Benue State government to terminate the appointments of over 4, 000 local government workers in the state has continued to cause ripples in the state. Many pundits have viewed the action in different ways. While some have lamented the effect of the retrenchments on livelihoods and households, some have actually come out in defense of the government. The state government has defended its action as a way of weeding out ghost workers and redundant staff.
Bloated Expense Account
The government insists that allocations to the 23 local government areas in the state from the Federation Account have become too insufficient to meet the needs as well as the salary and wage bills of the councils owing to the problems of excessive employment in some of the councils and the menace of ghost workers.
Special Adviser on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs to the Governor, Mr. Solomon Wombo, said, “If you take the salary bill, for instance, in the last three months and compare with this month, we have variances. About six months ago, we had a total of 23, 000 staff in our local governments but six months afterwards, this shot up to 29, 000. Money should be accounted for. We said, okay, let’s take a cut off those that were for December, pay them and those employed through whatever means between January and now, let’s look at them and find out why this number has gone beyond what we had.”
Wombo stressed that local governments in the state are not bankrupt.
“We have paid salaries uptil this moment. There was a general drop in allocation, which everyone knows. There are many local governments in other states that have not been able to pay salaries of staff. These insinuations are the handiwork of opposition parties. Why are they making so much noise without coming out with proofs. The other administration had all the money they wanted, including the excess crude, but we have lean funds and we are paying everybody. Staff matters take top priority to this government because we believe that they deserve to get benefit for work done.”
Wombo said the government discovered that in some local governments, there were staff duplications to the tune of about 200. He said the retrenchments were meant to cleanse the system.
But decision of the Benue State government to terminate the employment of over 4, 000 staff of the 23 local government areas of the state has generated mix feelings. It has also pitted the state government and residents of the council areas against each other. Many of the locals were direct and indirect beneficiaries of the controversial employments made between January and July this year. A release from the office of the governor, Dr Gabriel Suswam, directed that June salaries of staff recruited into the local government service from January be stopped forthwith and proper screening be undertaken to check the genuineness of their employment.
The directive stated that the government action followed a discovery that there were irregularities in the recruitment exercise that brought the employees.
A circular to Wombo and Chairman of the Local Government Service Commission, Mr. Richard Gbande, dated July 3, 2012 said the irregularities were more noticeable in Kwande and Oju local government areas, even though the problem also affected all local governments in the state.
Gbande said over 4, 000 staffs were recruited within the period. He blamed the council chairmen who the service commission granted permission to recruit within 100 staff but they went ahead to over blow the figures in their respective councils.
Gbande said those recruited within the period will have their jobs terminated, stressing that the state government has concluded plans to pay them.
On the legality of such action, he said the government had the right to terminate any employment within its jurisdiction. Wombo also directed the councils not to further employ any staff. Addressing the chairmen during the monthly joint account meeting held recently, Wombo said the wage bill of local governments’ staff had increased abnormally. He said the illegal employment made by the various councils had worsened the revenue situation and emphasized that no fresh financial commitment should be made until the allocation from the federation Account increased.
He charged the council chairmen to intensify revenue generation and commended Vandeikya local government for broadening its revenue base.
But a human rights activist and lawyer, Mr. Ejimbi Oloja, condemned the decision of the state government to terminate the appointments, even though he said the directive was not clear. “The statement credited to the state government suggests that a screening will be done to ascertain who the real staff are but in one fell swoop government agencies in charge of the staffs are saying it’s an outright termination of the employment of those involved,” Oloja said.
He said it was wrong for the state government to take such action considering that the local governments have autonomy and have the right to employ staff.
Oloja added, “This is the problem, some governors have continued to use caretaker committees to run the councils, whereas the constitution provides that the councils should be administered independently and that financial allocations from the federation account be made directly to them.”
A source said the mass job terminations at the councils were not due to lack of funds to pay the workers, but because of the desire of the state government to reduce the political powers of the former council chairmen who employed most of the workers. The fear, according to analysts, is that the loyalty of the workers would be mostly to the former local government chairmen as the state prepares to hold local council elections in November.
Yet another source alleged that the local government chairmen had perfected a corrupt way of employing ghost workers in the system. He said some council chairmen had as many as 50 ghost workers on their payrolls whose wages they collect monthly. But the state government, he said, is tracking the problem and trying to identify the fraudulent workers.
Earlier in the year the state government retired about 1,800 staff of the 23 local governments in the state, but the affected staff were those who had either completed the mandatory 35 years in service or attained the retirement age of 60 years. The affected staff were identified during an verification exercise conducted by the commission in all the local government areas of the state.
Wombo said it was not on a witch hunt exercise but sincerely making effort to reposition the local government administration in the state to ensure greater efficiency and productivity. He said that the commission was carrying out the exercise with due diligence in order to ensure that no one was victimised.
“The number of ghost workers we uncovered was very minimal because when I assumed duties as chairman of the commission I embarked on the screening of council staff, and in that exercise we were able to weed out ghost workers from the system,” he said.
However, the rather sudden swift manner the retrenchments were done seems to indicate the existence of some political ulterior motives, especially as Benue State goes towards local government elections in November.