Weathering Bayelsa’s Economic Storm

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Bayelsa, like many other states, in Nigeria is going through perhaps its worst economic crisis in recent years, owing to the drastic reduction in its revenue arising from the drop in oil prices. Emmanuel Addeh examines the various steps taken by the state government to revamp the local economy

It’s not the best of times for the people of Bayelsa State. Like in many other states in Nigeria, the economy of the state is receiving some serious bashing as a result of slump in crude oil prices and by extension, the allocation accruing to the state from the federal government.

Workers of all cadres are being owed salaries while pensioners look forward to a day soon that they would heave a sigh of relief over their entitlements.

Artisans and small scale businesses are having it rough; many are struggling to survive the downturn, others are just keeping hope alive.

But the state government led by Governor Seriake Dickson, having received several flacks initially, now seems to be taking all the tough economic decisions to bring things back on track; many of them not populist, some striking a cord with the masses.

Conscious of the dwindling revenues, the governor last month, approved a 30percent slash in the salaries of political appointees in the state, which according to him, would enable it meet its financial obligations to all stakeholders.

It has given marching orders to the newly inaugurated 11-member Bayelsa State Internal Revenue Board (BSIRB), to ensure a monthly target of N600million and increase it thereafter.

“The task before you is very serious, because the federal allocation to the state is very low. As you know, our internally generated revenue is also low and for any state to develop, it needs a robust Internally Generated Revenue.

“Government is going to send a bill to the State Assembly to introduce laws and policies that will improve the revenue profile of the state”, Dickson said while inaugurating the board, led by its Chairman, Mr. Nimibofa Ayawei.”

To underscore his seriousness in boosting the revenue from taxes, the state governor, has also inaugurated a development tribunal, which he said would have the responsibility to ensure that the state government collects appropriate taxes and rates on landed properties and corporate businesses in the state.

Dickson promised that henceforth, tax defaulters would be brought before the tribunal to face the law and urged citizens who have grievances to approach the tribunal.

“States that have robust internally generated revenue are the ones that take their tax systems seriously,” Dickson told the chairman of the tribunal, James Lockie.

Not done, the governor, in another forum, expressed doubts over the state’s monthly wage bill of about N4.5 billion, stressing that many fraudulent deals were going on within a certain payroll cartel.

Dickson said he believed that against the backdrop of payroll fraud that resulted in the over-bloated wage bill in the state, the government would not be tired of verifying workers before salaries are paid.

To that end, he has again, set up several panels and committees to probe, verify and re-verify the state’s payroll with a view to weeding out those who were ripping the state off.

“I will set up layers upon layers of verification committees. Nobody should be tired”, he recently told journalists who complained that workers were getting tired of the verification exercises.

Dickson insisted that already the verification had revealed mind-boggling facts that the wage bill was manipulated by a cabal in order to enrich their pockets at the expense of the people.

“Children are receiving salaries in the civil service. Those that did not apply for study leave are also receiving salaries abroad. Those due for retirement rely on affidavit to falsify their age to remain in service. Dead workers still draw salaries from government”, he lamented recently.

But most profound of recent pronouncements by Dickson, was to the effect that unknown to the public, he had been using a huge part of the meagre federal allocation to the state on payment of debts incurred by a previous government in the state.

An angry Dickson, who addressed political leaders, traditional rulers and other stakeholders on the bad state of the state’s economy at the Diepreye Alamieyeseigha Banquet Hall in Yenagoa, noted that there were many misconceptions about the state’s finances.

The governor, who was flanked by a large retinue of his aides in the State’s Executive Council, noted that he was using a huge part of the revenue accruing to Bayelsa state in servicing debts incurred in the past.

Dickson noted that Bayelsa State received N95bn from the Federation Account in one year, adding that N12billion went to the eight local governments in the state, bringing the state government’s receipt to N83billion.

The governor who spoke at the 50th edition of the state’s monthly transparency briefing and the launch of transparency website, ‘Transparency Watch’, revealed that the sum of N14.89billion was used to service bond repayments taken by the former administration while salaries of workers consumed N32.38billion.

He further said bank loans gulped about N15billion, local debts including inherited debts and overdraft N24.6billion, overhead costs for running the three arms of government N3.9billion, while the sum of N20.9billion went to projects.

”The ill-advised bond was a criminal enterprise of N14.3bn. We have local bank debts of N15.1bn. This state has been unfairly dealt with”, he fumed.

Vowing to proceed with the reforms, Dickson urged civil servants to brace up for the challenges ahead, noting that he is currently cleaning the books to make sure that those reaping from where they did not sow were flushed from the system.

True to his promise, the governor has set up the State and Local Government Pensions Boards, headed by Mrs. Jane Alek and Sir Frazer Okuoru, respectively.

At the event, Dickson restated government’s commitment to completely eradicate payroll fraud in the state, and charged both boards to swing into action immediately.

“I charge you all to ensure that all those, who are going to be paid are verified. You have to verify each and every one of them, interact with them, go to them if they are too weak to come, take their photographs, verify their age in particular,” he instructed.

As part of the ‘layers’ of verification panels the governor promised, a nine-member judicial commission of inquiry was also set up to investigate the “fraudulent falsification of the government payroll and other accounts.”

Justice Doris Adokeme was nominated the chairperson of the commission, while Mr. Victor Slaboh was chosen as secretary.

But the exercises seem to be generating positive feedback as many people the government described as ‘ghost workers’ have been weeded out while the genuine ones are being paid, though in installments.

The government says it has also resisted the temptation to cut down on its workforce or review salaries downwards as a result of its waning resources.

And contrary to rumours making the rounds, the government has also allayed the fears that the verification exercise is to witch-hunt any employee, but to clean-up the vouchers in line with its transparency and accountability principles.

In another step, the governor says that he has instructed the relevant ministries and departments of government to quickly revamp agro-business in the state to boost local consumption and possibly for export.

To this end, the Government has approved the establishment of a mega aquaculture farm on its 172-hectare land already acquired at Igbogene area, to cushion the declining revenues.

The 500 earthen pond fishing community, which will comprise a hatchery, feed mill and a processing facility of international standard, Dickson says, is geared towards empowering Bayelsans, particularly the youths and women of the state.

He adds that the state would also harness the comparative advantage in rice and oil palm production, with the establishment of processing plants by leveraging on low interest funds from the Central Bank of Nigeria.

“For the fact that we have comparative advantage in rice production, Council approved that the Isampou 4,000 Rice Field will be inspected and immediate action will be taken on it. And, before the rice value chain will be developed seriously, there is the need for the state to have an ambitious processing plant.

“Plans are in place for the government to acquire and own 50 tons per day rice processing plant that will meet the processing needs of Bayelsa and its environs. It is expected that the end-product will be exportable because it will be of international standard”, the government explained last week.

In a policy which seems to be the first of its kind in many states, the government says it has also concluded arrangements to commercialise some of its parastatals and agencies.

The measure, the government noted, is to enable the state to diversify the local economy in the face of dwindling revenues.

Accordingly, the three key areas of the government’s focus will be on power generation, agriculture as well as land ownership and housing, as the administration says it can no longer sustain its recurrent expenditure from the federal allocation.

To Dickson, the move would boost the internally generated revenue of the state, especially since it has comparative advantage in the areas.

He noted that the commercialisation policy was targeted at realising the full potential of the agencies and the parastatals with a view to ensuring job creation, revenue generation and efficient service delivery.

He said: “The primary objective is that we want to achieve the true economic potential of these enterprises because the idea behind setting them up in the first place was very good.

“The question is managing them effectively. So, the fate of the workers would be greatly enhanced; the objective at the end of the day is to increase the number of opportunities for jobs. So we must keep faith with the exercise.”

But would the current reforms not go into oblivion once the allocation from the centre improves? The Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr. Daniel Iworiso-Markson disagreed.

“There are not many alternatives to these decisions that are being taken right now. The days where people take advantage of the system to rob the state are over. These reforms are just the way to go if the economy has to bounce back, even with the declining accruals to the state”, he said.