The Neo-Imo Formula

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The Horizon Kayode Komolafe     kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com   0805 500 1974

Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State announced the other day that workers in the state public service would henceforth work three days a week so as to have two days of “farming.” Just like that! Some enthusiasts of the policy have even described it as an “ingenious” cost-saving device since it would amount to a reduction in the wage bill of the state government.

Although the state has reportedly followed up with a revision of the policy that workers would not be forced to comply with the policy and wages would “ not be affected,” the issues thrown up by this anti-labour policy remain worrisome.
There is nothing ingenious about this declaration in Owerri; it is simply a trivialisation of governance.

That is why it is stupefying that the policy is being given three cheers in some otherwise informed quarters. What we now have on display are the ideological ravages of neo-liberalism on the thinking of policymakers and their intellectual defenders. Incidentally, it was the inimitable grandmaster of satirical column writing, Professor Olatunji Dare, who reminded us sometime last year that the original Imo Formula was administered for some economic ailment in the old Imo state more than three decades ago.

Dare was commenting on the 40% pay cut by the government of former Governor Idris Wada of Kogi State. As Dare recalled, in 1984/85, respected economist Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, as the Imo State commissioner for finance, came up with the policy of paying wages on pro rata basis depending on the amount of revenues were available for the month. The nation was facing severe economic difficulties at the time. Major-General Muhammadu Buhari was military Head of State and the urbane Brigadier-General Ike Nwachukwu was Imo State Governor.

The policy, of course, drew sharp criticisms from labour and its progressive intellectual allies. And trust the erudite Kalu, he calmly marshalled the economic logic of his novel experiment in wage administration. In a sense, the Okorocha formula is, therefore, a modification of the Imo Formula of the old. And just as neo-liberalism is philosophically a reckless modification of liberalism so is the neo-Imo Formula a policy extremism to watch. It is even more scandalous that this anti-labour policy is being implemented by a governor elected on the platform of a party that proclaims progressivism.

To be sure, the experiment with wages in Imo State today is actually generic of policy manoeuvrings going on in most of the states of the federation.
There are some points to ponder by those hailing the Okorochas of this world. First, to toy with wages as some governors are doing is utterly lawless. For a governor to even contemplate reducing wages at will is clearly contemptuous of the Labour Act of 1974. Those who rationalise this lawless action on the ground of a “national economic emergency” should first seek to expunge the laws or amend them as expected in a constitutional order.

That is what democrats do. Even a military government would do something about the laws before enforcing its state of emergency. It is dangerous for public intellectuals, who mouth promotion of democracy, to celebrate egregious violations of workers’ socio-economic rights with reckless abandon. Socio-economic justice is at the heart of democracy.

The governors and their intellectual rationalisers are taking advantage of the weak regulatory mechanism in place and the lack of capacity of labour to call those embarking on pernicious policies to order. Labour Minister, Dr. Chris Ngige, recently performed his statutory duty of cautioning banks for treating workers indecently among other anti-labour activities plaguing the financial sector.

In a clime where socio-economic justice reigns supreme, the minister would be commended for defending public interest and the law of the land. Not here. What Ngige got in return was a barrage of insults from a public sphere saturated with neo-liberal ideas. Pray, what else is the business of a labour minister if not a defence of jobs in the economy? Yet labour laws have to be enforced against oppressive employers in the public and private sectors.

Secondly, these wild experiments with wages in the states should provoke a robust defence of the public service against the onslaught of neo-liberals. If some of our neo-liberals have their way they would not mind privatising the sovereign status of Nigeria and earn their commissions! Warts and all, the public service is what still keeps this system going. It is so in any modern system globally.

For instance, the Italian state survived the shenanigans of Silvio Berlusconi while in power because of the ruggedness of the Italian bureaucracy. A political officer holder may mess up while in power temporarily; the insurance the system has against such a damage is an efficient and stable bureaucracy.
Besides, the bulk of the resources are still located in the public sector. If you doubt, ask the smart bankers what the TSA has done to banking, as we know it.

With the strategic importance of the public sector to the health of the political economy it is amazing how some political office holders and their collaborators in the private sector are permitted to trivialise the machinery of the public service. You cannot run any modern government, left or right, without a competent and well- mobilised bureaucracy. Some policy analysts talk as if the civil servants (no matter their faults) are dispensable in governance.

If some policy wonks have their way, all a president or a governor needs to govern are his retinue of aides and consultants armed with their power-point presentations, and, of course, the service of contractors. Presidents and governors would quit with their political appointees at the end of their tenures; but the institutional memory of the ministries, departments and agencies reside with the much-maligned civil servants. They are indispensable! You will always need a competent and well-equipped public service to regulate the system in the public interest and put the exploitative excesses of capitalists in check. From the United States to Japan, every modern system needs a good public service.

Doubtless, the public sector is in dire need of reforms to perform its institutional role creditably. But to achieve that you don’t decimate the institution. What you should do is to enhance its capacity and purge it of corruption for competent delivery. After all, there is a socio-political and economic context to the much talked about poor productivity of the public sector. The way to reform the public sector is not to send an engineer in the ministry of works or medical officer in the ministry of health to farm for some days of the week.

The skills of the engineer should rather be deployed to direct labour in the execution of public works while the medical officer’s acumen in public health advocacy should be optimally harnessed. That way you reasonably save costs instead of awarding bogus contracts for the jobs that well-mobilised and supervised professionals in the civil service could perform as a matter of routine. Similarly, it would be more appropriate to ask surplus education officers in the ministry to complement the efforts of teachers in the classrooms. The professionals in the ministry are trained for different purposes.

They cannot all be farmers just for the clever purpose of reducing wage bills. Which modern agricultural policy would require that all civil servants be turned to farmers in some days of the week? It would be interesting for the advocates of this everybody-must – be – a – farmer policy to articulate it for public debates.
Thirdly, a distorted conception of governance is prevalent in the land. So governors sought power just to be presiding over the monthly disbursement of royalties accruing from the Niger Delta oil! No. Governance should mean more than spending monthly allocation from the Federation Account.

Doing away with civil servants or mismanaging human resources in the public sector is not “thinking out of the box.” To be imaginative is to develop the capacity of the public service so that it could provide the governor the needed technical support to generate revenues from diverse sources within the state. Is it not more productive to build the capacity of workers in the Inland Revenue Department to do their job full time than to send them to farms without the necessary equipment? It is also unfair to ask labour to provide “alternatives” for paying wages. The best labour or any other group in the public realm could do is to offer suggestions.

The ultimate responsibility for policy decision is that of the governor. So let those who seek power to be governors take policy steps to generate revenues to pay those working to keep the system going among other things. In other words, governors should come to office with what the highly accomplished former Lagos State governor, Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande, calls “a plan of action”. Such a plan would include what programmes to execute and how to fund them. That is what politicians should think about before seeking power.

It is unjust to get into power and subject workers to tribulations because of “economic emergency.”
Decimating the civil service cannot be a legitimate policy step towards economic recovery. One day, Nigeria will come to terms with the economic management mythology of 90% recurrent expenditure as against 10% capital expenditure. That day there would be a proper counting of the actual numbers of persons working in the public service at the federal, state and local government levels. Admittedly, Nigeria indeed has a chronic counting problem.

Is it not intriguing that while governments at levels insist that the bulks of their budgets go into recurrent expenditures we are are also told stories of “ghost workers” on the payroll. Until the payroll is well rid of “ghost workers” you cannot talk of accurate recurrent expenditure. Furthermore the budget arithmetic is not so straightforward: recurrent expenditure is not exactly equal to the total wage bill of workers. So even if you sack all the civil servants you may not have solved the budget problem.
All told, the new Imo Formula is in every respect progressivism turned upside down.