Ikpeazu acknowledging cheers from the crowd

There is a conscious move by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State to make the local government administration in the state more effective and responsible. Emmanuel Ugwu reports

Democracy returned to the 17 local governments in Abia State last December after almost nine years of absence. It was hailed as a major achievement of the administration of Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, who actually fulfilled one of the campaign promises by providing the state independent Electoral Commission (ABSIEC) to conduct the council poll on December 16, 2016.
But with the democratically elected executive and legislative arms of the grassroots government effectively in palace, the focus now is directed at sanitizing the system as the rot has reached the dimension of the Augean stable. The process of cleaning the system had commenced before the road was prepared for a smooth ride of democracy back to the councils.

The Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters, Chief Charles Ogbonnaya, had set up a staff verification committee led by the former deputy Speaker of the state legislature, Hon Alwell Asiforo Okere. Members of the committee, whom the commissioner described as “men and women of honour and integrity”, however came out with “explosive findings” as expected.

The decay in the Abia council system was enormous and could weigh down democracy in the grassroots like it did before when the chairmen elected in January 2007 left a cumulative unpaid wage bill of over N3 billion at the end of their tenure. Endemic corruption and other malpractices in the system were blamed for the rot.

With hindsight of the happenings in the councils, Ogbonnaya was in good stead to carry out the sanitisation exercise in the local government system. He knew what to do to bring in sanity. He had headed Umuahia North local government during the military era and was deputy chief of staff in the office of the deputy governor during the administration of Senator Theodore Orji.

So, when he was nominated by Governor Ikpeazu as one of his commissioners, Ogbonnaya had told the members of the State Assembly during his screening that the local government system was stinking and he was going to clean things up. Eventually, he got the portfolio of presiding over the ministry of local government and chieftaincy affairs. He set about doing what he said he would do to restore sanity and discipline in the local governments.

The verification committee discovered that 1,642 persons secured employment in the local government system with fake certificates while over 300 employees were found to have manipulated the system and extended their service by upwards of three years after they were due for retirement.

According to the commissioner, other mindboggling revelations were still coming out after the Asiforo Okere committee had submitted the report of its findings. These new revelations, he said were coming out from “whistleblowers” engaged in the various local governments.

For instance, Ogbonnaya cited Bende local government, where it emerged that seven members of staff were all pursuing their various endeavourer in other places, even outside Nigeria. He said when each of the ghost workers was contacted on phone it was discovered that one was in the United States of America, another in Malaysia while one was teaching at a school in Imo State.

Among the ghost workers, the only one with the nearest proximity to Bende local government is a medical doctor serving at the federal medical centre (FMC) Umuahia, yet he was listed among the staff of Bende local government and had been earning salary like other ghost workers. The local government commissioner noted that it was either the seven ghost workers were never employed or had left the services of Bende local government for other pursuits but they were fraudulently retained on the payroll.

“The unfortunate thing is that they are being covered and protected by the officials of the local government,” he said, adding that the official who keeps attendance register was found to be signing for the non-existent workers and was getting a monthly reward of N10,000 from each of the ghost workers. It was also the same officials that arranged the files and brought people that came and posed as the supposed workers during the verification exercise.

In that way, they were able to beat the system to perpetuate their fraudulent activities. The certificate fraud was so pervasive that not even Christian morality could deter the criminally-minded persons from circumventing the system. For instance, the wife of a bishop of one the mainstream churches, was among the local government employees that got job with forged certificate.

The husband was said to have been raging with anger when his wife’s name was listed among those to be sacked over fraud. The cleric not knowing that he was married to a fraudster was said to have called and complained to Governor Ikpeazu, who directed the commissioner to look into the complaint.

Unfortunately for the bishop when he was confronted with the facts that all the certificates in his wife’s file were forged, he ate his words in shame. The disgraced woman confessed before her husband and the couple left the ministry of local government in shame. There was also the case of a staff that had set a world record of earning salary on grade level 27.

According to the commissioner, the fraudulent staff achieved the infamous feat after he was employed as a level 14 staff in one of the local governments but still retained his job in the state ministry of health as a staff of General Hospital Amachara on grade level 13. The staff was able to beat the system and retain the two jobs in the two tiers of government, earning a cumulative salary of a level 27 officer until the bubble finally burst during the verification exercise.

The fate awaiting the fraudulent local government employees is dismissal or retirement as the case may be. The State Executive Council had in a memo dated December 20, 2016 authorized the ministry of local government to embark on the sanitization exercise to weed out fraud and its perpetrators in the local government system. It was also mandated to instill discipline, maintain a comprehensive data system for staff and issue unified identity cards that contain information on date of birth and expected retirement date of every employee.

But Ogbonnaya has raised the alarm over moves to scuttle the implementation of the report of the verification committee. He was disgusted that some government officials and other interested parties were trying hard to persuade the governor to jettison the report and “pardon” the fraudsters in the local government system. It was learnt that the government officials, who are hell bent on saving the jobs of certificate forgers have even employed blackmail by warning of scary political consequences for the governor should he go ahead with the purge.

Labour is also in the vanguard of the campaign for clemency. The National President of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel has also joined the ranks of those seeking pardon for employees of Abia local government system found to be perpetrating corrupt practices.

Last month, when he was in Abia for NULGE solidarity visit, he pleaded with Governor Ikpeazu to overlook the sins of the council employees found guilty of certificate fraud. The state president of Abia NULGE, Comrade Ijioma Onyenucheya, said the union was indeed “looking up to the governor to do something about it”.

He told THISDAY that while “we condemn the act totally because it cannot be justified” NULGE was pleading with Governor Ikpeazu to forgive the erring workers on humanitarian ground.”

He said if murderers could be granted pardon by state chief executives, there was no reason NULGE members, who forged certificates should not be pardoned. “We are pleading with the governor to forgive them,” he said, adding that sacking a large number of workers in the local government system would worsen the economic situation of the affected workers and their dependants.

Onyenucheya said instead of outright dismissal, Governor Ikpeazu could consider downgrading the affected council employees. He is however hopeful of obtaining executive pardon for his members as according to him, Governor Ikpeazu has promised to take the matter back to the state executive council, which had taken decision to sack the fraudulent workers.

Not only is the governor under enormous pressure to jettison the impending purge, the local government commissioner, also confessed that he was being buffeted by those not comfortable with the idea of sanitizing the councils. “I’ve been receiving knocks here and there with people pouring aspersions on me for, according to them, not doing what I was asked to do. But I leave everything to God and to Abians,” he said, adding that he has been receiving threats from opponents of the verification exercise, even though the commissioner appears not to be deterred.

After he received the interim report from the verification committee, he told THISDAY that he possessed the political will to carry out the sanitization exercise to its logical conclusion. “Many people talk about politicians not having the political will or liver to do things but these ones (fraudulent activities) are glaring. You cannot prosecute a politician elected into office for forging certificate, going to court to remove him and then you spare a civil servant that came into service with fake certificate. There are a thousand and one of them”.

Ogbonnaya appeared to be unfazed, saying he had expected there would be opposition to his sanitization exercise and had carried all stakeholders along. He said: “I realised where the problem would come from. The first thing I did when I came into office was to liaise with the stakeholders. First of all, I called all NULGE officials for a meeting, all of them from state chapter to the 17 local government branches.

“I brought them here (ministry) and told them the problem and asked them whether they have anything against sanitizing the system. We had a communiqué and they gave me the go-ahead to sanitise, because they are the people feeling the pains in the system”.

He claimed to have also “invited the HoS, the HPMs, the treasurers, auditors. I asked them the same question and they, said go ahead if you can sanitize the system. I then invited the local government Service Commission because according to law, they are the people responsible for recruitment and punishment of staff, I then told them the problem on the ground and how they have masterminded these problems. They argued but I gave it to them; I showed them evidence”.

The widespread corrupt practices are already taking their toll on the local government system. The over bloated workforce of 17,400 gulps N2.2 billion monthly wage bill. But the commissioner said paying such huge bill was not always easy as the federal allocation usually falls short of the total wage bill, citing the last allocation which was N1.7bn.

He said a leave allowance of N700 million is equally hanging on the heads of the local governments while primary school teachers are waiting for their N520 million unpaid allowance.

Chief Ogbonnaya said he was saddened that job opportunities were not being created in the local governments, because those who were due for retirement had fraudulently circumvented the system and stayed put. “Unemployed Abia youths with good education are roaming the streets while those with fake certificates are taking the jobs,” he lamented.

The fate of the certificate forgers is still hanging in the balance. Governor Ikpeazu has already told NULGE that they are criminals in the local government system and they must be sanctioned. Despite the criticism of the verification exercise and the impending sack of workers, the local government commissioner has continued to insist that “what we are doing is right” but added that political will was needed to push it through.