Omololu Ogunmade in Abuja
President Muhammadu Buhari monday challenged the governors of the 36 states of the federation to pay up all salaries and arrears they owe their workers this festive season so they can have a befitting Christmas.
Buhari threw the challenge while holding a closed-door meeting with select members of the Nigerian Governorsâ€™ Forum (NGF) in the council chamber of the State House, Abuja.
The president in the meeting, expressed concern that as THE yuletide season draws approaches, several Nigerian workers in various states were dependent mainly on salaries for survival, but with the non-availability of salaries for them this festive season, the celebrations will ultimately be bleak for them.
Further observing that a majority of them will be unable to pay their rent and feed their families as a result of the development, Buhari implored the governors to put smiles on the faces of Nigerian citizens this festive season by paying them.
But the governors, in response, demanded for payment of the 50 per cent balance of the first two tranches paid so far of the Paris Club refund to the states to enable them pay the outstanding salaries.
They equally demanded for the release of another outstanding balance of 50 per cent of the Paris Club refund yet to be approved to enable them incorporate the funds into the 2018 budgets of their respective states.
Responding, the president advised them to commence negotiations with the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, and Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, for the release of the balance.
His response was conveyed on the presidencyâ€™s Twitter handle @NGRPresident.
â€œPresident @MBuhari has directed the Ministers of @FinMinNigeria and Budget & National Planning and Governor@cenbank to commence negotiations with the governorsâ€™ forum to enable payment of outstanding Paris & London Club refunds, before the end of the year,â€ said the tweet.
A statement issued last night by the presidentâ€™s media aide, Malam Garba Shehu, further said Buhari had directed his key finance officials to sit down with representatives of the NGF to determine how much of their unpaid debts could be released to them before Christmas.
He said the president gave the directive while responding to pleas by the governors that the president should give a commitment to pay all outstanding debts owed them from London and Paris Club deductions to ease their financial hardship.
According to the statement, the president said he was not averse to the payments as long as the treasury could afford it and the economy would not be destabilised.
It also said the governors informed the president that they wanted his commitment on the refund so that they could factor the money into their 2018 appropriation plans.
It also said the president, in his reaction, said he was familiar with the issues affecting the states.
He was quoted as saying, â€œI will not be saying much because the responsible ministers are here: finance, budget and planning and the Central Bank of Nigeria governor. I request you to appoint your own team to come and sit down with them.
â€œThis should be done, not only for next yearâ€™s budget but for this Christmas. The Ministers of Finance, Budget and Planning and the central bank should sit down with you in a sub-committee to see how much can be released before Christmas.
â€œFor Nigerians without sources other than their salaries, I am concerned that workers should be able to pay rent, school fees, buy drugs and take care of their families.
â€œI am so much concerned that people should have something to eat for Christmas.â€
The statement added that Governors Nasir el-Rufai, (Kaduna), Rauf Aregbesola (Osun), Udom Gabriel Emmanuel (Akwa Ibom) and Chief Rochas Okorocha (Imo) took turns to commend the president for caring for the states and their workers.
It also said they thanked him for treating the states equally, irrespective of political party differences, and for approving the refunds which previous leaders chose not to give attention to.
But Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha and his Kaduna State counterpart, Nasir el-Rufai, while briefing journalists at the end of the meeting, said on Buhariâ€™s concern for the payment of salaries this Yuletide season, he had approved the release of the 50 per cent balance of the first two tranches of the Paris Club refunds to enable the governors clear the salary arrears.
Okorocha said they assured the president that the salaries and arrears of workers in the states would be cleared with the expected balance of the Paris Club refund.
But el-Rufai was more explicit, explaining that the volume of salary arrears being owed by some states could not be cleared by their entire Paris Club refunds.
According to Okorocha, â€œIt was a brief meeting between the governors and the president. Basically, it is the end of the year and the president has expressed the need to ensure that every Nigerian, especially workers have a beautiful Christmas and the issue of the outstanding Paris Club refund was discussed and that was taken care of, to make sure that workers in various states and everywhere in the country get to celebrate the Christmas season.
â€œWe also used the opportunity to review our working relationship with the president and we found out that we are in harmony. There is no difference between us and the president.
â€œEverybody seems to be happy working together. But particularly, we commended the president for getting Nigeria out of the recession within such a short time.
â€œWe commended Mr. President and everybody left quite happy. We are looking at getting the balance of the Paris Club refund thrashed out once and for all.
â€œWe also made a request for Mr. Presidentâ€™s approval that the balance should form part of our 2018 budget, because we canâ€™t include it until we are sure that the money is coming. That was also sorted out.
â€œSo, as it is now, the issue of workers took the centre stage and Mr. President was concerned about those who depend on their salaries to feed their families and pay their house rent and he was given the assurance from the governors that we will meet those obligations.
â€œIt was emphasised that the states and federal government must work together to get Nigeria out of its present economic predicament to make Nigeria a better society for all of us.â€
Asked if he really meant that all salary arrears owed workers would be cleared by each state before Christmas, Okorocha said: â€œYes, with the Paris Club coming, every worker should enjoy his/her Christmas. I made that clear.â€
But el-Rufai clarified further that while the president had approved the release of the outstanding 50 per cent from the first two tranches of the Paris Club refund, the final balance of 50 per cent which the governors want to include in their 2018 budget was still being reconciled.
Asked to put a figure on the balance of the 50 per cent the governors expect this Christmas season, el-Rufai said only the Ministry of Finance could present the accurate information and proudly declared that his state and Kano do not have any salary arrears.
He added that whilst the balance being expected by some governors might not be enough to clear all the arrears owed their workers, such governors could reduce the arrears by paying part of it from the expected refund and still give their workers some measure of relief this Christmas season.
â€œLet me explain: the Paris club figures need to be reconciled. While the reconciliation process was on going, the president approved that 50 per cent of the original amount be paid to the states.
â€œThe payment started from last year. We still have the balance of the first 50 per cent. This is what the president said should be paid to state governments to meet their obligations before Christmas because heâ€™s concerned that many families depend solely on their salaries for rent and for the festive period. That had been decided.
â€œThe balance of the first 50 per cent is what we are expecting now before Christmas. The president has approved that and said it must be paid.
â€œBut I donâ€™t know the amount. Iâ€™m sure that if you contact the Ministry of Finance, they can give you the total amount. I only know what my state is likely to get.
â€œThen there is another 50 per cent that needs to be paid when the figures are reconciled. The reconciliation is going to be concluded before the end of the year.
â€œThe Chief of Staff to the President will ensure that the committee working on the reconciliation concludes its work before the end of the year.
â€œSo, what the governors are requesting from the president is a directive for the go ahead to include the next 50 per cent in our 2018 budgets and that is going to be looked at.
â€œEvery state will get its own share of the Paris Club refund. It will not get more. Every state has a specific amount that was deducted. That amount may be enough to cover the arrears; it may not, because you cannot get more than you are entitled to.
â€œIt varies from state to state. My state has no salary arrears at all, so itâ€™s a mute issue. Kano doesnâ€™t have salary arrears also. So whatever we are getting, we just continue with our development projects.
â€œBut some states have salary arrears that are bigger than the Paris Club refund they are getting. Even when they get it, they will not be able to clear the salary arrears.
â€œBut it is better to reduce it so that people will have a happier Christmas than nothing at all,â€ he said.