By Emmanuel Nwazue , Umuahia
Payment or nonpayment of salaries, pensions and gratuities among other governance issues has been a prominent subject of debate characterising the Okezie Ikpeazu-led administration in Abia State.
It is not a debate that has in the last six years of the present Abia government enjoyed commentaries from just Abians and the state’s workforce; but one which has also attracted interests from across the country – leaving many with the opinion that the administration enjoys owing its workers.
A narrative the state government however does not agree with, especially as it has consistently maintained that it never owes its core civil servants except those owed by their respective parastatals.
This reporter spoke to a cross section of workers, pensioners and government officials in Umuahia.
“Prior to 7 months ago, pensioners were owed for two years and one month, but with the appointment of Dr Aham Okoh, who was Commissioner for Finance prior to Saturday’s dissolution of the state exco, there was regular payment of salaries and pensions to core civil servants and pensioners in the state level, he did that until December, 2020 when he made the last payment” said a retired permanent secretary whose last place of work was the state’s Ministry of Housing.
Recently, the governor through his chief press secretary, Onyebuchi Ememanka Esq, announced the dissolution of the state executive council – leaving just the state’s commissioners for Justice, Information and health.
“Abia State Governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu has approved the immediate dissolution of the State Executive Council.” A release signed by Ememanka partly read.
One of those affected by the dissolution was the Commissioner for Finance, Mr Aham Ukoh, whom many say was instrumental the prompt payment of salaries and pensions recently witnessed in the state.
According to another retired permanent secretary, “The dissolution of the excos has brought fears among some pensioners who are afraid of what may happen if he’s not brought back; I’m owed 25 months in arrears prior to his (Ukoh’s) regular payment of pensions. This is only for the core civil servants but the story is different at the local government level.”
Answering questions about the core civil servants, he said there are parastatals that are not indebted to their staff – citing example with the state-owned newspaper, ‘The Ambassador’ and its radio and television, ‘Broadcasting Corporation of Abia – (BCA)’.
“For instance, those in Abia newspaper are not owed, the story is the same at BCA” he concluded.
Mr. Ogbonnaya Iheaka who retired as a director of news from the BCA told this reporter that his pension has been prompt, that they were only awaiting the January pension. He however said that the broadcast house does not pay gratuities to its retiring staff.
Iheaka advised the state governor to reinstate the immediate past commissioner for finance if the issues surrounding pensions and gratuities must be addressed.
“I would advise Governor Okezie Ikpeazu’s administration to retain the former commissioner for finance because he has tried to stabilise the issue of salaries and pensions, I learnt he was working on gratuities too and it’s not good to change a winning team. I would not like us to go back to the former situations where pensions are not paid, gratuities are not paid.”
At the Ministry of Finance and Sub-Treasury Office which accommodates the Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP), Chief Chukwudike Nwosu, Chairman, (NUP) Umuahia Chapter, said pensioners in the state were facing serious hard times due to non-payment of their arrears, particularly for local government pensioners whom he said were being owed 21 months in arrears but only take home half of their monthly pensions at present.
Nwosu added that though state pensioners were being owed 23 months in arrears but had received their 2020 pensions up to December 2020 without any pension cut.
“Well I want to say that for now, pensioners in Abia are going through serious crucible as far as pension payment is concerned. It is on record that local government pensions were paid last in February, 2020, and in December, 2020; half of the local government pensions was paid – leaving the pensioners with another half, which means December 2020 pension has not been paid and arrears from March, 2019 to 2020 November are yet to be paid, about 21 months.”
When asked what was responsible for the development, he said,
“The state government complains of paucity of funds, and therefore cuts the pensions of pensioners, especially local government pensioners to half. The reverse is the case with state pensioners, you know we have two categories of pensioners; local government pensioners are paid by the Local Government Pension Board while the state pensioners are paid by the state government. The state government has paid the 2020 pension complete to the state pensioners, leaving arrears of 23 months from 2018 to 2019.”
Nwosu blamed the superintendence of the local government allocation from the Federation Account by the state government through the Joint Accounts Commission (JAC) for the inability of the local governments to meet their financial needs.
“The local government allocation is different from that of the state, but remember that state actually superintends the local government allocation; and so the state created JAC, the Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs is the chairman of that JAC; then they decide which part of the money goes to what subhead – maybe the money sent to the local government for pension is not enough to pay full pension, I say maybe. Only the Chairman of the Local Government Pension Board who doubles as the Chairman, Local Government Service Commission that has the records of the amount received monthly.”
On a visit to the Local Government Service Commission in Umuahia, this reporter was told that the chairman who doubled as the chairman of the Local Government Pensions Board, Chief Okezie Ugboaja was not in his office to respond to questions in this regard, neither calls nor message placed to his phone were answered or replied.
When it comes to payment of salaries, the government of Abia State has always made a distinction between those it calls core civil servants – its staff in ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and parastatals – arguing that it never owes the former who are its primary responsibility while the latter are revenue generating agencies that according to it, should cater for themselves while the government aids them through payment of subventions.
In a telephone interview with this reporter, the state’s Commissioner for Information, Chief John Okiyi Kalu maintained this stance, and explained that some parastatals in the state like the Broadcasting Corporation of Abia (BCA), the Government Press, and state-owned newspaper, The Ambassador, and many others are up to date with salaries and pensions but added that only those parastatals in distress were having issues with payment of salaries.
“The fact is that the whole thing is being politicized, so it is difficult for people to actually know the truth because anything politics touches it tries to destroy but the facts are clear, number one, no worker in any of our ministries is owed even one month arrears – they’ve all received December 2020 salaried and are awaiting that of January 2021.” He said.
Okiyi-Kalu admitted that the state government accepts the fact that there are some distressed parastatals in the state like the Abia State Polytechnic Aba, the Abia State University Teaching Hospital, Aba, the Health Services Management Board, Umuahia, etc. – and explained that government tried to support them with the payment of subventions that saw the state government spend a total of 1.62billion naira that had some of them receive up to three months and a minimum of two subventions.
On whether or not teachers in the state are being owed, the Information Commissioner said that both primary and junior secondary schools fall within the basic education, and that the state has paid them up to November 2020.
“In this state, we have paid teachers in primary and junior secondary up to November 2020, which means the only outstanding they possibly may have is December 2020, and we’re still in January, yet that is lost on everybody.” He said.
For the senior secondary schools which he said fall under the responsibility of the Secondary Education Management Board, another parastatal of the state government – for payment of salaries, there is an outstanding 11-month salary which according to the commissioner, three months’ salary was paid with a promise of another three months’ salary, but that in spite of this, they went on strike alongside the primary and junior secondary schools who had only a month’s outstanding.
On the part of the state-owned higher educational institutions, a female employer of the Abia State Polytechnic who spoke on the condition of anonymity said she received a three-month salary covering September, October and November, 2020, after the COVID-19 lockdown whereas a backlog of 22 months arrears was left unpaid.
“They’ve not been paying frequently, the part they paid us they said it’s November. They left some of the arrears – they started with October, November December after the COVID, then the arrears is at 22 months now.” She concluded.
When this reporter sought information as regards the salary and number of students at the state’s Polytechnic, the institution’s Public Relations Officer declined comments while insisting that the reporter must write to the school authorities if the information must be given.
Similarly, a man who answered the calls placed on the mobile phone of the school’s rector denied being the rector but refused to state who he was.
For lecturers of the Abia State University, Uturu, the story is the same as three lecturers who spoke to this reporter over the phone on conditions of anonymity separately said they were being owed six months’ salary and that by the end of January it would have been seven months.
“We are owed six months now and by the end of January it would become seven months.”
“For me, I don’t know of any arrears beyond when I was employed because I joined them newly but I know that I’ve not been paid for six months, and by the time this January ends, it would have been seven months.”
“The last we received was in August, August 2020.”