2015: Benue on the brink!

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By Sonia O’Aba

As a civil servant for over two decades now, Teerka (Surname withheld on request) has never had it so terrible. For about four consecutive months this middle-aged woman who resides in Wurukum, Makurdi, the capital of Benue State, has been unable to take of her children due to not fault of hers. Reason: Her employers –Benue State Government – have been unable to pay this widow and other civil servants their salaries for some peculiar reasons.

 

“As I speak with you now, two of my kids have been at home doing nothing since last month when they were sent home from school due to non-payment of their fees”, Teerka lamented. “In fact, to feed has been a big problem for us; I have been running up and own depending on the goodwill of neighbours, friends and relatives just to make ends meet. In short, the situation has been quiter nightmarish!”

 

Teerka and her family are, needless to say, not the only household in the state nicknamed the “Food basket of the nation” who are stuck in this unpalatable situation. From Makurdi and Mkar through Gboko and Ugbokolo to Yandev and Zkar-Biam, tales of anguish and bitter lamentation reign supreme. Like the Biblical Rachel who wept uncontrollably, refusing to be consoled, public workers across Benue state have been grinding their teeth in suppressed rage over their unpaid entitlements.

 

The unpalatable situation, which some have described as “unprecedented” and “woeful”, reportedly has its genesis in the government’s failure to pay public primary school teachers the minimum wage for some three years, a situation which led to government owned schools being shut down for nearly one year recently. The striking teachers returned to school only last July after government agreed to pay them the minimum wage which their colleagues in the civil service had been enjoying over the years.

 

But no sooner did the government kick-started the teachers’ payment than a new twist was added to the script: the Governor Gabriel Suswam administration “discovered” that the only way it can pay teachers and other public workers is to reduce the salaries of those who had been enjoying the minimum wage! This development, which some workers aptly branded, robbing Peter in order to pay Paul, has reportedly been stoking the embers of industrial crises in the state lately.

 

To make matters worse, the long-suffering teachers who had been denied their entitlements for what seemed like ages are now being owed a backlog of six months salaries. On its part, the state government has been urging the workers to exercise patience over the seemingly endless delay, stating that it has been trying to compute a new salary structure for bother teachers and civil servants alike, and would commence payment of salaries sooner than later.

 

Speaking with reporters in Makurdi recently, Governor Suswam implied that the situation has been compounded by the dwindling allocation from the federal purse, due to falling oil alleviate the situation, the governor has approached the capital market to borrow a princely N11 billion in form of bonds. According to him, already N4.5 billion of the said bond has been committed to a contract for the reticulation of the Greater Makurdi Water Works, apparently in order to ensure adequate water supply for the Makurdi residents.

 

Curiously, the state’s two other water works (one in Otobi, the other in Katsina-Ala) are also lying prostrate, with nothing said about fixing or reticulating them. This is even as the controversial Makurdi International Hotel remains more or less a white elephant despite the fact that the Suswam regime has sunk billions (yes; billions) of naira into it in the past couple of years. Against this backdrop, not a few have wondered aloud why the government is in such haste to sink billions into the moribund Greater Makurdi Water works barely a few months to the end of its tenure, whereas it has failed to solve more immediate problems such as paying workers’ salaries.

 

According to the Benue Chief Executive, the workers’ salaries are being delayed by ongoing negotiations between his government and the state branch of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) on how to “restructure” their entitlements. In the same vein, the Benue Commissioner of Information, Justin Amase, recently urged workers to be patient as, according to him, efforts were being made to settle the backlog of salaries.

 

That may be so, but if the views being expressed by the civil servants and teachers on the one hand, and sundry other stakeholders on the other, are anything to go by, few –if any – are impressed by officialdom’s explanation. As pointed out by an official of NLC who asked not to be named, “despite what the government has been saying, everything points to the fact that the state’s resources are being channeled into the forthcoming general elections at workers’ expense, more so as Suswam is hell bent on becoming a Senator despite the fact that the seat he is targeting (Benue “Zone A”) is occupied by Barnabas Gemade”. The union leader warned that should this “ugly situation drag on for too long, we shall call our members to protest indefinitely.”

 

On his part, chairman of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) in Benue, Comrade Godwin Anya, said primary school teachers have been patiently awaiting their salaries which are stretching into the seventh month. Our correspondent gathered that the restive teachers are planning to embark on another industrial action if their wage bills are not cleared between now and December.

 

Amidst this looming industrial crisis, Governor Suswam has reportedly continued to devote majority of his efforts to not only scheming to enthrone his successor come the 2015 poll, but also snatching a senatorial seat at the expense of incumbent senator Gemade. A former PDP national chairman, Gemade is widely believed to the solidly entrenched in his position, just as senators George Akume and David Mark are well entrenched in zones “B” and “C” respectively.

 

Despite that, Suswan is allegedly banking on using “billions upon billions” to “mobilize” support for his inordinate ambition. “He has failed woefully as a governor, leaving Benue virtually broke, yet he still wants to go to the senate, “lamented a disgusted supporter of senator Gemade. He added that if Suswam’s desperate antics are not checked, “Benue may boil over” ahead of the 2015 general elections, “given the danger signals flashing ominously”.

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