By Ethelbert Okere
Two major issues that were in the front burner at the first stakeholders forum convened by the Senator Hope Uzodima-led administration need further interrogation; not for want of clarity in what the governor said but because the points he made need to resonate sufficiently among the people. They are the twin issues of salaries and pensions and Almajiris allegedly hiding in the forests in the state.
Take the first. His Excellency seized the opportunity, once again, to reiterate his determination to get to the root of the salaries/pension logjam, with a view to finding a lasting solution. But because that sounds too familiar, it is tempting for pundits to ask what magic he has for it. This is, of course, a penitent question, given that the hiccups experienced in the payment of salaries of serving civil servants and pensions seem to have defied a solution. The key word here is “seem”; which raises the question as to whether, indeed, the steps taken previously were far reaching enough to get to the root of the matter. Without discountenancing the efforts made by previous administrations, especially the immediate past, it needs no exaggeration to say that a lot still has to be done to rout the ugly monster once and for all. To be sure, the immediate past administration made some efforts but perhaps due to the brevity of its stay, it couldn’t go far enough.
Government, it is said, is a continuum: The reason why His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodima, did not stop any of the projects started by his immediate predecessor and for which he has been applauded by many well meaning citizens of the state. Apart from projects, Governor Uzodimma did not also discontinue with any of the inquires, instituted by his predecessor, into the various aspects of governance for nine years or so. Some of the inquiries have already made startling revelations which Imolites believe will help in their quest for a better collective future. It follows, therefore, that Governor Uzodima should be similarly commended and encouraged to get to the root of the scam in salaries and pensions. As already note, the immediate administration started something in that regard, but could not go far. In other words, contrary to what some so-called opposition elements bandy about, this is not the first time salaries and pensions are being delayed while government looks into the perennial issue of ghost workers and exaggerated salary bills.
Not unexpectedly, it is insiders in the civil service that are resisting this move. As revealed by the governor in his address at the stakeholders meetings, heads of some agencies, departments and parastatals have defied government’s directives to submit relevant data and information for a comprehensive review of the salary payment system.
The reason they have resorted to this subterfuge is not difficult to fathom, hence, the governor’s admonition to civil servants in such organizations to hold their heads responsible for any delay in the payment of their salary. That does not suggest that the government cannot wield the big stick but it means that the governor believes that it is better to carry everybody along and let each and everyone in the system realize that it is to their individual and collective interest to assist government in finding a lasting solution to the problem.
To demonstrate his resolve, the governor made it abundantly clear that he is ready to be called names provided he achieves his target; and he crowned it all by saying that once the cleansing is completed, he should be held entirely responsible if salaries, thereafter, are not paid on or before the end of every month. According to him, payment of salaries is not an achievement by an administration.
It therefore means that, conversely, payment of salaries cannot be used as a yard stick for measuring the performance of an administration. In other words still, while it cannot be gain said that the worker deserves his wages, government owes it a duty to also see to the welfare of other categories of citizens. While civil and public servants constitute only a fraction of the total population, a far greater majority also needs attention. The traders in the markets need better stalls. They need pipe born water and modern toilet facilities which are at present nonexistent. Schools need amenities for better education for the children. Road users need better roads. We can go on and on to restate the obvious fact that the entire citizenry cannot afford to succumb to the black mail that once government is able to pay salaries, it has scored 100 per cent.
In his address at the forum, Governor Uzodimma unveiled a training programe for the younger category of civil servants, particularly those under the age of forty. The reason, he noted, is that those are the ones the future of the civil service belongs to. Extrapolated, it means that this category of civil servants should support and encourage government’s effort to sanitize the system. It is their future that the more elderly permanent secretaries, directors and other senior cadre are toying with when they resist measures that are targeted at eliminating fraud in the system.
Now, take the matter of Almajiris and herdsmen. A couple of weeks ago, a few political and religious leaders in the state were credited with statements suggesting that government is complacent in dealing with the matter of herdsmen-farmers clash; insinuating further that there are armed Almajiris camped in the bushes around the state in readiness of unleashing attacks on the villages.
In an earlier reaction through a different medium, I pointed at the fact that such an insinuation, first and foremost, amounts to a talk down on our men, since it tends to suggest that they, the men, would just sit back and watch Almajiris raid their homes and take away their wives. Ndigbo, I further noted, are made of sterner stuff. I equally noted that while it is pedestrian to say that a government could deliberately stand by and watch as outsiders invade its territory, issues of security are not things to discuss at the Ekeonunwa market.
But perhaps most worrisome is that the language in which these supposedly well meaning citizens couch their claims is such that could lead to precipitate actions by our own people. While any attempt by outsiders to invade the state – assuming without conceding – must be resisted by government and the people, care should also be taken in order not to jeopardize the existing cordial relationship between our people and law-abiding non indigenes, most of who have lived with us peacefully for several years. Whether anybody likes it or not, it is not every Northerner, if you like, Fulani, that is in support of the violence of the herdsmen. Even so, we have our own kit and kin up north who have been living peacefully with their hosts for years, regardless of occasional skirmishes or hostilities. The good news, of course, is that Imolites are by nature accommodating, patient and tolerant. Needless to say, they should resist any attempt to make them stray from their original, God-given, attributes while encouraging and co-operating with government in all genuine efforts to protect their lives and property.
One top religious leader in the state even blamed governors of the Southeast for the coming of Almajiris into the zone. Of course, the influx of Almajiris into the southern part of the country poses a concern for all, especially under the circumstances of covid-19 pandemic, but it is tactless and cheap to query state governors on why and how they, Almajiris, traveled from Kano, Maiduguri, Sokoto, Kaduna etc. to say, Enugu, Owerri, Uyo, Port Harcourt and what have you. One, state governments are not in control of the security agencies – the military, the police, civil defence corps etc – whose personnel man the numerous interstate boundaries that are supposed to be under lock and key this period. The federal government is. Therefore, rather than play to the gallery at home, these religious and political leaders should take the message to the appropriate quarters. That is how their counterparts elsewhere do it. Two, covid-19 or not, no state government has the right to stop any Nigerian from any part of the country from entering any state.
The point, therefore, is that our leaders – both political and religious – should show more sophistication in their approach to national issues. It is heartwarming, however, that in his speech at the stakeholders forum last week, Governor Uzodimma debunked the rumor that armed Almajiris are locking around ready to strike. He probably needn’t place any emphasis on that because, minus those who want to reap political capital out of that rumor, every well meaning citizen knows that there is no such thing; and that no governor or government would merely sit and watch helplessly.
On the whole, Governor Uzodimma’s speech was at once incisive, robust and unambiguous. There was no grand standing. He did not, like we witness in the recent past, try to mesmerize the audience. Uzodimma has no time for things like, “My people, my people”. He is not also given to trying to entertain (Nkari Onu). He says it as it is.
OKERE is the Director-General of the Imo State Orientation Agency.