States’ wage bill crisis calls for federalisation of workers’ pay
SAMUEL Ortom, the governor of Benue State, has made a rather sensational declaration: a state of emergency on workers salary. Stripped of that dramatic lexis, that means everything else is in abeyance, until the workers’ salary arrears are cleared.
That would be sweet music to the ears of Benue State workers, which could well fuel agitations for an encore in other states.
Still, the idea of holding every other thing down to pay workers, as legitimate as that is, could be ruinous dirge in other ears. For one, government workers hardly constitute up to 10 per cent of every state’s population. In other states, it could be far less.
So, holding up the care of nine, just to cater for a sole citizen (10 per cent is one out of every 10), is not especially just or equitable — with all due respect to the inalienable right to pay workers for work done. The salary crisis would therefore appear a classic case of unworkable economics, which needs a drastic change, and not just mere tinkering. That goes to the heart of Nigeria’s federalisation crisis — and the imperative to re-federalise fast.
While Governor Ortom deserves praise for at least admitting the enormity of the problem, even if his recipe to tackle it is rather humanitarian than economic, how the state got to that sorry pass is an ugly window into how Nigeria’s notorious centralisation has conspired to impoverish everyone.
The governor complained about the ”upward review of workers’ salaries” by the predecessor government. But let no one demonise that government for willfully burdening its successor with wanton bills. It too was a victim of a pan-Nigeria push to create the economically unworkable; call on the incumbent government to work magic and failing, lament that impossibility to high heavens.
The salary crisis, pre-economic recession, piled up with organised Labour’s insistence to cut a central deal for workers nationwide, with little recourse to each state’s ability to pay. That is the illogic behind a uniform pay structure for civil servants, all over the country. The pretence could be kept up with pouring petro-dollar. But the moment that dried up, a vicious, ugly face glared at everyone.
So, that is why Benue State could claim its monthly receipt from Abuja is N6 billion; while its wage bill is N8.5 billion. It either has to borrow to make good or declare painful force majeur. In human terms, that could be explosive. In cold economics, it is no less grim, for it is reinforcement of barrenness: if civil servants don’t receive regular pay, commerce grinds to a halt. It is the same logic, in all of the states plagued with salary backlogs.
Governor Ortom’s “salary emergency” is welcome, although it would appear a short-term glory (even if it solves the problem), is traded for long-term agony (for infrastructure, needed to open up the state economy, would have stalled for some time).
However the governor goes about tackling the issue, he should also try to cut down on the usual culprits: “ghost” workers and allied sleaze in the pay system; and also generally clean up the accounting space. This though, the governor claimed he had done.
Still, a rational way to solve the problem, once and for all, is to push for the federalisation of workers’ pay. A civil servant in Makurdi need not receive the same pay with that in Lagos, with its roaring internally generated revenue. Nor would it be economically wise to pay a civil servant in Kano (with its buzzing commerce, and therefore higher tax returns for IGR), the same wage as the one in Kebbi.
Therefore, states should summon the political will to face down Labour, when next it rolls into town, with its agitation for workers’ pay rise. Pay rises are no crime. But they should fall within what each state can afford, when linked with some productivity index.
Nevertheless, the states can only do this after swallowing some rather bitter pills. To start with, they must find a formula to cut down on the huge bill of the political bureaucracy, as a show of good faith. After this, they must go ahead to remonstrate with their civil service bureaucracies, on the need to federalise, in tune with what is fair and what each state can afford. If that is well done, it would not only drive down the wage bill overall, it would provide states the cash, even if still limited, to face other developmental challenges, without which the states cannot make economic progress.
That is the way to go to, once and for all, solve all this pay mess. But to pull it off, the states must muster enough political will. The people too should show enough understanding of the grim situation.
But, with better federalisation, and each state or region having better control of its cash cows, it could well be the beginning of a competitive local economy, where every state or region would reserve the right to hike its workers’ pay, in tune with their gauged productivity and increased state or regional wealth.