Kogi’s mix of politics and workers’ unrest
The altercation between organized labour in Kogi and the state government has taken a new dimension with accusations and counter accusations, half-truths and outright falsehoods being peddled by both parties keeping the ordinary citizen in the dark on the true position of things.
Unlike in Benue, where the government immediately engaged the national leadership of labour to mediate the rift after owning up to failing the workers, the Kogi government has been maintaining a hard-line posture and the labour leaders remain adamant even as the indefinite strike action has entered into its fifth week.
Of course, the people of the state have been at the receiving end as teachers in public secondary schools have been out of classrooms as a result of the faceoff.
Students have also lost valuable learning time during the screening exercise embarked upon by the government as majority of teachers were at one time or the other in Lokoja trying to sort themselves out with the numerous screening committees of the government.
Scores of people have been dying in the towns and villages due to lack of medical care, as government hospitals remained shut because of the strike action.
It was against this backdrop that the declaration by the state governor, Yahaya Bello, during a recent meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari that his government owed workers only two months of salary arrears enraged the organized labour who were piqued that a governor could descend so low into telling brazen lies on national television.
The labour leaders were more disenchanted that he went ahead to politicise what ordinarily could have been resolved through negotiation and dialogue by describing them as “political civil servants.”
The governor’s interview where he made these assertions became talk of the town as many gathered at newsstands and other places in the state capital discussing the issue. Many of them expressed dismay over the utterances of their governor when they have family members who were being owed as much as 21 months arrears.
The workers had given the statistics of salary arrears owed them indicating that over 30 percent of the workforce were being owed 21 months salaries, 20 percent between 11 and 18 months, while about 45 percent got their salaries up till July this year.
They said the ‘No work no pay’ threats by the governor should be a moral burden pointing out that workers who have been deprived of their livelihood for months equally have the right to demand ‘No pay no work.’
The labour leaders also raised alarm about alleged threats to their lives for their role in the strike action that has grounded government activities. They alleged that agents of government made up of armed thugs and overzealous security agents have been on their trail.
However the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state has cautioned the governor against intimidation of workers as he allegedly did to the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in the state-owned university. It would be recalled that the governor proscribed ASUU at Kogi State University, Anyigba, for failing to call off a 5-month old strike after which many lecturers were sacked.
But the governor insisted that his administration was up to date with the payment of workers’ salaries, assuring the workers that efforts were on to clear the backlog of only the months of August and September.
According to him, “Those workers that are on strike are political civil servants. Real civil servants are coming to work. We are trying our best to keep up with the payment of salaries.
“There is no denying the fact that the economy is biting hard everywhere and you will recall that I met four months’ salary backlog. I cleared it and today, we are keeping up to date. We owe August and September as we speak.
“We are up to date in terms of salaries and those that come to work, we shall pay them and those that don’t come to work, the ‘no work no pay’ rule shall surely apply.”
The governor disclosed that the state would soon publish all the salaries it has paid workers since inception of his administration in newspapers for Nigerians to see.
Reacting to the comments, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Joint Negotiation Council (JNC) insisted that the administration owed workers cumulative 21 months’ salary arrears and described the governor’s claims as “very unfortunate and ungodly.”
They maintained that the strike was the only lifeline left for the workers to negotiate their survival in the hands of the Bello administration adding that if it would take eternity for government to attend to their demands, they would also stay away from work for eternity.
A worker who spoke on condition of anonymity said if only Buhari knows how the governor’s inaction is rubbing off negatively on his acceptability; he would have spoken the home truth to Bello.
The Executive Director, Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Idris Miliki accused the two parties, the organized labour and Kogi government, of not coming out with statistics to corroborate their conflicting figures. He however said labour cannot embark on strike if their members have been paid.
“You can not just be talking about wages without collaborating it. The State Assembly as early as January moved a motion inviting the leadership of the screening committee but they refused to appear.
“Before the August 1st invasion of the Assembly by thugs, there was also a motion inviting relevant ministries and leadership, including the Accountant General and the Commissioner of Finance to come and brief the House on those who had been paid and those yet to be paid and the invasion truncated that attempt.
“We want to have the true statistics of those that have been paid and those yet to be paid. We hear some have not received salary for 12 months, others 15 months and some said they have not been paid at all including pensioners so we need the statistics. But like I said I don’t believe any worker would be paid and yet choose to stay at home.”
In the thick of this, a Director in the state’s Civil Service, Edward Soje, reportedly committed suicide. The sad story of Soje, whose lifeless body was found dangling on a tree behind Mammy Market at the Army barracks in Lokoja, dominated every known media and became a reference point in describing the plight of an average Kogi worker and the alleged wickedness of the state government.
It was reported that the wife of the deceased gave birth to male triplets after 17 years of childlessness and in his effort to meet up with the hospital bills, withdrew his last savings of N30, 000 and later took his own life on account of not having been paid for upward of 10 months.
The news punctured the position of the government, which eventually admitted the fact that the late director was being owed nine months as against the reported 11 months.
As unfortunate as the death was, it has helped to project the picture of what the average worker in Kogi State has been passing through in the last two years thus compelling the National Headquarters of the NLC to support the plans to confront the governor over his alleged nonchalant attitude towards workers’ welfare.
The union will also embark on a massive protest to the National Assembly and the presidential villa to report ‘the irresponsible approach’ of Bello to workers issues.
The NLC president comrade Ayuba Waba disclosed this in Abuja and joined in decrying the insensitivity of the government towards workers in the state.
The House of Representatives had on its own waded into the issue after the reports of the death of Soje calling on the Federal Government to intervene in Kogi State.
The Senators on their part responded to the call for relief materials by the workers union, which alleged that the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Boko Haram-ravaged Northeast were better than Kogi workers. Last week, some Senators donated more than 1,270 bags of rice.
The senator representing Kogi West district, Dino Melaye, who moved the motion for support and pleaded for the materials, also alleged that the governor mobilised thugs to prevent the materials from reaching the affected workers.
Observers however viewed Melaye’s intervention as part of the ongoing political battle between him and the governor who is believed to be behind the efforts by some electorate to recall Melaye from the Senate.
Incidentally, both Melaye and Bello were on the same page during the controversial emergence of the governor as the candidate of the APC in the last governorship election in the state.
The state branch of the PDP has also promised to bring in relief materials just like many churches have started the distribution of their own relief to the workers across the state.
But the governor is not yet done with wielding the big stick. Last week at a press conference in Lokoja where he announced the proscription of all workers’ unions at state-owned tertiary institutions, he mandated the Ministry of Education to commence the process of employing fresh hands to replace the striking workers
He also charged law enforcement agencies in the state to remain vigilant and proactive in tackling the breakdown of law and order in any part of the state as a result of the ban stressing, “Trade unionism has lent itself to impeding government’s efforts to carry out holistic reforms of the Civil Service in Kogi state through unjustified and unjustifiable strikes/industrial actions.”
However, former Deputy-Governor, Clarence Olafemi, who was a member of the APC Board of Trustees (BoT) before his recent defection to the PDP, has warned of what could be the outcome of non-payment of salaries to the state’s workers.
According to Olafemi, “Governor Bello has forgotten that Kogi has a political history of removing non-performing governors. He forgot that Prince Abubakar Audu was removed on perceived non-performance; he owed only two months salary and he was removed.
“He forgot that Idris wada was removed. Audu was a sitting governor when he was removed and replaced with Ibro. Audu’s tenure is one of the best among those that have governed this state.
“He established the State University in Anyigba, he established the College of Education in Ankpa, the Kogi State Polytechnic, the Confluence Beach Hotel, Radio Kogi, NTA Lokoja and Stella Obasanjo Library.
“All the edifice you can point to that are the legacies of what we still refer to as Kogi State today were by Audu but by making the mistake of not paying two months salary, his coffin was nailed and he was removed.
“I don’t know what has given Governor Bello so much courage that he believes the same stick that was used to remove his predecessor would not be wielded to remove him.”
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