Abia State Commissioner of Finance, Mr. Obinna Oriaku has stated the willingness of the state government to pay workers in the state, the N30, 000 minimum wage which was approved by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Oriaku in an interview with our reporter, stressed that unlike other states that may be jittering over its implementation, Abia was already positioned to meet the demand.
According to the Finance Commissioner, “That is what we are trying to do. Our IGR is not static, it fluctuates; in my time it had gone beyond N1billion and at times, it has fallen below N700 million.
“It keeps fluctuating but we have arrived at a point where I think today, we can target two billion as IGR in Abia and achieve it.
“Ultimately people believe that Abia can make five billion naira as IGR and I share that optimism but that hasn’t happened yet.”
“Minimum wage is something that we have all agreed that the amount currently being earned by workers is low and as a state, we are going to abide with the decision, in line with other states. Whatever other states are doing be rest assured that we are going to do it.
“But I am not also worried because if you check the whole of Southeast today, Abia pays the highest. N30, 000 minimum wage will also give us the opportunity to recalibrate our wage structure to be at the same page with other states.
On the possibility of the wage bill being burden on the state, “There is no doubt that it is going to be a big burden on the state. But why I am not a bit bothered like other state is because Abia has been paying well above the 18, 000 minimum wage since 2011 till date. So, we are not as jittery as other states, but like I told you, this has also provided a very good platform for us to look at our wage structure, knowing that we pay the highest.
“We have the capacity to continue paying highest. We are going to use this opportunity and adjust and then make it easier for us to pay and for the workers to earn this money as at when due. It is going to be a win-win situation for everybody. The workers will be happy and the state will also be happy.
“I know that when we came in and did the biometrics and the new payroll administration strategy where we have centralized payroll system, that assisted us in realigning our wage structure and we made huge savings from that exercise.
“This exercise was basically for the MDAs, but the minimum wage now, is going to give us the opportunity to look at what is being earned even in other parastatals like Abia Poly where the wage structure is dysfunctional because a PhD holder in Abia Poly earns higher than a professor In ABSU (Abia State University, Uturu). It is absurd and totally not acceptable. So, be rest assured that with the restructuring that we are trying to do, it will realign these things and make it look like what it should be, so that states will be alive to its responsibility, these institutions will also be alive and running.
“Like I said, we are going to restructure our salary wage bill to be in line with what is obtainable elsewhere.
“Concerning our Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), we are currently undergoing restructuring. During the period of restructuring, you don’t get that kind of quantum leap that you expect, but any moment from now, we will start reaping the dividend of those things. Very soon, we will start hitting figures that will get Abians excited from the IGR. At the moment, it is still about N1billion every month.
On fears that the state government may likely downsize its workforce in order to pay the new minimum wage Oriaku said “we are not downsizing any workforce, but we are going to realign our workforce.
“Ministries like Health and Judiciary pay higher than Ministry of Agric. You now see where a lot of people lobby to be moved to the Judiciary or Health. You see a situation where in health, the ministry is highly staffed. The number of non-medical staff in ministry of health is outrageous. In a particular unit, you will see over ten admin officers in a small office. Why are they there, because they have aligned themselves with the salaries of those of them in health.
“What we are going to do to enable us pay this N30, 000 minimum wage is to realign. In a typical customary Court, maybe only ten workers are needed in that particular office, what we are going to do is to realign the customary court workers. If they are supposed to be ten, the next people will be moved back to the ministry, by so doing, we also use the same amount that we are using to pay them in the past to pay the new minimum wage. That is being creative and ingenious in managing the little resources that we have, so that it doesn’t cause so much burden on the state to pay the N30, 000 minimum wage.
“I am quiet convinced that with what we are paying at the moment, Enugu, Anambra and Ebonyi will be crawling to come to where we are now. What we want to do is that at the end of the day, at least, we will guaranty their monthly salary. It is going to help everybody, unlike a situation where you allow this to be uncoordinated and tomorrow you still have issues about unpaid salaries, pensions and all what not.”
On the inability of the state government to pay pensioners their pension and gratuity arrears, he blamed several years of rot in the civil service system in the state which he said was responsible for the humongous pension arrears and outrageous wage bill bedeviling the state.
“It’s a fundamental problem that has nothing to do with Ikpeazu. It’s a problem that we’ve been able to diagnose and identify where it’s coming from.
“I’m very careful when I talk about pensioners because some of us are well groomed in African culture because you’re talking about old people who are our mothers and fathers.
“But as a government, we take responsibility of whatever goes on as it affects our standings with pensioners.”
Oriaku went on to say, “At the inception this administration, the Federal Government asked the entire states to sum up their outstanding liabilities by way of pensions, gratuities and salaries.
“We did that and the total outstanding of Abia State came about N39 bn. These include gratuity of over N20bn and the other ones outstanding pensions and small salaries. This happened five months into Okezie Ikpeazu’s administration.
“While other states like Imo were getting N30 bn, with others getting N28bn and N35 bn, we got just N14.2bn. Most times, if you want to address issues, you start from the root. This is where the issue came from. N39 bn against N14.2bn definitely there were issues.”
He reiterated that the current problem in payment of pension in Abia was self-inflicted, “How can a state as poor as Abia have a pension liability of N450m monthly for state and N380m for Local Government? What this means is that you are using almost N1bn to service pension on monthly basis.
“Pension is a measure issue in Abia and you can’t address it without addressing the fundamentals. And what are the fundamentals? The truth is that those figures were built on false premise.
“Naturally pension shouldn’t be an issue. It should be a small fraction of your salary while you’re in active service, but because of rot, because of the deliberate decisions of these same pensioners which they never expected will come later to hurt them.
“These people worked in civil service, some of them were offshoots of Owerri (Old Imo state where Abia was carved from in 1991). When we arrived here, they threw away everything that civil service is known for to the winds.
“In Abia, we have pensioners who are retiring as bosses. Virtually everybody is retiring at level 16 and all wants to be permanent secretaries which is a measure issue because as permanent secretary, you earn what you were earning in service as pension.
“Today, permanent Secretaries that retire in Abia earn N470, 000 which is huge. The same permanent secretary that retired in Enugu state is earning N290, 000 as pension. Why wouldn’t our pension be high with this kind of issue?
“Promotion is not every comer’s affair. You use promotion to discipline, appreciate and appraise your staff. But in Abia, everybody is being promoted every day.”
The Commissioner said the current administration met this rot and decided not to keep calm about it to avoid it causing further problems or allowing another administration to inherit such a huge problem.
“When you cut a tree is not when it wither. Probably other successive government may have seen it and overlooked it, but we said we must address this issue. There’s no way we will run government for four years and boast that all we did was just to pay pensions and salaries.
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“We are not only paying salaries, but we are doing other things. We don’t want to sack anybody, but what we will do now is to address the fundamentals which will help us reduce the pension wage bill and then reduce the wage bill of the state.”