‘Governor Must Develop The Strong Will To Address High Wage Bill’
Barrister Omale Omale is the Legal Adviser of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Benue State chapter. In this interview with JAMES IBECHI and MORGAN ADIKWU, he spoke on some of the developmental strides of the Governor Samuel Ortom administration and the issue of unpaid salaries, among others.
The Apa Local Government Area of Benue State where you come from had been complaining of neglect by past administrations. Would you say the incumbent government has addressed these worries by your people?
The people of Apa-Agatu have never had a fair share in governance as they do now. That endears us to this government. Strategic players have been thrown up and this government is coming in at a time when we have selfless individuals who look beyond themselves to collective heritage of our people to struggle and ensure that our people’s dues get to them.
Under the government of George Akume, we could only talk of a Commissioner and Special Adviser, Commissioner from Apa and Special Adviser from Agatu, and that ran through several persons that we had. We were able to step up during the last administration under Suswam where we had Secretary to the State Government and a commissioner from Agatu. But these are not strategic offices that attract benefits to our people. With Samuel Ortom, one can now say emphatically that Apa-Agatu people enjoy their pride of place in governance. Now we can talk of a Commissioner for Finance, very strategic ministry, Special Adviser (SA) on Gender, now Special Duties, Special Adviser on Project Monitoring and Evaluation, among others. We have a member in the Civil Service Commission, we have the Rector of the Benue State Polytechnic and we have SSAs and other appointees in this government.
What would you say the Dr. Samuel Ortom administration has done in the Apa-Agatu Constituency so far in terms of development projects?
Under this administration, despite scarce resources, Apa-Agatu can boast of tangible presence of governmental efforts and initiatives in terms of projects. When Governor Ortom came on board Apa had its fair share in the area of rural openings. We were connected with our brothers in Otukpo Local Government through the Adoka, Umogidi, Ewili, Opaha Otukpo road. That road connects more than seven communities in Apa Local Government, linking it to a sister Local Government, Otukpo. And again, by the time you take it from Odugbo, Ikobi axis, you bust out at Okokolo that also exposes and opens us up to the people of Agatu Local Government. The Oshigbudu-Obagaji road had suffered neglect in decades, but when this government came on board, the governor singled out Agatu, next to Guma. He ensured that the road was constructed and tarred, exposing the seat of power of Agatu Local Government to the highway.
Now we can speak of the Opaha, Odugbo rural electrification project. They are currently enjoying electricity courtesy of the effort of this administration. Several areas have been marked out for these lofty projects. Agatu was also carried along.
Would you say that these experiences of Apa-Agatu people under the current administration apply to other parts of the state?
As a concerned citizen of Benue State and a major stakeholder in the APC in the state, we want a government that will give effect to the party’s manifesto. These projects I mentioned are not limited or narrowed down to Apa-Agatu. Several rural electrification projects are going on across the state, as well as rural openings. If you make your way out of Makurdi, around Igbor community, there is a connection from Igbor now to Tarka and Wannune that is opening. There are several openings in various communities, including Ogbadibo, Okpokwu and Oju. These are part of the projects that we are enjoying in Benue State. It is under this administration that you can see physical and completed MDGs projects starting from ground zero to completion, due to the ability of this government to match a counterpart funding, attract this funding and make judicious use of them. You can see MDGs cottage hospitals in Agatu, Vandeikya and an ultramodern auditorium for skill acquisition here in Benue State.
There have been several outcries in the state over unpaid salaries. What is your take on this issue?
The salary issue is of serious concern and worry to all of us. We inherited this from the last administration. But, this government is committed to doing all things possible to address this issue. Before we came on board, previous administrations were not committed to paying workers. That accounted for backlog of salaries that this administration inherited. But, the government is sincere and wouldn’t want to play politics with salaries of civil servants as it is a state that is predominantly civil servant driven. Thus, the government had to start with the payment of the backlog. As we speak, the gaps of these salaries are bridged up by the day. It is worrisome that Benue State parades the highest wage bill in the North Central. So, the plan of the government is to be sincere in the ongoing staff verification exercise and where ghost workers are identified, they should be weeded off. After two or three years, the wage bill should drop.
I think a realistic approach will be a conscious effort to prune the wage bill of the Benue State. One of my suggestions is that the government must identify areas that are no longer viable for government interest. Among them is the Benue State Television. From the conception of the Benue State Television Authority till now, they have not transmitted and the state government has been paying salaries to that area. Why are we keeping the television station? The Benue State Water Board is a utility agency to generate water and distribute water for the good people of the state. If it is a utility agency it is expected that it can generate its resources and fend for itself. The government should be thinking the area of concession. It should be given to private investors to run at their own expense. By the time government does that, wage bill will be reduced to an extent.
Then there is this internal arrangement that we have in developed parts of the world and even in some sections or business venture in Nigeria and that is the policy that the state gives a right of early retirement to its staff and pay them off, for those who have put in a period of 20 years and above, for those who have attained the age of 50 years of age should be given the right to elect or to choose whether they will stay in service or go and if they choose to go they will be paid off, but the government must also manage this policy up with available resources to pay off civil servants who elect to retire before their time or retire before their age of retirement. By the time the government does that we will be expecting that in the long run the government will be better for it. The wage bill must consciously be reduced by proactive government policy.
On your suggestion that some workers be laid off, don’t you think this will worsen the unemployment situation in the state?
It is not really the business of government to give employment. Any government which sets out employment venture as sole area of interest is heading nowhere. Government must pay those that will carry out the government’s business, that is the policy formulation, policy regulation, and policy monitoring and policy implementation. The agency I mentioned, among other agencies, is moribund. The government has no business to venture into this area. It is a business interest; government should leave business for businessmen and measure a regulatory office. It will lead to unemployment, but if government leaves that sector for the key players, who know the technical know-how of television business, they will employ much more number of Benue people and pay them well; not what the state is paying them or laboriously trying to pay them.
Dickson Akor, the National Commandant of Peace Corps, was quoted as saying that he would not support a senator for Benue South Senatorial District if he emerges from Old Otukpo District in 2019. Do you support him, and if so, which district should produce the next senator?
I am from Old Otukpo by reason of the fact that I am from Iga-Okpaya, Otukpo Local Government of Benue State. As we speak, the senatorial representation from Zone C of Benue State in recent time has been in Otukpo local government, managed by Distinguished Senator David Mark. This is making it the 18th year there. By the time he rounds off this tenure, he would have been in the senate for 20 years. This is our collective share for the people of Zone C. It is about effective and efficient representation. It is about inclusive participations of all the strata or the component units of the senatorial district. That is the case. I subscribe completely, particularly from the background of our political party, APC, which speaks that in matters of elective and appointive selective representation, and you must bear in mind the federal character, zonal consideration, and gender balancing, among others. These are the provisions of Article 20 Sub-section 5 of the APC Constitution 2014 (as amended).
The party is of the view that elective offices must go round so that people can have opportunity to be represented by the natives. Applying that from the platform of the APC, there is a need, even though Sen. David Mark is not of the APC stock, but in consideration of a zoning arrangement or in the implementation of the zoning arrangement in the APC constitution, we will factor in how we will manage this office for the people of Zone C. In recent time, if it is in the Old Otukpo, then there is a need to gravitate towards another area so that the people can have a sense of involvement, sense of inclusion in matters of their senatorial concern.
So, I agree with my brother, Ambassador Dickson Akor, when he opined that he would not support anybody who desires to be a senator of Zone C from Old Otukpo District. I agree with him and I think that Old-Otukpo people should be fair to the other areas in the district, to allow them jostle for it and we trust God that the best will turn up from other component units. At the appropriate time, we will also advance reason for the support of any candidate outside this area that will have the capacity to represent us.
As a political leader in the state, what is your advice to the administration of which you are part of and the people of Apa-Agatu constituency in particular and Benue State in general?
My general message to the people of Apa-Agatu, and by extension to the people of Benue State, is for them to be alive to their civic responsibilities. They should play their roles as concerned citizens, engage government objectively and rationally and draw government attention to areas of paramount importance, so that government can identify with their concerns and intervene accordingly. If they do, the government of Benue State will continue its good works in the area of rendering service to the good people of the state.
I believe the government will assiduously take the salary issue very serious and do all it can to put it behind. The Benue State government under Dr. Samuel Ortom should develop the political will, to address this issue of high salary wage bill in the state by conscious and calculated efforts so that the story will not continue as we are currently having. Then to other sectors of the state, I will just encourage them to understand the government, to identify with the times we are in and approach their legitimate demands with a realistic concern, particularly Benue State University (BSU), another government institution, which feels that its demands, which are of right, have not been met to by the government. They should know that the government belongs to all of us. They have their several roles to play. These were committed into their hands to ensure that they play such roles well. By the time all of us play our roles, the government will be better for us.