GUEST COLUMNIST by By Sufuyan Ojeifo
The staff strength of the Federal Public Service, in 2014, was put at 1.2 million. This was announced before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Health, by the Budget Office of the Federation. But the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria had dismissed the figure as over-bloated. The association did not only insist that the actual figure was 870,000, according to available records but had also doubted the humongous N1.8 trillion being purportedly spent annually on the federal workers on salaries and allowances.
Any responsible government in Nigeria should be worried about the huge payout. That should compel a sense of obligatory accountability in terms of ascertaining the exact population of workers and the wage bill. Government should declassify the number of people in its workforce. It is a piece of information that any interested body should get from the relevant government agency or via the relevant government information website.
But because the finger of guilt had pointed at some cabals, who had over the years juggled the figures of both the workers and the payout for personal benefit, the Federal Government had been made to pay huge sums as salaries and allowances to “ghost workers”, which a thieving cabal had consistently cornered. The problematic issue of ghost workers in successive administrations underlines this fact.
Although, former Minister of Finance Kemi Adeosun had announced that the nominal roll of the Federal Government had been cleansed of ghost workers and that a princely sum had been saved in the process, yet the exact figure of workers in the employ of the Federal Government and the specific salaries/allowances payout remain an official secret.
Such information is critical both for government and other stakeholders in the Nigeria Project to make assumptions and perhaps deploy as a basis for projecting the economic outlook to meet certain obligations and promises made. This is the context within which the Federal Government, the labour force and presidential candidates who aspire to administer the political economy must exercise circumspection in making demands and promises.
For instance, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has, on behalf of the Nigerian workers, begun negotiation with the Federal Government on the upward review of the minimum wage. The current minimum wage of N18, 000 came into force, via the National Minimum Wage Act, 2011. Workers who receive this wage live on $1.67 per day, while the global benchmark for the extremely poor is $1.90 or less per day.
This is heartbreaking. In Nigeria, demanding an increment in minimum wage is like a catch-22 situation. Though desirable, any increment that takes the wage sharply above the $1.90 per day global poverty benchmark must be subjected to the risks of inflationary pressure, tighter labour market conditions, which, according to the presidential candidate of Young Progressives Party (YPP), Professor Kingsley Moghalu, might include large worker-layoffs across the public and private sectors, slower job creation and labour market upheaval from general strikes.
Yet, despite the concomitant hazards stated supra, minimum wage increment is an imperative, not in isolation but in synergy with other fiscal reforms, which Moghalu insisted must be adaptable by the state governments. This brings us to the total number of workers in the employment of the 36 states, the FCT and the 774 Local Government Areas which must be staggering. The minimum wage agreement entered into by the Federal Government and the NLC provides a frame work for governments at the state and local levels.
Consider Edo State Government, under Governor Adams Oshiomhole, which approved a minimum wage of N25, 000 in the state, though the Act specifies N18, 000. So, whatever figure is agreed to, this time round, represents the level below which no government can anchor, but above which it can maneuver to accommodate higher payment levels as Oshiomhole did. It is, however, on record that many states had accumulated salary in arrears due to their inability to pay their wage bill occasioned by the 2011 increment in minimum wage from N7, 500 to N18, 000.
But as the nation approaches another general election, the NLC has confronted the Muhammadu Buhari government with the critical demand. The administration is understandably under pressure. The economy is in a bad shape as the president recently admitted. The question then is: how will prostrate states, which have been unable to pay salary for months, pay a higher minimum wage?
The NLC has asked for N30, 000 minimum wage payout. Government has counter-offered N25, 000 while State governments had reluctantly tabled N22, 500, which many of them said they could not even pay – spawning tension in the polity. Coming at the threshold of a crucial general election, the issue is capable of having far-reaching implications for the re-election of the incumbent President Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), in the scheduled February 16 presidential poll.
The prospects of a nationwide strike in January are worrisome. The Academic Staff Union of Universities, whose members are expected to play some critical roles in the election at the behest of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has yet to reach an agreement with the Federal Government to call off its protracted strike. A strike by the NLC is bound to exacerbate national anxiety.
Understandably, presidential candidates of other political parties are dangling juicy carrots of minimum wage increment before the Nigerian workers. The workers’ bloc is formidable if it decides to speak with a voice. If the about 870,000 federal public service workers are added to the number of state and local governments’ workers, the total figure should be going to between 1.5 million and 2 million. That is enough to either determine the margin of victory or cancel out the same, depending on which side they weigh in.
Interestingly, the carrots being dangled by presidential candidates underscore the importance attached to the support by the labour force. However, it is easy to see through the promises being bandied. While some were impulsive, others were prudent, analytical and pragmatic. Candidate of the Action Democratic Party (ADP), Engineer Yabagi Yusuf Sani promised to pay N100, 000 as minimum wage without as much outlining the “HOW” of achieving it. His counterpart in African Action Congress (AAC), Mr. Omoyele Sowore, said he would pay the same amount (N100, 000) because Nigeria had the capacity to pay it.
While Mr. Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim of the People’s Trust, who said he would grow Nigeria’s economy to a $4 trillion GDP in the next ten years upon his election, promised to pay N50, 000 as minimum wage on the first anniversary of his government, after he must have widely consulted with relevant stakeholders on the workability of the payout; Professor Moghalu said that a new minimum wage should be closer to double the current N18,000, stressing that “the rationale for this is the need to start pushing back on the growing number of extremely poor (87 million) Nigerians.”
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, did not directly commit himself to a specific figure but said he paid N33,000 as minimum to workers in his private companies. One is left to conclude that if he could achieve that figure in his private business, he would do more in government. He assured that he would pay Nigerian workers a living wage. The workers have a good opportunity to force the government to deal or consider other credible alternatives. Let the electioneering continue.
Ojeifo is an Abuja-based journalist.