Chris Tion: Benue, Wheelbarrows, Salaries And Perception

By Chris Tion

 

Image Blues

The past couple of weeks haven’t been the best for the image of my dear state, Benue. First it was Governor Nyesom Wike calling out the Benue State Governor Samuel Ioraer Ortom, over his inability to stem the murderous tide of violence in the state. Governor Wike, while addressing the members of the University of Port Harcourt Governing Council, with the Pro-Chancellor, Prof. Mvendaga Jibo who hails from Benue State in attendance, described Ortom as a weak leader and called for a state of emergency to be declared in Benue State. In his words, “Benue governor has lost control. That is why there is an immediate need to declare a state of emergency for the restoration of security and protection of the people. If you are from Benue State, I apologise. But when Rivers State had security challenges, Governor Ortom of Benue State was among the APC governors who plotted the declaration of a state of emergency in Rivers State”.

Governor Ortom responded in a statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr Terver Akase, where he said among other things that, “Wike’s jaundiced and reckless utterances demonstrate a gradual failure of his mental state as a result of probable demonic influence.” But Governor Wike wasn’t done, and in a boisterous manner, he threw a jibe at Governor Ortom, offering to construct roads for Benue State.

The media, ever looking for the next big thing caught Governor Wike’s jibe by the hem and unsurprisingly it dominated the media space with Benue State having the short end of the stick. This was in March.

April didn’t augur any better for Benue State’s image. It was yet again in the news for all the wrong reasons as several farmers were murdered by rampaging Fulani herdsmen, while the people remain hopeless and hapless.

But perhaps the biggest dent came in the form of an innocuous post on social media: the pictures of wheelbarrows branded with the inscription, “Gov Ortom for You,” a slogan adopted by the Governor’s appointees to showcase his efforts The images went viral and by afternoon of Thursday May 17, 2017, “wheelbarrow” was trending on Nigeria social media and Blogsphere.. Even the traditional media wasn’t left out and the topic is still dominating opinion columns, cartoons and live radio discussions all over the country.

 

One of the Wheelbarrows picture that started it all

A cartoon in Daily Trust of Friday 19th May, 2017

The damage control by the Governor’s media team in form of a press release written by Mr. Akase on the same Thursday afternoon, as swift as it was released, didn’t get much traction. It was too little, too late. As I write, Benue State remains the butt of jokes and trolls where ever you turn.

 

 

In the beginning

On the humid Makurdi Friday of May 29, 2015, when in front of thousands of well-wishers Governor Ortom, took his oath of office as the Executive Governor of Benue State at the Ibrahim Babaginda (IBB) Square, there was no inkling that the state will be at its nadir in terms of its image as it is now. Ortom had ridden to power on the wind of change blowing across the country. He acknowledged this in the third sentence of his inaugural speech; “My Deputy, Engineer Benson Abounu and I deeply appreciate our great party, the All Progressives Congress, APC, that provided us the platform to join the wind of change that is blowing across Nigeria”

The wind of change also blew tremendous goodwill towards him. The workers were most voracious in their support. They saw him as the answer to the lingering issues of unpaid salaries. In fact the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) suspended their industrial action as a mark of goodwill towards his assumption of office.

 

It is important to understand the place of salaries in the “Benue Universe”. Benue State is an agrarian state whose major resource, farm produce, has never prospered due to a cocktail of successive weak, corrupt and visionless leadership, with the help of unfathomable docility of a good number of indigenes who are always quick to take sides with rapacious leaders in exchange for crumbs while fighting each other. This sorry state of affairs has made the civil service, as ridiculous as it sounds in these contemporary times, the most viable and reliable source of income for many, directly or indirectly. Payment of workers’ salaries is therefore the single most important issue at stake as far as the welfare of the people is concerned and it is no secret that the former Governor, Gabriel Suswam’s inability to pay workers’ salaries was chief among the reasons why he and his party, the People Democratic Party (PDP) lost out during the 2015 elections that ushered in the Ortom administration.

 

Opportunities…Lost

“Fellow citizens of Benue State, my heart bleeds for Benue workers and pensioners as they have suffered untold hardship as the issues of their salaries, wages and allowances have become a major challenge. We shall immediately make arrangements to determine and verify our indebtedness and work towards the immediate payment of outstanding workers’ salaries and allowances of pensioners. The Bible states that the worker deserves his wages, on that score government must ensure that wages are paid as at when due.” These are words from Governor Ortom’s Inaugural Speech, May 29, 2015)

I was elated when I heard the above portion of the Inaugural Speech. Here is a governor who understands the place of salaries in the life of the Benue person, I reasoned. However, my elation was short-lived because in the months following this glowing speech, the State government was already borrowing billons of Naira, ostensibly to pay off salaries owed workers, but this wasn’t the case.

Then came the so-called bail-out funds given to states primarily to pay owed salaries and whatever hope I nursed for the Benue worker’s fate was extinguished as backlog of salaries weren’t cleared. Instead Governor Ortom was alleged to have diverted the monies. There was even a presidential directive given to the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) to probe the Benue State government alongside Imo and Osun states concerning irregularities in the disbursement of the funds.

The Ortom administration got yet another opportunity to clear the backlog of unpaid salaries when they got the state’s share of the Paris-London Club loan refund to the tune of N12,749,689,453.61, but again it failed as scores of workers are still owed several months’ salaries.

The government has since declared a state of emergency on this niggling issue. Governor Ortom gave insight to this development recently when he said, “I set up a committee recently and they verified about one-quarter of the workforce in the state and we discovered that within a period of one year and three months, there were fraudulent practices amounting to N1.4 billion. These are things we are going to check. I have declared a state of emergency on payment of salaries and part of what we are going to do is to do screening along with workers to ensure that genuine workers receive their salaries as and when due.”

Benue, a Haemorrhaging Brand

I started out by highlighting the dire state of the image of Benue State at the moment and then I singled out and discussed the issue of salaries. What is the nexus? The former dwells on the external perception of the state while the later looks at an issue that affects the internal stakeholders of the state. I have only scratched at the surface as there are many issues bedevilling the people. The wanton killings by Fulani herdsmen and other violent groups remain the main sour point in the life of the Benue people, the stifling of the opposition at the upcoming local government polls, and the industrial crisis in the Benue State University (BSU), etc, are among several issues that need urgent attention. However, lets for the sake of this write-up, just dwell on the salaries issue and seen how it weighs in on the Benue brand.

How a brand is perceived is a factor of the actions and inactions of it visible touch points. If the Governor as the chief brand ambassador of Benue State is vilified at home by his workers (internal stakeholders), and ridiculed far and wide (external stakeholders) as it is the case then all is not well with the Benue brand. Any contrary take is simply a case of playing the ostrich.

To put it mildly, Benue as a brand is haemorrhaging badly. And like with every living being, haemorrhage is fatal when not stopped. Whatever goodwill the Governor Ortom administration had on 29th May, 2015 is fast depleting. The same Benue workers who trooped in their thousands to hail the incoming government took to the same venue on 1st May 2017, to show their displeasure when in full glare of the watching world, they marched past the governor with arms on their heads in despair and resignation. Nothing better typifies this slide in fortunes.

Benue workers holding their heads as they walk past Governor Ortom on Labour Day, 2017

Is there no such thing as bad publicity?

It was Oscar Wilde who said “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. Benue State is presently being talked about like no other state and the reason is quite unsavoury. Wheelbarrows! In spite of the clarification by the state government, the damage has been done.

So what good can possibly come out of this damage? Since Benue State is in the spotlight, this is an opportunity for the government to seize the initiative and carry out actions that will resonate in a positive nature with those literally baying for its blood.

Here are four actions in my estimation that Governor Ortom must take in the short term to halt this steady slide to abyss.

First, Governor Ortom must as a matter of urgency sign the Anti-grazing Bill passed by the Benue State House of Assembly into law. Thankfully he has been quoted severally as saying he would do that. Some media outlets even gave 22nd May, 2017 as the day he has promised to put pen to paper. This is commendable.

 

Secondly, Governor Ortom should make sure that the committee he has put in place to tackle the salary crisis, headed by his deputy, Engr Benson Abounu, finishes its job on time, makes it findings public, prosecute those found culpable of malpractices and most importantly pay up the owed salaries as quick as possible. It is instructive to learn from our neighbouring Kogi State who have set up several committees to resolve its salary crisis to no avail so far. Setting up committees is not an end in itself. Our case must be different.

Thirdly, the muzzling of the opposition, especially, ahead of the forthcoming elections under whatever guise must be stopped because it runs against the spirit of democracy. We have travelled this road before and also experienced the attendant consequences.

Finally, Governor Ortom should make sure his media team and some appointees (appointee ought to sign off a social media policy which should regulate what they say about the government, on social media, most of them are calamitous to say the least) is more proactive in information management. So much energy is dissipated by being reactionary. The quality of the reactions to issues need to be elevated beyond personal attacks. A simple random sampling of several of these responses especially on social media show them as puerile; seeking not to engage issues but are mostly personal attacks. The government must realize that social media like Usha Anenga, a public commentator, once aptly captured, is a soapbox of ideas and an extension of the real life, you may not agree with what one says but resorting to pejorative personal attacks exposes a deeper lack of depth.

 

No Quick Fixes

I have avoided analysing the wheelbarrow drama and going into the rigmarole of apportioning blames because that would be simply papering over cracks that are systemic. In life there are no quick fixes, when sick you are better off finding the root cause and taking care of it than treating the symptoms.

The poor image Benue has cannot be wished away or repaired by a couple of press releases stating the government’s side. The government must demonstrate its love for the Benue people who are its primary and most important stakeholders, by taking care of their wellbeing and security in a transparent manner. In doing this, little details matter. I have tried in vain to get the correct wage bill of the state and it is easier to get the actual Benue State internally generated revenue (IGR) from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) than it is at the Benue Internal Revenue Service (BIRS), where the information is shrouded in a cacophony of layers that require a forensic accountant to unravel. Such opaqueness has no place in a government whose trust is in God.

In 8 days’ time Governor Ortom will mount the rostrum again to mark his second year in office. His speech, as it has become customary, will thank God in its first, second or third sentence. And of course he will sell us a dish full of hope. We must hold on to every word he utters and hold him accountable. That way the toga of docility will be taken off our backs and perhaps our state will cease beIng seen as the state of wheelbarrows.

 

__________________________

Chris Tion, is an independent brand management practitioner, he tweets @xristion

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