Opinion

Olusegun Adeniyi: The States of Emergency…2

Speaking in Abuja at the annual Ramadan Lecture of the Al-Habibiyyah Islamic Society of Nigeria last Sunday, the embattled Osun State Governor, Mr. Rauf Aregbesola, said: “The challenge I face today was not my making, it is a national problem. I borrowed N24 billion to pay salaries, but when the banks say I cannot borrow again, there is nothing I can do in the face of dwindling revenue accruing to the state.”

After that lamentation, the governor, who has not paid workers in the Osun State Civil Service since November last year, now added rather curiously: “I am still labouring physically and spiritually to pay the workers’ salary.” Whatever the physical and spiritual efforts entail, Aregbesola must quickly address the challenge of Osun workers who, aside the financial ordeal they face, now also contend with all manner of humiliations, including from a senator who thinks he can make entertainment of their tragedy.

However, it is obvious that Aregbesola has put Osun State in a most difficult situation not only by his misplaced priorities (like building an airport in Osogbo) but also by his financial recklessness. Before the Bankers Committee decided that no further facilities should be extended to Osun State, the situation had reached a critical point. I have heard tales of borrowing through contractors, borrowing through local governments, borrowing from one bank to liquidate loans from another and taking facilities with anticipated SURE-P funds as collateral, by way of an irrevocable payment order.

To compound the situation, there are reports that the Governor may even create more cost centres in the name of local governments based on a recently passed bill by the Osun State House of As­sembly, establishing 36 additional local government coun­cils after considering the outcome of a referendum conducted by the Osun State Independent Electoral Commission (OSSIEC). I hope Aregbesola would not succumb to such a crazy proposition, especially at a time like this.

Even when I never planned to write a sequel to my column of last week, (http://www.thisdaylive.com/articles/the-states-of-emergency/212301/), the fact that many of the states are now bringing begging bowls to Abuja, seeking bailouts from the federal government to pay salaries, is a testimony to how serious the situation has become. Meanwhile, I got a call from Ogun State Governor Ibikunle Amosun last Friday to explain why pension deductions in his state have not been remitted to the Pension Fund Administrator (PFA) in the last 52 months as I wrote in my piece. He said the issue predated his administration.

However, a Google search revealed a December 2014 letter signed by the Joint National Public Service Negotiating Council (JNC) acting chairman, A. O. Olakanmi and secretary of the group, M. A. Bello part of which reads: “The JNC noted with grave concern the non-remittance of pension deductions made from salaries of public workers of Ogun State for 50 months spanning between 2009 to October 2014…”

What the letter suggests, quite clearly, is that while the practice of “withholding” pension deductions may have started two years before Amosun was first elected Ogun State governor in 2011, it is obvious that it has continued under him. But we can excuse Amosun to the extent that remittance of pension fund is a ‘minor’ infraction in a system where payment of salaries to civil servants is no longer considered important yet political office holders (in the states and Abuja) still collect their jumbo remunerations as at when due.

Incidentally, I have in the last one week engaged Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, in a very interesting discussion on the character of our civil service against the background of the current regime of non-payment of salaries. He drew my attention to the fact that the best architects, engineers, surveyors, town planners and other professionals are actually to be found in the various ministries while in the past, roads and houses were built by these same officials who operate under the public works department (PWD). “Before now governments had extension farms run by officials of the ministries of agriculture in every state and the federal government. Again, trained teachers, doctors and nurses are wasting away in the MDAs at both the federal and the states. Yet public schools have no teachers while rural areas have no medical personnel to attend to their health needs”, Falana said.

What that suggests is that the bureaucracies in the 36 states and Abuja are not over-bloated as many argue but rather that the workers are not being properly deployed because governance in our country has become transactional since it is now all about awarding contracts. According to Falana, the current crisis should lead to a review of the parasitic nature of the public service. “An unproductive bureaucracy which consumes 74 percent of the budget requires a critical restructuring. Our civil service has competent professionals yet contracts are awarded to build houses and roads at skyrocketing costs by our public officials” who most often think only of their own cuts.

Falana also believes that the cost of servicing the public service and not the civil service is actually the problem. “In the First Republic for instance, the entire Western Region was run by a premier, a deputy and 10 ministers. Today, the same region has been broken to eight states with eight governors and eight deputies and no fewer than 250 cabinet members and 300 legislators with countless aides. In those days, ministers were appointed from the legislature while councillors were paid sitting allowance. Today, local councils have full time chairmen, deputies, speakers, special advisers and assistants. While workers are owed arrears of salaries, legislators are shamelessly defending the allocation of public funds for wardrobes, furniture, entertainment etc,” he lamented.

From Falana’s proposition which I completely agree with, the problem is not with the workers but the political office holders who are not tasking themselves because there is some oil money to be shared. And perhaps because of that, they consume huge chunks of the resources that ordinarily should go to development and the payment of workers. That perhaps explains why some governors would employ as many as 2,000 idle personal assistants at the expense of their states. One even appointed a chief comedian (who himself probably has special assistants on clowning affairs) for his state!

Two incidents happened last Thursday which may help explain why many of the states are in the hole they have now found themselves. In Benue State, the House of Assembly, within a matter of minutes, approved the request of Governor Samuel Ortom to borrow the sum of N10 billion. Without listing the specific projects to which the funds would be administered, the letter (signed by the Secretary to the State Government, Mr Targema Takema) said the treasury of the state was empty hence the loan that would enable the executive “to embark on projects and to pay salaries to move the state forward”.

In another development on the same day, this time in Kaduna State, when the executive members of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) visited him, Governor Nasir El-Rufai said: “I have been made to understand that this Ramadan period, we are supposed to have started sharing rice, milk and sugar, but we will not do that. If this government continues in such direction, the administration will only exist to pay salaries and allowances. This beautiful office complex in which we are, costs the government about N10 billion. The Deputy Governor and I would not have built this when there are many masses-oriented projects yet to be executed, but it has been built, we have to use it.’’

I must point out that available information reveals that the finances of Benue State are in a terrible shape with several months of unpaid salaries so I cannot blame the new governor for trying to find “ways and means” to stay afloat. But I worry at the idea of borrowing for ill-defined projects that could further compound the problems for which solutions were being sought. As for Kaduna, nobody should be surprised about the positive examples being set almost on a daily basis by el-Rufai who many of us actually look up to. But the point here is about the waste of public resources alluded to by the governor.

In many of the states today, there is either a recently completed state-of-the-art government house or an ongoing project in that direction. In fact, it is the only achievement some governors boast about and these are projects that cumulatively run into hundreds of billions of Naira. The question therefore is: how does a multi-billion Naira fanciful government edifice that will also be gulping hundreds of millions of Naira every year in maintenance cost add value to the people?

However, this is not a problem for which we can blame only the states. As Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole, pointed out during the week, the mismanagement of resources at the federal level is as bad as that of many states. To that extent, the fact that salaries are being paid to federal workers is more as a result of heavy borrowings than prudent management. “When analysts and commentators allude to the fact that many states are not up to date in payment of salaries, allowances and other obligations to their work force, what is not often stated is that the Federal Government is just in the same bad shape”, said Oshiomhole.

Going by the revenue allocation formula, all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory share 26 per cent of the entire money from the Federation Account. This, according to Oshiomhole, “means that for every N100 that Nigeria earns, 36 state governors share N26 while N52.6 goes to the Federal Government plus ecology and other deductions. There are other organisations whose funds ought to flow directly into the Federation Account and they never flowed there”, yet even at that, the books cannot balance. At least that much was confirmed by President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday in his first day in office at Aso Rock.

As things stand in Nigeria today, what we have created in Abuja and the 36 states are multiple centres of resource dissipation, instead of multiplying centres of creativity and production. Those who are interested in the constitution must look at whether the present structure of the federation serves the needs of development or democracy. We also need to explore the relationship between the cost of electioneering and the present sad state of the finances. A situation where incumbent presidents or governors and sundry others resort to the public till in order to fund their elections and re-elections deserves a second look, because whether we want to admit it or not, there is a nexus somewhere between the empty treasuries being reported today and the general election just concluded.
As I wrote last week, the vexatious issue of non-payment of salaries has thrown up a serious debate about resource allocation and governance in our country. It has also put on the front-burner the question of leadership which revolves around proffering solutions to difficult problems. Yet there is also a critical issue being ignored: There is so much corruption around the payroll administration in our country such that the figures being touted about the number of workers and actual arrears of salaries owed (at the federal level and in many of the states) are very suspicious.

As we therefore continue this national conversation, there are fundamental issues that need to be addressed if we must reposition our country for development.

 

The Entrepreneur (1): Vodi’s Big Dream

For almost one week in October last year, my wife was practically nagging me to give her N50,000 that she owed a tailor on my behalf. The problem is that without my asking, I just receive different tailors in my house or office who would come for measurement though the bit I don’t enjoy is when I have to pay for what I never demanded. However, when the money she said I needed to pay this particular young man everybody called Vodi was becoming an issue, I told her to ask him to come to my office to collect it. Then she laughed and said: “Seyi should come to your office to collect his money?”

That baffled me. I am not a snub by any means but we were talking about a tailor who had been in my house not only to take measurement but also to drop clothes. So what would then be the big deal if he came to my office to collect his money? I did not have to wait for long before she said: “It’s obvious you don’t know who Vodi is, just because he comes here out of respect and likeness for you. I think you should take the money to his office yourself.”

With that I was handed an office address. It took me another week but I eventually found my way to the sprawling building on 43 Madeira Street in Maitama, Abuja where I was amazed. With no fewer than about 70 staff in different departments like account, marketing, quality control, human resources, customer care etc., it was difficult to believe that the young man who usually prostrated to greet me is the owner of such a big outfit. I was even more surprised when he began to share with me his vision and the projects he was working on: a tailoring training school in Abuja for a thousand apprentices and a 24-hour service laundry mart. And as he told me his story, I found it not only fascinating but inspirational, especially for young people who are looking for role models.

A graduate of Geology from the University of Maiduguri, Seyi Adekunle hails from Ile-Ife in Osun State. Upon completion of his degree programme in 1999, Seyi was posted to Akwa Ibom State for his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) assignment. It was while teaching Physics at Slawd Peters Technical in Etinam Local Government as a youth corps member that he made friends of some young tailors in the town and out of curiousity he picked interest and started to learn the trade. With time, Seyi mastered the craft and also saw an opportunity to make money to augment his NYSC monthly stipend. That was how he started making boxer shorts for his fellow corps members who became his first set of customers.

When he completed his NYSC, Seyi came to Abuja to look for job. Although he kept thinking that he could venture into the tailoring business full time, he held back because he knew his parents would never approve of such an idea. His father in fact, kept sending him contact details of people he should go to for job placements and he wrote several job examinations in the process.

The turning point, however, came in 2002 when at the final interview session of his employment into NUB International Bank (one of the seven banks that would later merge to form Unity Bank during the banking consolidation exercise), the Managing Director asked about his passion and he told a long story about his cloth making enterprise. With the session concluded, the Managing Director said: “Congratulations,  but if I were you I wouldn’t take this job. From what I can see, your other creative talent can take you to the very top.”

With the banking job secured, Seyi collected his letter of appointment and reported at the training school. But he felt no fulfillment, especially with old acquaintances sending to him messages to provide them with new boxers and shirts. With that, the words of the bank MD kept ringing in his mind such that before the training exercise ended, he decided to quit in pursuit of what had become his passion. At that point, Seyi didn’t have a shop, he had just a Ghana-must-go bag with which he was going around but he found fulfillment in what he was doing. He would travel to Aba, buy the materials, sow them and would come to Abuja to sell.

In choosing a company name, Seyi remembered a Fulani friend in school whose name was Vodi, which she said means beauty. He decided to adopt the name for his business. But it was tough at the beginning as Seyi was branded a stubborn and prodigal son by his parents who felt disappointed that he would leave a bank job and “loaf around.” So for two years, he didn’t go home. But with tenacity of purpose and discipline, Seyi’s business was picking up and after a while, his dad learnt that he had bought a car. That told the old man that his son was serious and he finally gave his blessing for Seyi to follow his dream.

When I spoke to Seyi last year, he had just started a five-year plan (from 2014 to 2019) with one of the projects (now almost completed) being an automated dry cleaning outfit that runs 24 hours. The idea, according to him, is because “there are people especially politicians whose business meetings extend till late hours and most often need dry cleaning outlets at odd hours. We want to provide such people with the opportunity of getting these services provided to them round-the-clock.”

The second project is the training school for which Seyi has already acquired a big expanse of land in Jahi, Abuja. It will have capacity for a thousand tailoring students. “The idea is to train young Nigerians who have interest in fashion. My dream is for Nigeria to be the hub of fashion in Africa, because considering the quality of our manpower, economic endowment and population we shouldn’t give such lead to Senegal, we are more creative people. For instance, VODI should be able to mass-produce uniforms for schools, the army and other institutions, and in a year or two this project would have been completed by God’s grace.”

As ambitious as the project sounds, I have no doubt in my mind that Seyi has the capacity and temperament to pull it off. But what does it take to succeed? Two things according to Seyi: Discipline and integrity. “You cannot survive the fashion industry without those two. Integrity in the sense that you have to live up to your words and at all points I try to uphold that; discipline because you cannot afford distractions. I come to work every day with the same zeal as I did the first time I started this work and I am usually the last to leave.”

The foregoing does not in any way tell the complete story of VODI and the sacrifices that Seyi Adekunle has had to make along the way, especially in the days of small beginning. But the message I want to pass is simple: if you don’t dare, you don’t win. Seyi may have studied Geology thinking he would work in the oil industry but he saw an opportunity in the area of fashion and grabbed it with both hands.

In starting this series, the idea is to encourage young people not to depend on government jobs that are, in any case, no longer there, but to ask themselves some salient questions: What are my talents? What are the needs around me that I can deploy those talents to meet and make money from? What am I passionate about that can become opportunities for self-actualisation? I am sure there are many interesting stories out there of young men and women who started out like Seyi Adekunle with nothing but their dreams and who have become not only successful entrepreneurs in their chosen fields but also employers of labour. Those are the people I intend to seek out as I continue this series so that they can share their stories with me for the benefit of our society.

 

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The Verdict Written By Olusegun Adeniyi and Culled from Thisday; [email protected]

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