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Unpaid Salaries: Okorocha Dares Imo Workers

Owerri, the Imo State capital may become a theatre of war between the Rochas Okorocha-led government and the state work force, which embarked on five-days warning strike to demand months of unpaid salaries and allowances.

While governors, Mohammed Abubakar, and Simon Lalong, of Bauchi and Plateau states respectively are appealing to their workers to call off the on-going strike actions in both states, their Imo state counterpart on Wednesday ordered the striking civil servants in the state to resume work immediately or risk being summarily sacked.

The Governor who read the riot act while addressing some youths, who paid him a solidarity visit at the Government House, Owerri, on Wednesday accused the workers of reneging on the recent agreement it freely entered with the state government, describing the current strike as “illegal and would not be tolerated next time.

“It was the considered opinion of the Governor that “the strike was politically motivated and principally aimed at rubbishing the good reputation of his administration,” he noted. He wondered why civil servants should embark on strike “because of just months of unpaid salaries” owed by his administration.

Okorocha was particularly irked that no other state went on strike over non-payment of salaries, considering the economic meltdown facing the country. “I do not know of any other state whose workers went on strike as a result of unpaid salaries. Imo workers treated me unjustly by embarking on the current industrial action”, Okorocha said.

Explaining why he took the decision to sack the striking workers if they fail to resume, the Governor said a lot of youths in the state are in need of employment. Regardless of the governors warning, labour leaders in a joint statement issued in Owerri on Wednesday by the state Chairman of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Austin Chilapku, Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) Chairman, B. I. Onuoha, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) Chairman, Dr. Hyacinth Emele, and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Chairman, B. C. Akalazu, directed their members to immediately proceed on strike with immediate effect following the inability of the state government to pay them their three months salary arrears. Labour also ordered pensioners not to appear before any verification team set up by the state government, stressing this verification had been conducted several times by the present administration, without paying the pensions.

The governor had through his media aide, Sam Onwuemedo, recalled that on Monday July 6, 2015, the state government and members of the organized labour had met and agreed that the few months outstanding workers’ salaries in the state would be paid up to the month of June, with both parties also agreeing that the payment would be subject to the availability of the bail-out fund. His word, “Part of the agreement also was that where the bailout fund is not sufficient, the labour leaders and the government would meet to take decision on the next step to take.

It is against the backdrop of these agreements that the state government feels disappointed with the 5-day warning strike, which the workers in the state have embarked upon now because the truth of the matter is that the bailout fund has not come. We had earlier made such clarification and the situation is still like that.

“The labour leaders would have done their investigation to see whether the government is saying the truth or not, with the issue of   the bailout fund. Even when the governors in the country had, at the end of the meeting of their forum told Nigerians that the bailout fund had not been given. “To the state government, the 5-day warning strike is uncalled for.

It is not justifiable especially when it is on record that the Rescue Mission Government in the state had never owed workers before now. We ask for understanding on the part of Imo workers. The state government does not wish to owe any worker in the state.” However, there indications that the governor may head to court to request Judicial option which would see the judiciary asking workers to resume work.

+According to reports, the strike action literally paralyzed government activities in most government offices across Imo State. Late last week, the organised labour after a meeting of its leaders agreed to embark on strike action to show resentment to state government’s insensitivity to welfare of the workers in Imo. Apart from salary arrears, the state workers are protesting undue deductions from their monthly pay package as well as frivolous deductions from their statutory incomes.

At most government offices, from the state secretariats in Port Harcourt roads to schools and parastatals in the state visited, all office entrance doors are under key and lock to ensure the strike has its desired effects. Our reporter who went round Owerri and environs on Monday revealed that the state secretariat, on Port Harcourt road was completely locked as labour leaders insisted that all the unpaid salaries must be cleared before the workers will come back.

“Okorocha will come and bring us back to work from our various houses only by paying our salaries till date”, a worker who came on sympathy visit to the labour leaders volunteered. Some workers who were ignorant of the new development were forced out from their various offices to join the strike action.

There are growing fears that some state governors may not access the bailout fund by the federal government as some banks they are indebted to have perfected plans to confiscate the fund. In fact, the Zamfara State governor, Abdualziz Yari, recently confirmed this fear. According to Yari, the $2.1 billion dividend paid into the Federation Account by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Company (NLNG), which the Federal Government used to bail out debtorstates, were seized by some banks over debts.

The fund was part of the presidential palliative as intervention package to help bankrupt states settle salary arrears. Yari, who again met with Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), Tuesday night, told State House Correspondents, that no other bail-out aside the NLNG has been released to states, but that some states had theirs seized because they were lagging behind in their loans repayment.

Yari, who is also the Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Governors Forum, said, “what I am saying, no money has been released yet, but I think the NLNG money that was given, some states, their shares were taken by the banks because of debts. So, automatically, that has to go there.

“But I think the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor is negotiating with the banks on how we are going to share, now we have agreed that this bailout or intervention funds are coming so that they will know the purpose the palliative was made for the states to rescue them to pay staff salaries. “But for sure, some other governors reported that money went to their accounts, it was taken by some banks because of their outstanding loans”, he said.

Yari also blamed the media for demonizing some governors over their distressed situation, saying if the banking sector and the downstream sector got bail-outs, there was nothing wrong if states in distress are also assisted out. He said, “The Federal Government wants to give bailout to states because of the situation but the way you guys (the media) are talking about it. Of course, the bailout is in the works and the bailout can be made either to the states or to any sector of the economy.

“As I have been saying, the bailout has been made in the banking sector and bailout has also been made in the downstream sector of the economy. Keen political watchers caution Imo state governor to adopt a more subtle approach in resolving the current face-off instead of threatening the already traumatised workers with sack.

-Peterclaver Egbochue writes on the face-off between Governor Rochas Okorocha, of Imo State and the state civil servants who are asking to be paid their salaries and allowances.

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