Evaluating The Gains And Pains Of The Kogi State Govt’s Staff Verification Exercise, By Petra Akinti Onyegbule
With a monthly wage bill well in excess of 3 billion naira and total monthly revenue comprising federal allocation and internally generated revenue that would occasionally manage to hit 2.7 billion naira on a particularly good month, it was a politically and ethnically divided state with huge infrastructural deficit and very lopsided finances that Governor Yahaya Adoza Bello inherited in January last year at the behest of his administration.
This extraordinary state of affairs put the incoming governor in between a rock and a hard place, but he wasted little time in setting up a Staff Verification Exercise Committee. This committee was tasked with helping to plug the leakages in the system by sanitising government payroll and pruning the state’s civil service, ridding it of ghost workers, an extremely padded work force, shocking redundancies, double paychecks, proliferation of ineligibles, and names that should generally not be on the government’s payroll.
Granted that with the exercise marking its first year today, it has no doubt taken longer than was originally envisaged. However, the groundswell of resistance towards the idea of staff verification was so intense and so rancorous right from the onset that one cannot in all honesty overlook the fact that many of these dissenting voices are sponsored by our detractors and people who desire not the progress of the state nor the welfare of its citizens by clandestinely encouraging the old order of fees manipulation, voucher-stuffing and inappropriate payment that perpetually plunged the State’s finances into bad debt and dour watershed. This is not to discountenance the sincere concerns of genuinely aggrieved workers who have been affected by the exercise, but ultimately, the exercise has been to the benefit of the people whom the Government swore to serve.
Findings of the committee so far have revealed how massive the drain on the state’s scarce finances have been. At this point, the exercise now saves the state billions of naira, with as many as 8,879 ghost workers flagged on the payroll. To be honest, this is a huge one and it is quite unfortunate to imagine how much funds had gone into the coffers of ghost workers who never worked for the government. ‘It is no longer business as usual, but business unusual’, the people remarked as the bad eggs are flushed out.
These staggering numbers ensure the state’s books are firmly in the red and awkwardly in unjustifiable deficit even before anything gets done in terms of execution of capital projects. What this means in essence is that even if all that was expected of government was to sign off on monthly payroll, Kogi’s federal allocation plus IGR would require significant subvention for salaries alone to be sorted out on a monthly basis, just because of the nefarious activities of some evil cabals who out of their stuffing dubious efforts have made it increasingly difficult, If not impossible for the State to meet its statutory monthly payment obligations.
This level of sleaze is what some fellow Kogites had gotten used to over time and under previous administrations, and it goes to explain the absolute lack of infrastructure in the state, even as public debts and obligations kept mounting to high heavens in unimaginable proportions. And here was this young, but very competent Governor with vast administrative experience attempting to expose all of that monthly ritual, and put an end to it. No one expected the payroll cabal would go down without a fight, so we were prepared for them from the get go as no one fights corruption without corruption fighting back.
Like as already been noted, this Government regrets the hiccups the exercise has endured so far. Valid concerns were raised by Labour vide the respective unions about the original committee tasked with this assignment. Unfortunately, mistakes were made in the process of trying to make the process more transparent and all-inclusive. But rather than churn out a shoddy job, Governor Bello would rather a thorough job is done that will stand the test of time, and also offer a veritable platform to build upon, irrespective of how long it takes, afterall, whatever was worth doing at all, is worth doing well.
At the last count, 88,973 individuals have been screened at state and local government level, with an appeal panel set up to address valid complaints from those who were not cleared. Gradually, the State is making progress in its lofty initiative of ridding the civil service of palpable rot and a bloated payroll of non-existent workers. The process may be slow and painstaking, but it is sure and steady. The exercise might come with temporary pains, but the gains are permanent and enduring. The State Government thus wants to assure the people that the outcome will be fair to all concerned. While at it, the Bello-led government continues to ensure payment of entitlements to its bonafide workers as verified with promises to extend same to others going through the verification processes.
Equally significant is the pace of infrastructural development ongoing in countless parts of the state. As government plugs drains in the system, it is also working hard at expanding its revenue base and converting it’s savings into verifiable laudable schemes of visible development. The significant savings arising from the painful but necessary payroll reforms, plus government earnings from other sources are all coming together to help transform the state into one big construction site, and for the benefit of all Kogites.
As expected, every cogent change takes time and comes with considerable resistance. The proponents and the beneficiaries of the padded work force would naturally resist the move and paint the process as a witch-hunting exercise with maligning anecdotes. But one thing about witch-hunting is that it takes a witch to be witch-hunted, this is by self-acceptance, admittance, rather than critical indictment. Staff verification is known to have taken much longer elsewhere, but there seems to be something about Yahaya Bello’s Kogi that gets people talking all the time, even when the chatter is unwarranted.
More often than not, sacrifices like this are misunderstood to be punishment because of the skewed perception of the illegitimate beneficiaries. But this is a cleansing measure to save the State’s finances, not a punitive one. The Governor’s determination to be thorough about the exercise, rather than pay lip service to it and achieve little or nothing in the end, sets him apart from the others. His mantra is that, whatever happens, no genuine worker will be sacked. And God willing, the outcome of the exercise will endure integrity tests. This is the Bello ideal and midas touch mantra.
This is why an Appeal Panel was set up to ensure that every worker who has not been cleared is given a final opportunity to do so. What’s more, the Appeal Panel has been charged to let the work they do be guided by the principles of fairness, transparency and justice. It has been tasked to ensure that no innocent person suffers the brunt unjustly and no guilty is left in the saving books unhammered. The era of sacred cows is over and for good.
Again, let me echo His Excellency’s commitment to ensuring all genuine workers and pensioners get their legitimate due. Painful as a surgery can be, some times it is the only option if a life must be saved. Every surgical operation comes with some opening and some pain, but the patient must ensure same to be whole. One cannot because of labour pains refuse to give birth again. So it is with Kogi State and these necessary civil service reforms. We had gotten to the point where no other approach would have sufficed in order to keep the State afloat. It is only logical that blockage replaces leakages for development aims to be reasonably achieved.
To ensure proper deterrence is set, and in order to avoid a slide back to our former ways anytime soon, the Governor intends to make examples of some senior civil servants under whose watch the state’s finances were so pillaged. Permanent secretaries, Directors, Treasurers and other key personnel will be made to account for expended funds that passed through them. As a result, accountability must be the watchword going forward. Civil servants must learn to take responsibility.
As always, government craves the indulgence of Kogites and seeks their usual understanding in stemming the tide of this corruption that has deprived Kogites of meaningful development for ages. Having come this far, the end of this difficult exercise is already in sight. By end of March, we would be completely done with this phase of the civil service reforms. As funds get freed up from the clutches of those who have intercepted them all these years, they will be made readily available to genuine, hardworking and deserving staff who have worked and earned their wages. Soon, the era of delayed salaries will be long-forgotten.
Additionally, civil servants will be equipped with the requisite resources including manpower trainings that they will require to add value to the system and ensure we have an efficient and effective civil service that is merit-driven, competitive, productive, sound, sustainable and sustained. As cliche as it may sound, the entrenched rot took years to take root and bear fruits. One year is a long time, but not too long to displace a monster which had grown really powerful enough to threaten the existence of the State. March is here, this phase shall be over and the civil service structure we help build today will ensure the state’s workforce is not taken for a ride again. Until this is done can there be room for genuine recruitment of those willing to work in line with the Government’s laudable dream.
Having obtained the feedback on payment; it was discovered that some were overpaid, some underpaid, whilst some were cleared but yet unpaid. This problem was however caused by the different bankers who had to deal with the enormity of work in tandem with the staff verification exercise. But despite the understandable cause, Mr. Governor was displeased with the Banks and he very much expressed his displeasure at their incompetence especially because of those cleared workers that were yet unpaid and he swiftly directed a redress.
A reconciliation team to look into the books and reconcile the records have been doing just that. This past Friday, some cases were sorted and some medical doctors who were erroneously paid via Grade Level instead of CONMESS had their cases sorted out. This is effective governance in display and leadership at work and Mr. Governor deserves accolades for his sheer humanity on this.
Beyond this, it is instructive to note that the widespread digitalization of the State workforce has begun. We are moving with the times in line with international best practices and standards in order to put paid to deliberate errors of human judgment for pecuniary advantages. This is ultimately to regulate and concretize our payroll, to ensure that payment is standardized on one hand and the ‘Clock in and clock out’ policy as obtained in the developed world to ensure people work for their wages and that the government no longer pays for work not done or pay for what it never bought. All these are lofty strides put in place by the digital Governor in this tech age towards improving civil service efficiency and productivity.
At the end of the staff and pensioners’ verification exercise, there will be monumental benefits to the State, the workers, pensioners and the generality of Kogi State people. It is normal that restructuring policies of government verging on tax, wage cuts, verification of workers and pensioners which are sound policy prescriptions would be often misinterpreted because of incompatible partisan interest. What is paramount however is that a serious government gives primacy and utmost priority to sound restructuring policies that have the best possible positive impact on the greatest number of people. This is what the Bello-led administration has done. This is what this government exemplifies.
This administration inherited several major liabilities. One of them is this over-bloated wage bill with the vouchers inundated with many ‘Ghost Names’ on the State Government’s payroll, this exercise has therefore assisted in weeding out ghost names with great successes recorded. This savings will thereby create room for some genuine employment. Government’s thrust is to undertake the verification exercise thoroughly to block all leakages. It is against this background that the verification exercise executed by this administration is deemed timely.
From the budgetary point of view, a massive recurrent expenditure stultifies development and does not encourage government to meet its macroeconomic goals of wealth and job creation, capital project funding and above all poverty reduction in the State. Since the verification exercise has the ability of reducing the burdening cost of governance, then it is equally capable of reducing recurrent expenditure. A reduction of the recurrent component of the budget implies that more capital projects would be embarked upon to re-position the economy on a strong pedestal to create jobs for the good people of Kogi.
The verification exercise is therefore well intended to block leakages in an era when the Nigerian economy is hemorrhaging, with profound backlash on staff salaries and its attendant unmet expectations in service delivery and it is hoped that it is encouraged and supported by all the well-meaning people of Kogi. Verification seeks to free some money for investment in critical infrastructure with spill-over effect on capital development. This indeed is the core essence and the overarching goal of the verification exercise. Ostensibly, in seeking the ‘public good’ in the overall interest of the people.
Another very germane reason is the desire for transparency and accountability. This government is built on public trust and accountability. The civil service is the live-wire of Government, which requires periodic restructuring for effective and productive service delivery of government policies and programmes. This lofty objective cannot be accomplished without staff verification, which helps in planning, policy packaging and implementation. Implementation, being the engine room of Government. It is only when the government knows it’s actual workforce, that it can adequately plan for them.
In the words of the NLC Chairman, Onu Edoka, “one of the most significant effects of the exercise is ‘attitudinal change’ amongst civil servants. If we understand the profundity of attitude on individuals and society, we will appreciate the enormity of work and impact this simple verification exercise has had on the general psyche of civil servants to make them more accountable and transparent in the discharge of their statutory duties.