The travails of Malam Nasir El-Rufai, by Azu Ishiekwene

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Azu Ishiekwene.
Azu Ishiekwene.

Conversation with Azu

The list was long and the contents harsh and threatening. The notices may have been issued separately, but they landed like a packaged digital bomb in my WhatsApp inbox.

Eight unions, apart from the central body, had collectively declared war on Kaduna State Governor, Malam Nasir El-Rufai. The die was cast.

The unions were the Nigeria Union of Railway Workers; the National Union of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions Employees; the Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations, Civil Service Technical and Recreational Services Employees; the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions; the National Union of Electricity Employees; the National Union of Teachers; the National Union of Food Beverage and Tobacco Employees; the Radio, Television, Theatre and Arts Workers Union of Nigeria; and of course, the national and state chapters of the Nigeria Labour Congress.

When I saw copies of the notices by these unions between May 10 and 14, threatening to start a five-day warning strike in Kaduna by midnight on Sunday, I knew that the haven of Nigeria’s northern elite, which has been at the centre of much grief in recent times, was heading for more trouble.

Perhaps because they already have swathes of the state in the grips, the only groups that did not threaten el-Rufai with an ultimatum last week were kidnappers and bandits, although el-Rufai being el-Rufai, he still described the striking workers as “bandits”.

How did the state dig itself into this hole?

In April, El-Rufai said he was fed up with using resources meant for the state’s nine million people to look after about 100,000 civil servants who consume 90 per cent of the resources.

He did not say what the exact figures were, but records show that Kaduna receives a monthly average allocation of N4.2 billion from Abuja, which, in fact, is the monthly average for the 36 states.

If civil servants alone received 90 per cent of that figure, minus what is generated internally by the government, it means that for every one naira that comes from Abuja, civil servants – who are roughly one per cent of the population – get 90k. At that rate, even if civil servants consumed everything, including what is borrowed, the state will still have to enter their pockets to fill it.

Labour insists that El-Rufai is telling one side of the story. NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, said the problem with Kaduna is not the number of civil servants on payroll, but the appetite of the governor whose political appointees are feeding fat on the state.

Again, he did not provide the figures in the same way he also accused the governor of redistributing property grabbed from ordinary people to his “capitalist confederates” without naming them.

Labour’s main grouse is that thousands of teachers sacked since 2017 have not been paid. They also accused the governor of violating labour laws by retiring workers before 35 years of service or 60 years of age and for failing to consult with labour as provided under the law, preferring instead, to take the law into his own hands.

Kaduna may be in the eye of the storm but the states, almost without exception, are in a bad place. If they were companies, the management would have filed for bankruptcy. Apart from Lagos, which generates the equivalent of the internal revenues of at least 24 other states put together, virtually all the states are struggling.

Only last month, Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, said the Central Bank printed between N50 billion and N60 billion in March to keep the government afloat. In the last six years, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has bailed out the states twice mainly to pay salaries.

The first bailout was less than three months after his election in 2015, when he signed off $2.1billion for salary arrears in states, and then again two years later when another N614billion was shelled out to states where salaries were being owed for upwards of seven months.

With the steady fall in the price of oil and the COVID-19 pandemic, government revenue has fallen by nearly 60 per cent and Abuja which has been bailing out the states is in need of a bailout.

In the crossfire between el-Rufai and labour, it’s easy to miss the point. The governor has been criticised – and rightly – for declaring Wabba wanted and putting a bounty on his head. He has no power to do so under the law nor does his exaggerated opinion of himself do him any favours.

But labour is not exactly smelling of roses. It is wrong for federal workers that are not direct parties in the dispute to be involved in a local strike and to behave as if they had been looking for an opportunity to ground the state.

What business, for example, did railway workers, electricity workers or airport staff, have joining the strike when these services are wholly owned and funded by federal agencies? It is hypocritical to condemn or criticise El-Rufai for behaving like a tyrant without calling out the lawlessness of federal workers who maliciously weaponised the strike.

El-Rufai’s tongue, twice his body size and often more deadly than a poisoned arrow would always get him in trouble. Yet often, his competence redeems his bad politics and other congenital flaws.

At a time when many states are on their knees and internal revenue has fallen catastrophically, Kaduna increased its internal revenue over four times between 2015 and 2019, raising it to 40 per cent of the state’s budget, when others like Bayelsa and Adamawa are at a miserable 10 per cent.

Even though Kaduna is far less endowed than many northern states, it beats them hands down in its investment per capita in education and other social infrastructure.

Other states may be having a good laugh at El-Rufai’s expense now, but their own chicken is coming home to roost. Even though the national minimum wage law was signed two years ago, at least 11 states are not paying, a dozen or so are paying only a category of workers, while a few, which actually started paying, have reverted to the old wage.

Of course, there are still quite a few governors who created useless positions, as “jobs for the boys”. But the harsh economic reality has forced a number of them to reduce the salaries paid to these appointees by half.

A nationwide survey by the public sector finance watchdog, BudgIT in 2017, showed that 20 states owed workers salaries and pensions ranging from one to 36 months, while Imo, Taraba and the Niger States were owing two to three years pension arrears.

Not to provoke a labour backlash, many of them have invented ways of managing public sector pay misery, mostly by simply kicking the can down the road, which is what el-Rufai has refused to do.

Yet, to talk about public service pay misery is to put the cart before the horse. The real virus that first infected the place from the federal, and later on to the state levels, was the indiscriminate and vindictive purge during the military era. The service has since been a shadow of itself – bloated, corrupt and largely bereft of capacity.

Politicians have not made things any better. They have made the public service a dumping ground for incompetents; it’s the first place they think of when they want to settle political IOUs, and the last when they need quality support or advice. Today, the monster they created is coming back to haunt them and the beast already used to years of freeloading, won’t go away quietly.

There’s no easy way out. El-Rufai must suspend his bluster and seize the opportunity provided by the federal government’s intervention to engage labour in a clear and transparent manner. He must also stand firm and resist the temptation for a quick fix.

Labour should avoid the temptation to extract commitments that may please its members now, but which may, in fact, be empty promises in the long run. How this matter is settled would determine how quickly other states begin to tackle similar problems – or whether, once again, they’ll kick the can down the road.

Ishiekwene is the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP

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