Rt. Hon Prince Christopher Enweremadu is an elder statesman of Abia State and currently in the business of assisting the state government and Nigeria in the development of hospitality industry. Before now, he was the member representing Isiala Ngwa North in the Abia State House of Assembly, where he rose to become the Speaker.
In this interview with SUNDAY NWAKANMA, Rt. Hon. Enweremadu spoke on use of the second tranche of Paris inflow fund, noting that it should be equitable shared amongst competing areas of needs in the state, not just for the payment of arrears of salaries and wages.
The government you want to assist has been doing well and there is an indication that a second tranche of the Paris refund is coming to the state, the first having been well utilised by the state government. How would you advise the Abia State Government to use the fund?
One of the biggest problems we have in this country is lack of or limited information. First, it should be noted that these funds belong to the states of Nigeria and as such it is out place for the Federal Government by any means to try to dictate how the states should use these funds. I also know that every state in this country has a budget. My thinking is that the government of the federation has a responsibility to all Nigerians and if that responsibility includes advising state governments on how to use these funds, it is a welcome development. But when it becomes a directive, it becomes an impediment on the democratic principles of this nation and the constitution at large.
Being that this money already and originally belong to the states of the federation, the first way to go about it is once we sit and decided on these funds, states should make supplementary budgets to accommodate this money which had not been anticipated for. I assume that they had not expected this money, so supplementary budgets should be made to legalise the expenditures that would be made from this money. Once that is done, if you are now asking me what do I think the states should do with the money, the state has varying challenges and I think in Abia State, the challenges ranges from unpaid wage bills to infrastructure, security and to so many other things that are part of the day to day and annual needs of the people of Abia. I think that the state should try as much as possible to balance all these needs, including the need to put this money in such a manner that it will create an enabling environment to secure funds for the future and this can only be done when we improve on our infrastructure, when we create agricultural platforms that the state is already doing. When we do more in it, that will ensure that tomorrow, we are able to earn more for the state. I also believe that when somebody works, they are entitle to their wages and I would also encourage that the state makes out a percentage of this sum towards paying off wage bills that are verifiable, not the numerous ghost workers that are existing in Abia State. I want to commend the audacity of the Abia State government in trying to fish out ghost workers and ensure that only people who are in the employment of the state are paid for the services they rendered for the state.
If so, how would you prioritise the needs of the state and on where the use of the fund should start from?
There is this problem we have in this country and it is that we are a bandwagon society. This is because there are all these fracas and agitations on unpaid bills and salaries. There is the tendency to put pressure on government that every fund that comes to the state government must be used to pay salaries. I am not one of those who are part of supporting that. In fact, I think the civil service has become a problem unto itself. I was privileged to be a local government chairman in Isiala Ngwa North and I told the staff of the council that there is no ghost worker working in Isiala Ngwa North that you do not know. So when you allow them to exist on your wage bill, you are part of the problem and when this problem persists, you cannot hold anyone responsible for it. You know who are in your department. The people, the cashiers doing the payments know the people who do not exist and yet, they continued to turn a blind eye. This is the day of reckoning and the accumulated sums of monies credited to even non-existing workers have become the burden of government. So, if you shit where you work and eat, the smell will be yours to bear and that is what is happening in our society. Government must be realistic. The civil service workforce, what percentage of the population of Abia State does they constitute? You must provide funds to them to that regard. There are people who are not civil servants, there people who are in the open market, there are other people who are Abians as well. They too demand a fair share of this allocation. Some people mistake monies that come to government to mean money to pay people in the workforce. No, it is money to take care of every Abian. If I am not in the civil service, I require security, the provision of electricity, and motorable roads. All these things are part of the requirements of Abians and you cannot limit the provision and the responsibility of the state government to giving civil servants their salaries.
In other words, how should the fund be shared?
I am saying share the fund equitably. If 20%, 30% is equitable for arrears of salaries, let it be that. My point is that the only people the government is releasing money for is not for those in its workforce. The people who are privately employed, we vote on the days of election. We are also responsibilities to the government and our services in this state also matters.
Are you now trying to exonerate politicians from the ghost workers syndrome that bedevils the state civil service?
The politicians are like soldiers. Civil servants are the barracks. Politicians would come and go, the civil servants would always be there. So, we cannot put the blames of many years of ghost worker syndrome on politicians, who in most cases their (political) life time as provided by the constitution does not extend beyond 8 years and that is the most when it comes to executive offices. In the local government, it is just two years. These civil servants have 35 years of service. They go from one local government to the other and in the positions where they can verify who are ghost workers or not. Everybody must take a part of this blame. They cannot heap it on the doors of government because I am speaking from a first and position where when I was the local government chairman, the wage bill in Isiala Ngwa North when I arrived was N33 million. I introduced a clock-in, clock-out electronic system and within a month, our wage bill dropped from N33 million to N26 million. When we left, they restored it again to N33 million and started paying ghost workers and themselves and whoever came after us. So, there is a moral issue. I keep asking them, it is like when you are cooking on your house and you have five children, whole only three are in the house. Will you serve food for five people? No, you will not. That is what is practically happening in our local government. They know where their problems are.
How can we get it right?
If they want to get this thing right, they must take the necessary steps and I want to sincerely appreciate the boldness, the audacity that this government is addressing this because that is the bane. If you go across most of the local governments ns the South east, you find out that Abia state appears to be the worst in the ghost worker and illegal employment saga and it started from the beginning in 1999 and it has persisted and the time has come to identify people who has no business (with the civil service).
What is the way forward?
Let me also tell you, we have unproductive workers in our civil service system. Isiala Ngwa North local government council, for example, will not need more than 500 people to run that place, yet when I was there, they had 1,600 staff. So, they are unproductive. Government has to device a means, and I do not mean sack, but find a means to make them productive. I thank God that the state is now diversifying into the areas of agriculture. Let them go and farm and farm out their salaries. You have to be productive. The local government programme cannot be an unemployment benefit scheme. If government wants to create an unemployment benefit scheme, they should go ahead, call it and create it as such. You cannot be promoted and keep promoted with an unemployment benefit scheme.
Are you now suggesting that to limit the size of workers at the local government level, that the operations of the local government system should be computerised?
Definitely, we should know that we should have a verifiable system that can identify those who are actually workers or not. We were able to do it in Isiala Ngwa North and we still have records of those who are authentic staff of that local government and if government goes one step further, make the local government earn, produce or provide at least 20% or 30% of their wage bill, it can be done. We have arid farm lands across the state. Put them to farm, put them on the roads, use them to create and do activities that can earn money. Think if you have a farm in a local government like Isiala Ngwa North and you deploy 300 staff to that place, let them earn what they are going to eat, let them grow one bag of cassava at least a month. There is land there and it can be done. Most of them are redundant. None of these local governments in Abia State, apart from may be the urban ones, needs more than 600 people to run it.
Are now asking the local government areas to re-orientate themselves?
Definitely, when I had the very impressive support of NULGFE when I was the council chairman, they gave me a tremendous support and that was why we were able to achieve what we achieved in Isiala Ngwa South because, I brought them in, debriefed them, showed them where we were, where we could get and they helped us and encouraged to identify those who were not real workers of the local government. This was because they saw what we were facing and I believe, if there is a general attitude in that regard, the state will be far better for it.
You are now in the hospitality industry. What advice would you give the state government to encourage the sector?
I have many interests when it comes to investment. This is a selected toy in that regard. The hospitality industry is an industry that runs on certain premises. First, there must be security. People that will patronize you needs to be available and those that will patronize you needs to needs to earn money. So, government needs to find a way to provide security and device a way to put money into peoples’ pocket so that after doing the necessary things, they will find time to fund luxury. If you have not paid your child’s school fees, if you have not eaten at least the basic square meals, you might find it difficult to go and take hospitality. Also for those who are coming from outside the state, who are here on business, and who are principally the target client in the hospitality industry, there needs to be security and light. So have been open for about two weeks and have been running on the generating set every day and twenty four hours. This cannot be encouraged.
What is the benefit of local government election and how will it assist the LGAs in the state?
The basic is that the Governor of Abia State is very well intending to provide good governance to the people of Abia State. He is a friend of all and the leader of the party on the state and all part of his ideals and that of the party. I assure you that whatever measure of control is being exercised through the apparatus of government is done in the best interest of the people of Abia State.