Who will Rescue the Rescuer? – Kissinger Ikeokwu

rescue the rescuer(1)Since my last article “Imo empty Treasury: How did we get here” went viral, I am happy at the responses that have followed it. I am more particularly happy that against the usual practice by overzealous government defenders, no one has dared challenge my deduction that the failure of Imo State government to pay salaries is more as a result of the reckless loans the Governor Owelle Anayo Rochas Okorocha accumulated in his first tenure than it is as a result of fall in the Imo State allocation from the Federation Account. Today Imo is in auto-pilot. The governor has remained silent and has refused to address its citizens on the state of Imo finances. The newly inaugurated House of Assembly has abdicated their responsibility as the representatives of the people as they sit arms akimbo. They seem to have sworn not to address the hues and cries of Imo workers and pensioners, so that they won’t incur the wrath of the governor. At least not in this early, hence their criminal silence.  Else where everybody is tight-lipped. Leaders in criminal silence in a time Imo people would have loved to see their own Sir Bob Njemanze who went public endorsing the governor on air during electioneering. Today, the distinguished statesman feigns ignorance of the massive mess caused by the same administration he partnered few weeks after he gave it a public endorsement. The major opposition party, the PDP seems to be chorusing in silence that Imo people deserved what they are facing today since they refused the option they offered them.

 

In other hand, the level of haplessness and incapacitation of the Owelle Rochas Okorocha administration is scandalous and criminal. This gives an insight into what would have been the fate of any of the governor’s challengers had they defeated him in the last elections.  Many would have seen it as political if any of the challengers of the governor took over from him and claimed they met an empty treasury. One segment of people that would have found it a difficult buy would be the teachers who found him their toast who never delayed in paying their salaries. But today teacher’s salaries are being owed and paid in arrears as our governor remained hapless with no resolution in sight. No one expected the Rescue Mission administration to be desperate in need of rescue so soon. Not a wonderful government which came with a brand new economic theory called the “Rochanomics”. Infact our governor is using Imo economy as a test for his dream application of the Rochanomics theory for the whole country he aspires to lead as President. Now that the Rochanomics is leading Imo to insolvency, we can now understand where it would lead Nigeria should he emerge President in line with his dream.

 

The leadership of labour unions and their Joint Public Service Negotiating Council succeeded in playing their usual politics for some time, but failed to hold on when the massive hunger faced by the workers forced a consensus amongst workers. They took the extreme measure by launching a one-week warning strike. But the governor would not take it. He accused the Imo labour force of being politically induced to embark on the warning strike. One wonders if the governor really understood the condition which Imo workers have been subjected to in the past few months. When civil servants are owed arrears some 8, 6, 5 and the least being 3 months you can imagine the hardship they face going to work. Most can’t sustain paying transport fare, while those who own cars cannot fuel their cars any longer. Many Imo workers can’t meet up with the payment of their rent or to settle their kids school fees. Providing food for their families have become difficult where they are already in debt of grains, wares and groceries already purchased under credit. Yet they are forced to watch the pictures of their governor’s expedition to the white House in United States. What is political when people shout out in hunger? Where lies the hand of PDP, APGA or Labour Party in the lingering salary crisis between government and labour? Perhaps the only sign of politics in the matter is the understanding that the governor stretched his personal finance when he contested for President and Governor in one general election. The reaction of the governor to the warning strike exposed his growing insensitivity to his supposed “my people my people”.

 

As the hardship bites harder in Imo, the weaknesses and incapacitation of the governor continued to be exposed. His inability to constitute his cabinet manifests his deepest incapacitation and worries most Imolites. His failure to constitute the local government leadership structure or commence processes for an LGA election which is the collective wish of his own party members and supporters further exposes his inclination towards abusing democratic principles in order to help him cushion the effect of the financial mess his administration now faces. Even the governor cannot explain how Imo State moved from a very rich state to a bankrupt state whose insolvency has made a pawn to commercial banks. Suddenly the governor lost his voice. The marathon meetings usually convened for traditional rulers, artisans, market men and women, civil servants and youths have all faded into sublime history. The chant and echoes “My People My People” “My Governor My Governor” have been suspended suddenly.

 

Needless to remind you that the Owelle Rochas Okorocha administration campaigned on a message of “Rescue”. The Governor carefully chose and christened his administration “Rescue Mission”, suggesting that it came to rescue Imo from what he supposedly termed bad leadership. Upon assuming office in 29th May, 2011, this government inherited N13.5 Billion proceed and residue of the N18.5 Billion Bond borrowed set up by his predecessor, Governor Ikedi Ohakim. It also inherited funds running into Billions of Naira in various pools like the MDG, Imo State Universal Basic Education IMSUBEB Account, and Education Trust Fund ETF etc. Under his watch, Imo local government allocation hit a consistent N150 Million monthly on average, while local governments like Mbaitoli, Isiala Mbano and Ohaji Egbma hit N170-N180 Million. These amounts are double what it was under Ohakim and triple under Udenwa. Even the governor once touted he was saving the local government funds for the 27 local government areas to avoid the funds being wasted by the local government administration. Sadly today, Imo local government workers are also being owed. The Imo bankruptcy and insolvency extends to the local governments whose respective allocations ought to pay their workers comfortably. Why would the local governments be suffering when they are supposed to be self-sustaining in their finances vis a vis payment of their workers. The answer is the Rochanomics theory that has grounded Imo State economically as it is today.

 

The sad reality is the fact that Imo State government cannot Rescue itself. That buttresses our caption hereby, “who will rescue the rescuer”? Your guess is as good as mine. Imo has manifested all the symptoms of the few salary debtor states which have been adjudged as financially reckless and who failed to apply prudence in the management of its resources when the sun was shining. First, to highlight this fact was the newly elected President Mohammadu Buhari. After the Governors besieged him at the Aso Rock asking for bailout of states who couldn’t pay salaries. He expressed cautious optimism and asked that they allow him think over their request. Upon enquiries, the President’s finding was mind blowing. First he found that the allocation of various states even as they stood today was enough to pay workers salaries in the various states. He found that only states who borrowed massively and without prudence were owing workers salary arrears. He also found that state governors who are in condition where they could not pay their workers were the few who were financially reckless. These whole symptoms manifested and are evident in Imo State today.

 

The present Governor of Anambra State, Governor Willy Obiano condemned any state government that couldn’t pay its workers. He even announced an upward increase of Anambra worker’s salaries by 15% after researching that the state had the financial ability to cushion the increase. That was from Anambra State. A non-oil producing state. Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN), a second republic minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation in an interview on Galaxy television on 2nd August, 2015, accused state governors of corruption. According to him, contrary to the cries of state governors about inheriting empty treasuries in their states, Akinjide insisted that states are broke because governors are stealing money. According to Akinjide, most of those who find themselves in govern­ment lack honour, just as he also blamed poverty for the corruption in govern­ment. Unfortunately however, Imo found itself in this category of states whose governors cannot explain how they spent the state’s hay days of boom in oil revenue.

 

Gone are the days when government image makers challenge people to prove that Owelle Rochas Okorocha administration has borrowed more than his two PDP predecessors. The feud between the governor and Zenith Bank has bust in the open like a pregnancy which could not be hidden. Speaking about the salary debtor states, and their cry for bailout, Peter Obi, former governor of Anambra State stated that the former Finance Minister Okonjo Iweala warned the governors to save for the rainy days. Peter Obi had this to say “I personally remain indebted to her because it was from her persistent preaching on the need to save in the Sovereign National Wealth Fund that made me incorporate savings in foreign currency that is why one third of the money we left on leaving office was in foreign currency, $156 million(N25 billion at that time). “With interest now it would be about $170 million and with the current rate it is almost N40 billion.” Many states in the country are owing workers salary for many months which has led to untold hardship for civil servants across the country. According to Obi, the bailout given to the states would help them restructure their debts, but he insisted that the bailout should be followed with a clause which would make the states to manage their resources well. In his words, Peter Obi said, “I have said severally that there is nothing wrong with bail-out or restructuring of debts, but I insist that such relief must be with conditions to instill fiscal discipline; else we make it a bad habit. “A debtor must live and behave like one. “So as a nation, whenever there is a need for a bail-out, be it for a state, banks or another sector we must ensure that such bail-outs do not allow the same irresponsibility that brought about its occurrence,” he concluded.

 

If you doubted the mess Imo State are in under the Owelle Anayo Rochas Okorocha leadership may be the statement of the Chairman, Nigerian Governors’ Forum, who incidentally is also the governor of Zamfara State, Abdulazeez Yari, said as reported in Punch Newspapers of 30th July, 2015 would convince you. He said banks have withheld some state’s share of the $2.1Billion Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas NLNG funds due to some states of the federation. Yari, said this in an interview with State House correspondents shortly after meeting Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, Thursday 30th July, 2015. Yari explained that states whose shares of the NLNG funds were confiscated by the banks were debtor-states. In his words “No money is released yet, but I think the NLNG money that was given some states, some states’ own was taken by the banks because it was due for them to pay certain repayment of loans, which they could not. Therefore, automatically, that had to go there. “But I think the CBN governor is negotiating with the banks on how we are going to share it. Now, we have agreed that these bailout or intervention funds are coming so that they will know the purpose they were made for the states – to rescue them and ensure that they pay the staff salaries of their respective states.”

 

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, after reading the speech by the Chairman of the Governor’s Forum who also is a governor and of the same ruling APC party, I don’t think anyone can accuse him of lying against his colleagues. From his narrative, we can make an accurate diagnosis of the current Imo financial cum economic problems. We can also deduce with much certainty that the Imo salary impasse cannot be solved in totality without the much needed bailout. It therefore follows that Imo workers should not expect that their accumulated salary arrears would be wiped out soon. It means our fate lies with Zenith Bank or other commercial banks who we do not know for now. Unless those loans are restructured up to 20 years ahead, Imo State government cannot fulfill its contractual obligation to its workers. This makes the Imo case worse. The government has been living on self denial. Refusing to tell Imo people how much it borrowed from Zenith Bank and for what purposes the money was borrowed. On their part, the last Imo House of Assembly went down ignobly as the worst House in the history of Imo State. That they allowed the level of impunity in borrowings under the current administration confounds them more than the man who activated the borrowings.

 

Can the 8th Imo House of Assembly live up to their billings? Can they succeed where the Honourable Ben Uwajimogu led House failed massively? My doubts. Their body language does not suggest they even know why they were elected. How would a House being a representative of the people keep mute all through the period of the five days warning strike by Imo workers? Why have they not spoken on the hardship Imo workers are facing? Not even the lingering impasse between the state government and management of Zenith Bank which saw them confiscate Imo funds accruing from the NLNG funds have deserved their comment talk more of investigation. The Honourable Acho Ihim led 8th Imo House of Assembly seems to have drawn up a legislative agenda that did not include Imo people. While workers were reeling on their unpaid salaries, the news we hear from the House suggests they are operating in a different society.

 

A lot still needs to be done in education and enlightenment of the citizens. Imo people need to be enlightened on the basic principles of leadership. Accountability and transparency is key. It is executive irresponsibility for an elected government to starve the citizenry of vital information especially as regards loans or borrowings it made on their behalf. Imo people deserve to know why Zenith Bank would swallow or gulp their own share of the NLNG funds and what amount of debt they sought to liquidate.  The government blanket accusation against the workers that their strike was politically motivated amounted to a deliberate and criminal diversion from the real issues it ought to be addressing. A sincere government ought to come clean to let Imo people know why the current allocation being received in the state would not guarantee payment of its labour force. If the cause of this strike is genuine, Imo people deserve to know why and for what amount Zenith Bank has held Imo finance hostage. 

 

But even if we accept that Imo workers salaries have become heavy for government, don’t I deserve explanation why my own local government Isiala Mbano allocation cannot pay the few staff of the local government? How much are the local governments receiving today after the fall in crude oil price? How much is the wage bill of each local government? Remember that by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended, the State Government is distinct and separate legal entity from the local government. The two cannot share assets and liabilities as their sources of finance are separate. How then did the battle between the Owelle Rochas Okorocha’s state government and management of commercial banks affect the local governments? Is someone thinking along with me here or am I soliloquizing? Did “My Governor, My Governor” also borrow upon the heads of the 27 local governments in Imo State? Only God would save us from the crop of people we sent as our legislators in the 7th Imo House of Assembly. If the governor can borrow massively to the point that he could mortgage the future of Imo State and its 27 local governments, reducing the state from the prosperity he confessed few years ago to a heavily indebted state, then there is no need for democracy. I cannot remember when the 7th Imo House of Assembly debated exhaustively for our governor to borrow massively from banks. Did they conspire with him? Only God knows.

 

Now that we now know that the Rescue Mission government of Owelle Anayo Rochas Okorocha is now stuck, drowning and in desperate need of rescue, we can only pray that the Federal Government releases the much needed bailout. But alas! We must first pray that the Federal Government break through in their negotiations to get commercial banks to restructure the Owelle Rochas Okorocha loan, so that it won’t go the way the NLNG fund went. The implication also is an express signal that the successive administration after this government would continue to service the loans. On what ventures and projects the governor invested the monies. I would pray that we never asked. This is the Rescue Mission, hence anything we see we better take. My prayer for the Governor is that when next he makes the choice of a top financial or economic adviser, his primary consideration should not be who would grant him quick access to loans and bank facilities, but someone who can look into his eyes and tell him what he is doing wrongly and the dangers his decisions portend for the economy of our state. For now, we must not forget to put the rescue government in our prayers, because as it stands, it needs an urgent rescue. Is it bailout? Only time will tell.

 

Ndi Imo Ndewo nu.

 

Kissinger Ikeokwu writes from Owerri

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