Whilst it is true that the economic recession afflicting the nation has forced state governments to devise ingenious strategies and policies to keep themselves afloat, the intervention of the Federal Government to halt the ongoing reduction of workers’ salaries and truncation of work hours, carried out by some state governments as a means of revenue generation, is very timely and necessary. It is a bold recall of these state governments from high-falutin fantasies and grandiosity.
Recently, there were reports that some states, in order to catch some breath of survival in this suffocating recession, have implemented salary reduction regimes for their workforce. Apart from Osun State, which amicably settled with its workers for a temporary slash in salary after series of protests, Nasarawa State, Benue State, Imo State are still grappling with the aftermath of their governments’ cost-cutting policies. So serious were the effects of salary-reduction protests that in Nasarawa State two workers were allegedly killed by police.
Reacting to the death associated with industrial action over salary reduction in Nasarawa State, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, stated that state governments lacked authority to interfere with workers’ salaries. At a reconciliation meeting with the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Nasarawa State Government over the incident, Ngige asserted inter alia: “… that reduction of hours of work, which has started to creep into Labour lexicon by some state governments is not within their powers.”
Despite this advice, many state governments have not made efforts to change tack. So far, the most audacious of them is the Imo State policy of “Back to Land for Agriculture Programme.” Established as Imo State’s response and panacea to the present economic downturn, it mandated civil servants of the state to work three days in the week, and use the remaining two for farming.Whilst the idea of an agricultural revolution may not, in principle, be a bad idea, its feasibility within the operative capability of Imo State and the dictates of the law, is in question.
Howbeit, there are arguments that the power of state governments to devise means of empowering their citizens and of revamping their economic situation, is consistent with true federalism. Two instances in this regard suffice. One is the Kaduna State law that prohibits child labour and enforces, under the pains of prosecution, basic education for all children in the state, in order to empower its citizens for national competitiveness. The other is the mutually beneficial diversification strategy of the Lagos State government which led to the cultivation of rice on lands in Kebbi State. In this plan, not only does Lagos generate revenue, but also the arable lands of Kebbi are put to use, even as its citizens are economically empowered. Thus, it is within the powers of the state to do the needful to safeguard the health, wealth and safety of its citizens.
However, the Okorocha strategy of cost-reduction and salary slashing is a pointer to how federalism should not be practiced. The intention to practice true federalism is not a licence for frivolities. Notwithstanding whatever good intentions his government has, the after-thought and fire-brigade approach to weather the economic storm smack of planlessness. It is not known whether the “Back to Land” programme is a mere directive to individuals to take up some kind of agricultural smallholding for self-sustenance, or a grand economic diversification policy to generate revenue for the state.
Irrespective of the N2 billion earmarked for the programme, it is pertinent to ask whether there is provision for land to be cultivated, tools and implements to be used. It should also be asked whether the civil servants have the requisite knowledge to farm. What has the government been doing about the personnel and experts in the state’s ministry of agriculture? Was there widespread consultation with the people on the matter? This same governor started off as a pro-people administrator, who, in order to encourage parents, was giving children money for them to go to schools and feeding them. But he would seem to have become an autocrat, dishing out outlandish policies without consultations.
It is for this and other similar reasons that this newspaper supports the intervention of the Federal Government on the matter. By its paternalistic arbitration over this trending charade of dubious economic diversification, the Federal Government is once again emphasizing its status as the chief regulator of labour and allied matters in the country.State governments in dire economic straits should not arm-twist the law through grandiose adventure in the name of cost-cutting. Beyond cutting of wages, state governments should ensure that any policy to cut cost should cut across board.
They should look into spending on frivolities and other crony capitalistic expenditures that deplete the state coffers. Beyond this, they should embark on creative thinking to shore up revenue for their administrations. Whatever ingenuous schemes they come up with must be in accordance with the capabilities of the state government. They must operate according to the Nigerian Constitution which stipulates equal work for equal pay, within the ambit of international labour laws, which stipulate equitable work-time ratio for citizens.