Comrade Anestina Iweh

Comrade Anestina Iweh, the President National Union of Local Government Employees, NULGE, Akwa Ibom State spoke to journalists last weekend on recent developments on the welfare of local government staff in the State, commended Governor Umo Eno, for paying arrears of some entitlements. She also spoke on the pre-mature retirement of some local government workers, salary arrears of 2014, poor state of infrastructure in local government councils. Our Abasifreke Effiong, Managing Editor, was there and brings you excerpts:

Q: We are aware that Local Government Staff have received arrears of leave grants. Can you confirm this?

R: We first of all say thank you to God for making it possible for the arrears of leave grants to be paid to workers in the 31 local government areas. Before now, we were thinking it will take the whole of this year for the 2020 leave grant to be paid, may be next year we will start begging for 2021. But God has so made it that a man with human feelings was elected Governor of the State. We give it to him even though we equally worked for him to emerge as Governor. When Pastor Umo Eno came to consult us, he told us if we work for him he will surprise us. We are so grateful to God and we appreciate His Excellency the Governor of Akwa Ibom state, Pastor Umo Bassey Eno, for being a man of his words. We are specifically happy for him because things that were difficult for someone to do in four years, Pastor Umo Eno has done it within a month in office. It may interest you to know that this leave grant was approved in the month of June but a little confusion set in and payment was delayed. Before now our leave grants used to come three local governments per month. For instance, if they pay three local government like this month, after four months they will pay another three local governments. But we have seen a Governor who has paid 31 local governments leave grant in one day and after two weeks another year was paid still in one day. We will not forget to say a very big thank you to the chairman of ALGON and Chairman of Esit Eket local government area, Iniobong Robson, who insisted the leave grants be paid in the month of June. We also appreciate the chairman of Local Government Service Commission and all those working with him at that level. We know if it were within the purview of the commission’s chairman, the arrears would have long been paid. We sincerely appreciate every other person whose efforts contributed to the payment of two years arrears of leave grants to workers in 31 local government areas within two months.

Q: The people you mentioned as those who assisted for the arrears to be paid were part of the last administration. What do you think was the reason this money was not paid?

R: Let me tell you we supported the last administration very well and during the second term we were the only Union that went out to campaign for the reelection of Mr. Udom Emmanuel but when he came on board it was as if he had issues with us and would be telling the press that it was not his responsibility to pay local government staff. The people that were there are still in this administration. That goes to show that the problem was not from the local government chairmen but the man that was in-charge. There must be leadership. You cannot be a Governor and pretend not to understand what is happening at the local government level. If the local government staff are not comfortable but only workers at the State level, then you are not Governor of the whole State. Umo Eno came and started asking questions knowing full well that he is the Governor of the whole State. When a leader does not take action then his subjects will flow along. I can say they didn’t want to hurt the Governor then. They were always telling him he has done well when he was not and we were not also given opportunity to inform him that what his people were telling him were not what was on ground. We were blocked. There is nothing we could have done because as a Union we needed to give that administration the support we started from the beginning. We didn’t see any need to fight. To me, at my level, I don’t think you must fight before you get what you want. If you go on to fight a man that has made up his mind you are wasting your time. I believe in dialogue, agreement and if you refuse to do it I will know you are deliberately doing it and I will take you as a wicked person. We contemplated protest or strike but I discouraged those things because I knew it would not have yielded any result. I kept on telling my people that better days will come and it has come.

Q: From the charter of demand the Union presented during the electioneering, there are other arrears. What and what are they?

R: If the Governor could be stopping somewhere to solve people’s problem, I know for sure that he will one day stop in Ikot Ekpene local government area and pay arrears of four months salary, he will stop by Ini and pay the two months arrears of salary, he will also ask questions on why ONNA, Oruk Anam, Uyo, Ika, Ibesikpo Asutan were not paid salary. Those salaries were owed when we did not operate unified form of payment. So if he will go into that, it will really show the Governor is a man of God. People were owed arrears of salary in 2014 but when a Governor came in 2015, he refused to pay on the grounds that he was not the one who owed us. But if this Governor should look into that case, honestly it will be a great thing. I know and I believe he is going to pay. These things are there in our demands we gave the Governor when he came to consult us. We will keep pleading, appealing and telling him that these were people’s salary. We know very well that His Excellency is a man of God and he will look into salary arrears of nine local government areas that are still outstanding. This salaries date back to 2014.

Q: Is NULGE still asking for scrapping of the State and Local Government Joint Account ?

R: With what is happening now I would say the Joint Account should continue. I went round the 31 local governments last year on a fact-finding mission, what I saw was disheartening. As at that time I was labelled an enemy of government and I said no, I needed to know where local government workers are operating from. I needed to know why imprest was no longer paid, I needed to know why a staff would die and government would not show interest. As at that time, no council received up to seven million Naira. It was between three to four million and the chairmen would be announcing it everywhere. Anytime local governments received between seven to ten million as at that time, there would be celebration. I want to be specific, local government under the present administration started receiving up to twenty million naira right from the month of June. As I am talking to you I learnt they received up to forty million naira last month and if you ask me again, I would say let Joint Account continue but that does not mean if autonomy comes we will not embrace. As far as we do not have the required local governments for the autonomy to be granted, I would say let Joint Account continue because I have confidence and I believe gratuity will be paid to our retirees. Our Governor said every month they will be setting aside money for gratuity. Our local government retirees are dying. The last gratuity was paid in 2013 which is up to ten years now. I would also request other allowances to be consolidated into our salary the way leave grant is done.

Q: Obviously, the local government elections would not be conducted this year after expiration of the tenure of the current council. How will this affect local government administration?

R: Well, it’s very unfortunate that they didn’t make arrangement to have the local government elections. I don’t know why. If I were the Governor, immediately I was sworn I to office, I would have met with the institutions concerned and those who would seek to contest, and ensure that the elections would be conducted. I learnt the challenge has to do with some provisions in the law, the number of days for preparation and all of that. It unfortunate that the elections won’t be conducted. However, I would like to say that it is in a caretaker government that government normally take advantage to defray some outstanding debts. The reason is that in a caretaker system, you won’t have councilors, supervisors. In those days, it used to be five, in some cases seven, but the last one we had was 10 members. Who knows what the number would be this time. I’d like to say that if we have such a large number, it will make no meaning because it would still be like we would have had a fully constituted council. If it just a-7 man committee, you will be sure that the salaries and allowances that would have been paid to councilors, supervisors can be ploughed back and used for something else for the local government council depending on the number of months they would stay. Unfortunately, as a union, we can’t decide for them, but I think having a small committee, and using the period to sought out outstandings will be in the best interest of all.

Q: As President of NULGE, you are familiar with the challenges and needs of local government councils. What do you think the Councils need for improved service delivery?

R: As a Union we have observed so many things that has gone wrong in our system. The first is, dilapidated facilities in the Councils. Some will look very fine outside but inside you will see broken tiles, falling ceilings. The new government should tell them to go back and renovate their secretariats, furnish them, and make them conducive. Many council secretariats are not connected to public power supply. You would rather see generators at every corner. Every Director will have a generator, very few has a central generator for the entire council. When the office is conducive, workers will be excited to come to work.
I thank God for the His Excellency the Governor who has said that all local government chairmen should return and live in their local government areas. Even if you don’t sleep there, let your presence be felt. When the chairman resides within the local government, there is no way the Head of Service will not sleep there, and staffs will not dare to stay away from work. When I joined the service newly, I left my community and resided in Ibaam Edet so that I can trek to the office. That was how the work used to be. But now, nobody is there. We went round the 31 local government areas and encouraged our workers to go to work. But I’m telling, in as much as government is doing this for us, we still encourage our people to go to work. When subsidy was not removed, they were complaining of transport, now there is subsidy anymore, go to those places you won’t see people. If the office environment is conducive, the administrators are found in the office, there is no way the subordinates will not be there. There is no way you will be in the office, then your messenger or clerk is not there.
Another thing is on administration. Local government no longer have their revenue. The local government revenue staff have been made redundant. Their job has been hijacked from them and given to the political class. If you dare try to go to the market to collect toll, the boys from the market will come and attack the local government revenue staff. A times they shoot guns. When the political class get the revenue, they will not bring it to the local government council. This type of arrangement is not okay for the local government administration.
I’d also like to say that imprest is a vital necessity as far as local government administration is concerned. You want me to go to work, you want me to go and type, you don’t furnish the office, you want me to use my money to buy paper for the office? Imprests are no longer paid. A staff will die, nobody cares. It is stated here in Akwa Ibom State local government rules and regulations that if a staff of level 1-6 dies, the responsibility of that local government to the family is to the tune of N100,00. Senior staff N200,000; Level 13-15, N300,000. Heads of Service, N500,000. It is clearly stated here, but it is not done.
There was a time local government staff used to get salary advance. It is no longer there. That is why we established a cooperative society here, so that our members can be getting help.

Q: How can we checkmate negligence of responsibility at the local government councils?

R: If you see what the Governor is doing, you will appreciate him, I believe he would keep on doing so. I know he is real. If you send someone to do a thing, you will have to monitor. For people who complained that the chairmen had not given them water and light, where did they expect the chairmen to take the money from? The money was not even there for the running of the local government council. I kept telling people that in those days I used to see local government councils build culverts. I remember when I joined the local government service, the electricity in Ini was drawn from Arochukwu to Odoro Ikpe by a local government chairman, Chief Ukata Akpan. That was when funds were always released to councils. Now you expect the chairman to grade a road for you? with which funds?

Q: Some staff of the local government have reportedly been retired prematurely by a consult. Are you aware of this and what are you doing about it?

R: I’m very much aware of it. In 2021 when the Commission wanted to give us what was called security encoded ID card, in the course of getting the cards, we noticed that some people have issues with their age and those things were rectified. So when the ID card came out, we noticed that some people who were to retire in 2025, the ID card stated 2022. That’s the issue we had. The consultant will just look at you and tell you that you are too old, you are not supposed to still be in the service, your mates have retired since, even when you show him your document.
We had said no, if you observe anything, write to the Commission. The Commission is the institution to look into it, not you stopping people’s salary arbitrarily. Based on a query, the Commission had invited the consultant to come so that those issues would be resolved.
As a Union we will not keep quiet. In as much as we appreciate the local government service commission, our members should not be put under unnecessary stress. You can’t look at someone’s face and determine the age of retirement for that person.

Q: Are there new issues affecting local government workers that you like us to know?

R: My appeals are on the table of the chairman of the Local Government Service Commission to look into the plight of the workers who are retired prematurely. Someone is not even aware that he is retiring and the salary is stopped. I went to Onna and I saw seven of the affected persons, and I checked their document, they are not due for retirement. Let them be called, investigated and their salary returned. If they are due for retirement, retire them properly.
We also appeal to government to look into the nine local government salary arrears owed in 2014. We know that those salaries were owed by the individual local government councils but we are making an appeal to the Governor as our father and a listening one at that to please look into this case. The government should remember that we have arrear of 2014 leave grant to those councils that were unable to pay. Not forgetting promotion arrears, that is one thing the local government workers have not benefited from since 2012 till date. We know that our Governor will do it. As a listening father who has put so much smiles on our faces, we appreciate him. We love him. Given another opportunity, NULGE Akwa Ibom State will still work for him for this singular honour he has done us. We pray that God will bless him, bless his family and all those that are working with him. And keep him strong and healthy for the local government workers.