Honourable Sunday Akere was the Commissioner of Information and Strategy in the first term of Governor Rauf Aregbesola, of Osun State. In this interview, the All Progressives Congress (APC) stalwart speaks on the face-off between the state workforce and the government and other issues.
THERE is a claim that the Osun State government is shortchanging its workers despite the financial bailout from the Federal Government. How do you explain this?
It is unfortunate that a lot of noise is being made in respect of payment of salary in Osun because in terms of states owing a backlog of salaries, Osun is not the worst. Several other states are worst and there is little or no noise about it. But the situation is understandable because of the fact that the Osun State governor and the All Progressives Congress (APC) happens to be the albatross of the misfortune of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), both at the state and national levels in the elections held in March and April this year. The August 9, 2014 election in Osun really spelt doom for the party. It signalled the end of dominance of the party at the federal level. It was the agitation and outspokenness of Aregbesola that moved the President Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government to initiate the idea of supporting the states with a bailout fund. It is in three parts. Everybody knows that the bailout covers the arrears of June ending. The government of Aregbesola entered a Memorandum of Understanding with workers in the state on how the fund was to be disbursed. We have done the first part. The government has paid till May ending in full. Local government workers also have been paid till June in full. There was no provision for payment of pension in the fund but the governor graciously acceded to the request and paid half of outstanding pension for December 2014 and also January, February and March pension. April will soon be paid. There is no hide-and-seek game between the government and the organised labour. We lay our cards on the table for all to see. Both sides are satisfied that nothing is hidden. And labour leaders can clarify what I have said regarding compliance to the terms of agreement. I can even get you a copy of the MOU we signed with labour for the sake of clarification.
But, the government is being accused of desperate moves to shore up Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) at the expense of the people of the state?
There is no desperation in our increasing the IGR. Everybody knows what accrued from the Federation Account since July 2013 is not sufficient to pay salary. The government used to receive an average of N4.3 billion. But, it has dropped to N2.7 billion. In April this year, it was N464 million. The understanding with labour is that we are not going to borrow again to pay salary. We agreed that whatever comes from Abuja would be added with whatever we can raise internally. It is even the leadership of labour that insisted that every avenue is tapped to make IGR. If an adult is asked to pay N1,500, I don’t think that is too much, talk less of being tagged desperation. Even the lowest paid civil servant pays N3, 500. Don’t forget all the facilities these people are enjoying. Payment of tax is what they should gladly do in return to show that they are citizens who truly want the state to develop.
Lecturers in state polytechnics are accusing the government of insensitivity to their welfare. Why is the situation so?
Sometime last year, the lecturers in the polytechnics and colleges of education started an agitation, asking government to increase the retirement age to 65 years like what obtains at Federal Government-controlled institutions. It took us a long time during which they intimidated the government. The state Executive Council deliberated on it and the state House of Assembly passed it as a law. After this had been done, they came up with another agitation telling us that the state should allow them to opt out of pension scheme. We told them that we met the compulsory pension scheme on ground. The Argebesola administration met it as a policy, which all levels of workers in the state pay it. We said under which condition should we allow you to opt out? There is a law which set up this scheme. If you know you are not comfortable with it, you challenge it at the court of law. This is what we told them to do. They were at home for about nine months and we appealed to them to consider the plight of their students, some of whom should be in National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) now. We asked them to return to class to save their students the agony of watching their colleagues leaving them behind. We told them to consider the future of the students under them. In the past two weeks, the governing councils of the institutions have instructed the work to resume. Since last week, work has started in the four institutions. Those ready to work are back. The non-academic staff has also called off their strike. We are telling others outside to return to work.
It appears work has stopped on some projects in the state, especially the Gbongan-Akoda-Osogbo road. Have the Nigerians seen the end of those projects?
It is not that work is no more going on the projects. Work is still going on in schools under construction. Where we slowed down a bit is the construction of roads. We are only assessing the federal road we are handling with a view to getting a refund. Graciously, we have a listening government at the centre now. It has shown genuine concern, and by the time we finish that and get the refund, we will return to work and complete the projects. We have done the assessment of the stage of work done on the Gbongan-Akoda-Osogbo as well as the Osogbo-Ikirun-Kwara State road as directed by the Federal Government. We have made our recommendation to the Federal Government. We have heard in the past weeks that Federal Government has promised to release a sum of N537 Billion to states handling Federal Government projects, among of which is Osun. So, when the fund is released, we are one of the beneficiaries, and this will make a difference and the job will be completed.
About two weeks ago, the government signed an agreement with the construction company handling the Moshood Abiola International Airport to complete the project within eight months. We are only sorting out the issue of salary arrears so that people will not accuse us of diverting the bailout fund into the airport project. I am assuring the people of Osun that there is no project initiated by the governor that will not be complete before the end of his term.
Is this controversy not robbing the governor of the popularity he enjoyed in his first term?
The government of Aregbesola is still popular and acceptable to the people as it used to be. The politics of Osun is like the politics of the entire nation. Osun people still appreciate him at public functions, especially at mosques and other places where they show their love to him. The only problem is the opposition, who are out to confuse the public with propaganda. For instance, we have not received the bailout fund before they went to town and said Aregbesola had collected and fixed the fund. The election had been won and lost. The loser went to the tribunal, Appeal Court and the Supreme Court. He lost all. The best thing for the loser is to accept the verdict in good faith and allow the winner to concentrate on the business of governance instead of causing distraction and confusing the public. But, I am happy the people of Osun cannot be deceived. So, they understand their blackmail better. In Osun, there is nothing hidden in the way the government is being run. That is the basis of our confidence to engage them when they come up with their blackmail.
What do you consider as the major challenge of being in government?
One challenge I always reflect on is public perception of political office holders. It is registered in the minds of the public that everyone in government is there to enrich themselves. They have no tolerance to understand how things work in the corridors of power. But, how do you explain this to the people who seem to have made up their mind? So, I am saying it not fair to jump into such conclusion. It is high time we appealed to the public to take pressure off the head of political office holders in the country. It is believed that going into government is going to steal money. People should understand that holding such offices carries a lot of responsibilities bothering on service delivery. They should not do things that would tempt public office holders to do what they should not do. If the demand is higher than supply, a public office holder is tempted to do what he should not do. I am appealing for understanding and more cooperation for government after elections. Another four years is the opportunity the electorate has to exercise their right of choice again.