We are part and parcel of this government--Lafene
By Uriah Gana
It is no longer news that Nigeria Labour Congress NLC, both at the states and national level, encouraged workers to participate actively in partisan politics. As this will enable workers to have a say in the governance. It was on this basis that Newsline spoke with the Niger State Chairman of NLC, Comrade Abdulkareem Idrees Lafene, on the involvement of organized labour in the campaign of some political parties and their expectations from the new regime. For the first time in the history of this country, Nigeria Labour Congress NLC, was actively involved political campaigns during the last general elections, what are the reasons behind this? Comrade Lafene: Well, the reasons are obvious because we sat down at the national level and it was discussed how we can take care of various issues bedeviling our workers and members. And it was discovered that generally, we used to support politicians and whenever to come on board, you found out that workers are at the receiving end so what do we do. And then we agreed that let's be part of the government so that we can be able to contribute our own quota and then political commision was set up at the national level that was called Organized Labour Political Commission. And then every state was sent out with a mandate to go and look for a political party that are workers friendly and involved the workers in their affairs so that we form part of the government and not left behind. And when we come in Niger State, we negotiated with different parties and at the end of the day, APC offered us Deputy Governor position which we felt it's a fair enough bargain and that's why we joined the politicians because the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended, has given room that civil servants can participate in politics, including partisan politics that is what the law says. That is how we started and our reasons are obvious because we want to be part of the government so that our issues and our problems shall be addressed at the decision making apex body. Basically that's how we started and that's why we joined the train to be part of this government. Having participated actively in the campaigns and now that your preferred candidate has emerged as the Governor, what are your expectations? Comrade Lafene: We have a lot of expectations because you know, in Niger state, it's unfortunate that we have a lot of lingering issues as far as workers right are concerned. So we have a blueprint, we sat down and look at all the sectors, especially the issue of pension and pension matters, the issue of teachers, the issue of unpaid allowances, leave grant and others. We itemized them, we highlight them and we gave a way forward. But basically, before we gave a way forward, you know all these depends on the availability of funds, so we have also highlighted how we felt revenue generation can be improved in Niger state. So that if revenue improves, our yearnings and aspirations will be fulfilled. So, all our expectations are in that blueprint which will be presented to the governor officially and you know because we have not done that officially, I cannot begin to tell you one by one the content but I can assure that, that blueprint captures every aspect of civil service reforms that we are expecting, both the state and local government. Mr Chairman sir, recently the State House of Assembly passed a bill on Contributory Pension Scheme CPS and the bill said that the scheme should start from 2007 Comrade Lafene: We are the ones that agitated for that. If you can remember, some time back, when the government wanted to resume the CPS, and we said no, so it was part of the conditions we highlighted and we were told that we should sponsor a bill on what we wanted. And basically, we made three suggestions as per how we wanted the bill to be. One, that the bill was domesticated in Niger state by 2007 and that the bill should be retroactive and not retrogressive. If it is 2007, then let the bill starts from 2007, that's one. Then two,vwe said if that is not feasible, then the CPS should start from any person that is employed newlyand on his or her employment conditions, it should be stated clearly that your new appointment you belong to the new pension scheme. And then, obviously the house of assembly chose 2007. And we are still calling on the governor to assent his signature before he goesso that we will have complete the phase. Again, if you look at 2007, those who will be on CPS wouldn't have contributed enough for them to have something to take home. So we suggested that the house of assembly to extend the service years of all category of workers by five years to enable workers have enough contribution that after their retirement, they will not suffer much. Some states did it, Kano did it and it worked for them. In the North, there are about three or four states that did it and it worked for them. That bill is still before state house of assembly and we are hoping they will look at this bill and pass it. And if it is taken back to 2007, that is when best thing has been done and then we will put our eyes and ensure that what is contributed is manage effectivelyand we are involved in the management of what has been contributed. You know when the last pension bill was passed, those who did not fall into the category of the CPS were given back their money, but up till today, some were yet get their money back while some were given only a little out of what they contributed. What is the labour doing about that? Comrade Lafene: Well, we are doing a lot. Basically, those that have not been paid, including me that is speaking with you. What happened is that the monies contributed were taken into different Pension Fund Administrators PFAs, and then there was little hitches about the competition. In the local government sector, there are people that have zero balances, that means nothing was taken to their account. And then, there are those that what they contributed was not what was taken into their account. Then we look at the system and discovered that there are funds somewhere. You know, even before I came on board, during Talba regime, if you remembered, at education sector, SUBEB, there was some money that was alleged to have been used by SUBEB which was not supposed to be so. Now because the government have to give out this money for the PFAs to pay, and which is part of the agreement Labour reached with the government in 2021 that certain amount should be given by the government on monthly basis and then their contribution of 10.5 percent should be increased to 13 percent for at least this 2.5 is what will cater for this missing gap and zero balance. Unfortunately, the government were yet to start on the earlier reached agreement and that is why when I came on board, we insisted that before we resume the CPS deductions, the conditions we gave was one, the scheme should take effect from 2007 and two, that agreement should be honored in totality so that people will start getting their money. And then three, let the government come and account for what has been contributed so far so that we know this is what the workers have contributed and this is what the government have contributed. What the government have contributed, we will not say they should give it to workers because that is not workers' right. But what the workers have contributed, we said, since they have been part of the scheme, they should take back their money. Do we are working seriously towards that and it's part of our blueprint. We have even suggested ways that we found if Niger state should adopts such ways, we would not have such problem in future. We have gone to some states, about four or five states, including Jigawa, Lagos, Rivers and others to look at how they operate their system and so far, Jigawa is the best. They have the best operational modality. We adopts Jigawa model with little reforms to suit our nature in Niger state. So we are already working towards that and I told you, it's part of our blueprint. What advise will you give the government in order that the number of people on ground are paid their benefits before more people are added? Comrade Lafene: Well, as I said earlier on, this is part of our blueprint and you know, if you remember, I told you earlier on that we have suggested ways of improving revenue generation for the government. Before we rely on FAAC, and when the covid-19 issue came, there was paucity of funds and it affects government operation generally. Now we are suggesting internal ways of generating more revenue so that the government will have more funds. And maybe if they have more funds, part of our agreement that the government set aside N3 million every month to cater for gratuities, and then, there are also provisions for N100 million for Pension and others. So we have ideas that we felt if the government follow that ideology, they will not have problem with the issue of funds. As I told you, we have a game plan that we have started discussing with the new government on they will be able to clear the backlog of gratuities in the next 12 months or probably 18 months. So even the people that are coming on board, we have calculated the number and the quantum of money and we believe that the government can clear it in no time. But you know the system is generally stained and now we are talking of reviving the system to make room for the government to work harder. And part of our suggestion is that Pension Board is not a place where you put political office holders to man that place. Pension is a place that core civil servant will manage the affairs and then we will have success. Now when you bring politicians to manage that place, you know all this issue of politics is different and then you will see that we have been having one or two problems. So part of our suggestions is that, the law provides that at least a Perm Sec should hold the position of the Director General of Pension Board. And we are also suggesting that they should harmonize the position of salary pay office, Ministry of Finance, Head of Service, Civil Service Commission and then, the pension board so that as people are retiring, they will have direct data and what people are contributing you have the opportunity to pay them dues as at when due. So we such plan that if the government accept it and work with them, we would be able to solve those problems by God's grace. What is the Organized Labour doing to ensure that civil servants get their promotions at the right time? Comrade Lafene: Well you know, the issue of promotion are of two ways; promotion and then implementation. As far as the promotions are concerned, by our records, it is only those on directorate cadre that are having difficulty in getting their promotion and we went to civil service Commision and Head of Service severally to see what is the problem. And basically, we discovered that there are some regulations that were given by the National Establishment Committee in their last meeting that you cannot use Professional Certificate, to get promoted. That is, before you cross from level 14 to 15, that's directorate cadre, you must possess a B.A or BSC, and majority of our people that have HND, when they have Professional Certificate like ANAN and co, are at the receiving end. So even at the Head of Service and Civil Service Commission, we are discussing, because even if there are regulations from the Federal Government, it must be domesticated in the state through a legislation before you start implementing it and that is our stand, so we have started discussing but unfortunately last Wednesday when we supposed to meet, there was council meeting but immediately after inauguration, we will sit because for us to conclude, the HOS have to be in the meeting. So immediately after the inauguration, we will be able to sit down at the Office of HOS and finalize. And very soon, we will be able to get out that that issue because we got to know about it lately. But if there are other cadres that are having problems with their promotion, please let them come forward and report through their mother union so that we will be able to harmonize all these issues then discuss them at once because if you have issues and you don't voice out, we'll not know and you know when you don't know, you will not act. And the issue of implementation, the last time we met, we have record of 85 percent implementation has been done as at February, 2023 and more of these promotions are being implemented day in day out. But you know you can not rule out completely the possibility of some not being implemented but when you don't come out to complain through your mother union, because organized labour deals with affiliates, we don't take individual complaints, we take affiliate complaint, so even if you complain directly, as long as you did not complain through your mother union, we will be incapacitated to act because that is what the law establishing organized labour said. We deal with the affiliate, the affiliate deals with their individual members so we don't have members but we have affiliates. So that's the situation but I can assure you, that of directorate cadre and the issue of change of cadre and advancement, there was a meeting recently and it was agreed that it will resume because there was an embargo before but the embargo has been lifted. So very soon, by the grace of God, they will start releasing that of change of cadre. As the state President of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees NULGE, what are you doing to better the lots of local government work workers, because you discover that a lot of things are going on at the local government. These days, people don't even care to go to office because there is virtually nothing to do. What efforts are you making to restore the lost glory of LGAs? Comrade Lafene: On the issue of local government, we set up a committee and went around to look at the various time book to see those that do not go to work and we fished them out and make them sign an undertaking. Because if you don't go to work, you don't give us the courage to fight for your right. It's only when you contribute your own quota, when you play your own rightful part the work expected of you. If you look at it critically, the local government system has been killed completely because when you pay salaries it's hardly you have overhead to even function. So we're looking at that sector, it's part of our blueprint and then we have made several suggestions on how felt the system can be improved. I don't want to give you a leakage of our blueprint because we've not officially presented it to the government but I just want to give you one aspect and that's the issue of IGR in the local governments, it's a known fact that most of the local government cannot generate enough funds to sustain their operational activities, very very unfortunate. So we have suggested that we harmonize the Local Government Revenue Board so that we will know what Suleja is doing and why is Suleja the highest revenue generator among the LGAs in Niger state. Then what is happening to Chanchaga that has more opportunities in respect of revenue, why are they not generating revenue. So if we harmonize all these points and these activities we will be able to understand where the problem is. I can assure you, once that is done, you will see a new local government that would function effectively and things will improve, we'll have an improved local government system. It's not a dream, it's a roadmap, a blueprint and we believe the new government will be serious to take the blueprint and implement it so that we move forward. So all these are contained in the blueprint and as soon as we present it to the new governor we will make it available to the press, so that you'll look at it too and then put in your contribution. This roadmap is not finite, it's subject to review three months or six months, depending on how the government want us to do it and if you have anything to add or contribution because we cannot say we know all. Probably there are areas we didn't capture and so long as you are part and parcel of the local government, you're part and parcel of the state so you're a stakeholder and you can be able to contribute your own quota on we will move Niger state forward together. What is your message of hope, of encouragement to civil servants in Niger state? Comrade Lafene: My message of encouragement is that they should have faith. Now, we are part and parcel of the government, we have a stake. What we need is that support they have been giving to us, they should double it and then they should pray for us to succeed. Because once we succeed, we have a lot to achieve. But if they allow us to fail, tomorrow if we are yearning that civil servants must be part of the government, you know the politicians would said when you were part of the government, you failed. So we'll not give that opportunity. They should give us their support and they should pray for us. We meant well and we have ideas that would improve Niger state as a whole. Thank you very much Comrade for your time. Comrade Lafene: You're welcome.