17 February 2014, Abuja – Following recent conflicting claims on the number of disengaged members of staff of the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) that are yet to be paid their terminal benefits, the Bureau of Public Enterprises reportedly set up a process to resolve the issues.
The process will require the bureau touring designated centres across the country to address the issues, which were recently in the front burner, with the PHCN labour unions threatening to go on strike unless they were resolved.
Different heads of the PHCN labour unions have given the number of their unpaid members, otherwise disengaged PHCN workers, as 25,000 and 10,000, while the BPE has countered that it had cleared and paid the terminal benefits of 43,375, out of the 47, 913 of the said workers as at December 20, 2013, to the tune of N361,024,432,338.48 billion. By the latter’s calculations, this represents 95 per cent of the total number of the affected workers. It also claimed to have validated another 2,382 disengaged PHCN workers, the process of whose payment it has also initiated, bringing the total number of those verified to 45,757 or 95.5 per cent of the supposed staff strength of the defunct PHCN.
So going by BPE’s calculations, the exercise is to validate, if possible, the remaining 4.5 per cent or 2,156 purported workers of the defunct PHCN before they may be paid, or to present an opportunity for the PHCN labour leaders to prove their claims that the number of unpaid workers is either 25,000 or 10,000 as they have reportedly claimed.
Whatever may be said of the BPE, its move towards the reconciliation of these conflicts in claims and the attendant figures should be recognised as an effort to ensure transparency in the resolution of the crisis that looms over the issue of the yet-to-be-paid former PHCN workers disengaged as a result of the power sector reform.
Sometimes, the impression is given, even by the PHCN labour unions, that the process of paying the disengaged staff, and the privatisation process that culminated in the sale of the generation and distribution companies, with which the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) made up the successor companies of the defunct PHCN, was marred by obfuscation on the part of the BPE and other government agencies.
For instance, a recent news publication quoted Joe Ajaero, secretary-general of the National Union of Electricity Employees, as saying: “Fund meant for payment of staff entitlements in excess of N100 billion have developed wings, as BPE, Ministry of Power and the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, are unable to explain the whereabouts of this money.”
The BPE, on its part, has reacted with press statements, insisting that it has nothing to hide. And this move to openly ascertain the actual number and identity of the purported unpaid PHCN staff before payment may be made to seem to bear the bureau out. The onus now rests with the PHCN labour leaders to avail themselves of the opportunity offered by the window of engagement with the bureau to validate the purported figures of 25,000 and 10,000 of unpaid disengaged PHCN workers ascribed to them, bearing in mind that so much is at issue here, especially credibility.
It may not be wrong to describe Nigeria as a country that suffers from chronic transparency deficit, especially in the public sector, and where following due process is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. Across the country, this state of affairs has spawned unaccountable huge fortunes accruing from all sorts of illegality – to those who have mastered the practice of beating the system in high and low places, in private and public life. And needless to say that the country’s image within and outside its borders, but particularly outside its borders, is worse off as a result; for beyond Nigeria’s shores, its citizens tend to be perceived, sometimes wrongly, as desperate wranglers and people with little or no patience for rules or due process.
Of course the impression is not always true, but the prejudice, which to a large extent fuels it, has nonetheless taken a heavy toll on the reputation and dignity of many honest and hardworking Nigerians who are eager to see it reversed. That impression is partly to blame for the trust deficit Nigerians generally experience from foreigners, especially at international airports, where they are sometimes subjected to abnormal scrutiny at points of entry.
However, even the government has made some effort to impose order in the conduct of its business, and ensure that those who run them do so with transparency and respect for due process. It has even set up an agency to help ensure this: the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), which reportedly saved the country N216 billion from January to March 2010 by reducing the cost of contracts awarded by federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).
Usman Bello, a writer for Daily Trust, describes the BPP, popularly called Due Process, as “the federal agency responsible for ensuring that federal government contracts are awarded at reasonable costs.” And its basic tools are such transparency and close scrutiny which the BPE has proposed to introduce to the process of ascertaining the true number and identity of the yet-unpaid staff of the defunct PHCN.
And the significance of the planned scrutiny by the BPE is not only moral in the sense that it would impose transparency and honesty on a process that might otherwise be fraught with irregularities. It also promises to be a money saver for the Nigerian people, like the interventions of the BPP have been acclaimed to be. So huge is the difference between the 2,156 (BPE’s number of likely unpaid disengaged PHCN staff) and 25,000 or 10,000 (the numbers of the unpaid staff given by the PHCN labour leaders), that it could translate into billions of naira in taxpayers’ money, considering that some disengaged PHCN staff members have received up to N10 million as their terminal benefits.
Such billions could well become money lost to ghost workers without such intervention by the BPE.
Maduka, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Owerri.
– Goodwill Maduka, Daily Trust