James Emejo, in Abuja, writes on the protest staged by members of staff of the Finance Ministry, Office of the Accountant General of the Federation and Budget Office of the Ministry of Budget and Planning over unpaid Special Overtime Allowance (SOT)

Protesting staff from the Federal Ministry of Finance, joined by their counterparts from the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation and the Budget Office of the Ministry of Budget and National Planning last Monday embarked on a protest over unpaid Special Overtime Allowance (SOT) which was put at N1.2 billion.

The workers, in their hundreds, had shut the entrance to Ministry of Finance Headquarters in Abuja and refused the Finance Minister, Kemi Adeosun, and other top officials from gaining access to their offices.

The standoff, which lasted two days saw workers demanding that Adeosun addressed them on the issue.

And with several inscriptions on placards among other things, accusing the minister of an alleged insensitivity to their plight, they further called on President Muhammadu Buhari to relieve her of her duties.

But in a swift reaction to the continued siege by the aggrieved staff, Director of Information in the ministry, Alhaji Salisu Na’Inna Dambata, described the workers demand as “unjustifiable” adding that the so-called SOT had been scrapped by the previous administration in 2014.

According to him, “The payment of what the protesting staff called a Special Overtime (SOT) was stopped by the last administration in 2014 on the ground that it was not listed in any extant government Circular, Financial Regulations or the Public Service Rules.

“The management wishes to state as follows: The payment of what the protesting staff called a SOT, was stopped by the last administration in 2014 on the ground that it was not listed in any extant government Circular, Financial Regulations or the Public Service Rules.”

Continuing, the statement stated: “The sum of N1.2 billion computed by the staff union for payment could not have been budgeted for in 2016 in the first place, not only because of the paucity of funds, but also the fact that the SOT allowance was not part of the remuneration in the Federal Public Service; and the Federal Ministry of Finance, the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation and the Budget Office of the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, do not individually or collectively, owe any of their personnel their salaries.

“In view of the foregone, the management of the Federal Ministry of Finance wishes to categorically state that the protests have no justifiable grounds.”

However, a seeming calm returned to the ministry Wednesday when Adeosun eventually addressed the workers at the ministry’s auditorium and reportedly agreed to look into their demand, although she complained of lack of funds to pay the whopping sum.

Chairman of Joint Unions Council of the Federal Ministry of Finance, the Budget Office and the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, Mr. Ade Olaniyi, said after the meeting with the minister last Wednesday that Adeosun promised to approve the allowances and asked the Director of Finance and Accounts to submit the files to her office.

“She has asked the Director of Finance and Accounts to submit all the files that relate to the allowances to her for approval.”

When however reminded that the said allowances were not captured in the 2016 budget, the union leader said, “there was never a time this money is budgeted for. Federal Ministry of Finance is the mother ministry to inland revenue. We are the policymakers. We set targets.

‘’There is a target they set for FIRS. Immediately they meet it, whatever that is above, that is the excess. Out of the excess, they give them 4 per cent and out of the 4 per cent, they give one per cent to the mother ministry.

“It is Inland Revenue that has been giving this money for the past 22 years; it has never been budgeted, it is just like other ministries.
If you go to Foreign Affairs now, there are certain amount they are paying to their own staff.”

Interestingly, in a subsequent development, Adeosun who was also believed to have read the riot act to workers, as the union pressed her harder on the matter, insisting that the era of special bonuses was gone, stressed that it was practically impossible to approach President Muhammadu Buhari with the workers’ demand.

Not moved by the minister’s declaration on the lack of funds to meet workers’ controversial overtime demand, the union also further asked her to utilise the ‘below-the-line option’ by drawing from special reserves to pay them.

They further issued a seven-day deadline for their demand to be met or face a resumed protest.

Notably, the workers’ agitation came at a time when government is trying to implement some measure of fiscal discipline by blocking wastage and other forms of leakages in the public sector.

However, it is noteworthy that the federal government has fulfilled all salary obligations to date to federal workers, and the payment of non-statutory allowance particularly the overtime is something which needed a proper review in order to forestall further uprising by workers.

This, going forward, will require that authorities categorically state whether overtime duties will continue to attract monetary incentives or if the current rate could be slashed in view of the current fiscal crisis which governments at all levels are presently batting to contain.

The minister had vowed to sanitise the finance ministry which was believed to be below board in terms of fiscal discipline.

According to her, “When I said at the start of my tenure that I would restore fiscal responsibility to our economy, it was no idle promise. The money we spend is not our money, it belongs to the Nigerian people. We need to justify every Naira and at a time when all Nigerians are suffering the consequences of the financial crisis inherited from previous administrations, we simply cannot afford to pay out special bonuses to civil servants. Those days are gone.”

Nonetheless, a senior official of the ministry revealed that the Minister’s resolve not to be distracted from her agenda of restoring fiscal responsibility and introducing the much-needed reforms and weeding out corruption in the system. But it remains unclear whether all the workers’ overtime claims would be paid or reviewed downwards.

Speaking on the need to strengthen system around the fiscal management, Adeosun had noted: “In the short period that I have been privileged to serve as Minister of Finance, I have observed that even the most basic systems and controls over the management of our resources are in dire need of strengthening. While we are regaled with and shocked by details of amounts stolen, diverted or wasted, we must face the cold reality that such acts are facilitated by weaknesses in our systems.”

She added: “Even if we successfully prosecute and jail every looter, ghost worker and other economic saboteur, there is every risk that those caught will only be replaced by persons who are just as bad, or worse – unless we radically strengthen our systems and institutions.”

And in a move to match word with action, the minister established the Efficiency Unit which had reviewed four years of detailed expenditure data to identify trends.

Having achieved its objective in pruning personnel costs, which represented the largest cost to government as well as cleaning up the payroll system and removing more than 23,000 ghost workers through the implementation of the Bank Verification Number (BVN) for federal workers, the onus is now on the minister to do away with avoidable services, which tend to defeat the overall objective of her campaign for fiscal discipline.

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