Since Senator Hope Uzodimma became governor of Imo State through the intervention of the Supreme Court on 14th January, 2020, anti-government rallies have been rocking his fledgling administration. The first two of such rallies which held in January and February, were understandable. Imolites, who were loyal to the seven-month administration of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) could not understand why the apex court in the land had to oust him. So, they trooped to the streets of not only Owerri, but also Abuja to register their disenchantment over the controversial judgment.
The rallies were mainly partisan having been organized by members and supporters of the PDP. When on 3rd March, 2020, the apex court insisted on its verdict of consigning Ihedioha and PDP to ‘have-beens’, the protesters advised themselves and moved on. It dawned on the PDP that it had once again been consigned to another four years of playing opposition in the state.
But anti-government protests are yet to cease in Imo State. They have kept on rocking the Uzodimma’s nascent administration. It is like each new day in the state dawns for a set of people to take to the streets to call attention to an alleged infraction of the government.
The government’s inactions and/or perceived insensitivity to the plight of the people particularly its workers and pensioners trigger these protest rallies. While the workers prefer to speak in hushed tones in order not to be suspended (like Mrs. Vivian Ottih of the Imo Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), who was suspended after demanding for her salaries on facebook) or sacked, pensioners who are already down and fear no further fall, have been up and about seeking to get government’s attention to pay backlog of arrears of pensions owed to them.
On 23rd June, 2020, traffic was halted on the streets of Owerri as the elderly men and women who spent their prime in the service of the state protested against the non-payment of their pensions to them. Leader of the Pensioners Association in the state, Iyke Ohanaeje disclosed that they resorted to the option of staging the protest when nothing fruitful came out of the series of letters they had written to government.
Ohanaeje pleaded with government to pay their backlog of pensions to enable them to continue to eke out a living. He further disclosed that about 49 pensioners in the state had passed on since the inception of the Uzodimma administration owing to non-payment of their pensions which made access to basic necessities of life including drugs impossible for them.
The state governor, Hope Uzodimma who addressed the protesting pensioners through the Secretary to the Government of Imo (SGI), Cosmas Iwu blamed the delay in payment of pensions on discrepancies in their names in the pension payroll. He also promised to pay them on Friday, 26th June.
The day came and passed without the pensioners receiving any alert of payment into their bank accounts. The state Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba had however before the date given by Iwu denied government made any promise to pay pension on the said 26th June.
This compelled the pensioners to again stage another protest rally one week after, precisely on 30th June. The protesters were militant this time as they gave government seven days within which to pay them. The state Commissioner for Finance, Chuck Chukuemeka, who addressed them gave the absence of the governor from the state as alibi for the delay in the payment of pensions. He insisted funds for their payment was readily available in government coffers waiting for the governor’s return after conducting the gubernatorial primaries of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Edo State.
Clearly, the senior citizens are being subjected to untold hardship by government. At a time they should be having a sweet rest after the hard labour of serving the state, life is being made difficult for them as government foot-drags on the payment of their pensions.
Amazingly, on the return of the governor to the state, the story changed. The governor rather reeled out names of eight persons he claimed slice off N330million yearly from the state’s pension fund.
According to the governor, a dead former Secretary to the Government of Imo was still collecting pensions from the grave. It was like the pension managers practice necromancy by waking the deceased SGI from the grave to collect his pension and requesting him to go back to his dead state afterwards to await another round of payment.
Surprisingly, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and National Union of Pensioners (NUP) in the state have dissociated themselves from the protests embarked upon by the pensioners. Both bodies expressed outrage that the pensioners took to the streets when negotiations with government were still ongoing on how to resolve the pension debacle.
Perhaps, this gave government the fillip to accuse the protesting pensioners of being sponsored by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
But if government felt it had witnessed enough protest rallies, oil workers joined the fray on 6th July to register their disenchantment over non-payment of salaries to them. The oil workers alleged that they had not been paid for four months by the government in spite of the huge allocations that have accrued to the Imo State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (ISOPADEC).
Apart from local government councils, successive administrations in the state see ISOPADEC as another cash cow. The 13 percent derivation fund belonging to ISOPADEC never gets to it intact. The state government is understood to slice off 60 percent of the fund while the interventionist agency is left with 40 percent.
The oil workers who blocked the road leading to Government House, Owerri during the protest claimed the incumbent administration slices off more than the 60 percent. For the first time too, ISOPADEC has no board and management. The Uzodimma administration is yet to gather itself up to constitute any of the two.
Again, the state government through Emelumba accused the opposition of sponsoring the oil workers’ protest. Emelumba specifically accused the former deputy governor and indigene of oil-rich Oguta Local Government Area of the state, Gerald Irona of bankrolling the oil workers’ protest rally to the tune of N15million.
Irona besides denying bankrolling the protest said he was yet to set his foot on Imo’s soil ever since the Supreme Court torpedoed his joint mandate with Ihedioha. He also insisted that the unpaid workers needed no prompting to seek for the payment of their salaries. He equally enjoined Gov. Uzodimma to account for the more than N3billion that had accrued to the ISOPADEC in the last six months.
But for the warning from the state Police Command last weekend, the planned anti-government protest rally on Monday, 13th July by the reinstated 2018 chairmen and councilors of the 27 local government councils would have held.
The council administrators elected in the twilight of the administration of former governor, Rochas Okorocha but suspended by Okorocha’s successor, Emeka Ihedioha had obtained a favourable Federal High Court judgement reinstating them. The court also ruled that allocations to council areas in the state be stopped should its judgement be disobeyed.
It was on the strength of the declarative judgement that the council administrators wanted to resume office on 13th July in their various council headquarters. Reports said they were to do so by force if need be.
But the Police Command in a statement signed by its spokesman, Orlando Ikeokwu said it was in possession of the appeal against the judgement and the stay of execution obtained by the incumbent interim Management Committee (IMC) of the council areas appointed by Uzodimma.
Prior to this, the state Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, C. O. C. Akaolisa had explained that the judgement was un-implementable because it was against the IMCs appointed by Ihedioha, who had since been dissolved.
Many observers blame Okorocha for setting a dangerous precedent of sacking elected council administrators. They also blame former governor, Ikedi Ohakim for conducting elections into the councils towards the end of his tenure. Ohakim had conducted polls into the council one year prior to his exit from office and given the elected administrators a three-year tenure. Perhaps, he felt he would have been reelected so the council administrators would serve alongside him. But his wish never materialized.
Okorocha on assumption of office swept the Ohakim council administrators away and waited till nine months to the end of his second term to conduct polls that brought into office the 2018 administrators, who were in turn swept away by Ihedioha. The vicious cycle continues.
On 14th July, yet another protest rally rocked the state. Contractors of the Imo State Universal Basic Education Board (IMSUBEB) took the streets to agitate for payment for contracts they executed for the state government.
Chairman of the contractors, William Ejiakor claimed money meant to be paid to them for jobs done had since been domiciled at a bank but Gov. Uzodimma has vehemently refused to pay them. He accused the governor of opening bid for award of fresh contracts to his cronies with money meant for the jobs they had delivered.
The interesting angle to contractors’ protest rally was a young boy that joined the protesters. His placard reads: ‘I worked for some contractors, Hope pay them’.
Clearly, anti-government protest rallies are an integral part of our democratic experience. But the frequency of the rallies in the state calls for concern. Again, many of them are avoidable. If government clears salaries and pensions and ensures regular payment thereafter, there would be no need for any worker or pensioner to take to the streets or be prodded to stage a protest on this score. Delay in payment of salaries and pensions gives opposition or the affected workers and pensioners the impetus to embark on or sponsor demonstrations.
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