Enugu’s controversial SUVs

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The Prado jeeps at the Government House before distribution
The Prado jeeps at the Government House before distribution

By Tony Adibe

The threats and attempt by organised labour movement in Enugu State to mobilise its members and engage the Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi-led government in a massive showdown that would have snowballed into an industrial strike to cripple the state has been reportedly scuttled by the government.

The crux of the matter was that the state government decided to purchase Prado jeeps for 24 members of the State House of Assembly and other top government political appointees.

The decision, regarded by some people in the state as needless, particularly when viewed from the fact that the resources of the state are not on the increasing scale, and its civil servants are the least paid in the entire South-east zone of the country, the government’s decision to buy SUVs for public office holders leaves much to be desired.

Lamenting the financial situation of the state, Governor Ugwuanyi was quoted to have likened the state to a person suffering from kwashiorkor, a health problem usually associated with malnutrition, which is often a result of poverty and lack of proper care.

According to Pascal Okoli, the Accountant General of the state, “…the state is in a serious financial stress,” while Vitalis Nwobodo, chairman, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in the state, also said: “The economic situation of workers and pensioners in the state is pitiable.Some pensioners have not received pension and gratuity of between 10 to 20 years.”

Former National Auditor of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and one-time Commissioner for Youths and Sport in Enugu State, Barrister Ray Nnaji, said the Governor Ugwuanyi administration is in a “very bad financial shape,” following the level of indebtedness into which his predecessor, Governor Sullivan Chime, allegedly plunged the state into before handing-over.

Therefore, civil servants and retirees did not mince words in voicing their anger on the decision of the state government to buy exotic vehicles for politicians.

Precisely on October 22, 2015, the Joint Public Service Negotiating Council (JPSNC), Enugu State, through the Chairman, Igbokwe Chukwuma Igbokwe, and Secretary, Comrade Theo Obasiani had written a letter to Governor Ugwuanyi, stating that the “harvest of Prado jeeps”, costing about N11.5 million each at this point of economic recession caused by crash of oil price does not speak well of the state in terms of economic management.

The labour union also reminded the governor that the car loan for legislators as listed by the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission approves N8.5m, N7.9m and N5.3m for senators, House of Representatives members and state assembly members respectively.

Igbokwe and Obasiani had in the two-page letter, equally reminded the governor that, whereas a civil servant who served the state for over 30 years and retired over five years ago is yet to be paid his/her gratuity, political office holders who worked for four years, get jumbo salaries, and other allowances, free Prado jeeps and severance allowance.

Not long ago, Governor Ugwuanyi admitted that his government had the misfortune of inheriting a whooping debt of N32.27 billion in unpaid salaries, pensions and gratuities to public servants.

The labour activists, therefore, wondered how the electorate, who cast his/her vote for Ugwuanyi benefits from the resources invested in the SUVs even in the midst of huge debts.

This is beside other allowances that the lawmakers are entitled to at the end of the day.

None of the lawmakers agreed to speak on the issue or even disclose his earnings. But a top official in the house of assembly said the legislators have many allowances.

“All I know is that the entire package concerning their wardrobe allowance, housing, salary, vehicle allowance among others are packaged by the state Ministry of Finance and paid to them. It’s a closed-door thing done in that ministry.”

Commenting specifically on the Prado jeeps, the official said: “I know the whole thing was packaged by the executive arm in the government house and delivered to the legislators. We saw the cars when they were delivered and we appreciated them.

“I think the government knows whether the state is poor or rich enough to bear the cost of such expensive vehicles. Many more SUVs are still going to be delivered to the political office holders,” he said.
Disturbed by the possible impact of the threat from labour over the SUVs bought for the legislators and government officials, the governor last Wednesday, held a meeting with the labour leaders.

Little was known about the meeting but Igbokwe and his group suddenly made a U-turn from their threat to mobilise workers in the state for a showdown in case the government insisted on giving the SUVs to the public office holders.

Briefing journalists shortly after meeting with Ugwuanyi, Igbokwe said the workers had been properly briefed on the true situation. “There is information that he gave out the jeeps. What we thought was that the vehicles were given out free, but now, we know the true situation. We are a family. There are times we have misconceptions, but the important thing is that at the end of the day, everybody is happy,” he said.

Some civil servants and residents were not happy with Igbokwe, who according to them no longer looked at the cost implication of the SUVs on the reported lean resources of the state.

Shedding more light on the development, the commissioner for Information, Dr. Godwin Udeuhele said the vehicles were not given to the politicians’ free.

“No vehicle was given out free of charge. They are pool vehicles and at the expiration of their tenure, those vehicles will become property of government,” Udeuhele said.

Also, leader of the State House of Assembly, Ikechukwu Ezeugwu, confirmed that no legislator was given free vehicle, emphasising that the SUVs were dully allocated to them.

In an interview with Daily Trust, Ray Nnaji, a former National Auditor of the PDP said, “if indeed the SUVs were actually paid for by the government, then the government has no business doing that because of the economic meltdown; the problem we have and the fact that workers are not being paid the actual amount of money they are supposed to be paid in the state.

“The governor has no business going for Prado that will cost a minimum of N10 million each,” he said.
Commenting on the meeting between labour leaders and the governor, a civil servant, who doesn’t want her name in print said she and other workers were disappointed by the labour leaders.

“They did not show sensitivity to the fact that the state government is paying for such expensive vehicles when workers are not being properly taken care of.”

Another civil servant who also sought anonymity said that the labour leaders must have been cowed by the governor.

One of the beneficiaries of the SUVs, a political appointee, who also pleaded anonymity said if the governor had bought a modest car for him and given him the remaining cash to take care of himself and family, it would have made more positive meaning to him. (Daily Trust)

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