INTERVIEW: How We'll Solve LG Salary Crises - Gov Ahmed
Your Excellency Sir, first we wish you a very happy birthday and many happy returns. Thank you. Can you describe for us what your background was like, growing up?
I was born in Kaduna and had my early education there. Incidentally, my father was an instructor at Police College, Kaduna. So I had the opportunity of growing up in a cosmopolitan environment. I got quite exposed to almost every ethnic nationality in this country and I understood how to live in a cosmopolitan environment. That truly helped me as I was growing up, in meeting people, in getting to relate with people, and has truly helped me also in various areas I have worked. After leaving school, I had the opportunity of working as a teacher in the Northern part of the country, precisely in Sokoto, Federal School of Arts and Science. I have also had the opportunity of working in a bank where we got exposed to a lot of people, Nigerians, non-Nigerians, people from all walks of life. So growing up in a cosmopolitan environment truly helped me to interact with customers and also helped me to build the necessary skills required in managing people. In a nutshell, I will say that my growing up in a cosmopolitan environment prepared me for living and has aided me in the job that I am doing today. Kwara's Local Governments have very enormous challenges and they received N1b from the Paris Club refund.
Why did they get just N1b, or are they going to get more from the state?
Firstly, let us understand what the Paris Club refund is. It's a refund of some over deductions that were done by the Federal Government in the payment of Paris Club loans. The loans were repaid and probably not fully externalized by the Federal Government. Monies were taken from source to complete the payments and the funds belong to Federal, States and Local Governments. So, despite the fact that the money has come in through the state, we are expected to administer it in such a way and manner that would ameliorate the current challenges that are being faced by states and local governments, especially in areas of salaries, in areas of infrastructure deficit and areas of economic support. It is unfortunate that our local governments today have found themselves in a situation where money coming in from the federation allocation has dropped significantly to the extent that it cannot pay a full month's salary. So when we got the Paris Club refunds, the portion that was due to the local governments, we called them and said look, these are monies that are available. Now there are two challenges at the local government level: the first challenge is that there is a backlog of salaries that is in arrears; the second leg is that the current allocation cannot pay a full month's salary. So we were then faced with a situation where we asked, do you want us to address the current salaries or you want us to address the backlog? Obviously we cannot do the two because of the volume of money available for that purpose. So I said they should go, think about it and state in writing how they want their portion of the money to be utilized. And they did put it in writing and said, look, use the money to address the current shortfalls. If any other inflow comes in the future, we can begin to address the backlog. That was why you saw the money that came in was used to augment current salaries. It is by their choice. Ordinarily, we would have used that money to pay whatever portion of backlog we have on ground but don't forget we will still be indebted because the current allocation has dropped in such a way and manner that it cannot pay a full month's salary for the local government workers and teachers at the basic education level. At the state level, we don't owe salaries. The only area where we had challenges is the area of tertiary institutions, which has been sorted out. Largely, we have just about two or three of them, we’ve already worked it out and they are currently being paid. So we don’t have a problem at state level. Unfortunately, the local governments have a challenge because that drop that has happened over a year or so has been affecting the way and manner local governments are able to pay salaries on monthly basis. So for me, we’ve been able to access the Paris Club refunds and discussed with stakeholders at the local government level and they've been able to make a choice in writing on how they want the money to be utilized and it has fully been applied as agreed. Therefore, if anybody expects us to use the state portion of that money to pay local government workers that would be a bit challenging because the state's money is meant for state programmes, local government money is meant for local government programmes. The state's challenges are largely economic programmes and there are other social needs which we will also address. At the local government level, the basic challenge they have is payment of salaries promptly. When the state gets its own money, we apply it to areas where the state has challenges, when local government money comes in we apply it to where the local governments have challenges. But imagining that we would use state money to carry out local government business or use local government money to carry out state business would not be in line with appropriation procedures as put in place by law. So we’ve been doing exactly what the law provides.
Given these resource challenges, which are not peculiar to Kwara, do you fear for the likely impacts it may have on your legacies?
Well, you see, the current challenges are quite monumental to the extent that ability to pay salaries is becoming questioned and we never saw this may be five, six or seven years ago. I recall as Commissioner of Finance, I kept telling labour leaders each time they requested for one form of increase in salary or the other that our capacity to increase revenue is not very strong but if we continue to up our expenditure, especially in the areas of salaries and wages, it would get to a time when our inflow will just be equal to what we need to pay salaries with. It didn’t occur to me that it was going to happen very soon because then what we were looking at was that the allocation was going to be stable and the increase in salaries and wages and other demands would grow to meet the allocation. But unfortunately two things happened. The demand for increased support from workers went up, the allocation went below the needs in salaries and wages. And that is a very critical situation for any system, be it private or public sector. The moment you begin to carry a recurrent expenditure that is not commensurate with your revenue profile there is a challenge. But luckily, as a state, we were quick enough to recognize the need for us to improve on our internally generated revenue, which seems to me the only major source that we can latch on to, to augment the current deficit suffered in revenue inflow. I am happy to let you know that we have significantly improved and we are still improving. We have improved with over hundred per cent in our revenue generation largely driven by technology and people and also by the fact that the collection process is improved. That has moved us from a monthly average of about N500million to about N1.5 billion monthly. That difference alone that we’ve recorded has helped us in creating a funding window for capital projects because, don’t forget that there are about three million people in Kwara State. So the responsibility is that of government to create a platform in such a way and manner that the whole population can also benefit from government through deployment of infrastructure and other socio-economic programs. That is why the monies that are collected from the monthly IGR is majorly used to support infrastructural development and other social programs. And that is where the man on the street, the tailor, the carpenter, the vulcanizer, the Okada rider, the business owner, can also feel the impact of government. So I see this as a good way for us to make governance felt at all levels and I am happy to see that it has led us to creating an infrastructure development funding window which will carry a lot of our capital projects to completion levels hopefully between now and 2019. But the most critical one here is the issue of the salaries and wages. I have a little challenge with the way we are currently faced with incapacity to meet existing commitment for salary payments at the local government level. And I do not foresee a possible increase in allocation in the very near future to meet this challenge, the only way out for us now is to go back to internally generated revenues (IGR), tap into all available revenue generating platforms at the local government level and ensure that these things are well accessed, tapped, collected and used for the local governments. That will give us a better stake in helping the local governments to be in better positions to drive good governance otherwise we would continue going to Abuja cap in hand, getting money that will not be enough to pay salaries and we will keep having backlog of salaries. So for me it requires us to move beyond the normal, we need to have additional efforts especially at the local government level, revenue generating platforms. At the state level, we’ve put the mechanism in place to not only have a steady management of personnel and overhead costs but we’ve also put a platform in place to fund capital projects. This has also given us the opportunity to create Small and Medium Enterprise support schemes to support our youths, women, and a lot of vulnerable groups who hitherto would not have access to funding but we’ve gotten them compartmentalized into cooperative groups. Only yesterday, I made some money available to some groups of women and programmes like that will be ongoing. We will do it for women, we will do it for youths, we will do it for clubs and associations, we will do it for traditional organisations where they have been able to showcase capacity to access funding to drive entrepreneurship. That is the way we’ve been administering part of what we are getting from the Internally Generated Revenue to support economic development.
Given this situation, are there times that you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of these challenges of governance?
I have never been overwhelmed because, you see, I enjoy challenges. That is when I see myself truly positioned to do more; that is when I see myself truly challenged to bring to bear all skills, all you have learnt, all your interconnectivities to achieve certain set goals because if you don't have challenges you are unlikely to look at areas you would ordinarily not have looked to in solving the problems. But when challenges come, you begin to tap into your connectivities; you begin to tap into the people around you; you begin to tap into your own experience and that brings out the best out of you to apply in solving problems. Coming from a banking background, how has it been adapting to governance? It has been fantastic and you see, working as a banker was some good experience for me because it gave me the opportunity of seeing how scarce resources are optimally allocated to achieve results. The banking sector offers the opportunity of accessing funds from surplus areas and making them available in deficit areas that are profitable enough to pay back such monies to where they have been taken from. And it requires that you take a lot of factors into consideration in decision making on how you access funds, how you make it available to deficit areas and how you recoup and of course keep yourself afloat and pay back the person or institution where such monies are gotten from. To that extent, understanding that schematic programme alone tells you that it requires human and material resources to be able to carry out management of programmes like that. That has helped me in coming into governance, understanding that it is also about getting resources and applying it to the needs of the people optimally in such a way and manner that people would feel fulfilled that set goals are met both in recurrent and capital terms. So for me it has been quite useful that I have had an experience in the banking sector especially when you look at governance as truly revolving around resource allocation and optimal results. You will see that whatever sort of experience you have garnered over the years in resource management will always have a bearing in the way and manner you carry out your business in governance and management of people and resources.
Before and after your coming into government, did you ever dream of becoming the governor of this state?
It never occurred to me, I never thought of it but I had always sought to participate in the process of service delivery. I attended the University of Ilorin here and for the four years I was on the permanent site, I passed through this Ahmadu Bello Way regularly. It never for one day occurred to me that I will occupy this house, it never occurred to me. But of course, it has always occurred to me that I should strive to be part of a process that is going to help in service delivery to people either through the public or private sector. That much I have always thought about, but working at the level of a governor, it never occurred to me. What are those things that make you happy and the things that put you off? When people around me are happy, I am happy. The best time I am happy is when people around me are happy. It will be obvious, if I'm happy you will see it. But when people around me are unhappy, it is very unlikely that I will be happy. My own understanding of happiness is that it is supposed to be shared. When people around me are able to meet their needs, they are able feel that they are part and parcel of a working system, they have set goals that have been met and it makes them happy, I feel happy too.