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GOVERNOR OBIANO’s TREASURES

By Ifeanyi Afuba
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Emperor Valerian intensified the persecution of the Church in 257 AD. He arrested and later ordered the beheading of Pope Sixtus II. Consumed with a thirst to appropriate the wealth of the Church, he invited Lawrence, the head deacon and next in authority to the Pontiff to save his own neck by surrendering the Church's possessions. In the three days he was given to assemble the coveted riches, Lawrence diligently distributed these to the needy. On the appointed day, however, he approached the emperor's court followed by a huge crowd. Turning to the company of the poor, serfs, widows, orphans and rag - tagged mendicants accompanying him, he said to the emperor: behold, the treasures of the Church! While Lawrence was roasted to death for his conviction, he had nonetheless borne imperishable witness on the mission of the Church. Instituted to transmit the redemptive work of Christ, the Church strives to renew society on the foundation of eternal truths. The State like the Church has a constructive role to play in society, functioning to stabilize the system and mediate conflicts between groups. Deriving from this regulatory capacity, the State assumes responsibility for the protection of individual rights and freedom.

In practice however, Governments tend to shirk their obligations toward the citizenry, and would invent a torrent of excuses to rationalize non compliance. The import of the social contract between the State and the citizens is commonly understood to the effect that the welfare of the people is the highest law. Yet, even with the elastic pull of democratic rule, it often takes strategic pressure for many governments to accede to legitimate popular demands.

While socialism certainly has its drawbacks, the new face of capitalism as practiced in Nigeria and many developing countries has its own flaws. The 'gospel' of competition which firebrand capitalists never tire of proclaiming remains an unequal and unhealthy competition. And the current fashion for privatization of enterprises established with the commonwealth, remains at the bottom line, an escapist track. There are a number of social services, essential in nature, which governments have a duty to deliver to the citizenry. If governments should not provide potable water, electricity, healthcare, and other infrastructure, directly or indirectly, to the population, then what is the function of government? It amounts to abdication of responsibility for a government to transfer the provision of social services to new investors in the privatization scheme. There is perhaps need to remind our leaders who have fallen for the privatization and commercialization lobby as the cure – all economic policy that the absurd conclusion of this 'ideology' would be the expectation on people to pay tax just for being alive.

It is against this background that a significant development in Anambra State in the first half of November 2014 merits closer attention. Governor Willie Obiano had before now left us in no doubt that his is a regime to watch. The outings of the eight month old administration is leaving such a strong impression on the citizens of Anambra State and observers as to have ignited predictions on what area his legacy will tilt.

Others may be elated by the agricultural revolution powered by a stream of investments in critical areas; some upbeat from the prevailing climate of security; and yet some others fascinated by the beautification of the capital city's landscape with the construction of three flyovers in Awka. It would be correct to identify these as elements of the huge promise of a stellar performance held out by the Willie Obiano administration. However, for this writer, the very responsiveness of government to the condition of the people takes precedence over other achievements. For in the response of government to the issues affecting the citizenry, we gauge the sensitivity of government and its regard for those on whose behalf it exercises power.

It seems the case that media reports in the second week of November 2014 on the Obiano regime's liquidation of the N1.9 billion naira salary arrears owed workers of the State Water Corporation and Sanitation, Environment & Protection Agency by three previous administrations had somehow gone largely unnoticed. But this issue deserves critical appraisal for its profound implications for ethics of governance.

And how did the Obiano administration come to inherit this burdensome debt? The regrettable episode started over 12 years ago with the Chinwoke Mbadinuju regime. Mortgaged at inception, the cost of servicing political patronage had proved too high as to impede the ability of the government to discharge its obligations to the electorate. When the administration was compelled after months of labour activism to commence the payment of arrears of workers' emolument, it identified the Water Corporation and Sanitation workers as well as pensioners as lines of least resistance and consequently sidelined them.

Dr Chris Ngiige who succeeded Mbadinuju was even in greater trouble than the latter, though of a different nature. Arising from his legitimacy nightmares, Ngige was more interested in making a personal mark than in the continuity of government. Thus, while his regime did not owe current salaries, it neglected the settlement of inherited arrears. Accumulated arrears of pensioner's entitlement were only cleared by the successor Peter Obi regime.

However, it was Obi who introduced the curious argument that the state government was not bound to give grants to the State Water Corporation for paying staff salary since the edict setting up the establishment made it self - sustaining. His government's offer of a joint contributory fund to salvage the institution from its woes was rejected by the workers who took the matter to the Industrial Arbitration Court. The court ruled in favour of the workers as it determined the responsibility of the State Government to the employees of its agency. On appeal, the State Government lost the case a second time in 2013.

The decision of Governor Willlie Obiano to commit the hefty sum of N1.9 for the liquidation of this embarrassing debt is salutary, humane and courageous. It is both a function of responsive governance and an act of magnanimity. The singular resolve to bear the burden of resolving this avoidable jam within a short time of assuming office says something about attitude to the people's plight. Heaven only can describe the physical, mental, psychological and emotional pain the victims endured while the situation lingered. The other day, I met one of them who had hitherto depended on people's charity to survive. She came to the Church for thanksgiving, clutching the rope for cow donation and a bulky envelope and I thought I detected her fighting back tears of joy.

A dark chapter in Anambra's narrative has mercifully come to an end. The resolution is a victory for rule of law and good governance. Now, while the pastoral care of the Church may be taken for granted, it is enlivening to realize that even in this era of crass capitalism the people could still be considered among the treasures of the State.

Afuba wrote from Nimo, Anambra State.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Ifeanyi Afuba and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."