Extra work free day: How Benue civil servants are spending it

In order to conquer hunger and or famine in the near future following dwindling resources accruing to states from the federation account, Benue State Government, recently, approved that every Friday, beginning from June 10, till the end of July, 2016 would be made a work free day.
This is to enable workers in the state to work on their various farms, produce food for their families to cushion the effects of hardship that might arise from non-payment of salaries by state government.
The Abuja Inquirer has, however, observed that not many residents are heeding to this clarion call. While some are taking advantage of this opportunity, most others see it as ample time to attend weekend burials and marriage ceremonies.
For some others, they lavish this golden opportunity engaging in frivolous, idle talks and arguments under the numerous Benue mango trees and in drinking joints, over bottles of beer.
Nationwide, governments are finding it difficult to satisfy the yearnings of their people especially in the area of payment salaries. It is reported that about 27 state of the federation can hardly pay their staff due to dwindling resources accruing from the federation account. Benue is not immune to this.
Since assumption of office one year ago, the administration of Governor Samuel Ortom has borrowed over N40 billion in a bid to pay salaries. But civil servants in the state are still being owed for six months while local government staff including teachers are owed for more than seven months.
Governor Ortom had also stated recently that information made available at the last National Economic Council indicated harder times ahead hence the need for the people of the state to exploit the agriculture window where the state has comparative and competitive advantages.
To avoid apparent state wide hunger in the future, Ortom and his executive council during the 16th session of their meeting decided that workers be given a day off to produce as much food as possible to feed their families since monies from federal allocation were becoming a pipe dream, making regular payment of salaries a major challenge.
Senior Special Adviser on Media to the Governor, Mr. Terver Akase, told The Abuja Inquirer on phone that only teachers and a few other state government workers rendering essential services were exempted but all others are expected to participate. "Teachers are not included because we cannot shot down schools. We are looking at all state government workers except those rendering essential services", he said. The governor had also announced that he would take a two-week vacation which was part of his annual leave from Monday, June 13th to work on his farm while his deputy holds brief.
But three weeks later, some civil servants who spoke to this newspaper last week, said they have no resources to go to their farms. While majority of the people complained of non-payment of salaries as a result of which they cannot afford the needed farm inputs and implements, others, say the continuous invasion and attack of their villages by suspected Fulani herders have posed serious security threats to their lives thereby hindering them from going home to their farms.
A civil servant who prefers to remain anonymous told our correspondent in Makurdi that "My husband and I have not been paid for the past five months. We have children in school and our village has been sacked by Fulani herdsmen. We do not have land in Makurdi. How and where do we farm?
"What is important now is that government should pay salaries so that we can feed and pay fees. Government should also do all they can to secure the lives of the Benue people especially the people in the villages where these farms are located. Except this is done, going to the village to farm is like embarking on a suicide mission", she added.
Another resident, a ministry staff said he visited his farm last since 2015 when his aged parents ran from home to live with him in Makurdi due to incessant attacks on their village in Gwer local government area of the state.
"We can't go back to our farms. It's not safe at all. All we are doing now is little gardens where we plant small vegetables and yams around our homes. We can't farm on a large scale because the land is not available. If we must rent land somewhere, then we need to get salary before we can afford to do that," he added.
While some people have genuine reasons for not utilizing the Friday work free day on their farms, others on this day engage in frivolities. It was common sight to see people relax over bottles of beer in Makurdi by Friday evenings.
To many, (Thank God It's Friday), it is a time to ease off the week long stress from work. But recently, as early as 11 am on Fridays, most young men would be seen gathered under mango trees and drinking joints, drinking and talking on top of their voices. At these times, their argument centered on politics; which politicians are occupying a lucrative position and are stealing people's money and which are not, soccer, gossip and other idle talks.
Our correspondent has also observed that most motor parks in Makurdi are busier on Friday mornings since more people now take a holiday to return to work on Mondays.
Commissioner for Agriculture in the state, Mr James Anbua, who commended the Governor for his initiative urged the Benue populace to take advantage of the policy saying it is in line with improving agriculture in the state.
He said the Ortom administration focuses on agricultural mechanization and industrialization.
"In trying to boost agricultural production, we need to increase our production capacity which means increasing the workforce. In Benue, the workforce comprises largely of the civil servants and if you don't give them much time on the farm, your target will not be achieved. That is why we gave the Friday work free day.
"It is not a day to engage in a jamboree but a day to add economic values to ourselves and families and I am happy that lot of people are keying into it. I am positive that we will achieve positive results," the commissioner added.
Reacting to non-payment of salaries as complained by workers, Anbua said it was not peculiar to Benue state, "It is a national challenge. All over the country, civil servants have not been paid. If I want to put it correctly, dwindling economy a global trend. That is what is affecting Benue workers. But instead of sitting and complaining, take advantage of other opportunities available."
He said to cushion this effect, a window is being created by the federal government through the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, called the Anchor Borrowers' Scheme. He said it's a seven year programme and Benue civil servants are not exempted but they can key into the scheme by forming cooperatives through which they will be given the necessary assistance in terms of seedling, inputs among others.
Also speaking, Akase pleaded with Benue people to be patient with state government as the governor is doing everything humanly possible to pay salaries. He recalled that recently the governor visited the CBN and made a very strong case for Benue farmers. He said currently, about 5000 Benue farmers are beneficiaries of the CBN scheme and would soon be receiving their incentives.
Akase stated that state government on their part has also subsidized farm inputs like fertilizer by 38 percent causing the price to come down from N6500 to N4000 a bag. He also noted that state government has begun establishment of dams across the state to aid farmers in their dry season farming just as it has attracted a Chinese company to assemble tractors to render hiring services to farmers who want to go into massive farming activities
While state government believes that the policy is laudable, there is every need for it to deploy all means possible to enable it achieve the desired goals. The governor has promised to take up the matter of the failure of security agencies to apprehend even one invader since the attacks on communities started in the state despite enormous expenditure made on them.
While he tackles security, the people also need salaries. There is also need for a massive reorientation and awareness campaign on the opportunities that abound out there for the Benue youth and farmers alike.

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