Of Plateau State, Lalong and his critics, By Emmanuel Ado

Posted by News Express | 9 March 2018 | 2,593 times

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•Governor Lalong

“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.” – Author Unknown

The major challenge facing Mr Simon Lalong, the embattled Governor of Plateau State, is that he has allowed others to tell his story, since he appears not keen; or those he has entrusted with the responsibility lack the capacity or are unwilling to tell his story for him. There is a near consensus that Lalong’s information machinery, is “in a deep slumber”. And, when it eventually wakes up, assuming it ever does, the contest (2019 elections) would have been lost or won. Malcom X was right when he said: “The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty, and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power.” It is that firing power of the media that Governor Lalong presently lacks. 

Lalong’s ‘report card’ issued by the formidable opposition looks so horrible that a repeat is even out of question. The emboldened opposition has, in fact, recommended Lalong’s immediate withdrawal from the 2019 race, even before its commencement. But the reality is that Simon Lalong’s administration hasn’t been as terrible as the opposition has portrayed it. The twin problems that have conspired against Lalong, are the huge expectations that, most unfortunately, hasn’t been helped by the poor economic situation and the ‘foreign’ political platform – the All Progressives Congress (APC), the party of the “Muslim invaders” – that he ran, and governs on. 

 De-constructing Lalong: Assessing him should be based on how he has fared on the various policy fronts, and not meaningless initiatives. Lalong came into office totally boxed in; had little or no room to manoeuvre. The immediate past governor, Jonah David Jang’s administration effectively crippled him with the outstanding liability of over N110 billion owed commercial banks, at very scandalous interest rates; besides contractual liabilities of over N105 billion. Lalong’s nightmare was further compounded by the drastic drop in the monthly allocation, from N4 billion to about N1.7 billion, about 57.5 per cent drop in revenue, due to the economic downturn. To further compound an already bad situation, Jang left Lalong five months backlog of unpaid salaries of civil servants, 10 months at the local government areas, and a pension arrears of 11 months. 

But for the intervention of the Debt Management Office (DMO), and Assets Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON), which restructured the loans into long-term facilities, notorious Shylock commercial banks would have auctioned Plateau State to any willing buyer to recover their money, which was ballooning by the day, due to outrageous interest rates. Thankfully, states have been banned from borrowing from commercial banks. Plateau State paid a very heavy price for this ‘favour’, as its high indebtedness meant it couldn’t borrow to fund any project. So, like most states, Plateau was on a perpetual federal lifeline (bailout), to tackle the arrears. Moving forward, the Federal Government issued a 22-point guideline to states to help address very fundamental issues: poor internally generated revenue, the issue of ‘ghost’ workers, etc. Effectively, this meant no real physical projects in the first two years of the Lalong administration. 

It is a miracle how the government has surmounted the challenge of paying the civil servants, considering that it receives about N1.5 billion monthly, as against a monthly wage bill of N2 billion, leaving absolutely nothing for project execution. Governor Jang obviously was not a welfarist concerned with regular payment of salary. And in retaliation, the service embarked on at least eight strikes, an average of one in the eight years he was governor, with some strikes lasting as long as five months. In fact, the civil servants were on strike when Jang handed over. 

Governors are elected to proffer solutions. And these are the critical areas to asses Lalong. The big question remains: How can Plateau State meet its obligations to its civil servants and deliver service to the generality of its people? How prepared is the state for life after bailout? Given that Plateau is a civil service state which economy is mainly driven by the injection of nearly N2 billion salary monthly, if this amount is withheld for whatever reason, the multiplier effect or consequences can better be imagined. The effect will ricochet on landlords, public schools, social life and, even on security. Private sector is virtually non-existent, due to the war of attrition that lasted more than a decade. 

Repositioning of the Plateau Investment and Property Development Company, Jos, which was closed down, is key to the revitalisation of the economy of the state. Equally important is the revival of industries that were ‘murdered’ by politicians. For example, revival of the Bokkos Fertiliser Blending Plant, through a public-private-partnership (PPP) with Bejafta Ltd. The factory which was closed down in 2003 today produces fertiliser that can't meet the demand of farmers. That gives some hope. Same as the revival of the Highland Bottling Company, Barikin Ladi, which was closed since 1997, through a PPP with Hummer Drinks Ltd. The company currently produces table water and employs more than 100 staff directly. The staff strength will increase when the production lines of juices and carbonated drinks come on stream. Lalong should fast track the process of reviving Jos International Breweries Ltd (JIB), makers of the famous Rock Lager beer, which was the largest employer of labour after government. The factory was closed in 2010, during Jang’s government. It will be great if the target of 2018/2019 is met. The economic possibilities of JIB are immeasurable. Tenders for rebuilding of the burnt Jos International Market was recently opened. Indications are that after 16 years, the market would finally be rebuilt. The completion of the Inland Container Depot at Heipang, will further boost the economy of the state and drastically improve the internally generated revenue of the state, and the capacity of government to execute projects. 

It will be uncharitable to write off or down-play, the industrial peace that prevails on the plateau, especially the resolution of the strike embarked upon by NLC, Judicial Staff Union, and Joint Unions of Plateau State Tertiary Institutions, which commenced in December 2014. Nor the payment of Law School arrears for 2013/2014 and other scholarship arrears that piled up from the Jang administration, including the regular payment of scholarship allowances to Plateau State students in tertiary institutions. Equally commendable is resumption of academic activities at the Plateau State University, Bokkos, closed down in 2007 and the accreditation of its courses. That the university finally held its first convocation 13 years after it opened its doors to students, is worthy of a carnival celebration. 

While total peace is difficult, in fact, a mirage, the efforts to change the narrative from a violent people to peace-loving people, through the State Peace Building Agency (PPBA), totally dedicated to conflict prevention and peace-building, is bearing results. The agency must continue engaging with relevant state and non-state actors across the state and beyond, with a view to building on and, indeed, sustaining the peace that has returned to the state. The few skirmishes in October 2017 were not enough to write off the efforts of the agency. The Lalong policy of inclusiveness, where all citizens are treated as stakeholders in the Plateau State project, has made him enemies, but it is the way to go. He must, however, go beyond the appointments of few elites, as criteria for measuring or ensuring peace. The restoration of peace can’t be called a hoax. The image of the state, that was negative, has definitely improved, compared to what it was between 2009 and 2014. Plateau State needs peace and justice to thrive. How can tourists or investors come, when the only functioning industry is violence. That the crises have remained largely isolated means Lalong’s strategy is working, as the state hasn’t witnessed the usual reprisal and counter-reprisals.

Lalong needs his critics, including yours truly, to keep him on his toes. That’s the beauty of democracy.

•Emmanuel Ado is a Kaduna-based journalist. He can be reached via mayad497@yahoo.com

Source: News Express

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