Last week, hundreds of police special constabularies in Osogbo, the capital of Osun State in southwestern Nigeria, staged a peaceful protest. Hoisting placards with slogans such as “Pay us now,” “We’re dying,” “We’re hungry,” and “Okada riders (private motorcycle operators) are sleeping with our wives,” the constables called attention to the non-payment of their salaries for the past eighteen months. To passersby and sympathizers who cared to listen, the protesting constables reeled off a litany of woes, including stories of colleagues who had died in the course of discharging their duty, and homes permanently wrecked because the breadwinners lacked the financial muscle to hold things together.
If the protesting constabularies expected a compassionate response from the authorities, they were in for a rude shock. After accusing them of “embarrassing the force” and “disturbing public peace,” State Commissioner of Police Adewale Olokode went on to scold the constables for failing to “maintain a high level of discipline” as force members.
Olokode’s casual dismissal of the protesters is not unusual; by contrast, it typifies the reaction of public authorities in Nigeria and other African states as wages of public employees have increasingly become a political battleground, deepening hostilities between the latter and holders of public office. If, not too long ago, the first missed salary was cause for panic, it would appear rulers have since discovered the political benefits accruable from—as the case may be—slashing, withdrawing, deferring, or at times merely delaying payment of public employee salaries. For many African leaders, the monthly salary has, within the span of a generation, become a favored technique of social control, a means of deepening uncertainty with the ultimate aim of producing governable subjects.
According to a recent survey by BudgIT, a Lagos-based nongovernmental organization, more than ten states in Nigeria owed their workers at least a month’s salary as of July 28, 2022. While one state in the southeast has not paid some workers in 22 months, in others, “some civil servants have not been paid in 30 months.” Last October, police constables in the southwestern state of Ekiti issued an appeal to President Buhari after ten months in which they had not received their salaries. Last December, public elementary school teachers in Niger State in the North Central region of the country threatened to stay at home if the government did not pay their salaries in full. “Delayed payment of salaries” was one of the reasons given by resident doctors in Nigerian public hospitals for embarking on an indefinite strike last August. (The strike was called off in October.) Salaries and associated conditions of service are at the heart of recurrent industrial disputes between the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) and the Nigerian federal government.
As with salaries, so it is with pensions. As of December 2019, the federal government owed its retirees over 935 million dollars in back payment. A May 2021 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Africa Eye documentary uncovered “an unfair and corrupt system” which leaves many elderly pensioners holding the short end of the stick. Over the years, several pensioners have died while attending “verification” exercises intended to separate real from “ghost” pensioners. By comparison, political office holders enjoy lavish retirement benefits, with twenty-one states reportedly expending on average 86.5 million dollars every four years on houses, personal staff, and automobiles for former governors.
Nigeria is by no means an outlier. The salary (whether securing unpaid arrears or demanding a raise to mitigate eroded spending power due to inflation) has been a constant fixture in recent agitations across the region. These include “living wage” protests in Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and South Africa. While COVID-19 and the blowback from the Ukraine conflict clearly aggravated the situation in these countries, the grievances in question predate them. In West Africa, rank and file soldiers’ disgruntlement over unpaid salaries and bonuses contributed to disaffection which softened the ground for military takeovers in Guinea, Mali, Sudan, and Burkina Faso.
All in all, salaries have become a critical index of the breakdown of the social contract in many African countries.
In the first place, they signal a fundamental shift in the balance of power between state and society. Although the private sector in Africa continues to expand (for instance, it currently “accounts for over 80 percent of total production, two-thirds of total investment, and three-fourths of lending within the economy”), by and large, the state remains the supreme economic and political actor, able to dispense largesse and punishment to social forces at will. The economic turbulence of the past decade has had the unintended effect of concentrating more power in the hands of the state and state actors as a greater percentage of the citizenry has sought security in public sector jobs. The state’s ability to control the lives of millions of ordinary people through manipulating “pay day” further engraves its status as patriarchal benefactor.
At the same time, the salary has redefined the terms of politics and political contestation. On the one hand, it has become the ultimate measure of political success, meaning that state executives are increasingly judged by their success or otherwise in paying public employees’ salaries. Accordingly, political campaigns increasingly consist in promises not to withhold civil servants’ salaries. On the other hand, governance is depreciated insofar as its substance is narrowed down to payment of salary arrears, overdue bonuses, and promises to pay future salaries as and when due.
The role of corruption in this emergent moral calculus cannot be underestimated. Last October, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) disclosed that it had investigated pension-related frauds totaling over 367 million dollars. Last November, the Federal High Court in Abuja and the Nigerian Federal Capital Territory (FCT) sentenced a former chairperson of the defunct Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT), Abdulrasheed Maina, to eight years’ imprisonment for “money laundering offences involving N2billion in pension fund.”
The consequences of rule by salary are profound. In the first place, it indirectly fosters a culture of corruption as unpaid civil servants are incentivized to leverage public services, resources, and spaces for private gain. Furthermore, it vicariously enables violence particularly when, as seen in numerous cases, unpaid police personnel take out their frustration on members of the public.
While the problem defies a quick fix, strengthening the private sector as a way of limiting the ambit of state power is essential. Corruption apart, public bureaucracies in many African countries are too large to be effective. A combination of public sector reforms and sustained investment in the private sector, especially small businesses, will go a long way towards adjusting the balance of power in favor of the citizenry.
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.