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A tale of two pensioners: Oliver Twist ex-governors and agonised retirees

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A tale of two pensioners: Oliver Twist ex-governors and agonised retirees

•Pensioners waiting for verification.

Increasing demands for exorbitant life pensions by Nigeria’s political leaders deepen exploitation of the poor and further put pressure on the ailing economy, writes CHUX OHAI

In one corner of the Akposheris’ family compound in Effurun, Delta State, lies the grave of Pa Ovie Akposheri (not real name). For his son, Martins, it is a constant reminder of the pain and anguish that swept through the family a few years ago when the old man, who was  78 at the time, collapsed and died while awaiting his turn in a queue at a verification centre for pensioners in Lagos.

Pa Akposheri, like many others, had travelled all the way from Effurun, his hometown, to Lagos to be verified and cleared for his pension.

But the exercise had unexpectedly dragged for weeks. In Pa Akposheri’s centre, there was only one computer available to capture the data of about 2,300 pensioners, most of who were in their 70s and 80s.

The pensioners had had no choice other than to wait in the scorching sun for their turn to be screened. Many of them stood for several hours without food or drink, endured privations for as long as the exercise lasted, just to ensure that they were not left out.

Unfortunately, Pa Akposheri and a few others had not been able to cope with the strain. One day, the old man suddenly collapsed and died. The doctors at the hospital where they took his body said he died of exhaustion.

Martins had been devastated. What pained him most was the fact that he had planned to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday in a big way.

“I had everything wrapped up. My father deserved a befitting 80th birthday celebration. It was going to be my own way of thanking him for being such a caring and loving father. But, see how this country’s poor pension administration system scuttled my plan,” he said, in a conversation with our correspondent.

A case of two different pensions

The sad event also taught Martins and many other people who learnt about it, in the same way as they learnt of the death of another pensioner, Pa Olusa Ayodele, in a similar queue in Akure, Ondo State, five years ago, a tough lesson. The lesson is that, in Nigeria, it is much easier for a full-bred camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an aged pensioner to receive his pension peacefully and as at when due.

Both pensioners’ deaths best illustrate the sad condition of the downtrodden in this part of the world. Had they retired as political office holders, perhaps death would not have come so suddenly and painfully. They would have certainly spent the rest of their lives in luxury, enjoying the best things that money can buy at the expense of the taxpayers in his home state.

For certain, it is a case of two different pensions. One for the affluent, who had managed to worm their way to positions of authority and like some state governors, appropriated for themselves large portions of the common wealth at the expense of the ordinary taxpayers. The other pension is for the likes of Akposheri and Ayodele, meagre and barely able to keep body and soul together. Yet, it was all that they could ever hope to live on for the rest of their lives, despite the fact that they laboured for 35 years and contributed to the development of the country.

Life-time perks for former governors in Lagos, other states

For the past eight years, the existence of certain pension laws, deemed not to be in the best interest of the people in some states, has been the subject of a raging controversy nationwide.

Investigation shows that contrary to the approval of 300 per cent basic salary by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission as severance allowances for political office holders at the expiration of their tenures, the existing Lagos Pension Law, as approved in 2007, provides for the payment of 100 per cent of the annual basic salaries of the incumbent governor and his deputy on leaving office. It also ensures that the former governor will get two residential houses, one each in Lagos and Abuja; three cars, two back-up cars and one pilot car for the ex-governor, to be replaced every three years; two cars, one back-up car and one pilot car for the deputy, also to be replaced every three years.

Other perks to be enjoyed by a former governor include 300 per cent of annual basic salary as furniture allowance, to be paid every two years; about N30m as annual pension; 10 per cent of annual basic salary as house maintenance allowance; 30 per cent of annual basic salary as car maintenance allowance; 10 per cent of annual basic salary as entertainment allowance and 20 per cent of annual basic salary for utility.                                                                                                       The law also makes provision for the former governor to enjoy the services of a cook, steward, gardener and other domestic staff, who will be pensionable. In addition, there is free medical treatment for the ex-governor and his deputy, as well as members of their respective families.                                                                          Other benefits include the provision of two DSS operatives, one female officer, eight policemen as personal security for the ex-governor, while his former deputy is entitled to one DSS operative and two policemen.                                                                  Further investigation shows that there are only slight differences in the provisions of the pension laws in other states. In Akwa Ibom State, for example, an ex-governor enjoys life pension at a rate equal to the salary of the incumbent. Under the law, a former governor is entitled to N200m annual salary in addition to an official car and a utility vehicle replaceable every four years; one personal assistant, a cook, chauffeurs and security guards at not more than N5m per month. Also, there are provisions for free medical services, two five-bedroom mansions in Abuja and Uyo. The former governor also gets 300 per cent of annual basic salary as furniture allowance every four years and a severance gratuity.

Passing the ‘dutchie’ to lawmakers

In the standard Jamaican street parlance, the word ‘dutchie’ describes a cooking pot used to prepare meals for a large number of people. Nowadays, it seems that Nigerian lawmakers in the state assemblies and Senate are telling their colleagues in the state executive councils to pass the ‘dutchies’ to them for their shares of the national cake.                                                                                                                     A few weeks ago, the Edo State House of Assembly virtually stirred the hornet’s nest when it amended the state’s version of the controversial Pension Rights Law by approving the provision of residential buildings, valued at N200m and N100m, in any location in the country for the immediate past Governor Adams Oshiomhole and his former deputy, Dr. Pius Odubu, at the expiration of their tenures.

No sooner had the backlash of reactions and criticism that greeted that action died down than lawmakers in Lagos dared to test the patience of the hard-bitten residents by re-introducing a bill to amend the state’s Pension Law in such a way as to award life pensions to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly.

As if that issue and the expensive pensions for former chief executives of states have not caused the average, law-abiding Nigerian enough embarrassment, some lawmakers have recently started advocating an extension of the largesse to the leadership of the National Assembly. During a retreat in Lagos, some senators reportedly proposed life pension for the presiding officers of the National Assembly.

Those in support of the move have also argued that if the heads of the executive arm of government at the state and national levels and their deputies are entitled to life pensions, then the presiding officers of the National Assembly have a right to enjoy similar benefits. Although the proposal has been roundly condemned and described as insensitive and provocative, there is no indication yet that it will be dropped.

More jumbo pensions, less progress

No longer willing to turn a blind eye to the actions of the state assemblies across the country, many Nigerians have been questioning the rationale for awarding such ‘outrageous’ pensions and allowances to ex-governors and their deputies. Many more are alarmed at the disparity between the largesse enjoyed by former political office holders and the modest retirement benefits accruing to ordinary workers after serving for 35 years in the public service.

There is an indication, considering the present economic climate, that the wide range of entitlements, as approved by the various state assemblies, may have serious financial implications on the states if not discontinued.

Also, there is growing concern that the beneficiaries of the largesse have succeeded in goading the state assemblies into making laws that would enable them to continue to indulge in the expensive lifestyles that they enjoyed while they were in power during their tenures in office.                                                                                                          As the present economic recession lingers, more people are worried that the payment of bogus pension to former political office holders have become counter-productive and an obstacle to sitting governors that are willing spread the dividends of democracy to the governed.

 Already, there is evidence that some of the 36 states are still battling to pay the salaries of workers. It is also on record that in 2015,  about 28 cash-strapped states received bail-outs from the Presidency, totaling almost N700bn. A media report also recently indicated that some states spent about N776bn annually on pensions for their former state executives.                                                                                                                                The report also linked the inability of the affected state governments to meet their financial obligations and to embark on capital projects to the huge resources expended on pensions and jumbo perquisites for their former governors and deputy governors.                                                                                                                             Given this background, the onus is now on the various states to decide whether to sacrifice the future of their people, especially the youth, on the altar of self-serving pensions and allowances for their former helmsmen or not.

No retirement benefits for professors

Considering the nature of their jobs, the hard work and the long period of time required to attain the position, people are inclined to agree that professors deserve to enjoy better remuneration and welfare packages than political office holders. But a Professor in one of the popular universities in the South-West, who craved anonymity for fear of victimisation, revealed, in an interview with our correspondent, that there was no provision whatsoever for special retirement benefit for professors.

He said, “What we do is make contributions to a pension scheme and this depends on how many years that you have spent in the university and the percentage of your salary that you contribute. When you retire, you are paid 60 per cent of your total contribution initially and another 25 per cent and so on.”

On the average, he added, the monthly salary for a professor is between N480,00 and N500,000. After all deductions have been made, the sum comes down to about N450,000.

The academic also noted that special allowances enjoyed by his colleagues were nothing fantastic, just about N5,000 or N10,000 a month. What a dean of faculty, for example, gets is about N15,000 a month. Also, a professor who has spent more years on the job is entitled to a housing allowance of about N27,000 per month.

 “Nigerians are concerned about the moral implications of the legislations, the fact that many people are living in penury and a retired governor is getting a house worth N200m. This is abnormal when compared with what is happening in the country at present.

“Viewed in a pragmatic way, the pension laws may be one of the ways to encourage governors not to steal money belonging to the state. The pressure on the occupants of that office is something else,” he said.

‘This is abuse of legislative power’

More Nigerians have continued to react to the threat posed by the controversial pension laws to the well-being of the country and the people. Speaking on the moral implications of the legislations, lawyer and civil rights activist, Malachy Ugwummadu, said, “At the heart of these legislations is the inequality, inappropriateness and the disconnection between the state governors and the governed. It has become the bane of Nigeria that those actors proceed selfishly as though they are acting on their own and never representing any person.

“Now the way to understand the moral condition of what is going on is to juxtapose such legislations, the speed with which they are passed, the consistency in the adherence to the provisions of those legislations and the very religious style of keeping faith with every detail of those laws as against the treatment of pensioners in those respective states.”

Ugwummadu also lamented that Nigeria had become a class society, one that protects and continues to protect the rich and the wealthy as against the poor and the deprived. Every step, he remarked, is taken to consolidate that with legislations that perpetuate this discrimination to the detriment of the downtrodden.

Also, the Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Mumuni Adetokunbo, argued that anybody who had worked in an elective office and served for a period of eight years consecutively did not deserve a pension or gratuity.

He said, “Such a person is deemed to have spent most of that period making financial gain for himself. Pensions are not for this category of people. Let us ask ourselves: In what clime or in what circumstance can this type of dangerous immoral and unethical use of legislative power be tolerated? Is the Nigerian economy buoyant? The answer is no. We are in a recession.

“Are the masses of Nigeria enjoying now? No, Nigerians are suffering. So, upon what basis should any state House of Assembly, from Lagos to Borno and from Sokoto to the Niger Delta, be passing this type of legislation if they are not being wicked?”

Adetokunbo warned that the current situation would have an overwhelmingly adverse effect on the life of the average Nigerian, who is already subjected to abject poverty by the manner with which political leaders are ruling the country.

“What we are frowning on is the abuse of that legislative power by the state Houses of Assembly. That should be condemned by every right-thinking Nigerian.

 “Nigerians are becoming too docile. They leave everything to NGOs. In other climes, the people would have invaded the various state houses of assembly that are perpetrating such rubbish,” he said, urging the people to take positive action against the lawmakers by occupying the houses of assembly so that the latter will realise that they are not doing what they were elected to do: representing the interests of the people.

NGOs wage war against state pension laws

Meanwhile, a suit seeking to nullify the various pension laws in the 36 states, awarding bogus pensions to former state chief executives, is pending at the Federal High Court, Abuja. The plaintiffs are 38 non-governmental organisations and two individuals, including the Human Development Initiative, Legal Defence and Assistance Project, Legal Resources Consortium, Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre, Social Economic Rights Initiative, CLEEN Foundation, Human Rights Agenda Network and the Human Rights, Social Development and Environmental Foundation.

 Explaining the motive behind the action to our correspondent, the lead counsel on the case, Chino Obiagwu, said, “We saw that the pension laws provide for pensions that are very exorbitant for public officers in the context of the minimum wage. Most of these laws make provisions that are too bogus and capable of depleting the resources of the states.

“Secondly, we were convinced that the Constitution had given the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission the power to set the remuneration for public officers, including governors and their deputies.

“We thought that pension is part of the remuneration and that after the RMAFC has set the remuneration, the state governments cannot on their own set another remuneration that is beyond what the commission stipulated. To that extent, we think that what the state laws have done is completely unconstitutional. That is the reason why we are in court.”

Before the case was filed, the plaintiffs had appealed to the state assemblies to amend the pension laws, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. “When they failed to respond, we had to go to court,” Obiagwu said.

 Buhari’s silence

As many Nigerians await the outcome of the legal action instituted by the NGOs, they are surprised that President Muhammadu Buhari has not made an effort to check the greed of the former governors, many of who are now in the National Assembly, as promised.

The President had, during his election campaign, pledged to repeal the pension laws for the former state chief executives, which he described as scandalous. Unfortunately, he seems to have turned a blind eye to the issue  after spending over a year in office.

It is actually interesting that some of his ministers, including Babatunde Fashola, Rotimi Amechi and Chris Ngige, who are enjoying all the perks of the minister’s office, are still among those reaping the provisions of the bogus pension laws. In other words, theirs seems to be a case of double liabilities on the country’s frail economy.

The situation can even be worse in the cases of some of those who had worked in public offices before they became governors and, later, ministers. For instance, Fashola was the Chief of Staff to Tinubu in Lagos. Perhaps he is ‘entitled’ to ‘triple’ pension and gratuity. Unfortunately, efforts to confirm this with the Lagos State pension authorities had not yielded fruits as of the 7pm production time on Thursday.

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