Friday, 3rd December 2021
<To guardian.ng
Search
Breaking News:

Pension: Despite reforms, no redemption song for senior citizens in states

By Timothy Agbor (Osogbo), Isa Abdulsalami Ahovi (Jos), Monday Osayande (Asaba), Charles Ogugbuaja (Owerri), Agosi Todo (Calabar), Ahmad Muhammad (Kano) 
06 November 2021   |   4:14 am
This is not the best of times for Nigerian pensioners, especially those who depend on their monthly stipend to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

Some retirees during a recent protest in Osun State

This is not the best of times for Nigerian pensioners, especially those who depend on their monthly stipend to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Although the Federal Government had in recent years introduced various reforms to ensure that people who retire from public service get their gratuities and pension as and when due, many state governments are yet to take similar step, thus leaving their retirees to wallow in penury. As a result, from Osun to Plateau, Imo, Kebbi, Delta, Cross River and Kano states, among many others, it was lamentation galore by pensioners who spoke to The Guardian on their plights amid the current excruciating hardship in the country.

In Osun State, the administration of Governor Gboyega Oyetola said that since its inception in 2018, it had been committed to offsetting pension arrears inherited from his predecessor, Rauf Aregbesola. But retirees under the contributory pension scheme have been complaining bitterly about the non-payment of their pensions and gratuities. They claimed that the state government owed them gratuities and pensions from 2016 till date and that the arrears of half salary paid to their members for 30 months from 2016 to 2018 had not been paid. 

It was gathered that the money being released by the state government to offset the pension arrears of some retirees, especially under the contributory pension scheme, has been meagre. While some retirees, who are not under the contributory scheme have been showing understanding with the state government on the amount they get every month since Oyetola came on board, the contributory pensioners have not been able to stomach their misery.

From time to time, they take to the streets in protest, demanding that the state government pay their entitlements fully. They argue that the funds being released every month were not enough when compared to the backlog the government is supposed to offset.

On October 26 this year, the retirees under the contributory scheme, in hundreds, protested against non-payment of their five-year (2016-2021) pension arrears and gratuity and two years (2016-2018) half-salary arrears by the state government.

The senior citizens, who carried banners and placards bearing varying inscriptions, chanted anti-government songs and called Governor Oyetola unprintable names over his inability to offset the arrears.

The pensioners marched from Old Garage to Aregbe before heading to the Governor’s Office at Abeere. When they got to the state secretariat, security operatives shut the gate to prevent them from entering the premises. But the action of the security personnel made the protest more effective as the pensioners blocked the roads leading to the secretariat, an action that led to gridlock.

Some of the inscriptions on their placards read: “Governor Oyetola denying us our money is abuse of power”, “Gov. Oyetola pay us our 30 months half salaries”, “Pay us our pension and gratuities from 2015 to 2021” and “Save Our Souls, we are dying of hunger.”

Speaking to The Guardian, the state Chairman of the Contributory Pensioners, Mr. Gbenga Oyadare, bemoaned the hardship retirees are facing in Osun, saying many of them had died due to lack of money to get adequate medical care. He said that should the government continue with the pace at which it was trying to offset the arrears, it might take up to five years before completing it because workers retire every other day.

“We have worked and toiled for this state for many years and this is how they are paying us back. We are now beggars just because the government that saves our money for us refused to release it to us. We are dying everyday and our rights are being denied. We need our money and I don’t think we are asking for too much.

“The problem is a total violation of the law that established the Contributory Pension Scheme. The state government violated this law.

They ought to pay our accrued right into Redemption Fund with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). It was not done then and that is why we are in this problem. The programme took off in August 2010. They ought to have paid our accrued right to the Redemption Fund Account. They didn’t do it. The governor then, Aregbesola did nothing. He left it to accumulate and I want to say that unless something drastic is done, we cannot get out of this matter in the next five years. The reason is this: People are retiring every month and so the queue is getting longer and longer,” Oyadare said.

One of the contributory pensioners, Mr. Babarinde Sunday Ola, a retired headmaster, said it was insensitive and callous of the state government not to have paid their gratuities and pensions.

“Some of us have died from lack of medical care and hunger because we don’t have money to take care of ourselves. We have turned to beggars. We need our entitlements; it’s our rights, not privilege,” he said.

The state government appealed to the protesting pensioners to be a little more patient, saying it was doing everything to address their demand, which was tabled at a meeting held on October 14.

The Chief Press Secretary to Oyetola, Mr. Ismail Omipidan, told The Guardian that the government had never defaulted in payment of pensions and gratuities, including those of contributory pensioners, just as it was gradually clearing the backlog it inherited.

He stated that government’s representatives and leaders of the pensioners met on October 14 where the ex-workers, among other things, requested government to do upward review of the monthly releases to cater for pensioners in the state. 

“Both parties agreed at that meeting to reconvene on November 29, to present government’s position and chart a way forward so as to continue to guarantee industrial peace in the state. But we were surprised that the pensioners didn’t wait till after the adjourned meeting before protesting,” he said. He urged the pensioners not to lend themselves to cheap blackmailers who thrive on chaotic situations.

“Since we came on board in 2018, we have paid salaries and pensions as and when due and we are steadily reducing even the arrears we inherited from the previous administration.

“To show commitment, we devised a strategy to ensure that those under the Contributory Pension Scheme and whose entitlements are from N100, 000 to N500,000, were paid up to December 2020.  Also, we have taken on those from N501, 000 to N1 million, N1 million to N1.5 million and N1.5 million to N2 million and we are not relenting. In the last two months, we have paid over 300 contributory pensioners.

“From 2018 to date, we have expended about N40 billion to cater for our senior citizens. This is a demonstration of love and commitment to our senior citizens and we won’t relent. Rather than resort to civil unrest, we appeal to them to show understanding and be a little more patient with government.

“We appreciate the cooperation and understanding of majority of the pensioners who chose to show understanding rather than come out to protest. They have dragged us to the Human Rights radio at Abuja and we went there to clear air on the issue.

“They (retirees) want the backlog which was inherited to be cleared at once. It’s not correct to say we are not paying at all. We are paying as at 2018 when we came in. Apart from the fact that we are up to date as far as remittances are concerned, we are also making efforts to clear the backlog, which we inherited. It is not possible for us to clear the arrears at once. In any case, it did not get there at once. If we have the resources today, I believe very strongly that the governor will clear it, but we don’t have the resources. We are trying our best to ensure that our senior citizens do not suffer. It’s not correct to say that we have not been attending to the plight of pensioners.”

In Plateau State, it was gathered that the government has not paid pensioners since August this year. Meanwhile, there are those who have retired in the last 10 years who are yet to be captured for pension payment. It is only those who have been captured that receive pension once in a while.

According to a pensioner, Musa Ajang, pension payment is supposed to be a monthly affair. “It is a little amount which is not up to one quarter of your salary when you were in active service.”

He appealed to the government to intensify efforts to pay pension regularly to prevent untimely death of the pensioners who depend on the stipend to take care of themselves and their families.

In Delta State, the Association of Contributory Retirees (ACR) accused the government of deliberately refusing to pay them their benefits now amounting to over N100 billion.

The Vice Chairman of ACR, Mr. Anthony Osanekwu, told The Guardian that out of the N100 billion, government was only paying N300 million monthly. To him, the amount is too meagre because of the large number of the retirees in the state.

He said the association had severally met with government officials, including the economic advisers to the governor, Prof. Sylvester Monye and Kingsley Emu, to workout effective modalities to pay the backlog. “But Governor Ifeanyi Okowa is doing what he likes with the money. Instead of paying N500 million he met on ground, he reduced it to N300 million,” Osanekwu said.

According to him, Okowa is hiding under the COVID-19 pandemic to peg the amount at N300 million and has not deemed it necessary to increase it. He, however, said the government had paid the pensioners up to August this year.

Okowa’s spokesman, Mr. Olise Ifenjika, in his reaction to the alleged irregular payment of pensioners in the state, said: “It is not true that government has not been paying. In fact, more than N18 billion of the arrears had been defrayed from the over N60 billion this administration inherited from the previous administration. The money has been paid in batches because of the amount and number of persons involved. The batches are even arranged by the civil servants themselves.

“Every month, government brings out N1.3 billion to defray the backlog that was inherited and also pay those who are in the old pension scheme. Nothing was done by previous administrations. We don’t know the reason, and that made the outstanding to rise to more than N60 billion, which this government has been contending with.

“Every month, about N500 million is used for those arrears that accumulated while about N500 million is also used for those who are retiring this current time, just as more than N300 million is used for those in the old pension scheme,” he revealed.

Findings in Imo State showed that out of the 24,000 retirees captured in the biometric exercise conducted by the Governor Hope Uzodimma administration last year, 6000 are yet to be paid.

Chairman of Association of Retired Permanent Secretaries in the state, Fabian Agba, who disclosed this, expressed regret that the government has also failed to fulfill its promise to pay retirees on the 28th of every month.

Agba said: “There should be a payday. When you don’t have a payday, you create unnecessary stress for the people. There are pensioners paid and not paid.”

The Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, however, explained that the state government embarked on the biometric data capture of retirees after discovering some discrepancies. He said the government would take a decision on the issue when the exercise is completed.

In Cross River State, the organised labour comprising the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Joint Public Negotiating Council (JNC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), embarked on strike on October 12, 2021 in protest against non-payment of their gratuities and pensions, among others.

In a bulletin recently released by the unionists, they claimed that the state government owed retired civil servants in the state over N50 billion as gratuities.

On October 28, 2021, a meeting between the government and labour leaders called to reach a truce on the issue ended in deadlock. Nonetheless, in a statement, the government described the ongoing industrial action in the state as politically motivated, insisting that it had met 14 of the 15- demands of the ex-workers.

While presenting the 2022 budget last week, Governor Ben Ayade announced that the government would set aside between N30 million and N50 million monthly to offset the arrears of gratuities and pension.

Speaking to The Guardian in Calabar, the Chairman of TUC in the state, Monday Ogbodum, however, insisted that the amount being proposed to offset the backlog of pension in the state was too small and might not be able to pay those who have retired in the first half of 2021 alone.

“You know that pension and gratuity are one of the major reasons the strike is in the fourth week; we are pressing on. The current government must commence the payment of gratuity to the retirees. If you have opportunity to see our bulletin 14A and 14B, you will observe from there that the previous government of Liyel Imoke paid gratuities up to June 2013 and then this government paid from July 2013 to about six months or so and then from 2014 till date, nothing about gratuity has been said and the money has not been paid by the government at the state level and local government level. That was when the payment of gratuity ended.”

A female pensioner, who reluctantly spoke under the condition of anonymity, simply said: “My dear, our governor is insensitive to anything, so there is no point wasting time and energy. Imagine women who are sweeping the roads went to him and they used tear gas to disperse them. When you say something and there is change, you are encouraged. This one, there is no change. I have not been paid September pension till now and gratuity since I retired in 2016,” she said.

In Kano State, the chairman of the pensioners’ forum, Alhaji Ado Ibrahim, alleged non-payment and deduction of their pension by the state government. 

He explained that apart from the unnecessary deduction, they had not been receiving their pension as and when due, lamenting that the situation had hindered many of their members from meeting their family obligations, especially under the current economic situation in the country.

A pensioner, who took the state Pension Fund Trustees to court over deductions from his pension, Alhaji Lamido Matawalle, alleged that the state had been deducting his money since February 2021. According to him, most of the pensioners have been plunged into serious financial crisis due to the monthly cuts.

Nevertheless, the chairman of Kano State Pension Fund Trustees, Alhaji Sani Gabasawa, blamed the plight of the pensioners in the state on the reduction in the federal allocation to the state, which, according to him, reduced the funds set aside for payment of monthly pension.

He further revealed that the pension trustees had not paid gratuities to retirees since 2016, stating that the state needed N20 billion to offset the gratuities of over 31,000 retirees.

“As I am talking to you, we pay N1.2 billion pension to retirees monthly. Every month, the pension increases. We are in a difficult situation. Let me tell you that there must be delay in the payment of gratuities in this state. This is because the state has not paid gratuities since 2016 due to lack of funds.

“At the moment, we owe N20 billion and government organisations don’t pay their statutory eight per cent to us, hence they owe us N28 billion. So, you see how the situation has become complicated,” he explained.