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‘We worked only to be left to die in penury in the South East’


Pensioners protesting 42-month unpaid arrears

Pensioners protesting 42-month unpaid arrears

Expressions of anger, dejection and gloom took centre stage recently in Enugu when pensioners from the five states of the southeast region gathered to address journalists on their situation.Although not armed with placards, the looks on their faces and a narration of their sufferings and pitiable situation since their retirements were enough to tell their stories.

With many relying on support by their walking sticks and relations to access the Press centre venue of the event, the retirees left no one in doubt that they had been indeed neglected by governments at the federal and state levels.

Looking at the old men, who engaged their active days effectively in the service of their fatherland, one could infer that they should be happier in retirement, but that as far as they are concerned remains a tall dream that may not happen in their life times.

Ascending the staircase of the venue of the gathering, one of them had muttered severally: “Whoever said it is good to be a retiree should retire from his job and join us to see how the country we served is treating us. It is sad that at my age, over15 years after retirement, I have not been able to reap the fruits of my labour. Otherwise, why will I leave Imo state with my present health situation to come here?”.

While bemoaning their fate, in an address read by their national Vice President, Dr Emeka Onwumere and Zonal Chairman, Comrade Chukwuma N. Udensi, they stated that the issue affected both civil servants and local government retirees in the five states of the zone including Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi and Imo states.

“They do not know that we are part of the country that also deserve good living from our many years of struggle. Embezzling pensions and gratuities may be common among state governments but those of the Southeast state have been extended to outright refusal to pay until the end of their tenure.

“They even divert the monies sent by the Federal Government of Nigeria for the payment of the retirement benefits of the retired persons”, they said. They substantiated their assertions by presenting what they described as “deplorable level of indebtedness to the state pensioners in the southeast zone”, stressing that they are owed several billions of naira in pensions and gratuities by the governors in the zone.

They listed Enugu, Imo and Abia states as the “worst” states in the zone where pensions and gratuities have not been paid fo a long time. They stated that no state in the zone had paid gratuity in the last 15 years. Enugu, according to them has not paid retired local government staff since 2001, explaining that the state would require billions of naira to settle the retirees which included teachers in the primary schools

An affected retiree in the state, John Ugwu, told The Guardian how he had severally visited the Local Government Service Commission without any hope on when his pensions could be paid.“I now reside in the village; but I try as much as possible to go to that office either by their invitation or not and have done the necessary things required of me. My worry is that we have not received a kobo from 2001 till date,” he said.

But in firm disagreement, Chief G.U Ezeji, the Imo state Chairman, asserted forcibly during the briefing that “Imo state government is the worst having owed pensions since the reelection of Governor Rochas Okorocha with varying degrees of gratuities for civil servants”.Ugwu was most worried that “the situation of Enugu has overwhelmed the state government the state government.

“We hear that about 1000 teachers will retire this year and join the pensioners. If that is true, it means that we are in trouble as I found it difficult to believe the state government cares about the interest of the retirees”, he asserted.Speaking further on their fate, he said that the economic situation of the country had compounded their problems, explaining that “is it still possible that local government chairmen who cannot pay salary can find money for payment of pensions? There are local governments who have owed salary to their workers in the past six to eight months in this state, how do you think they can remember those of us who are out of the system? It is indeed a sad development in the history of this state.”

However, in Enugu, although the issue of debt still remains a compelling one, there however seems to be a new enthusiasm in the air. The reason, according to   Mr. Nana Ogbodo, the Executive Secretary of Local Government Staff Pensions Board “is borne out of the well known profile of the State governor,  Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi as a very compassionate person”  who according to him had never left any man poorer than he met him. He said that various efforts  “are being made to meet the pensioners at their points of needs including the ongoing  biometrics capturing exercise aimed at empirically determining the real issues connected to the debts”.

Lamenting in specifics the situation of his state, Udensi, who is also the chairman of the Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP) in Abia state, stated that backlog of unpaid salaries, pensions and gratuities has become one of the major issues being raised by Abia Workers and Pensioners over the years on every May Day and Armed Forces Remembrance Day celebrations.

Apart from these two  fora, occasional protests along the streets by Pensioners under the aegis of the state branch of Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP)  have regularly being  used to draw public and government attention to the sorry plights of pensioners and workers.Just last month , Udensi , after their meeting in Umuahia, gave an update of what he said were owed Pensioners in the state  saying that the arrears ranged from eight to 19 months and varied from  ministries to parastatals.

Udensi who said that every section of the state public service was affected, specifically cited retired workers of the Abia State University Teaching Hospital, ABSUTH, Aba whom he said were worst hit being owed up to 20 months He decried that some of his members still received ridiculous pensions as little as N450, N1000 and N2000 because they were not awarded all the previous percentage increments civil servants had received as approved.

“We are old people who can’t feed, attend to our health needs and those
of our children who can’t also go to school. What we are supposed to be receiving is too small, yet we don’t see it.  Only God will save us.  When the bailout fund was secured, the pensioners raised their hope raised that they would benefit from it but no pensioner in Abia State received a dime”, he stated

He urged the state government to begin the payment of harmonized pension arrears compiled since 2004 which  caused pension increases of 61 / 2 % , 15 % and 53 . 4 % , respectively  as  approved by the National Salaries and Wages Commission .His added:  “The problem of Abia pensioners escalated because no retired worker was paid his or her gratuity in the past 16 years which is a large amount of money that could enable a retired worker plan for his or her future before the pensions begin to be paid him or her.  This is very pitiable and unfortunate because if gratuities were paid, retirees would have planned for their retirement and would not be going through this hell”.

Lamenting that last gratuities were paid last in the state 15 or 16 years ago, Comrade  Uchenna Obigwe said that the situation  has instilled fear to prospective retirees in the state  and urged that the sum of N140 million be set aside monthly by government to address their gratuity.He also stressed the importance of the Contributory Pension Scheme for workers and urged the state to key into it hence “the state government stands a chance to benefit from the Pension Bond especially during paucity of fund as a result of economic recess as it is the case now.”

While Governor Okezie Ikpeazu has renewed his pledge to pay state workers , serving and retired, all their dues, he attributed the delay to inadequate funds in the midst of many other needs requiring government attention.State Finance Commissioner Mr Obinna Oriaku,  who lent credence to this, stated that the monthly allocation from the Federation Account  was about  N1.7 billion, while the state’s  monthly wage bill alone was  N3.5 billion excluding overhead costs.

He said that government owed contractors among others and assured that pensions and salaries would continue to be paid in line with available resources.In Imo state, Ezeji presented varying degrees of pensions and gratuities to retired local government staff and civil servants ranging between 17 to 72 months, stressing that “retired primary school teachers are protesting because government owes them between 27 and 30 months pensions, Alvan Ikoku College of Education retirees are owed about 69 to 72 months”.

Others he listed are “ retired workers of Imo Broadcasting Corporation being owed 39 months and civil servants who are owed between 17 and 20 months”, adding that government had refused to harmonize their pensions based on 6% of 2003, 15% of 2007 and 33% of 2011”.The state government , it was gathered had said that the bailout funds it received from the federal government  of over N26 billion was meant for workers and not retirees in the state.

It would be recalled that several protests have been staged by the senior citizens both on the streets of Owerri and the entrances to the Government House to call attention of government to their plight.What could perhaps pass as the “mother of all protests” over the unpaid arrears of pensions was staged in June, this year when the hapless retirees blocked the busy Okigwe road Government House Roundabout.  Placards stalled several economic and social activities around the state capital.

The peaceful demonstration was carried out despite interventions by the police in the state, which had gone ahead to appeal to them to embrace dialogue than taken laws into their hands.Chief Emeka Onwumere, who is an official of NUP, said all their members were indebted; adding that majority had resorted to begging to enable them feed their family.

Mr. Alex Nnwere, who retired as a deputy director from the Imo State Ministry of Information, said he has not received his pensions for years
stressing that his late wife, had died while waiting for her gratuity to be paid.Although it was gathered that the state government through the Local
Government Service Commission had on three occasions, embarked on the verification of the affected retirees with the hope to ascertaining their actual number, this has not helped the situation.

The state governor; Rochas Okorocha  who had always believed that there were ghost pensioners in the system, had last week said that the state government was prepared to pay one month arrears of pension to the retirees, stating that he was still dialoguing on how to pay the arrears. He also claimed that on assumption of duties in his first tenure, he paid in arrears what successive governments owed them. The retirees alluded to this claim during their conference.

The governor said: “As we talk, my priority now is to clear the entire pensions owed to Imo state retirees.  It is between N12 billion to N16 billion and how I will do that is what is before me now.  I will address that soonest.”Last Monday, Chairman of the Local Government Service Commission,
Chinyere Uwandu, in a statement, directed the pensioners captured during the biometric exercise to proceed to their respective Government Liaison Officers (GLOs) to receive their pensions.

Investigations by the Guardian showed that only Anambra state has continued to pay pensions as at when due and in fact had paid that of August this year. The state was however included among those that have not paid gratuity.
Sources disclosed that the state government had not effected harmonization of pensions based on increases of 6% of 2003, 15% of 2007 and 33% of 2011 respectively.

The NUP chairman, A.C Ugozor while speaking on the status of pensioners’ payment disclosed that 11 months arrears owed retired Primary school teachers from 2002 – 2003 totaling over N490 million was still outstanding.Speaking to The Guardian however, a retired principal of a secondary school, Mr. Gabius Uka said Governor Willie Obiano has paid pensioners for August this year.

“There is no problem with the government as regards pensioners in Anambra State. Both retired teachers and civil servants receive their pensions regularly. Whenever civil servants are paid, teachers were paid too.“In this payment of pensioners, there is no problem. This regular payment has helped families to solve their and so on .”

The situation however is not same with retired federal civil servants in the state. Michael Okafor who retired from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka in 2000, said he is owed pension arrears of 54 months, having been paid 12 months only in July this year.

Another retiree, Eze George stated that he had on two occasions this year gone to Abuja in pursuit of his pension based on the invitation from the pension’s office, stressing that he had returned empty handed on each occasion.“In one of the occasions, I had borrowed to travel and returned without anything; now that recession is biting hard on the economy, do you think anybody can listen to you?”

The situation in Ebonyi state is not any different where the state, according to the NUP chairman, Prince C.VC Igwe had implemented the 142% pension increase awarded pensioners throughout the country and passed into law by the National Assembly in December, 2005 under the Senator Sam Egwu administration.

Before the passage however, it was gathered that 69  months pension arrears had been generated, out of which two months was paid leaving a balance of 67 months that amounted to over N467 million.Igwe stated that the immediate past administration of Martin Elechi made efforts to settle the arrears to the 1,494 pensioners affected, regretting however that the moves were thwarted by certain greedy politicians in the state.

He added: “The issue has not been properly presented to the present administration of David Umahi; we believe that when presented, the governor will consider and pay that money to the pensioners who are involved as some of them have died”.He identified non-payment of gratuities especially to retired primary school teachers as another challenge facing the state, stressing that he was hopeful that something would be done with the recent memo sent to the state governor.

Chairman of Ebonyi state Local Government Service Commission Mrs. Lilian Nwankwo said however that retired local government staff in the state were being owed over 2billion naira arrears inherited from previous administrations.She added that the state government has also pay some gratuity to
pensioners and will pay the remaining when the economy improved.

“Ebonyi state is not owing her pensioners but what happened was that we inherited large amount of debt from the previous regime and the records
I met when I was appointed into office showed that the state was owing 67 months arrears running into billions of naira.

“I quickly made a memo to the state government which am sure the government will take to the federal government  for necessary action and since I assumed office till now the state government is not owing any amount to pensioners.”

Explaining that her greatest challenge was the arrears owed to pensioners by the previous administrations, she wondered why a pensioner after putting 35years of meritoriously service would not get his pay.“The slogan of every pensioner is that life is sweet after serving and they expect that after working for 35 years meritoriously, their pension suppose to be their savings once they are retired to look after themselves and their children . When they are not getting it, becomes a problem if they will still be coming to office asking for arrears” she noted.

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