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BBC documentary exposes pension corruption in Cross River

By Tope Templer Olaiya, News Editor
03 May 2021   |   4:15 am
Today, workers across the country will observe a public holiday to mark this year’s International Workers’ Day, but across the country, only a negligible few, in spite of the avalanche of goodwill messages and promises made on Labour Day,...

Today, workers across the country will observe a public holiday to mark this year’s International Workers’ Day, but across the country, only a negligible few, in spite of the avalanche of goodwill messages and promises made on Labour Day, are looking forward to a promising future.

This is because the journey to retirement for an average civil servant is like a journey to squalor. Year after year, a well-worn prayer is chanted by every worker during Labour Day rallies: “May we reap the fruit of our labour” but things only get worse. In active service, workers endure delayed salaries and non-implementation of minimum wage; after bowing out of service, the next level of agony begins, delayed pensions.

This age-long story of pensioners’ agony and misery is the focus of BBC Africa Eye documentary titled Retirement Hell. A new investigation by BBC Africa Eye into pensions in Cross River State has uncovered an unfair and corrupt system, which leaves some elderly people sick and penniless, with government workers soliciting bribes before paying out pensions, people arbitrarily being declared ‘dead’ and having to prove they are alive before their pension is reinstated, and politicians being offered outrageous retirement packages.

The five-month investigation began when Africa Eye was approached by Obaji Akpet, a reporter from Cross River State, who disclosed that his mother, a retired nurse, was being asked to pay cash directly to an official working in the pension department before they would pay out her pension. 
With a hidden camera, Obaji filmed a civil servant accepting money for herself, and suggesting senior managers in the department also needed to be paid before the pension paperwork would go through. Despite these payments being made, Obaji’s mother’s pension didn’t arrive until five months later, a delay that caused her extreme financial problems and left her feeling like she was “in hell fire and no more a human being.”
Africa Eye also uncovered a list of over a thousand people in Cross River State whose pensions had been stopped because the state decided they were no longer alive. Many on the list spent months trying to prove they were alive, often travelling long distances to the state capital, Calabar. And this doesn’t just happen in Cross River, but is replicated in states throughout the country.

The 26-minute long documentary airs first-hand testimonies about the extreme hardship caused by being arbitrarily declared ‘dead’ and trying to survive without a pension. One man told the investigation he had travelled to the capital five times to prove he was alive and sometimes stayed there for up to two weeks, with no resources. He said: “At times, we sleep outside while the rain is falling. That is why I’m sick until now and my body is not like before.”
Others said that once they arrived at the pensions office they were subjected to treatment they describe as ‘dehumanising’. Another pensioner, Mrs Ekpenyong Ewa, was declared dead. When her pension was stopped after months of writing letters, visiting the offices and begging for it to be sorted out, she took an active part in a public sit-in outside the state’s Auditor General’s office. She was later intimidated into making an apology, which was filmed and put on the Internet to further humiliate her.

‘Ghost Pensioners’, a term used to describe people who don’t exist but are somehow ‘receiving’ pension payments, are a real problem in Nigeria, according to Jerry Uwah, a finance journalist.

“Sometimes, there are more fake pensioners than real ones on the pension books of a state. But creating fake or ghost pensioners is not something ordinary people can do. It is done by the people at the top, they will pay those ghost pensioners immediately, and the money goes into their pockets. It is not something that a clerk can do because it would be discovered.”
At the other end of the scale are politicians who award huge pensions and additional perks to themselves and in some cases try to change the law to give themselves even more.

Despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s assurances to pensioners that the system will be sorted, Africa Eye found a pensions system still hampered by corruption and incompetence, causing devastation in the lives of elderly and vulnerable Nigerians while allowing the rich to retire even richer.
The Director of the investigation, Katie Mark, told The Guardian: “We put the findings of our investigation to Mrs Angela Etta, Mrs Franka Inok and Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State and asked for a comment but they declined to respond to the investigation.”

Mark says beyond the spotlight on Cross River, what the story seeks to achieve in its social impact is change. “We want to start a conversation, to create a discussion and opportunity for people to tell their stories.

“Also, we wanted to show the human impact of what not getting your pension as at when due is causing to a great number of senior citizens and more importantly, hold power to account on why this is continuing.

“It is sad that people retire from work and they face the gloomy future of delayed pensions. These are people who have worked hard in their prime and should be taken care of at old age, but they are left at the mercy of a corrupt system.”

Kolawole Oluwadare, the Deputy Director of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), an organisation that advocates for more transparency in government, wonders why technology is not deployed to identify pensioners and make the process of verification seamless. “It should not be taking pensioners a journey through hell before their payments are processed,” he said.

Making allusion to the huge pension package governors prepare for themselves after leaving office, Senator Shehu Sani wondered why the state should dedicate such amount of money to former governors when “what a typical governor takes home as pension can settle the wages of over 3,000 to 4,000 teachers.”

When asked of the figures some ex-governors were getting in some states and reasons behind the disproportionate remuneration of civil servants who put in decades of service and public servants who only do four to eight years in office, the Director of the investigation said “it was very difficult for the public to know what governors are paying themselves.

“And this is befuddling. Pension payments for ex-governors are product of laws passed by the state assemblies but the details of the laws are hidden from the public. On this, I am aware SERAP has instituted a case to use the instrument of Freedom of Information act to get those details of exactly how much retired politicians receive.”

Speaking on her experience working on the story that took five months, BBC reporter, Yemisi Adegoke, said: “It was difficult to witness and be close to a nightmare seeing firsthand the suffering elderly people go through not being able to feed or pay medical bills, especially at a time when they should be reaping from their labour.

“Working in Nigeria is hell, now waiting endlessly after decades of active work is even more painful. In our culture, elderly people are supposed to be treated with dignity and respect, but this is just the opposite of what pensioners are subjected to processing their entitlements.”