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Breaking the pension nightmare in Imo State

By Luke Onyekakeyah
12 November 2019   |   4:14 am
Ordinarily, the payment of salaries, pension and gratuity to civil servants and other government workers ought not to be a big deal because these are statutory duties of government.

Emeka Ihedioha

Ordinarily, the payment of salaries, pension and gratuity to civil servants and other government workers ought not to be a big deal because these are statutory duties of government. It is taken for granted. Pension payment ought not to be heard or made an issue. Unfortunately, the failure of government to pay retirees’ their entitlements has made pension payment an issue.

That a labourer deserves his wage is a biblical maxim. A worker who has served the state and attained retirement should be entitled to the payment of his/her pension and gratuities. He has invested his time, energy and productive part of his life in public service.

Denying workers the amount of their entitlement to inhuman treatment. And sadly enough, this happens at a stage when most of the retirees are old, incapacitated and no longer productive to fend for themselves. All the hope built around their pension crumbles, as they are left in a desperate situation. Many die in the process without getting the pension; without enjoying the fruit of their labour.

This is what has been happening in Imo State and across the federation. Payment of pension to retirees has become a herculean task as a result of unbridled systemic corruption. Funds reserved for the payment of pension and gratuities are brazenly stolen by those entrusted with it. It is an anathema, a historic downturn that left hapless pensioners traumatized.

For instance, the past eight years in Imo State, under the Rochas Okorocha administration saw pensioners witness the most grueling era of their lives. The erstwhile governor Okorocha, who bamboozled Imo people with unfulfilled promises visited pensioners with venom. It was a dark period, which no one would ever pray to recur.

In an attempt to erase this dark history of unpaid pensions and gratuity, the incumbent Governor Ihedioha set out to tackle the mess. Conscious of the fact that pension payment in the state presents an intractable problem after series of verifications that yielded no result, the Governor decided to tackle it systematically. A committee was constituted to first carry out a comprehensive verification that would capture all the affected pensioners.

According to a report released by the State Government, the aim of the verification exercise is to establish a database of all Imo state pensioners which will enable accurate computation of pensioner’s benefits and ensure that there will be an end to countless verification exercises requiring pensioners to assemble and present their documents.

To this end the exercise involved the digitization of all pensioners’ documents and capturing of their biometric data for further ‘I’m alive’ verification exercises which will be done at the convenience of the pensioners.

This first and most critical aspect was implemented in three stages involving data extraction, verification and biometric capture of all pensioners’ data and validation and computation. The entire project was implemented over a 12-week period during which 800 youths were recruited, trained and engaged. A total of 25,646 pensioners were verified. After the computation and the integration into the system platform, 24,419 pensioners were billed to be paid their pensions before the end of the second week of October 2019.

While this was being done, records in various government departments in charge of managing pensions in Imo state, showed that there are approximately 27,000 – 29,000 pensioners in Imo state, meaning that some pensioners were still missing in the list, most probably, those living in rural areas who could not attend the verification exercise. This, of course, is not deliberate but owing to the difficulty of keeping record in Nigeria.

It is regrettable that our institutions don’t keep accurate record of anything, which explains why there is unending verification. What this means is that the database should remain open in order to accommodate those not yet captured. What is worth doing is worth doing well. Government should endeavour to ensure that no pensioner is left out. Everybody should enjoy the goodies of Ihedioha’s humane administration.

Before now, I heard about the pension reform project being embarked upon by Governor Ihedioha but kept my fingers crossed while waiting to see if payment would really come the way of the pensioners. This is because the previous administration hoodwinked the suffering pensioners on several occasions without paying them.

At the height of the punishment, the Okorocha government asked pensioners to sign off 60 percent of their entitlement. Many refused to sign; those who signed were on a few occasions paid a meagre amount. My investigation showed that a person entitled to receive N70, 000, for instance, was paid N30, 000! People’s lives were pushed to the brink and many gave up the ghost.

I was thrilled about the middle of October when a friend of mine, a former classmate in secondary school, who retired as a school principal, called to inform me that he had received two months pension arrears out of the four months promised by Governor Ihedioha.

According to him, he received an alert on his phone showing pension payment into his bank account. He said he couldn’t believe it that at long last, he is alive to receive his pension that had not been paid for years running.

I then decided to call other friends and family members to reconfirm the pension payment, and was pleased that everyone I called sounded positive and happy that Governor Ihedioha has put smile on their faces. They said the Governor promised to pay them from the time he took office, which is May, 2019. They expressed hope that he will fulfill his promise so that a new chapter would be opened on this pension palaver.

The other crucial issue is the amount retirees are paid from their pension savings. The only way a retiree could absorb the shock and adjust to a new life is by getting his/her pension savings money to start a new life. But this is not happening from the experience of people who lost their job following the rampant layoffs in many companies.

When a worker retires, the most critical challenge is how to find his feet. If the government is humane and fair and just, retirees should be paid at least 50 per cent of their pension savings, to enable them start a new life and by extension alleviate poverty.It is good that Governor Ihedioha has started on a positive note. Pension payment is pro-people. The expectation is that the Governor should ensure that the payment flows regularly as at when due without stopping. That way, Ihedioha would have etched his name in gold as the peoples’ governor.

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