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Hope rises for pensioners as Senate vows to address plight

By John Akubo, Abuja
11 March 2020   |   3:42 am
t is no longer news that pensioners suffer the burden of non-payment of their benefits years after serving their fatherland. From the record in the pensions’ commission, the government owes a backlog of almost N400 billion of unpaid pension arrears

• Pension union insists on five-yearly review of the law

It is no longer news that pensioners suffer the burden of non-payment of their benefits years after serving their fatherland. From the record in the pensions’ commission, the government owes a backlog of almost N400 billion of unpaid pension arrears. In many states, the pensioners are made to queue up for verification exercises that never yield any positive results. In the end, their pensions, when they are paid, may not be more than a paltry N2,000, not enough to take them back home.

Reports abound of some pensioners being carried on stretchers for the exercise, as they could no longer walk on their own because they are bogged down with one ailment or the other. Some pensioners have reportedly given up the ghost at venues of verification exercises, yet their benefits might still not be paid.

However, all that needless drama may be coming to an end, as the 9th Senate has vowed to do everything within its powers to ensure that pensioners’ plights are adequately addressed and the ugly situation redressed. The Senate Committee on Establishment and Public Service has put plans in place to convene a joint meeting of all government officials connected with irregularities in the payments of pensioners’ benefits.

Chairman of the committee, Senator Ibrahim Shekarau, made the submission recently when the leadership of Nigerian Union of Pensioners (NUP), led by its national president, Dr. Abel O. Afolayan, stormed the National Assembly to lobby it for a ‘National Minimum Pension law’ with legal backing through an Act of Parliament. Shekarau, who was a two-term Governor of Kano State, said his committee was proposing to the leadership of the Senate to convene such a joint meeting because they would understand the situation.

“We will go to any length to do this within the next three and half years that we would be here,” he said. “I assure you if this is the only thing we would be able to achieve in our four years as Senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria we would be so fulfilled and satisfied that we have done something for Nigeria.”

Shekarau said he always reminded civil servants that pension is like the grave, where they would find themselves one day as people whose working days are over.

“So, if you think you are a civil servant, that you have no problem with that, you are making a mistake; it will catch up with you. Having exhausted the best period of his life and you now make him miserable” is not the best way to reward any worker.

He said his committee had written to the leadership of the Senate in a very strongly worded letter and the leadership of the Senate is working with that.

“The president of the senate is so concerned, so much so that he immediately summoned a closed-door meeting with the pensions’ commission leadership. So, we are on it. We will do all we can to enlighten the leadership because when I came across the huge amount of money being owed, I almost swore that I am sure the president of this country didn’t know about it.”

Shekarau said his committee was determined to reach out to whoever is connected within the government from the president to the vice, to the SGF and to the ministers of finance, budget, and the accountant general. He accused the government of being largely responsible for insecurity in Nigeria in terms of impoverishing the people. The chairman said when he was governor, the then commissioner of police made some interesting arrests of some five young men who were not more than 30 years old.

“They were real killers and diehard armed robbers,” he said. “While the commissioner was briefing me, as a former teacher and guidance counsellor, I felt I should see them and do some counselling. He brought them in chains to my office. I talked to them, chatted with them, asking questions. The long and short of it was that we discovered the main man sponsoring them lived in Kaduna.

“The police arranged and picked him up. He was well over 70 years. When I asked the old man, ‘what is your problem, why do you go into all that having retired as a soldier 15 to 20 years back?”

Shelarau said the suspect disclosed that since his retirement, his pension stood at N1,300 per month and that he had a wife and children to look after.

“What he did was, he arranged with the boys in the barracks, recruited these young men, gave them arms; they do the robbery and bring the loot. He would share it, give them some share, and take his own share to live on. This was how he was surviving, to eat and maintain his family. So you can see that crime is a product of a very bad system. I raised this in council during (Olusegun) Obasanjo’s government and I insisted.

“At that time the Federal Government was owing N15 billion only and I made a case and I said what is N15 billion for the Federal Government. At one time we paid N20 billion backlog of loans. I said bailing these people out is the best project that the government can afford.”

Shekarau went down memory and recalled how he was a victim of the problem of pensions when he retired as a permanent secretary.

“I am a victim,” he said, “I formally retired in 2001 as a permanent secretary after having served in that position for eight years and a whole service for a quarter of a century. So at the time I retired, the permanent secretary’s salary was just about N50,000 and the permanent secretary’s retirement pension, you will be surprised; until this moment what drops into my account is N46,000!

“Having served for 25 years and rising through from the classroom to the permanent secretary, my pension today is N46,000. Permanent secretaries today are earning N500,000. So, our (my colleagues and I) happiness will be to put smiles on the faces of pensioners.”

He said he was aware of the huge backlog from the record of the pensions’ commission that stands at well over N400 billion.

“It is criminal for their benefits to be withheld for over 10 years,” he said, adding that the less you knew the better for you because the more you know the more unhappy you become.

Another member of the committee and former deputy governor of Akwa Ibom State, Senator Christopher Ekpenyong, said he was really touched by the narratives of the pensioners.

“I was listening attentively and I thought my state was also not a culprit, but I found that my state is culpable,” he stated.

He said as a former deputy governor in 1999 through to 2007, he said the then governor and himself talked seriously about the plight of pensioners and the plight of teachers.

“So, talking that people are earning N750 in a country where there are oil wells in abundance with abundant human resources in mining and even agriculture is unthinkable,” he said, “it is devilish for anybody to meet out such punishment on other men or women. Most especially when you have served over 35 years. Do we have any law that protects elder statesmen?

“You are not an elder statesmen because you are a former governor or deputy governor or former president. We are talking of elder statesmen about those who have worked, whether as a messenger, you should be given the honour. I want to lend my voice that we will do all we can; we will support it to fashion out a way forward.”

Ekpenyong said the committee would work to ensure it supported anything that would harmonise the remuneration of pensioners.

According to him, “We have had different names. I think we can proffer a unified position. We must look at the disparity and strike a middle ground so that they do not earn something lower than the minimum wage in the country. I am touched to hear that some people earn N750, N1,000, N3,000 as pensioners. It is unthinkable and I am sure we will be able to do something at our level but we will put pressure on the executive to do what is good for the Nigerian people.”

National President of Nigerian Pensioners Dr. Afolayan, said their request for the law might sound incredible but that it was a fact that many of their members were currently earning pensions of N5,000 a month and even less.

“This ugly situation will be removed if there is a minimum pension law enacted by the National Assembly as an Act of Parliament in the same manner as the National Minimum Wage Act was approved and given the backing of the law by the National Assembly,” he said.

Afolayan indicated that there were currently two main types of pensions in the country: Defined Benefit Pension Scheme and Contributory Pension Scheme.

“The inadequacies and shortcomings of the Defined Benefit Pension Scheme led to the establishment of the Contributory Pension Scheme in 2004,” he stated. “Eventually, the latter will totally replace the former. When that happens the Nigeria Union of Pensioners will consist entirely of contributory pensioners.”

Unfortunately, he lamented that up till now there was no provision either in the Pension Reform Act 2004 or Pension Reform Act 2014 for the unionization of these pensioners, saying, “We would, therefore, like to seek for your urgent and earnest support during the life of this Senate for the review of the Act to include unionization of contributory pensioners who are the heirs apparent of NUP.”

He also brought to the notice of the committee the sorry plight of local government and primary school pensioners, whose condition he said was the most pitiable in the country.

“For this reason,” he argued, “the then federal military government in 1987 decided on counterpart funding as a kind of bailout arrangement by which the Federal Government would assist the local governments by five per cent that they would be able to pay their pensioners i.e. local government and primary school pensioners.

“Though the bailout was to last for five years, it was stopped by fiat by the then Head of Service in 2010. We are humbly requesting for your support for a bill and an Act of Parliament to reinstate the five per cent counterpart funding/bailout even if it is only on humanitarian ground or respect for this category of pensioners/senior citizens.”

He used the opportunity of the visit to also solicit the committee’s support in improving the pitiable conditions of their members (that is, Nigerian pensioners at all levels throughout the country.)

“According to Sections 173(3) and 210 (3) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), pensions (at the federal and state levels respectively) are to be reviewed every five years or together with any federal/state salary reviews whichever is earlier,” he said. “We have, however, observed that this constitutional provision has never been strictly adhered to.

“For instance, based on the sections of the constitution quoted above, pensions were last reviewed in 2010. The review was not even properly carried out. The union had to struggle for the full implementation of the review, which was wrongly and grossly reduced from 53.4% to 33.4%. Consequent upon the same provision, we were due for another 5-yearly review in 2015, but nothing was done.”

He observed also that when the National Minimum Wage was approved in 2019, the constitution made it mandatory to also review pensioners’ take-home pay.

“Yet, we are still pushing the government to abide by the constitutional stipulations,” he said. “Again, pensioners are due for another five-yearly review in 2020 as required by law. We, therefore, request that you use your good offices, through the entire Senate, to correct these irregularities so that pensioners can enjoy their rights under the law.”