‘It’s painful that it took 47 years, but some of us are alive to witness it’
Chief Mathew Udeh, a Retired Nigerian/Biafran policeman and lawyer is the President of Association of Retired War Affected Police Officers, South-East and South-South States of Nigeria (ARWAPO). In this interview with LAWRENCE NJOKU, he spoke on their 47 years struggle over the payment of their pensions after the Federal Government converted their dismissal from the Nigeria Police to retirement.
What brought about the formation of ARWAPO?
I did explain that we were dismissed from the police after the civil war in 1970. We started agitating that it was a raw deal, because federal public servants who also served in Biafra were automatically reabsorbed into federal service and the period they spent during the war treated like leave without pay. But police and Army were dismissed on the ostensible reason that we prolonged the war. However, we thought it was unfair because everybody served the same regime. We started agitating through each head of state from 1990 until Olusegun Obasanjo came to power the second time as a civilian president. So, on May 29, 2000, he granted us amnesty, retired us honorably with retrospective from 1970. Therefore, the 30 years we spent were treated as period of leave without pay.
Why 30 years?
That was another unfair decision but then we decided to absorb it. So, the information about this retirement was conveyed through the radios and television to the world. We all heard it on May 29 when it was announced and we jubilated. Then, I think it was September 6 or thereabout, we then got together. The founder of this organisation was Chief Charles Machie of blessed memory. He was the one who rallied round all of us. He made an announcement and we all assembled and it was then we formed this organisation, whose aim is for us to be granted amnesty and properly retired after which we should then agitate to be treated as retirees.
The first attribute of retirement is that you are given a letter of retirement. Our own was an announcement. So, we formed this organisation and started agitating to be given letters of retirement. It took us to the Inspector General of Police, Musiliu Smith then in 2001 and later another Inspector General of Police around 2004. Finally, the Police Service Commission (PSC) in 2004 about four years after we were retired gave us letters of retirement, which then stated clearly that our retirement took effect from May 29, 2000. So, having been issued these letters, we then started agitating to be paid, which should be the next logical thing and our agitation lasted for four years (after our letters) before Police Pensions Board paid us gratuities and we started agitating for pensions and it took another two years. Then, we started examining the details of what was paid to us.
We discovered that it was predicated on 1971 as our date of retirement contrary to the amnesty letter of 2000, a gap of 24 years and we discovered that the police were applying the financial instructions and general orders, which stipulates that if you are retired and you served only 10 years, you will not be entitled to pensions and that resulted to 500 of us being disqualified from pensions. And then, those drawing pensions, their pensions were predicated on how long they served before the civil war ended. Many were below 10 years and that is why they were disqualified; those who were above 10 years got stipends depending on how many years they served.
Then, we resumed the agitation to say it should be 2000 and not 1971 and that led us into petitioning former President Goodluck Jonathan in September 2014 and he understood our case and directed the Director General of the PTAD that took over from Police Pensions Board, that the body should verified us and about 460 people were verified. Then they started paying and dragging their feet and we were dragging between 2014 and September 2016 before Sharon Ikeazor was appointed Executive Secretary of PTAD. We quickly got in touch with her and asked for a date to give us audience and she received us on the November 9, 2016 about 34 days after her coming into office and when our delegation got into PTAD office, we were ushered into a panel of over 12 directors with Ikeazor presiding.
We were asked to state our case, which we stated clearly. The pensions department that made the payments also stated their case and we argued. After this on November 29, 2016, we read from the newspapers that President Buhari has approved the payment of these benefits. We were elated; we were impressed with the speed with which she did this. Remember she had assured us that the next time we will meet will mark an end to our agitation. We never met her again until 20 October this year, but when we met it marked the end of our agitation because the payment proper started that day. It was remarkable because it is 47 years now, nearly three years short half a century that is our case. We were impressed by her conduct and that is why we honoured her, “Odi Uko N’mba” (rare gem)
Why did you fight on the side of Biafra instead of Nigeria?
We were constrained because the government exercising power over us then, remember how it went in 1967, people of Eastern Nigeria returned home as a result of disturbances in the country and while we were there the war was declared and the only government exercising power was the defunct government of Biafra and all of us submitted to it. That was how it happened.
How do you feel that it took 47 years to realise this agitation?
Well, you know the problems of Nigeria, if you don’t speak up for yourself, you don’t get anything and above all, we were very careful, especially when I took over leadership. The former leader was Chief Charles Machie. But when I took over leadership, I shunned the print and electronic media. I did it on purpose for fear of politicising our case. I thought if the media got into it, you will see all sorts of comments, which might not have helped our case. So, we decided to follow it up carefully and in compliance with any authority we could approach and the authorities we approached within the period that included three Inspectors General of Police, Directors of Police Pension Board, we wrote an appeal to Jonathan and Director General PTAD and 14 delegations to various authorities and in each case, we presented our case in a written form. Our joy is that God was helping us to make our case understood; because whoever we approached, no matter how long it took, understood us.
So, yes it is painful that it took 47 years, but what is important is that some of us are still living to witness it and some who are dead are being paid through their immediate family members. It is gradually easing off those sad memories of our history.
What was your position in the Police Force then?
I was Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) before the war started and when the war resumed, I served in the same rank and dismissed on the same rank. When we were dismissed, I worked with the NCFC. I was their Chief Security Officer for a couple of years before I joined the then Anambra State Sports Council, again as their Security Officer, before I went to study Law at the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus and I was called to the bar in 1984 and I have been in practice since then.
I considered it as a challenge that I should apply my knowledge, my legal background to help these helpless people. Many of them were constables and other senior ranks. So, I felt challenged that I should use my knowledge to assist to present the facts as it were. That is my joy and that is the benefit I derive. Although, this particular exercise has not affected me yet, it has, however, affected those who were not getting pensions. They are now made pensionable and that is the first phase of the exercise. The second phase as the Executive Secretary explained, will be those already earning pension and that is where I am involved because our pensions is based on the 1971 scale.
Now, it has been adjusted to 2000 salary scale. There is going to be a difference. Those arrears will be calculated and paid to us whenever it is possible. My satisfaction is that I played a role and was able to organise our people. It was a team work. I was a secretary and from 2010, I took over the presidency after the death of Chief Charles Machie from Awka. He was the architect of all that happened. He was a great man. He retired as a chief Superintendent. He was not directly affected, but he felt he should assist us and that was why we elected him as president when he was alive.
Do you agree that the exercise has marked the end of the civil war pain?
The idea of the amnesty was the only way of compensating those who were affected by the war, like a person who served as Constable for several years and was dismissed. If you left him in service, he could rise to become Commissioner of Police but you decided to cut his career short. But again, we were coming out from the civil war. It is a way of rehabilitating us. That was the idea, but if you understand it from the fact that many of those who were affected had a future ahead of them before they were suddenly dismissed and later retired whether prepared or not. But be that as it may, by beginning this payment, that reconstruction and rehabilitation, which was intended by the amnesty to be fulfilled has started. It did mark the end because there is a commencement of the payment already and all based on the terms of the amnesty.
As one who witnessed the war that suddenly cut short your career, would you say you regreted participating in it?
We were civil servants and as civil servants, you serve whoever that has employed you and those exercising authority over you and when a government is carrying out a policy, it is not for civil servants to start questioning. Your duty is to obey. So, it is not for me to talk about the justification or non-justification; but we all realized the circumstances that led to it. It is unfortunate that it came but anybody in our position as civil servant will do what we did by serving the government exercising authority over us.
What is the general feeling of your members over the payments?
You saw it that day because right there in the hall, there were bank alerts and people were rejoicing. Somebody who had been dismissed 47 years ago and has not been earning pensions and suddenly you start paying him, you can see the joy that at least every month, he will get something for subsistence. So, it is a thing of joy to many homes, there were many widows who lost their husbands and bread winners but this gesture helped to revive lives of many homes of people spread across.
How many benefitted from the gesture?
There were over 1, 000 persons affected by this. When this verification announcement was made, those that turned up were 460 and as a matter of fact, it has not ended because there are still people whose cases have not been treated. There are people who did not know that something else happened after they were given letters of retirement. So, they are coming to ask about the developments and we are directing them to PTAD to be verified. All we do now is to let them know what documents they require. What is important now is that something has started and we feel relieved that our efforts have not been in vain, that there is hope for our people; that our perseverance has been rewarded and we are grateful to God, President Buhari and the Executive Secretary of PTAD and the management who saw our plight as their plight.
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