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Remembering Our Retired Senior Citizens Who Are Owed Gratuities, Pensions By Governments

THEWILL APP ADS 2

In Nigeria, there is a widespread problem of pensioners not receiving their entitled retirement benefits. This has led to a number of protests across the country, as retired government employees demand to be paid the pensions and gratuities they are owed. In Delta State, for example, a group of aggrieved, famished pensioners congregated in front of Government House in Asaba, holding placards with slogans like “Wicked Okowa, pay us our pensions” and “Okowa, you owe the living and the dead.” These senior citizens, who had worked for 35 years, were frustrated and sat on mats and the ground, blocking traffic to and from the seat of government. They vowed to stay there until the governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, addressed them personally.

At different times last year and even this year, similar protests have taken place in other states, including Kano, Imo, Niger, Anambra, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Ogun. In Kano State in October 2022, hundreds of pensioners marched peacefully to the seat of government, protesting the nonpayment of their accumulated entitlements totaling N30.9bn. In Imo State, pensioners also took to the streets in protest, and in Ekiti State, some pensioners have even resorted to fasting and prayer in an attempt to get the government to pay their entitlements. The chairman of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners in Ekiti State, Mr. Joel Akinola, lamented that the state government has abandoned its retired employees, even though they invested their active years in civil service.

Nigeria’s policy on aging is based on the country’s constitution, which guarantees the rights of all citizens, including the provision of old age care, pensions, unemployment benefits, and welfare for the disabled. The policy also incorporates regional and international instruments such as the African Union Agenda 2063 and the United Nations International Plan of Action on Ageing. Nigeria’s pension scheme began in 1951, but a lack of funding and mismanagement led to an accumulation of debt and forcing the creation of a new Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) in 2004. However, the CPS, managed by the Pension Commission (Pencom), has also underperformed. Nigeria ranked low, at 64th, in the Allianz Global Pension Report 2020 due to the inadequacy of its pension system. The National Senior Citizens Centre Act was passed in 2017 and established the National Senior Citizens Centre (NSCC) in 2018, which fully became operational on June 7, 2021.

The NSCC has a mandate to identify older persons for inclusion in sustainable development and improvement of their quality of living and wellbeing for self-fulfillment. Omini Oden, Head, Corporate Affairs, Media and Communications of the agency, told me that though the mandate of the NSCC does not include pension management, it relates regularly with the Nigerian Union of Pensioners and other pension governance platforms to advocate for prompt payment of pensions to retirees who worked both in the private and public sectors.

There have been regular debates about how the country provides generous pensions to former governors, their deputies, former presidents and their deputies while many retired civil servants wait endlessly for months for their entitlements.

Paying pensions and gratuities to entitled retirees should be treated with the seriousness it deserves. The welfare of aged retirees should be seen as a human rights issue.

State governments often claim that they are unable to pay the pensions due to a lack of funds, but the pensioners argue that it is a problem of misplaced priorities and theft of public funds that is responsible for the nonpayment of pensions which continues to cause great hardship for these retired government employees, many of whom are elderly and in need of money for necessities such as food and medication. Some have even lost their lives or become sick and bedridden due to the financial stress caused by the nonpayment of their pensions.

As at August last year, 22 out of 36 states in the country had backlogs of unpaid pensions, and retired civil servants in several states have resorted to protesting the payment of their pensions and gratuities as their predecessors have done for years.

At the same time, as retired civil servants regularly struggle to receive their pension benefits, some states have outrageous laws that provide for generous life pensions for governors and deputy governors who have only served for a few years. For example, the Public Office Holder (Payment of Pension) Law No. 11 in Lagos State provides a governor with 100% of the basic salary of the serving governor (about N7.7 million per year) for life, free healthcare for the governor and their family, six new cars every three years, furniture allowance (N23.3 million), house maintenance allowance (N778,296), utility allowance (N1.5 million), car maintenance allowance (N2.3 million), entertainment allowance (N778,296), a personal assistant (N1.9 million), domestic workers, and police and state security protection for life. Delta State offers a furnished duplex, medical treatment, two vehicles every two years, police and state security protection, annual vacation, and other benefits to its former governors. Kano State provides its former governors and deputy governors with 100% of the incumbent’s basic salary, a six-bedroom house, and free medical treatment for them and their families.

Approximately 22 states, including Oyo, Jigawa, Zamfara, Edo, Kwara, Yobe, Sokoto, Osun, and Rivers, offer similar pension provisions for former governors and their deputies. At the federal level, about N13.8 billion was proposed for the payment of pensions to former presidents, vice presidents, heads of state, and other officials in the 2023 budget. These life pensions for former political officials are typically paid without issue, while pensioners who worked in the civil service for 35 years may not receive their retirement entitlements until they pass away. This ought not to be so!

Economic factors have put extra strain on this issue. For instance, the non-remittance of receipts from crude oil sales by NNPC to the federation account and the inability of most of the states to earn enough revenue internally have no doubt compounded cash flow issues for the states. For instance, Abia State owes 20 years of gratuities and 38 months of pension arrears while Ogun State owes about nine years of gratuities and pension deductions spanning over 21 months. Others owing huge amounts of gratuities include Benue, Taraba, Plateau, Anambra, Lagos, Kwara, Ekiti, and Adamawa. Indeed, the issue of pension and gratuity is a huge problem for sitting governors as it predates their tenure in office and is seen as inherited responsibility. The Godwin Obaseki-led current Edo State Government which inherited unpaid pensions and gratuities from his irresponsible predecessor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, is one of the states in this category but has through ingenuity managed to handle its pension problems and is up to date with the payments.

However, some governors have neither been sensitive to the plights of their retirees nor appreciative of their peculiar financial state because they do not take any of that into consideration when they enjoy an extravagant lifestyle beyond the allowance of their states’ economy particularly in a democratic government.

What has been said of states and their inability to live up to their responsibilities to past and present staffers can be directly applied to a host of other government agencies and departments, some of which no longer exist. In 2018, the federal government released N22.68 billion (about $62 million) to settle retirement benefits for former employees of Nigeria Airways, a national carrier that ceased operations in 2003. The government promised to address the remaining 50% of the owed benefits, approximately N45.3 billion, within six months, subject to the availability of government revenue. A committee comprising officials from various government agencies and the ex-workers’ union was established to oversee the payment process.

With most attention turned to elections at the moment, the plight of these Nigerians has been lost in the noise of politicking and campaigns for the upcoming general elections. That is why I am using my column this week to call on governors and those in charge of government parastatals charged with the responsibility of paying retirees what they are worth to demonstrate greater sensitivity to the predicament of the pensioners and workers, especially with an economy that is witnessing galloping inflation which has made life miserable for these past and present staffers. It is disheartening and unacceptable that state governments are treating workers and the welfare of the pensioners in their respective states with levity. Before the commencement of this election season, some of these governors owing gratuities and pensions doled out N100m (and other similarly large sums) to purchase party presidential nomination forms.

The Federal Government, which has been forthright in paying government support funds to states, is set to do so again. In December it was reported that the government will soon begin the process of verifying how states have used funds provided through the Nigeria COVID-19 Action Recovery and Economic Stimulus (NG-CARES) programme (a $750 million support operation programme from the World Bank) designed to provide grants and access to livelihood support and food security services for poor and vulnerable households and businesses. An Independent Verification Agent (IVA) has been hired to oversee the program and ensure that the funds are being used appropriately. The purpose of the verification is to reduce poverty in the country and help the government achieve its goal of lifting 100 million people out of poverty. The Federal Government also cleared the arrears of 13% derivation fund owed since 1999 to all the Niger Delta states. Yet, these states (Cross River, Edo, Delta, Abia, Imo, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa-Ibom and Ondo) cannot absolve themselves from this practice of owing current and retired staff.

This is why the FG must collaborate with the organised labour unions and the NSCC to put pressure on the defaulting state governments and executives of agencies to pay retirees their entitlements.

This is also again a clarion call for states to develop the capacity to generate income internally and not depend solely on revenue from the Federal Government to survive and take care of their responsibility.

It is only just that those who have laboured in their active years be rewarded accordingly. Attention must be given to this and quickly before current office holders take their leave. The swift running of the process of accrediting, documenting and processing their payments must be made a priority and the system of their payments must be institutionalised to the point where they will not be made to endure grave circumstances, long queues, repeated visits to government offices and other similar maltreatment, even in their advanced ages, just to get their paltry sums of money. If their pay can be reviewed upwards as stipulated, according to existing laws, that will be a judicious benefit to deserving Nigerians, whose service kept the country going in their time.