President Muhammadu Buhari could be perceived as a clueless leader who lacks the charisma to run the world’s most populous black nation and Africa’s largest economy. However, even Buhari’s enemies admit that he would go down in history as the hero of Nigeria’s army of distraught pensioners.
He has rescued more pensioners than all former presidents put together.Former President Olusegun Obasanjo slapped together the contributory pension scheme that distributed the burden of funding pension between employers and employees.
Obasanjo introduced that noble scheme but practically did nothing to rescue thousands of federal government pensioners languishing in abject poverty as government refused to pay their pension.
In a rather unfortunate twist of events, Obasanjo added thousands more to the list of retired federal workers who were owed pension by government. The former president liquidated Nigeria Airways and threw thousands of workers into the streets without severance package.
The late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua inherited the insolvent pensioners from Obasanjo. Unfortunately, he was too sick to remember to address the pension crisis he inherited from Obasanjo. Yar’Adua died in May 2009 and was replaced by Goodluck Jonathan. Like Yar’Adua, Jonathan maintained a deafening silence on the plight of Nigeria’s impoverished pensioners.
At last, it was Buhari who cleared the mountain of pension rubbish left by his three predecessors. He started with the promise to pay Nigeria Airways pensioners their severance packages and years of pension arrears.
He finally broke the jinx in 2018 when he released funds for the payment of Nigeria Airways pensioners who had lost all hope.
Buhari was equally generous with the former workers of the defunct Nitel, Nigeria’s telecoms monopoly for decades.
The collapse of Nitel was a disaster for its workers. Although they were paid their gratuities, no one in government was bothered about how they would get their pension from 2007. They simply joined the long queue of pensioners who had no hope of being paid.
Buhari changed all that. More than a decade after the collapse of Nitel, the president released funds for the payment of Nitel workers pension arrears.
Today, the workers are getting their monthly pensions after three presidents who ruled Nigeria during the peak of its oil revenue ignored the suffering of the destitute pensioners.
The suffering of Nigeria Airways and Nitel pensioners pales into insignificance when measured against what Pa John went through. I have told the story of Pa John a couple of times in this column.
Let me bore everyone once again with his story. Pa John (full names withheld) entered service in 1962 as an electrician with the Federal Ministry of Works. He retired in 1997 after 35 years of meritorious service to the father land.
After retirement he was paid pension for four months before his name miraculously disappeared from the pay roll. He toiled for 22 years without pension. Last month Buhari’s pension largesse reversed his 22 years of suffering. Pa John finally got the alert. It covered his pension for 2010 to April 2019.
The 78-year-old went into ecstasy. He doled out N10, 000 to each of his grandchildren. His wife has been eking out a living through petty trading on the road side. With the largesse from the president to her husband, she is now trading in the comfort of a rented built-up shop.
Pa John’s gratuity and pension from 1997 to 2009 is still outstanding. However, with what the president has done so far, he is convinced that he would get all his entitlement.
The rulers of Nigeria have been very cruel to pensioners. Even the contributory pension scheme has failed to end that cruelty. Right now, about 24 states are not remitting their workers’ pension deductions to the relevant pension fund managers. Several states are heavily indebted to their pensioners. The most horrifying situation is that Lagos state, the richest federating unit in Nigeria, is heavily indebted to pensioners.
Workers who retired in 2015 from the services of the state are still waiting for their gratuities. No one is even talking about listing them in the monthly pension pay roll.
Last week I met a civil engineer who was two years my senior in school. He worked for Lagos state for 35 years and retired into penury in 2018. He is now living on the pittance he ekes out from marking examination scripts for the West African Examination Council (WAEC) and the National Examination Council (NECO).
Even Akwa Ibom state with its massive oil wealth is equally indebted to pensioners. My late cousin, Asuquo Akpan Udoh, a level 16 officer in Akwa Ibom state civil service, who died on October 2016, was billed to retire on November 11, 2016. Three years after his death, nothing has been paid to members of his family. They are now in abject poverty.
I met one of my primary school classmates who retired the same year as my late cousin. When I complained about the plight of my cousin’s family, the man wondered how the dead would be paid when they, the living are still being tossed around. Pensioners are endangered species in Nigeria. Those still in service are aware of that hard fact.
From all indications, the unmitigated looting of public treasury might be encouraged by the way government treats pensioners. Those in service are just looting to hedge against the inevitable long wait for their severance packages and pensions.