The starving pensioners

In the last one week or so, pensioners in Imo State took to the streets in Owerri to protest the non-payment of their pension arrears for four months. It was not the first time pensioners would do so in the country. There had been similar protests in many state capitals in the recent past. I would imagine that we do not have many more of them now because the pensioners are hungry and too weak and lack the strength for street protests.

The Imo pensioners may or may not get their wish but they drew public attention to one more huge scandal in the left-footed human and resource management in our country that indeed, may be part of the reason we are the poverty capital of the world. There is no way we can pretend and say this delicately: pensioners have become endangered men and women. These men and women spent their active years in the honest and dedicated service of the country at various levels. After retirement they expected the nation to reciprocate by assisting them to live in relative comfort for the rest of their lives. Their employment contracts promised them pension and gratuity. Pensioners are not asking for entitlements outside what their employment contracts with their employers stipulated. But most of the state governments tend to treat them as if they were asking for the moon.

 The cynical breach of their contract has turned their lives upside down. In the golden years of their lives, they have been cynically put out to pasture. They find themselves contending with abject poverty and penury. It has been some time since we last read stories of pensioners collapsing in queues as they waited for hours to collect what in most cases is a pittance but still the only source of their livelihood. It is no way for a nation to say thank you to its own citizens who served it. The lives of these men and women ought to still matter to the politicians strutting the nation’s stage with calculated arrogance.

The Imo pensioners are actually much luckier than their counterparts in most states of the federation where, as in my home state, Benue, the arrears are as high as 27 or more months. Some of the retirees, particularly primary school teachers and judges, have not even received their gratuities since they left service. Their lives and survival should matter to the thingamabobs in the executive branches of government. Nations do not treat senior citizens like trash because they are.

The problem of the pensioners was brought on the country by General Murtala Muhammed’s ill-advised great purge of the public services of the federation in 1975. In the euphoria of insensate mob applause, we failed then to realise that the purge did not represent a revolution. It heralded the systematic destruction of an important system: the civil service system that undergirds the administration of all countries. One glaring consequence of the purge was insecurity in the services that in turn led to the unwinnable anti-graft war.

The purge imposed on the federal and state governments a burden they were not prepared for and, therefore, could not bear. But when the oil boom boomed, swelling our state treasuries, it was relatively easy for the state governments to bear that burden. Things have changed. Oil does not boom any more. We are managing poverty, not wealth. The burden has gotten progressively heavier for the state governments. Some of them ignore it and carry on as if they have executive right to ignore the basic rights of the pensioners.

In 2004, the federal government took a vital step to make federal and state governments honour the employment contract that should make the lives of pensioners matter to the nation when it enacted the Pension Reform Act. Under the law, the federal government is obliged to pay 18 per cent to the Contributory Pension Scheme administered by the National Pensions Commission to help build a nest egg for retirees. The law was amended in 2014 with the creases in the original act straightened out to make life even easier for pensioners.

The states were allowed to enact their separate laws similar to the federal act. The last time someone checked, 25 states have since done so. But a huge problem is rearing its head and matters could get worse for our pensioners. The federal government that should drive the full compliance with the law is setting a bad example by not complying with it. A new report in the public domain indicates that in the last six years, the federal government has remitted only 15 per cent instead of the 18 per cent stipulated by the law to the National Pension Commission.  We are yet to be told why this is so.

The laws are not faring better either at the state level. Of the 25 states that have enacted their own pension acts, only nine of them are obeying their own laws by remitting the statutory contributions to the National Pension Commission. Nothing seems to be heard of the eleven states that have not enacted their own pension laws in compliance with the Pension Reform Act of 2014.

 This sadly points to a dim future for the contributory pension scheme and the continued shabby treatment of our retirees and senior citizens. Indeed, the gains of the act are in obvious danger of being rolled back; sooner than later, the pensioners would be forced back to the queues that became the grave yard for some of them in the past.

It should be possible for the federal and state governments to make our retirees and senior citizens wanted by the Nigerian state. All it takes is for them to recognise that it is not macho to trample on the rights of vulnerable citizens such as pensioners, most of whom are trudging towards the sunset of their lives. This, of course, is a problem for us as a nation because of a well-known irritant called the rule of law. The cynical breach of the rule of law by those constitutionally charged with the responsibility for protecting and defending it is no longer strange to us. Almost every piece of legislation intended to make ours a better nation has been treated as trash by our leaders at all levels. It is naïve to expect a better treatment for the pension law.

The pension fund faces some problems. The federal government is treating the National Pension Commission like a bank. It assumes the right to borrow from it. So far, the government has borrowed 70 per cent of its requirements from the fund to fund its bonds and other instruments. It is cheap money. We should not forget either that the administration of the fund is riddled with corruption. There are former senior and junior officers of the fund who stole so much from it that today they are numbered among our growing list of billionaires. EFCC may sniff around but some of these thieves are thumbing their noses at the commission because they are protected by the system.

With the 2014 act treated the way it is by the federal and state governments, the pensioners’ woes are more likely to get louder. I ask you to spare some pity for the impoverished ageing and aged pensioners. They represent the unacceptable face of a nation caught in the spider web of its being untrue to itself.

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