According to the rules governing public service, employees of government and public companies are paid some amount of money at the end of services to these organizations. These payments are in form of gratuity and pensions. While gratuity is money given to an employee when he is retiring, pensions is an amount of money paid regularly to a person who had worked for a government when he retires.
The obligation of payment of pensions and gratuity to retired public servants by government has been a long accepted practice. It is an integral aspect of public service which Nigeria inherited from the colonial masters from whom we got the modern institution of government. Because of the unanimous acceptance of this, all levels of government had paid their retired workers their pensions and gratuities. Even the military government that ruled the country for many years did no revenge on this responsibility. Here in Imo state the story of nonpayment of pension and gratuity is a recent development. It started with the civilian regimes that have come into power since 1999. The government of Achike Udenwa started it by neglecting payment of gratuity to some workers on retirement. In those days there were stories of retirees secretly agreeing to pay a percentage of their gratuity to some officials of government before they were paid. The government of Ikedi Ohakim added to the problem by late payment of pensions and almost complete stoppage of gratuity. By the end of that regime, a few months of pension were outstanding while many retired workers were owed their gratuities. However, the present government of Rochas Okorocha has made the burden of retirees unbearable. While many retirees have not received their gratuity, many months arears of pensions are outstanding. This started in his first tenure when retiring workers of some sections of public service like the local governments, primary schools and some paracestals were owed many months of unpaid pension. As time went on the government graduated from irregular payment of pension to stoppage of pensions. Having accumulated many months arrears of unpaid pension, the government woke up one morning with the decision to pay each retiree 40% of his monthly pension. Realizing that this was a wrong and unpopular decision, it directed the starving pensioners who wanted to accept the 40% to sign a forfeiture of the remaining 60%. To make matters worse, the number of months owed the retirees was considerably reduced. For example a pensioner who was owed 22 months was paid 40% of only 11 months. Some primary school retirees who were owed 30 months were paid 40% of 13. Consequent upon this maltreatment, the Nigerian union of Pensioners of Imo State went to court to challenge the illegal reduction of pensions- The state Bar Association graciously took up the defence of the pensioners free of charge and the case was decided in favour of the pensioners. The court directed the state government to pay full pension to all her retirees.
The government which appeared to have accepted the court verdict embarked on verification of pensioners with a promise that it would clear all the areas and resume regular payment. This has not been done. From the forgoing, it has become clear that payment of retirement benefit to retirees of Imo state has become a burden to the state government. The government should therefore give it the attention it deserves. This is because pension is a constitutional issue. Section 2′.0 of the 1999 constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria which the governor swore to uphold clearly made it obligatory for state government to pay pensions and gratuity to their retired workers. According to this section of the constitution, pension and gratuity are rights of retired public servants which should not be “withheld or altered to their disadvantage”. It further states that “pensions shall be reviewed every five years or together with any state civil service salary review, whichever is earlier”. The government of Imo State has broken the constitutional provisions by refusing to pay pensions as and when due and adjusting it to the disadvantage of the pensioners.
The question is should this continue? As time passes, more people are added to the pensioners group. As such the burden of retirement benefits increases. This is why serious effort should be made to tackle this challenge. The government must realize the magnitude of the problem and be serious with handling it.
When the federal government saw the increasing burden of retirement benefits, it floated the idea of contributory pension scheme. Today pension managers pay retiring federal public servants their gratuity and monthly pensions without much difficult. Some states had joined in the contributory pension scheme. These are among the states that do not have the problem of paying retirement benefits to their retirees. Imo State government which had often talked vouguely about this idea should be serious with it for those still in service. It should hold discussions with concerned groups and arrive at definite steps to follow to actualize the programme.
The people at the helm of affairs in Imo State should understand the idea of retirement in public service. Pension is the savings made by workers while in service. That is why it is an obligatory and constitutional duty of the government to pay. From all indication, it appears that the political officers of the government, most of whom had never been career employees of government do not really understand the issue very well. That is why they see it as a gift to idle people which can be withheld at will. It is because of this wrong notion that it is a waste of government revenue that led the present government of Imo State to behave the way it is behaving to these senior citizens.
We know that it has not treated those in service or any other group of people in this callous way. It is the duty of the senior personnel in the treasury department to educate and advise the political officers appropriately. It is their God-given responsibility and they should not shrink from it out of fear.
Again the people in government should really understand the consequences of this withholding of pensions and gratuities. Many retired workers of Imo State have been pushed to untimely death. Since many of these elderly people cannot obtain their medications and special diet, they soon die away. Many of the children of retirees have dropped out of school. Their families are seriously malnourished. Many of the younger and able retirees (many of them who started work early in life retired before attaining age of sixty years) could have invested their gratuities in businesses if it was paid on their retirement. This would have been a boast to the economy. It is a very wrong notion that every pensioner has wealth}children to take care of him. Really only a few of them are such lucky. Many of their children on whom they spent their salaries have no jobs. There are among hem those whom children did not come to as a soon as they married. Even as pensioners they still have children in primary and secondary schools. Our governor should realize that these are among the people he has to care for Governor Rochas Okorocha who wants to be recognized as a man who cares for the underprivileged people should realize that the pensioners are among the vulnerable people his rescue government should care for. His neglect of these elderly people seriously calls to question his love for the poor and disadvantaged people. We are sure that the treatment to pensioners will form a major issue in next year’s campaign and election. It worries us that a government of the people will have no excuse to give on this. This is why it should realize that it has made a mistake and urgently do something to rectify it, at least to save its face from condemnation, defeat and God’s judgment.
The labour unions especially the Nigerian labour congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) should realize by now that they have failed the Imo state workers. The leaders of these unions are aware that they were elected to fight and protect the interests of workers. Retirement benefits are among the principal interests of workers. Each year workers retire from public service. The leaders of these trade unions will one day retire. What have they concretely done to protect the future of their followers? The leaders of the trade unions especially NLC end TUC should challenge the government on payment of retirement benefit?. They should include it as an issue they fight for. The officials of the government had claimed that Imo State has many retirees to pay. Yes it has to be. When sometimes ago, a circular on non-pensionability of period of study leave without pay was issued by the federal government many state governments including Abia state adopted it. Those who started work with low qualifications and later entered high institutions on study leave without pay had their period of study removed from their time of service. Here in Imo State such policy v/3s not adopted. It is very regrettable that some of these were not reinstated many years after graduation. Yet this period of study and unemployment was recorded as their service years and retired prematurely. You can imagine the fate of such premature retirees with the delayed pension and no gratuity.
The members of the state house of Assembly should by now realize that they have to share the blame of this failure with the executive. They were elected by the people to represent their interests. Retirement benefits are principal interests of the people, both those affected directly, their dependants and the economy as a whole. What have they done to get the executive pay? When the government slashed pensions by 60 percent, they said this was wrong and promised that they would rr.ake sure it would not hold. Surprisingly, that was the end of their action When the wrong policy was being implemented, they all kept mute, both those in government and opposition parties in the house. This is not how to represent the people. The people should look up to their representatives when their interests are jeopardized. Our representatives are requested to intervene in this matter. They should legislate on measures to guarantee clearance areas of pensions and gratuities and prompt and regular payment in future. Some of them may be seeking for re-election or another political posts. We shall remind them of poor representation if they do nothing to correct this anomaly and other policies of the present administration that have pauperized the Imo people. The principal duty of the legislature, and in fact the justification for its existence, is control of the executive. It has to prevent the executive from taking actions that bring pain and sorrow to the people like the way the Imo State government stopped paying retirement benefits.
As the government has promised that it would seriously look into this issue and work out a system of regular payment in future, we look forward to seeing it do exactly what it has promised. A committee of government officials, legislators, the leaders of the Nigerian union of Pensioners and Labour unions should be set up to work out how this can be done. This will help the government to find solution to the problem.
The ruling party, the All Progressive Congress should intervene in this matter. I wonder whether Nigerian political parties are not interested in the performance of those they sponsor into public offices. One expect the APC to regularly study the policies and actions of the chief executives of government from their party. Does it mean the leaders have not observed this dehumanizing treatment of pensioners in Imo state? Why have they not done anything? Imo is only state government controlled by the party in the south east zone. It is expected that the part) v.ill seek to penetrate the other four states. Is this how it will win the heart of the people to make them vote for it.
Probably it is relying on its power of incumbency and rigging to win. The earlier the new powerful enterants into the party begin to fight for the restoration of the rights of the people especially their economic rights, the better for the party. In Imo today, many people have lost their means of livelihood due to government policies and actions. We want to see these powerful members of the party fight rot only, for the control of the leadership of their party but also for placating those who have been thrown into suffering by the government of their party.
The pensioners of Imo State are looking forward to organized method of payment of pensions on monthly basis as it was before 2015. They are also looking forward to the payment of their gratuity. They are begging, the state government to stop the arbitrary reduction of their pensions.
They are hoping that the government will fulfill its promise to clear the arrears of pension within a short time, a promise recently made by the press secretary to the government. They do not want to believe that this will be like earlier promises or sweet talk.
Herbert U. Nnawuihe writes from Isuobishi, Isu L.G.A, 08037079734.