I was at a church service last Sunday in memory of a devoted Christian, a retiree who passed on recently. As is the custom in such a solemn gathering, glowing tributes were paid for the departed loved one. For a brief moment, time froze. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose perspective in a moment, but not with the presiding pastor. In his homily, he talked about the hurtful feelings in the country, the economy, insecurity, poverty and betrayals. He didn’t lose focus of why we all gathered in that church, the man who had passed on, his legacy. It hurts, he said, looking at the plight of pensioners across the country.
With his voice and emotions rising, you could touch the pain of the pastor.”Satan”, he said, “has put people in bondage and made tyrants and despots out of leaders. Think about a man who was very humane when he was elected a government official, but suddenly becomes a tyrant afterwards, refusing to pay retirees who served for their states and country for decades their pensions and gratuities. These leaders are untroubled by the torments of broken promises and injustice. For them is reserved the hottest part of hell”. Many who listened to the pastor said he spoke to their hearts, the pains that many retirees are going through.
It represents the callous disposition of many state governors. They find no reason to prioritize pensions of retirees. Some governors have openly and shamelessly said that it would be better for them to take care of current workers than pay gratuities of those who had already retired from service. For such callous governors, retirement benefits are a distraction. Yet the appropriate billions for themselves as “ security vote” that is never accounted for, and hefty amounts spent junketing around the world in the name of holidays, and sponsoring frivolous things that add no value to the growth and well-being of the state and its citizens .
Across the country, pensioners’ hardships worsen as state governments owe backlog of pensions and gratuities. This predates the present economic situation. It’s public knowledge that even when the Federal Government gave bailout funds to pay salaries and pensions, most of the states reportedly diverted the funds and refused to pay pensioners. It’s criminal. That’s the raw deal Nigerian pensioners are going through in the hands of their employers who are expected to protect them against old age. Instead, they have made many retirees to be destitutes. It breaks the heart that this is happening in Anambra state, of all states.
After the infamous administration of Dr.Chinwoke Mbadinuju (1999-2003), when pensioners were treated almost like destitutes, the ugly old days are snapping back. Why do I take exception to Anambra, you may ask? Are other states not guilty as charged? Not exactly. Under the administration of Dr.Chris Ngige, pensions and gratuities were regular. It got better under Mr. Peter Obi who was exceptional in ensuring that pensioners got their dues in record time. Obi’s administration cleared over N35bn arrears of pensions and gratuities owed retirees since 1991. Is it true that the Willie Obiano administration has defaulted big time in meeting these obligations, as alleged by the governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) in the Nov.6 election, Mr.Valentine Ozigbo? Is it true that Gov.Obiano has allowed the debt to accumulate to over N5bn since 2017? The government is yet to refute the allegation. It has become a talking point in the campaigns. If that is true, it’s simply wicked and heartless. Pensioners money is like ‘blood money’, and anyone complicit is heaping fire on his bosom. As Ozigbo said the other day, “it’s evil to owe pensioners”. He also described the non-payment of pensions and gratuities as “ mindless”. It’s also cruel and unacceptable.
In Ozigbo’s words, “I am the son of a headmaster, and I can recall how my father invested his gratuity wisely after retirement and how the little investment contributed to the welfare of our family. I was happy when Peter Obi cleared the gratuities of retirees, but I feel saddened now that the pensions have started accumulating under Gov.Obiano”. The truth is, many families in Anambra state, flourished as a result of the sweat of retirees. That time seems far gone now. As my immediate elder sister, a retiree told me, depriving pensioners their entitlements “is a sin crying to heaven for vengeance”. It speaks volumes of lack off leadership. In Nigeria today, it’s hard to see public officeholders who through diligence have decided to do things positively, different. It’s worse with our politicians. Many of them have become “princes of darkness” immediately they have acquired power. They feel they need the people anymore.
Pensioners become their “soft targets”, pawns in their chess game of power. That’s why the central narrative of public office in Nigeria is easy to sum up: talk the talk, don’t walk the talk. That’s their occupational disease. That’s also the reason why it has become hard for many of them to answer these baseline questions: why am I in public office? Is it for public good or selfish interests? It’s all for personal aggrandizement.
For sure, many of them don’t have what it takes to perform beyond average. Every so often, they squander public trust which is what public office entails. They pursue simple, selfish things with zeal, but approach critical matters that should improve the welfare of the people either halfheartedly, or completely unattended.
Selecting goals they want to achieve while in office, is a secondary matter. They lack conviction. That’s why paying pensions and gratuities are a distraction to many of them. For want of a better description, most of our state governors end up as “ waka just pass “. They come and go. They touch no lives, no worthy legacy. They leave behind sorrows and pains. Many retirees have died as a result of their callousness. In many states today, the Contributory Pension Scheme comes to mind only when it becomes mandatory for the governors to do so in order to access some financial benefits. After that, “business as usual”.
It’s sad how Anambra is going down the human development index. By 2012, data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that poverty rate in Anambra had declined to 22 percent. That statistics meant that as of 2011-2012, the least number of poor people lived in Anambra. That feat was attributed to the policies of Peter Obi. Also, a United Nations(UN) report on Millennium Development Goals(MDGs) rated Anambra as the only state in Nigeria that met almost all the targets set in the MDGs guidelines. That’s why Obi was beating his chest,saying in Igbo, “Anambra Adi ba go nma”, meaning, “things are looking in Anambra”. Can you say the same thing now? Ask the retirees.