BAYELSA state made headlines lately when the State House of Assembly hastily passed a bill granting life pensions worth hundreds of thousands to its members and former members. Good enough, Governor Seriake Dickson refused to sign the bill into law citing inconsistencies with the constitution, illegality, no earlier precedence by any state of the federation and that the Bayelsa has more pressing issues.
While still trying to catch our breaths, a few days ago, Kano State House of Assembly passed into law the Pensions Rights of Speaker and Deputy Law, 2019. This bill makes provisions for life pensions to be paid, new cars bought every four years and foreign medical trip for any person that held the prime positions of the Assembly. There are also reports that Ekiti State Assembly too have prepped a similar bill for the signature of Governor Kayode Fayemi.
Well, it is right that workers get their pay after years of meritorious service, and should be entitled to pensions for the rest of their lives. However, the offensive packages planned for these public officers deserves the attended public outcry.
The first thing to consider is that political office is not the regular 35-year civil service job. Political office holders like governors and legislators are contracted to do their assignments through elections, and so, should not be entitled to pensions like regular civil servants. It is like making provision for special pensions for sportsmen or artistes after earning millions in their active days or from endorsements for certain brands and image rights.
Even if one argues in their favour, the premise of such argument remains faulty since their brief stay in political office benefits them much more than what they would have earned in 35 years as civil servants. As accessories in the furniture of governance, they enjoy various allowances from the ridiculous to the bizarre, while civil servants are owed for months. This is what makes these pensions immoral and unacceptable.
Coupled with the fact that these former executives and legislators leave Government mansions to become senators, ministers, ambassadors or other top positions, implying that they are still being doubly fed by taxpayers that have been deprived the basic things of life.
They receive salaries for their present offices and on the other hand make pensions from their previous seats. Painting another picture, imagine a senior civil servant getting a political appointment and then becomes an adviser of a governor some time later and this fellow is entitled to steady pensions from his former and latter offices. While they luxuriate in this, the ordinary pensioners are left stranded on verification queues.
These pensions must be halted urgently because this insidious gesture to Speakers of other State Houses of Assembly and their deputies. If not stopped, in the discussion would be local government chairmen, their assistants and councilors who will from June 1, get their allocations directly from the federal purse.
Curbing this praxis that was ignited by the Lagos State House of Assembly in 2007 must begin with the Buhari administration. The culture of placing all former presidents and heads of state on any form of annuity should cease. It makes no sense paying dictators who seized office by the barrel of the gun or others who got to power through undemocratic and ambiguousmeans to be rewarded with retirement income for life. Their membership of the Council of States in a constitutional democracy should be reviewed.
When their membership is sorted out, we can then look at the necessity of waging individuals that might have been enjoying pensions from their previous services in private or public service. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo for example, would be receiving pensions as a retired general in the Nigerian Army ditto Goodluck Jonathan receiving pensions as a retired lecturer and still banking on life pensions and allowances because they served less than a decade as president. This presidency must take the lead in stopping this pension thing. This will give states that have done this to repeal it.
Another question to ask is how the various State Houses of Assembly and other bodies that passed these pension bounties came about the appropriate remuneration for these former executives. Was the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) consulted or was it a party in fixing these pensions? Was the present economic situation of the country and eventual sustainability put into consideration?
What of the Pensions Act of 2004 that mandates employers and employees to respectively contribute certain amount of their monthly income into the pension scheme? If legislators and elected officers in general fail to strengthen institutions such as the Pensions Act, who else will?
These pensions if not upturned could do more harm to the fight against corruption and free, fair and transparent elections. When an individual knows that winning an election settles his financial needs for life, he would do everything possible to win the seat. It also destroys the psyche of the youths who are increasingly seeing that the conventional 8-to-4 daily work schedules have no social security in them. This is evident as youths now pick role models from entertainment, sports and politics.
Discontinuing this act would involve more than Socio-Economic Right and Accountability Project (SERAP) urging governors from signing such bills. It would require changing our entire economicstructure.
Until we change this “feeding bottle” structure where states line up monthly for allocations from the multi-breasted centre (Abuja), we will continue to spend our oil wealth on frivolities like pensions for former political office holders. True fiscal federalism should see states look inwards to generate revenue for their sustenance while remitting agreed percentages to the centre. This way, Nigerians will become more judicious with our resources.
Moreover, the overall economy must be improved quickly so that people’s worth is not only defined by political positions as is the case now. The economic team, under the strict supervision of the president, should ensure more of such personalities can be produced easily by improving the economy.
Okunfolami writes from Lagos