For years, pensioners in Imo State have grappled with the problem of irregular payment of their pensions and even when paid, the money was far below what they should receive. Their story was nothing to write home about. It was riddled with agony and frustrations. The Imo pension payment system then was chaotic and unmanageable. There was no electronic data base on bona fide pensioners in the state.
The system, therefore, was open to abuse and manipulation. Corruption was rife in the system. Unfortunately, the last immediate administration in the state did not do much to remedy the situation as it owed years of pension arrears. This was exactly the situation of pensioners in the state on May 29, 2019 when Governor Emeka Ihedioha assumed the leadership of the state.
The situation of the pensioners and by extension civil servants could have prompted the new governor to declare during his inaugural address his intention to initiate a wide range of reforms on the institutional frameworks for good governance in the state. This, the governor hoped, would achieve effective service delivery, ensure value for money as well as entrench transparency in the state governance processes. Ihedioha’s resolve to solve the problem of pensioners in the state once and for all made him to set up a committee to verify the Imo pension administration and ensure that there is a data base for all pensioners in the state.
Besides, he has declared commitment to ensure that the senior citizens enjoy their pensions and also live in dignity. Apart from inheriting six years of pension, his government discovered discrepancies in the total number of pensioners in both the state and the 27 local governments. In view of the disorderly pension system he met on ground and the need to instill discipline in the system, Governor Ihedioha set up an investigative committee to carry out a comprehensive audit of the pension administration in the state in June 2019.
The state pension review committee was chaired by Barrister Paschal Madu, the Chief Technical adviser to the Governor. Other members of the committee included the former Head of service of Imo State, Barrister Alma Eluwa, Steve Osuji, Special Adviser, Media; Hon. Jones Onyeriri; Mayor Eze; Abba Chimaroke; Ben Duru; Dr. Jeff Ojinika and Rosaline Okagbue. About 800 youths were recruited, trained and engaged for the project that covered over 12 weeks.
The committee’s main job was to determine the actual number of pensioners in the state as well as end the corruption and perennial verifications that have plagued the system over the years. The committee was equally tasked to determine all outstanding pension liabilities in both the state and local governments; to advise on the need for the establishment of an electronic database and digitalization of the pension process in the state and to provide the government with guidance on the desirability of transiting to the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS), which has been established at the federal and various states of the federation. The committee was said to have verified 48,481 records comprising 28,658 from the Office of the Head of Service of the State and 19,823 from the Local Government Pension Board.
The outcome of committee’s initial investigations showed “a dearth in the availability of information due to the lack of a reliable database. Payments were made irregularly and on the basis of data produced by various committees and (most recently) by a firm of consultants. Due to a lack of collaboration between these committees/consultants and the pension boards, payments were inaccurate and in some cases not made to bona fide pensioners.”
A total of 25,646 pensioners were verified by the committee. And out of this figure, not less than 24, 419 pensioners were adjudged qualified to be on the state pension’s data base. There were 11,590 pensioners from the 27 local governments with liability of N527, 471,461.69 and 12, 829 state pensioners with liability of N659,654,184.64. The total liability for local government and state pensioners stands at N1,187,125,646.33 per month. The liability of pensioners in diaspora is estimated to be N10 million.
As at October 17, the government had reportedly paid the August and September pensions through the e-payment system. The government should be commended for reforming the Imo Pension System and the two months pensions it has paid so far. It is indeed good news for Imo pensioners. This can be regarded as a new dawn for them and nothing should be done to vitiate the new dream.
The momentum should be sustained. Imo should not go back to the years of locusts, the years of failed promises and dashed expectations.
But there is need to ensure that the new system is not compromised. As a new scheme, instances of overpayment and underpayment cannot be ruled out. With time, the system can be perfected. There is need to also establish a pension board that will manage the pensions of both local government and the state pensioners.
The government should speedy up the process of migrating Imo workers to the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS). It is the right thing to do. Having the CPS in place will go a long way to reduce the growing pension liability. It will also ensure accountability in the pension system.
When it is done, the problem of pension arrears will no longer be there. The government should ensure that Imo workers are paid the backlog of salaries owed them by the previous administration.
While the government is doing much to repair damaged roads in Owerri, it should also extend the good gesture to rural roads. The major roads in the 27 local governments ought to be given a facelift. The local government should serve as centre of development. That is the easiest and surest way to develop the state.
The industrialization of the state should equally be a priority for the new administration in the state. The governor should be in a hurry to ensure that the state is industrialized to stem the migration of Imo youths to Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and other places in the country.