WHEN suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool — Chinua Achebe
Ordinarily, they have no reason to scrounge and flounder in a pool of piranhas; beneath poverty baseline. They have no need to beg for succour. They have had their day in the sun, baked dry by its scorching rays. Now, in the fullness of hope for a payback, for recompense of duty, they are left in the lurch, condemned to servitude, destitution and tenuously clutching the shadows of a passing cloud. They are Nigeria’s senior citizens, retired servants of the state, whose morning glories have shrunk into gloom in the evening of their lives. They are the nation’s living dead, whose mortal sin is the committal of their youthful energies and zest to the growth and sustenance of the state. Seeing them with sunken cheeks, receded grey patches of hair, grouchy voices and lowered torsos, crying and begging for their due, breaks the dam and lets out a deluge of tears. The terrible plight of Nigeria’s pensioners surely shreds our humanity, and emblazons a note on pity. Theirs is a story from the normal bounds of credibility, straight from Richard Dowden’s epic description of Nigeria in his book, ‘Africa: Altered states.” They are victims of a stony country, captives of the cocky snares of power, jogged by the oddness of behavior ensconced on a high hammock; and preyed by the sediments of years of silted frustration. On occasions in their twilight activism for bread, some dropped dead, others collapsed and were ferried to hospitals, yet a donnish and priggish world stands by, indifferent. They have had squalidly beautiful lives, straddled two levels of life, and today have nothing to show for a life of hedonistic courting of pains, and no moment of closely felt happiness. The downward turn in their lives and the ‘goodness’ of their suffering can drive the spirit into perverse pitch of martyr-feeling.
The other day, sometime in the month of October, 2015, during a march in the federal capital city of Abuja to draw attention to their plight, as they camped out at the gate of the Ministry of Labour and Employment; those in the frontline were mercilessly beaten and whipped by misguided security agents, who literally poked fun at their misery. The beating created images of children on their parents as it is often said, ‘the beating a man gets is ingrained in his psyche.’ It was like a wrench in their beings; as if their minds and bodies were being pulled apart from opposite ends by two wild stallions. From their furrowed brows, it is easy to tell their anger which is buried deep in the grave of their past. It is the same old song across the 36 states of the nation. They are unified in their grief.
Retirement is a smoke of gloom that sinks a man, and contorts the mind. And you ask: how much is the amount in contention? Some are pried loose for a pittance of N150.00; others are putting their jagged lives at risk for a mere N7,000, yet the lucky ones are gnarled by a token N20,000. Whatever the amount in the mix, their treatment is a reflection of a callous, devil-may-care state.
Before the review of the national minimum wage by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, which rested it at N19,000 per month, many who left the services of the state earned far less and their benefits computed based on their last pay cheque. While hopes for their gratuities have become a jutting promontory hanging over an abyss of rock, their pensions come thin and far in-between, held back and sucked by the mindless heavies in the bureaucracy. Why are their lives so knife-edged? Why is their path as thin as a razor- edge and their will all too malleable? They had been told in their prime that the sun is always up every day, the trees are always green – same old stories, vividly told. Aside that they long for the dependable grayness of the skies, that they should not be thrust aside like a useless functional piece.
The mental image of these men of yesterday, who are in this precarious state, quickens the breath, tingles the flesh, sweats the brow and makes the palms clammy. For, was it not said that old women are uneasy at the mention of dry bones? Rather late in the day, they have learnt that sweet faint hearts never get their due in this world, and as the famous late American Muslim minister and human rights activist, Malcom X said, they want to “declare their rights on this earth to be human beings, to be respected as human beings, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day.”
Their numerous protests hardly suggest a resolve to fly off the handle. They yearn only for financial security and stability in their lives to cushion the vagaries of the fading years.
They have enough to dredge from the sauce pan of history; they have embraced a loneliness which only official debauchery and sharp dealing can confer. Now, as living dead, wide-eyed, wind-swept, they live in a dark cavern, yoked together by a chain which age had tarnished, faded, and withered. Weak in the knees, they still want to be heard. In their derived courage they want to be visible; with their walrus moustache they have developed a thick skin. For was it not the multi award winning talk show host, actress, producer and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey, who declared that “the greatest pain in life is to be invisible.” If they have the willpower to see dawn, then they will die peacefully. But they keep trying, fighting to dredge up the will to continue this life. After all, their gloom is stubborn, and there is a thin line demarcation between the living dead and the stone dead.