From Kemi Yesufu, Abuja
Millions of Nigerians watched live on TV as the House of Representatives on Thursday April 6 hosted right inside the Green Chamber, during plenary, what many have prayed would be the definitive conference on how the many issues making life difficult for pensioners would be tackled and monies owned them paid.
A hint that the House would summon all critical stakeholders in pension administration and funding was given recently, when Speaker Yakubu Dogara hosted the National Union of Pensioners (NUP).
The Speaker though accustomed to hosting different groups, many of whom come to the National Assembly seeking that key interventions are made on matters that affect them, almost lost his composure as he read a copy of NUP’s president, Dr. Abel Afolayan speech as he presented it at the meeting.
Dogara’s smile gave way to a sober look, even as he shook his head in obvious disappointment with the number of problems plaguing pension administration and the subsequent hardship pensioners are forced to bear.
It therefore wasn’t surprising when the Speaker took major steps in response to the NUP president, who led members of his executive and other high profile pensioners such as former military governor of Rivers State D.I.G Fidelis Oyakhilome (retd) to the National Assembly.
First the Speaker told his August guests, that the House would consider a motion to invite all stakeholders in charge of pension administration to appear in plenary to speak on how they plan to clear the pension liabilities. He pledged that the House would assist pensioners to convince the Federal Government to make provision of sufficient funds in the 2017 Appropriation Bill towards offsetting the outstanding pension liabilities both under the Defined Benefit Scheme (DBS) and the Contributory Pensions Scheme (CPS).
The Speaker instructed the Chairman House Committee on Pensions, Hassan Adamu Shekarau, to the relief of the pensioners, to move a motion a day after the visit for the summons of the minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, the minister of Budget and National Planning Udoma Udo Udoma to appear in plenary to provide details on how the Federal Government intends to offset its N302. 4 billion outstanding liability to pensioners.
He stated that the ministers and heads of relevant agencies such as the Executive-Secretary of the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD) Sharon Ikeazor and Chinelo Ahohu-Amazu of the National Pension Commission (PenCom) have to appear in the Green Chamber to proffer workable solutions to the problem of outstanding pension payments.
He emphasised that all pension due to retired public service workers must be paid because it was their constitutionally provided right. Citing section 173 (1 & 2) of the 1999 Constitution, he stressed that it was the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that pension earned are paid as when due, as failure to do this could be a breach of the laws of the country.
Afolayan at the meeting with the lawmakers called on the National Assembly to provide sufficient funds in the 2017 budget to offset the money owed pensioners across the country. The union also appealed that pension should be put on first line charge to bring an end to the traditional rigorous budgetary allocation process. He equally solicited the assistance of the Speaker for the payment of outstanding 18 months arrears of the 33 percent pension increase.
He said the 2017 liabilities for pensioners was “under-defined”, adding that while the 2017 proposals was N302.4 billion, the Executive’s submission was N109. 123 billion, leaving a difference of N193.282 billion.
Stating how important it was for government to effectively fund pension payment, the NUP president told lawmakers that many of his colleagues have died of treatable diseases, while others live in penury.
“Pensioners have become engendered species and prone to all kinds of diseases, which is age related and need money for treatment. This is very important reason why government needs to ensure that pensioners are paid as when due, especially considering the fact that these old people have used their youthful days to serve this country meritoriously. Now that it is payback time, the country should not fail them”, he asserted.
Worthy of note is the fact that as promised by the Speaker, Shekarau moved a motion on the floor that the relevant government officials be invited to plenary to present to lawmakers and concerned citizens, their roadmap out of the pension debt. The motion which was passed without a single dissent received support with members speaking in favour of the move by the House to take definitive action on the matter. Chairman House Committee on Basic Education, Zakari Mohammed and other lawmakers, Johnson Agbonayinman and Henry Nwawuba all urged that the National Assembly intervene and see to it that pensions and gratuities being paid promptly.
The motion in the House isn’t the first time lawmakers would be calling for a better handling of pension payment. The Senate had on Tuesday March 28 adopted a motion entitled: “The Untold Hardship of Pensioners Occasioned by Federal Government’s Failure to Contribute Its Statutory Share of Five Percent to the Pension Redemption Fund”, sponsored by Emmanuel Paulker.
The House had also earlier adopted a motion on, “The Need for Intervention in the Current Crisis of Unpaid Pension Arrears Threatening the Lives of Nigeria’s Retired Senior Citizens”, sponsored by Toby Okechukwu.
It therefore didn’t come as a surprise that a large number of viewers tuned in into watch as members of the House grilled the minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun and her counterpart in the ministry of Budget and National Planning Udoma Udo Udoma on the modalities by which the Federal Government will offset pension liabilities.
Both minister who made presentations during plenary, didn’t hesitate to ask that more time be given the inter-ministerial committee set up by Federal Government to among other interventions, reconcile the discrepancies in the figure of pensioners and the amount needed to fully settle them as stated by agencies involved in pension administration.
24 hours before her appearance in the House, Adeosun announced that the Federal Government has cleared the inherited arrears of accrued pension benefits for the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 by releasing N41.5bn to the National Pension Commission (PenCom) for onward payment to retirees.
She further said in a statement, that the sum of N12.5bn being outstanding for January, February and March 2017 has also been settled based on 2016 appropriation, bringing the total amount to about N54 billion.
In response , the National Union of Pensioners (NUP) in a statement made available to Daily Sun promptly said the amount released was too meagre to have cleared all the monies owed retirees, arguing that the indebtedness to the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) alone was well over N280 billion.
“Therefore, the release of N54 billion cannot be said to have cleared FG’s backlog of Pension liability”, NUP’s statement read.
Regardless, an undeterred Udoma, who was first to speak to the lawmakers insisted that the Federal Government was up to date with most categories of pensions payments.
He assured that the inter-ministerial committee headed by Adeosun would soon deliver on a harmonised data that would see to the efficient and prompt payment of pension and gratuity.
Probably unsatisfied with the minister’s assurances, House Majority Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila demanded to know how high the Federal Government prioritised resolving the challenges surrounding pension payment.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, where will you place the issue of pensions, knowing what payment of pension means to retirees?”, Gbajabiamila asked.
Udoma replied that though government was struggling to meet demands from different sectors in the face of limited resources, the payment of salaries was number one priority, adding that the half of the total projected revenue in the 2017 budget was to be used to pay wages and pension. He assured that the committee would come up with creative means to clear all of the pension debt.
On her part, Adeosun described the current challenges as inherited, blaming the huge pension debt on “consistent under appropriation for years that lead to the current problem”.
The minister insisted that Federal Government releasing funds a day before her appearance wasn’t preemptive of lawmakers ‘ actions, this is even as she told the House in response to questions, that the N54 billion released had cash backing.
The minister’s insistence that the pension debt was inherited by the Buhari administration nearly led to a rowdy session as members, mostly those from the main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) raised their voices in disagreement.
Minority Leader, Leo Ogor reminded the minister in his contribution, that government was a continuum and what the House seeks was a well articulated plan that ensures pensioners are paid as at when due.
NUP president who was accompanied to Green Chambers by his colleagues expressed appreciation to the House, the ministers and President Buhari for making the payment of pension liabilities a matter of urgent national importance.