HARD NEWS, Newspaper Column

Help! Nigeria’s Pensioners Are On Verge of ‘Extinction’

By M. Babajide Alabi
When the Olusegun Obasano-led government announced in 2004 of a revamp of the pension system in Nigeria, millions of pensioners across the country heaved a sigh of relief. They danced, clapped and sang praises of the then president for his thoughts towards their plights.

The ideas of the 2004 Pension Reform Act were lofty and commendable as it aimed at making every indidividual who worked in the public or private sector receive their entitlements in timely manner. It was a reform designed to act as succour to the Nigerian pensioners and also instil sanity in the pension system operated in the country. While the act might have not succeeded in complete amelioration of the sufferings of pensioners in the country, it did provide a platform for a robust change in the system.

Pension and entitlements to retirees in organised countries of the world are not taken lightly. Responsible governments know the importance of the pensioners, and also appreciate the contributions these individuals made in the development of the countries. For example in the United Kingdom, pension is usually part of the campaign manifestoes of the political parties. In run up to elections, each political party outlines how it is going to manage the pension system.

I guess it was the desire of the Obasanjo government to guarantee Nigerian pensioners a better post-retirement life and an improvement in the system that informed the thought of the Reform Act.

It is common knowledge that the plight of Nigerian pensioners before the turn of the millennium was pitiable. The successive governments had left them uncatered for, abused and exploited. Many of the pensioners went through hard times just to get a slice of their entitlements and take care of their families. The retirees from the Federal and State Civil Services were the worst hit as they were treated shamefully as if they were people with no dignity. They were made to run from “pillars to posts” so as to get their pensions paid.

Many of those who retired before the reform act had to go through the pains of waiting months and years before their gratuities were paid. Those who were “retrenched” from service when there were no plans for retirement were hung out to dry with nothing to fall back on. The anger of the pensioners were “clear for all to see”, as they openly expressed their regrets for serving the country with their “hearts and mights”.

The delayed payment of their entitlements turned them to “experts” in hope and miracle. Many of them turned to prayers for God to touch the hearts of the officials in the supervising ministries to ensure their files did not get lost. To some, the desperation to survive pushed them to offer bribes to the officials. You would not blame them because that was their last resort to getting anything on time. While most, who were of old age, struggled to survive life on “basic rations”, the government officials responsible for the disbursement of their gratuities and pensions lived lavishly openly in the society. They fed fat on the sweat of the pensioners.

These citizens were called out most times for identification, before they could get their entitlements. The national television (NTA) was always on hand to record the “proceedings” as the pensioners file out in the rain or sun. There was no intervention from the successive governments as they turned deaf ears to cries of these pensioners. Tactically, they seemed to encourage the civil service officials to continue their “games” on the ‘poor’ people.

The paltry sum of money allocated by the government for the payment of pensions most times were either diverted for personal use or “invested” in banks by civil service officials.

These are real stories.

My father retired from active service in the mid-eighties with service record split between the Federal and State governments. His retirement was meant to be home coming, to settle in his town and contribute to the development of his people. The expectations were high. By my “small mind” imagination, I had calculated a big gratuity payment off my head for him. I reasoned that coupled with his book royalties the family was made.

Yes. It was meant to be the reward for his labour all these years. On reflections in later years, I realised I did not consider the Nigeria factor, whatever that was. It soon became clear to me that getting paid gratuity after retirement was not a “moinmoin” affair. My father had to wait so many months, running into years before he was paid his state gratuities, leaving out the federal bit.

Like many other people, the system, represented by cruel officials, was unkind to him. Ideally his service for the federal and state governments would have been merged so he get paid his entitlement in a lump. No, the bureacrats at the Federal Civil Service Commission played him a fast one. They kept throwing “hurdles” in his path as he filed for his federal entitlements to be paid.

Till he was called to glory a few weeks ago on April 4, 2015, after almost three decades of retirement, the Nigerian government did not pay him for the services he rendered as an employee of the Federal Civil Service. For these number of years, the heartless bureaucrats succeeded in making sure he never got paid his dues.

A few days before his passing on to glory, I asked him about his federal entitlements. He could not hide his disappointment at how the government of Nigeria had let him down. I remember the numerous journeys he had to undertake to Abuja at his old age, to make sure his due was paid to him. Many forms he filled, many documents he sent in for verification, and many doors he knocked on so he would not be denied his entitlements.

Yet, his country failed him.

Being a highly principled man, he never gave bribe nor ask for in his lifetime. In 2011 I informed him I had made contact with a few notable people who could put forward his case. His reaction was simply classic. In his usual character, he said clearly that he would not want an “arm-twisted” tactic in order to get his entitlements.

His case is similar to that of many patriotic Nigerians who served the country meritoriously in their early years, but failed by successive governments. Many of them put their hearts and souls to the development of the country without stealing a penny from the treasury of Nigeria. My father was a man of modest means who, while in service, was more concerned with living a good name than riches. Yet Nigeria failed him by ‘refusing’ him his entitlement till he died.

How many Nigerians are failed by the government in such manner? Yet our politicians “legislate” millions of Naija for their monthly wages and allowances. They take care of their severance pay before they leave offices thereby ensuring lifetime “enjoyment”. Those who were elected to represent the masses turn themselves to lords. They become unapproachable or inaccessible immediately they are sworn in.

One of the reasons why Nigeria has continued to fail is because the system we operate supports and glorifies the “grab” system. In this wise, citizens are helping themselves to the “till” to secure a good retirement plan. They need not wait for the government pension plan before they live good in retirement.

Do not get me wrong, I desperately wish our leaders can take Nigeria above these failings and build a country we will all be proud of as citizens. But every time I pause to give a benefit of the doubt to the leaders, I am disappointed and further convinced that it would take a while before we get to the “desired” land.

How good it will be when our leaders treat pensioners with dignity and respect as reasonable governments all over the world do. What a difference it will make when our politicians put the plights of pensioners on the front burner of politics. How I wish they can put this on their campaign manifestos as it is obtained in civilised countries of the world. Until then, the unspoken curses placed on the generations of government officials who deny pensioners their dues and entitlement shall never be broken.

Published in Sunday Vanguard May 3rd 2015. http://www.vanguardngr.com/2015/05/help-nigerias-pensioners-on-verge-of-extinction/

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