In this Report, Correspondent, Arinze Chijioke, goes round the South-East states to unravel the true story behind the incessant protests by pensioners in the region. What he comes up with is not just a tale of woes from neglected pensioners; but also dishonesty and insensitivity on the part of government towards pensioners in the zone.
At its rotational quarterly zonal caucus meeting held in Abakaliki on May 25, 2018, the South-East zonal leadership of the National Union of Pensioners (NUP) resolved that its members would embark on a march to protest the lingering challenge of unpaid gratuities and pension benefits.
Zonal chairman of the Union, Chukwuma Udensi, said that the protests, which would hold simultaneously across states in the zone will be ‘unusual’ as women pensioners will lead with their breasts ‘unclad.’
“Women protesting baring their ‘breasts’ in Igboland is an extreme form of demonstration and we are going to use it as our last weapon in our struggle for better welfare,” he was quoted as saying at the time.
Four years later, they met again in Enugu and Ebonyi States and asked the Federal Government to withhold the monthly federal allocations of states in the zone as part of the enforcement mechanism. Sadly, not much has changed for these men and women who invested years in service to their states, hoping that upon retirement, they will achieve the dreams of a better life and be happy.
Now, most of them have become objects of laughter, with nothing to show for the years of hard work. Some of them are dead. Others are critically ill but cannot take care of themselves. Some cannot take care of their families, with years of unpaid gratuities and irregular pension. What is most worrying is that with every passing year, civil servants retire and join the thousands already waiting in the line.
When he started work as a clerk at the board of internal revenue in 1963, Fabian Agba had several dreams, among which was to build a house for himself and his family in Aba, where he grew up or in Enugu instead of staying back in Owerri where he worked.
In 1998, 35 years after, her retired as a permanent secretary at the ministry of Agriculture. Given his level, Agba claimed that he was entitled to over N 7million as gratuity which was supposed to come immediately.
Sadly, it was not paid upon his retirement and till now, 24 years after he retired. He is yet to receive his complete payment. The last time he was paid some part of his gratuity was in 2007 and that was after he had a case in court concerning the payment.
At 80, he caters for his five children who have graduated and are without jobs. He is sick but cannot get the medication he needs. While his gratuity has not been fully paid, his pension, which according to him is about N300,000 does not come in regularly.
“I expected to use the money to resettle myself and have a happy retirement because I was comfortable while I worked,” he said. “But delaying the payment means underpaying you because inflation eats up the money.
He alleged that the state originally stopped paying gratuity in 1998. But when Rochas Okorocha came in, he paid some pensioners whose gratuity was less than N500,000 and then stopped.
“Governor Emeka Ihedioha met 48, 000 files and processed 24,000 before he left and there was no explanation as to what happened to the remaining files, adding that under Hope Uzodimma, over 10,000 pensioners are not being paid,” he said.
According to him, the refusal by the government to pay gratuities of retirees violates section 210 of the 1999 constitution which concerns protection of pension rights and holds that any benefit to which a person is entitled in accordance with or under such law as is referred to in subsection (1) of this section shall not be withheld or altered to his disadvantage except to such extent as is permissible under any law, including the Code of Conduct.”
He said that whether dead or alive, the law requires that retirees be paid consistently for the first five years, adding that any governor who fails to pay pension and gratuity ought to be impeached because it is a constitutional requirement.
To access their pensions, retirees are required to always present themselves for verification. But Agba said that anybody who talks about continuous verification in the civil service Is fraudulent and wants to deny workers of their entitlements because workers have been verified which is why they are given ID cards to identify them.
“During such exercises, they ask pensioners to bring letter of first appointment, confirmation, retirement, last promotion and ID cards, which are all part of documentation,” he said. “If you did not document, how did you retire them or decide what amount to pay them as salary?”
Non-functional NUP and the intervention committee
In 1984, Uzoma Emerole started work at the Imo State Ministry of Education with expectations that upon retirement, he will set up a business to keep himself busy with his gratuity to avoid falling sick from being idle.
In 2017, over 30 years after, he retired on level 15 under the same ministry but his gratuity, which according to him is about N5m was not paid and nothing is being done about it. Since then, Emerole has been surviving through the help of friends and family.
Sometimes, he says he regrets working because there is nothing to show for it.
“All I dreamt of is not happening because I don’t have my entitlement.
“My children are grown up and that is why the pressure is not much on me but there are others whose children are still growing up and in schools,” he said.
Emerole is a member of the pension intervention committee set up in 2017 to demand for the payment of entitlements of pensioners after it was discovered that the Nigeria Union of Pensioners, which should represent the interest of pensioners is not doing its job.
“They have been compromised and are only concerned about the check off dues they collect,” he said. They talk about negotiating with the government when they should be demanding our entitlement which is already a settled matter.”
He said that some retirees are dying not because they are hungry but because they are worried if they will ever receive their entitlements, having served the state government for years.
He claimed that while the current administration is making efforts to pay pensions, many of those who retired in 2019 have not been fed into the system. He also expressed worry that nothing is being said about gratuity.
“I don’t know how the government will pay gratuities which have run into billions. But they must ensure that every retiree is keyed into the pension system and that it is paid regularly to mitigate our sufferings.”
In 2017, the National Industrial Court Owerri judicial division issued an order restraining the then administration of Okorocha from further slashing the pensions of retirees in the state, declaring the 40 percent payment to them as illegal and unconstitutional.
The NUP had filed a suit against the state government and Okorocha whom they accused of “exhibiting lawlessness” by not respecting and honouring their rights to earn pensions.
Several protests and threats
Emerole said that the committee had embarked on two protests which forced the government to pay pension. However, protests and monthly meetings have since been suspended due to insecurity.
Between July and August 2020 alone, pensioners in Imo State embarked on three street protests in the capital city, Owerri, to express their frustration over years of irregular and unpaid pensions and gratuities by successive administrations. In one of the protest marches, they were flogged by thugs. After the attack, the DSS threatened the leadership of the Pension Intervention Committee.
Chairman of the Committee, Mr Iyke Ohaneje, said that they had written to Lawyers, Bishops, asking them to prevail on the state government to pay pensions and gratuities. Yet, nothing has changed. At least 42 pensioners have reportedly died because of their inability to take care of their welfare because of the non-payment of their pensions.
Secretary of the Imo State Chapter of the NUP, Livinus Ashiegbu, alleged that the state government slashed pension to 40 per cent and that the last pension paid was called ‘pension without allowances,’ which is unheard of.
“The sum of N56.4 billion is the total amount owed pensioners in Imo State as of March 31, 2018,” he said. “If you come to Imo State, you will see pensioners looking very pale; any pensioner that does not have a child that could take care of him or her is in hell in Imo State.”
When contacted, Commissioner for Information and Strategy in the state, Declan Emelumba, claimed that the state has been working to ensure that retirees are paid their pension regularly.
He however confirmed that the government had not paid gratuity in a long time, having inherited a backlog which according to him, is staggering.
“I don’t know when last it was paid,”he said. “But we are approaching the issue gradually to ensure that it does not distort government’s financial status.”
Abia govt claims it used bailout to pay retirees but protests persist
Between 2015 and 2022, pensioners in Abia State have held several protests over non-payment of their entitlements. This November, they marched through the streets of Umuahia in protest over 45 months of unpaid pensions and 22 years of unpaid gratuity by the state government.
Clad in black attire, the men and women carried placards with such inscriptions as “Ikpeazu, why are you insensitive to pensioners’ conditions;” “Ikpeazu, pay us our over 22 years gratuity;” “Ikpeazu, be informed that many pensioners can no longer get medical care due to lack of money;” “Ikpeazu, why should we vote your candidate in the midst of your wickedness to pensioners.”
In April and May this year, they also took to the streets – this time, under the umbrella of Concerned Abia State Pensioners Association – to protest the non-payment of gratuity since 2002 and 38 months arrears of monthly pension.
During the protest, coordinator of the association, Emeka Okezie, was quoted as saying that an average of 15 pensioners die every month in Abia due to economic hardship and lack of adequate medical care.
Responding on behalf of the state government, the Commissioner of Finance, Dr. Aham Uko, blamed the development on the prevalent “economic downturn” facing the world which Nigeria has been grappling with as a nation.
At a Media Conference for the Commissioners of Information and the Chief Press Secretaries, CPS, of the 36 States of the Federation organized by the Nigerian Governors Forum, NGF, in Abuja in 2017, Abia State deputy Governor, Udo Oko Chukwu spoke of how the government expended the Federal Government bailout funds and the Paris Clubs refunds.
While the state government received a bailout fund of N14.2b, it received N10.6b and N5.7b respectively as first and second tranches of Paris refund. After the receipt of the first intervention (Bailout) fund, Chukwu said that the state government constituted a committee made up of the different Labour Union leaders; namely NLC, TUC, NULGE, NUP, NUT and Joint Negotiating Council.
“The committee took charge of the disbursement of the funds to various areas of greater needs and exigencies,” he said, claiming that 100% of the funds received were expended on the services of workers’ payments.”
Out of the total sum of N16.3B from the Paris Club refund, Chukwu said that N11.6B was deployed to service workers/pensioners wage bill. The Federal Ministry of Finance had advised that 50% of the first tranche of the Paris Refund be dedicated to the payment of workers’ salaries and wages.
“In addition to committing 50% as advised, we disbursed an additional N600m to the payment of workers’ salaries and wages. Thus a total of N5.9b was spent therein,”he explained.
He further explained that the second tranche of the Paris refund received by Abia State was also 100% spent on workers’ salaries and pensions and that has greatly curtailed the salary arrears and responsibilities of the government.
“Overall, Abia received a total sum of N16.3B from the Paris Club refund and deployed N11.6B to service workers/pensioners wage bill,” he said. “This translates to a commitment of more than 71% of total receipt to service workers’ salaries and pension.”
Chukwu, however, noted that the analysis does not (in anyway) suggests that Abia is not owing some outstanding salaries. Efforts to get the Commissioner for Information in the state, Bar. Eze Chikamnayo, to respond failed as he never picked calls nor responded to a text message sent to him.
ICPC report on bailout fund indicts states
In April 2016, a report released by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission after it monitored how states spent the bailout fund given to them by the Federal Government indicted Imo and Enugu states.
Recall that president Muhammadu Buhari had in 2015, approved the sum of N338bn- repayable at an interest rate of nine per cent over a 20-year period – for 27 states as part of efforts to end the lingering crisis of unpaid workers’ salaries and gratuities.
Findings of the report showed that Imo State applied for and received bailout funds of N26, 806, 430, 000.00 from the Central Bank of Nigeria which were domiciled with two commercial banks namely Fidelity and Zenith banks. This was under the administration of Rochas Okorocha.
During analysis, however, it was discovered that some transfers were made into certain Imo State Government accounts which are not related to salaries and emoluments, including N2bn which was paid into a government account; N2bn which was paid into an Imo State Project account; N2bn which was transferred into microfinance bank and a management fee of N21, 017, 810.00 which was paid into an unspecified account.
“We don’t know what happened to the fund under Okorocha,”Uzoma said. “If he had used it to pay retirees, Uzodinma would have had only a few people to deal with.”
In the case of Enugu, the government was accused of diverting the funds which it collected for the payment of outstanding workers salaries, subventions and pensions. In its report, the ICPC said that while Enugu State was granted N10,174,238,681.19 as bailout fund as at 16th November 2015 with a total debt value accrued from Staff Salaries and emoluments of N13,764,622,723.38 and N23,279,099,157.58 as domestic debt, It used N5, 967,238,681.19 to settle domestic debts and claimed that funds for the payments of Staff salaries and emoluments was not yet assessed.
However, when members of the Senate Committee on State and Local Government Administration visited Enugu State on an oversight function on the utilization of bailout funds released to states by the Federal Government, however, Governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi said that his administration received N4.207billion which it used for the liquidation of outstanding pensions and subvention to parastatals, agencies and departments.
Gabriel Ajah who was the Secretary to State Government at the time also disclosed that when the bailout fund was received, a dedicated bank account was opened for the funds and a committee, comprising leaders of Organised Labour, representatives of the state government and pensioners was set up to oversee the disbursement.
“So far, the sum of three billion, two hundred and eighty-four million, seven hundred and twenty-nine thousand, two hundred and fifty-three naira, thirty eight kobo (N3, 284,729,253.38) has been verified by the committee and the disbursement is on-going,” he said.
In Ebonyi, retirees are underpaid, others are unpaid
In 2016, retired civil servants under the local government system, protested at the government house Abakiliki, demanding the payment of their gratuity. They accused the local government pension board, the state Accountant-General and Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters of deliberately withholding their pension, a situation, which had brought them untold hardship.
In 2017, over 200 pensioners blocked the entrance to the government house to protest what they termed as “ill treatment meted to them” by officials of the government handling their verification exercise.
Emmanuel Okorie, who was the Chief of Staff to the Government House at the time, assured pensioners that the government will investigate their plight. Sadly, six years after, the challenge of unpaid pension and gratuity continues to stare retirees in the face.
In August 2017, the government reportedly released over N1.5 billion for the immediate payment of pension and gratuity to workers who retired since 1996. Emmanuel Onwe, who was commissioner for Information and State Orientation at the time said that the release followed the conclusion of the work of the Committee on the Verification of State Pensions & Gratuities from 2nd October 1996 to 6th June, 2017.
While the sum of N750 million was approved for the payment of the pension’s arrears and gratuities of retired State civil servants, another N750 million was approved for the payment of pension arrears and gratuities of local government workers.
However, chairman of the Nigerian Labour Congress in the state, Ikechukwu Nwafor, said that the government’s reported payments are not verifiable. He also alleged that the N4.063bn bailout fund given to the state was not used for payment of pension and gratuity of retirees.
“I have written several letters to the accountant general’s office in respect to the bailout fund and the government paid few pensioners who had retired since 2014, 20 percent of their gratuity for two months, amounting to 40 percent.
“They went on air to say that they had cleared, and we kept on agitating, with series of publications and they paid another 10 percent to local government, primary and secondary school workers,“ he further claimed.
He also claimed that while those that retired from late 2017 till date have not received their gratuity, most of them have not been captured for pension. He added that those that were captured were captured based on fake salary table without minimum wage.
Recall that In 2017, the national body of the NLC and the Trade Union Congress, wrote Umahi, seeking a meeting over pension deduction from workers’ salaries without an enabling law.
This July, the Ebonyi State Government announced the suspension of pension payment to retirees after it discovered that some deceased pensioners were still being paid pensions in the state.
The suspension was part of resolutions reached at the State Executive Council meeting at Government House Abakaliki, State Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Uchenna Orji, was quoted as saying at the time.
He said that the situation had led to a continuous increase in the wage bill, adding that the council approved a revalidation and verification exercise for all pensioners beginning with retired Permanent Secretaries and Directors in the state to check the act.
Reacting to this, Nwafor said that the suspension was part of measures by government to deny retirees of their entitlements. “Who are the ghost workers, he asked. There is no such thing in Ebonyi State.”
When contacted, Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, Mr Uchenna Orji, claimed that the state government had been consistent with payment of gratuities and pensions since its inception in 2015.
He said that the government was only owing backlogs of pensions and gratuities that were not paid by previous administrations, adding however that the state government was making adequate provision in the budget to ensure that the backlogs are taken care of.
On the bailout fund, he said “It was used to attend to civil service and other welfare packages,”. But you don’t expect all the money to be used to pay backlogs from 1999 to 2015”.
Hopes of Palm kernel cracking business crashed
In 1995, Anthony Okafor, 62, started work under the personnel department at Nkanu West LGA. As his retirement approached in October 2020, he hoped that he will receive his gratuity to enable him start up a palm kernel cracking business and his pension to keep him going.
Sadly, it has been two years since he retired, yet he has not received his gratuity or pension. Having retired on level 12, he is entitled to about N1.9million as gratuity and a monthly pension of N45,000.
Now, with his pension and gratuity unpaid two years after retirement, Okafor cannot train some of his children in school. He said that he depends on friends and the efforts of his wife for survival.
He said that some of his colleagues have died because they could no longer take care of themselves. He adds that he often resigns to fate when he falls sick.
Okafor said that he has been to the local government staff pension board to complain about the non-payment, and he was told that he will start receiving his pension from next year.
“While I don’t think that the board is doing enough to represent our interest, I think that it is the government that is starving them of the money they should have used to pay us.”
Amid widespread sufferings experienced by retirees in the state, the Enugu State House of Assembly introduced a bill seeking to provide additional benefits for ex-governors and their deputies in the state. Known as the ‘Enugu State Gubernatorial Pensions Bill 2021,’ the executive bill was intended to appropriate at least 900 percent of a governor’s annual salary as his monetary entitlements every year after leaving office.
The bill was suspended after protests and public outcry. This March, the Enugu State chapter of the Nigeria Union of Pensioners claimed that gratuity was last paid in 2010 during the administration of Governor Sullivan Chime, while the pensions were being paid in arrears, in some cases two years.
However, In 2018, the state government said that it approved the setting aside of the sum of N100 million monthly for the gradual payment of gratuities to state’s retired civil servants. This was after a meeting between the Enugu State Executive Council and the Leadership of the organized Labour in the state.
By 2020, the government claimed that it had cleared all outstanding gratuities from January 2009 to March 2010. The committee in charge of disbursement explained that before the governor’s kind approval, arrears of gratuities and revalidation amounted to N16,123, 841, 779.80 covering retirees from January 2009 to May 2018.
Special adviser to the governor on media, Ezea Samson, said that it was the current administration that started paying local government and primary school teachers in 2015.
“Since 2001, they were not being paid their entitlements which have accumulated over the years. But the government has other financial obligations to meet hence it cannot always meet the obligation,” he said.
While Samson claims that the state has been consistent with payment for LG workers, President of the International Solidarity for Peace and Human Rights Initiative, Comrade Osmond Ugwu, said that their condition remains the worst in the state.
In Anambra, government is rising to the challenge
This March, retired teachers in Anambra State protested in Awka over unpaid gratuities. They asked Willie Obiano, who was still governor at the time to pay their gratuities for four years.
Before the protest, the teachers said they had buried a deputy director, who died without receiving his entitlements having worked for 35 years. Mrs Victoria Maduka, who was their spokesperson said that years of unpaid entitlements had negatively affected many of the retirees who now struggle to eat, pay hospital bills, house rent and properly cater for their families.
In August, five months after he assumed office as Governor, Chukwuma Soludo inaugurated the State-Local Government Joint Accounts Committee to among other things, handle challenges faced by pensioners in the state.
During the inauguration, Soludo confirmed that state was owing over N14 billion in arrears for gratuities and pensions. He however revealed that his administration had started paying them.
State chairman of the Nigerian Labour Congress, Comrade Emeka Nwafor, told Ikengaonline that the state government has been prompt with the payment of pension for retired workers since he resumed office in March.
In September, chairman of the state chapter of Nigeria Union of Pensioners, NUP, Anthony Ugozor, was quoted as saying that Soludo has promised to defray the arrears of gratuity owed them since the regime of former Chinwoke Mbadinuju and under immediate past governor, Willie Obiano.
To achieve this, he said that the governor was setting aside some money every month and when it gets to N300million, it will be shared among both state and local government pensioners.
Fighting outrageous laws
While some state governors push for pension laws that will benefit them, others have been making efforts to cut existing outrageous laws in their state. In 2021 for instance, Kwara State Governor, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq signed into law a bill that cancelled payment of hefty pension to former governors of the state and their deputies. The law was passed in 2011 under the administration of Bukola Saraki who kept taking pensions despite being elected into the Senate.
In 2019, Zamfara also repealed what was described as an invalidated pension law which provided for the upkeep of ex-governors to the tune of N700 million annually. This led the federal High Court in Lagos to order the Federal Government to “recover pensions collected by former governors now serving as ministers and members of the National Assembly, and directed the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such pensions.”
Last year, the Lagos State House of Assembly approved a 50 percent reduction of pension paid to former governors after Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the governor submitted a bill to abolish the Public Office Holder (Payment of Pension Law 2007).
Head of Transparency International (Nigeria), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani said that a complete reform of the pension system- away from the pension reform act of 2014 – is needed at both the state and national levels to ensure a more transparent and accountable management of funds.
“Lawmakers, particularly at the state houses of assembly must be willing to push for the reforms, rather than become willing tools in the hands of corrupt governors,” he said.
This Report is part of activities by the Ikenga Media & Cultural Awareness Initiative (IMCAI) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability Project, a multi-level intervention for media independence and government accountability, managed by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) and supported by MacArthur Foundation.