The Nigerian pensioners are usually presumed dead long before actual death. That was why an ex-governor, while still in the saddle, referred to pensioners as dead people. When journalists asked him what had been done to assuage the plight of pensioners who protested the non-payment of their pension, the ex-governor told them that he was still battling to pay the outstanding salaries of the living and “the dead ones were making a noise.”
That ex-governor is likely to be receiving pensions from where he worked before joining politics if he retired there; and also collecting pension as an ex-governor for four or eight years of service in the state. Someone once called him a ‘living legend.’ I am sure it was not as a governor because there is nothing extraordinary one can remember him for. But, that is the predicament of being a retiree. Unfortunately, retirees do not have virile unions and the Nigeria Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress, Academic Staff Union of Universities and others also seem to be for the living, not the “dead.”
There are lots of stories of hardship that retired persons have been and are being subjected to in this country with reference to their entitlements. We have had and seen many instances where old people were subjected to long-distance travel and/or long queues for personal identification before payments could be effected. I thought the methods of payments had been automated and such travel and queue exercises no longer held until one of my uncles, who retired long ago from the Nigerian Army recently had to travel to Abuja for pension verification due to complaints that many of them were not being paid.
The old man or old soldier, as we call him, was in Abuja for three days sorting himself out; the same long-distance travel and long queue. He finally found that his first name had been substituted with another name while the surname and staff number remained; implying possibly that someone had been collecting his pension. The ‘error,’ if it was, was corrected and he returned home with hope. He is still living on that hope almost four months later. Some of his friends who were also affected got their pension for two months before it stopped abruptly but he has not been so lucky. That is what happens to so many retirees, including surprisingly, the military men that have laid their lives for the country.
Where is military discipline? Apart from the governments being irresponsible with the payment of pensions, the pension staff members are immersed in corruption and feed fat on pensions by substituting names and introducing ghost pensioners. They make the payroll look monstrous such that cashstrapped governments are forced to keep away from making immediate payments. To avoid the perennial problems associated with the payment of pensions to retirees, the Federal Government under President Olusegun Obasanjo reformed the pension system in which the workers and employers engage in a contributory payment system and implemented through Pension Fund Administrators.
The system was expected to work seamlessly if everyone played their role. Are the governments playing their roles? Some deliberately delayed the implementation of the reformed pension scheme so that they would not pay until a later date or transfer to the incoming government while others accepted but not only refused to pay their proportion, they deducted the money from the workers and failed to remit the same to the pension administrators. Eventually, some workers will retire in future and find that they have not made any contributions. It will be a tragic event! The same government that cannot pay pension funds for its staff will commit a huge sum to award contracts for roads and other projects.
Those are more important sources of personal gains than humanity. It is as if they want people who are supposed to use the road to die young. Of course, in many cases, the constructed roads are not durable. They do not last more than 18 months at best, killing citizens eventually. I recall the case of a friend who was returning to Nigeria from Ghana after working for a couple of years in one of the public universities there. The pension system is the contributory form adopted here. Immediately the pension administrator was informed about his proposed departure, he was contacted on whether he would want his money in the form of a cheque or payment to his account.
He opted for a cheque. He did not spend 20 minutes with the PFA when he went to collect the cheque. He was also not shortchanged in any form. The document he signed contained his personal contribution and government. The same developing country with different strokes. Who is talking about palliative for the pensioners now? They do not exist or they do not need it? The only name the public calls them now is ‘senior citizen.’ They are senior citizens without benefits. There is an element of euphemism or understatement about the word ‘senior citizen’ in Nigeria. It seems a kind of derision or mockery. In some countries, including African countries, the elderly or civil/public servant retirees are treated very well, and they look fresh and robust.
They have no problem with living because they have no problem with their pensions. In Nigeria, the corrupt system and leadership problems compromised the standards of living of the retirees. Apart from the fact that many of them do not get their pension and gratuity in time due to government lapses or until they give bribes, society has no special provision for its senior citizens. We are also not sure that the immediate-past government has not borrowed all the pension funds in its debt addiction or that a new Maina has not embezzled a large proportion of the funds undetected. Even those who get the pension are paid beggar-thy-neighbour wages.
The normal civil/ public salaries are poor and it is expected that the pensions should be worse since they are derivatives of the salaries. Yet, one is expected to travel and queue or wait for ages to collect the gratuity. A professor of over 15 years and over 35 years of meritorious service who retired recently and is supposed to be paid his ‘full’ salary according to the 2009 agreement is being paid N120,000.00 monthly. According to him, the book allowance, accommodation, hazard, et cetera are not part of the final package. Of course, as a professor on duty, he was on less than N450,000.00 after tax and other deductions for the last 12 years after reaching the bar of his scale.
Fortunately, he was an erudite scholar and consultant to local and international organisations which gave him some funds for investments and upon which he currently lives until he relocates soon to assume an adjunct position in a United States organisation. Professor Akin Mabogunje, a blessed man of blessed memory, had told some young academics in one of his mentorship sessions that the Nigerian pension system was unreliable and even the pension paid was not dependable. He advised that while moving up the ladder, they should continue to invest in themselves physically and financially so that “you will not be among those who will queue to receive peanuts as pension from the government.”
That was over 30 years ago. And, who would think Nigeria will, in this century, be living in the past? The labour union officials must take up the cases of pensioners, because, in the process, they will also be protecting their future. The Nigerian governments at the state and national levels should look into the plight of the pensioners. Since retirees are said to be paid on the basis of what they earn at the time of retirement, there is the need for some form of palliative and reforms in the pension system. More importantly, the pension system needs to be probed to detect more Maina for prosecution.
• Prof. Sheriffdeen Tella is a Nigerian academic economist and professor of economics at the Olabisi Onabanjo University