Management of pension and pensioners in Imo State has become a very controversial issue to the extent that lives are beginning to be lost. Time was when workers, in both private and public sectors, looked forward to their retirement. It was seen as a period of deserved rest after a meritorious service. That was the thinking of permanent secretaries in Imo State. Having attained that level in the civil service, retirement was expected to be a time for them to raise their legs and say, thank God, I did my best for my state. But that is hardly the case if the claim by the Association of Retired Permanent Secretaries in the state is anything to go by. The association lamented recently that in the last five years, not less than 200 pensioners have died of starvation and other ailments induced by it while 12 retired permanent secretaries have also died for the same reason.
Imo state is cited here not because the situation of non-payment of pension is peculiar to it. But because the Governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, a media savvy, smooth-talking demagogue gives the impression that pensioners in the state are the happiest people on earth. The state government said it had set aside N100 million and N50 million monthly for the payment of gratuities to state government pensioners and local government council pensioners respectively. But that seems to be in our estimation, a drop in a deep well as the state’s chapter of Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP), said that its members were owed over N17 billion arrears of pensions and gratuity as at May 2015. This is just as the retired permanent secretaries confirmed that pensioners in the state are owed for over 71 months.
As noted earlier, this scenario replicates itself in almost all the states. The federal government and its agencies are not faring better in this obnoxious display of insensitivity. The sad aspect of it is that, while these senior citizens, who gave their youth to the service of the nation, are dying in want and penury, on a regular basis, there are reports of pension fund fraud and or diversions ranging in billions and trillions of naira with no effort made to bring the culprits to book. While this stealing is going on, many of the pensioners die in endless queues of record verification exercises contrived by some dubious pension fund managers who may have fixed the money in banks with generous interests accruing to them.
Experts are trying to establish a nexus between this sad development and the incidences of mind-blowing corruption in the public service. The argument is that public servants, still in service, who see the plight of their retired erstwhile colleagues, vow that it will never happen to them. As a result, they decide to resort to self-help: indulging in condemnable malpractices just to make sure that they save enough for the rainy day which must come in retirement. With what is happening to the nation’s pension scheme, such acts of graft, though not to be encouraged, may be difficult to control.
In Imo state, part of the problem is that the issue of pensions and gratuities which ought to be the turf of the Head of Service is out- sourced to hirelings with no capacity let alone expertise to handle such matters. Even sub-treasuries that are equipped to deal with pensions are side lined in favour of traditional rulers. In our opinion, the government is doing all that deliberately. Pension funds everywhere are milk pots. A government, like the one in the state now, would want to put in such positions people it can dictate to and manipulate without question as it goes ahead to use the money for other purposes that have nothing to do with retirees. For most, pension is the only means of sustenance in retirement. For this reason alone, governments, in Imo state and elsewhere, must rethink their policies as they affect pension management because we will all get old one day, stop work and will have to depend on such benefits.