ON a Friday, the 26th of January 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari signed eight bills into law. But of all, one stood out prominently: the Senior Citizens Centre Bill, finally signed two years after it was first introduced into the House of Representatives.
It came with the promise of a new dawn for Nigeria’s 9.6 million elderly citizens, who are aged 60 and above. “Mr. Buhari has shown that he is indeed a senior citizen. He knows where the shoe has been pinching us,” Carls Ozoemena, member of the Nigeria Union of Pensioners, had told DailyTrust, describing it as the administration’s best achievement.
Yet another pensioner, Rosemary Ajaki, enthused she was excited about the development and said she expected the centre to find a solution to the challenge of delayed pension among other issues.
But it is not only the old who will potentially benefit from this initiative. It’s in fact been estimated that the centre has the capacity to generate over 720,000 jobs, once established across all states of the federation.
However, since its signing into law, nothing has been heard from the federal government about this promising legislation or plans regarding its implementation. Board members of the centre have not been announced.
On the occasion of the International Day of Older Persons, therefore, it is important to ask: Where is Nigeria’s Senior Citizens Centre? What plans does the government have in making it materialise beyond words on paper?
A check through the 2018 budget revealed that no amount has been budgeted yet for the centre’s establishment. This is perhaps because, though it was passed by the Senate in July 2017, the bill did not get to the President until December of the same year. It is thus expected that the government will do the needful in the next appropriation bill making provision for the initiative in the budget.
What does the law provide?
Essentially, the intention of the National Senior Citizens Centre Act is to facilitate Section 16 of the 1999 Constitution, which provides that the state shall direct its policy towards ensuring “that … old age care and pensions, and unemployment, sick benefits and welfare of the disabled are provided for all citizens”.
Section 2 of the Act provides for the establishment of a Senior Citizens Centre headed by a Director-General, headquartered in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and for “any state that desires it”.
Its functions include identifying the needs of senior citizens and taking responsibility for creating recreational, sports, health, educational, counselling and social programmes for their benefit. It shall develop and implement schemes to provide income or supplementary earnings for aged citizens.
It shall also keep records and statistics concerning senior citizens in the country, and partner with sub-national, national, and international bodies in achieving its objectives.
One odd provision in the Act, however, is section 20 which defines “senior citizen” as a person above the age of seventy (70) years. This is ten years more than the United Nations definition, and twenty years above the World Health Organisation (WHO) working definition for Africa. It also conflicts with the country’s general retirement age of sixty and life expectancy of 55 years.
A terrible place to age
Nigeria, according to the Global Agewatch 2014 Rankings, is the twelfth worst country in the world to be an old person. The ranking arrived at that conclusion using four major indices: income security, on which the country is the seventh worst performing; health status; capability; and enabling environment.
The problems facing senior citizens in Nigeria are numerous, but chief among them is the difficulty in getting their entitlements, after years of service, at a time they are no longer able to fend adequately for themselves. Not only does the pension scheme cover a small percentage (7.4 million) of Nigeria’s labour force — a far cry from the Pension Commission’s vision of having 20 million contributors by 2019 — it is riddled with defects despite legal reforms.
In August, retirees of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) cried to the federal government to pay them 15 months worth of gratuity and pension arrears. They are dying of hunger, unable to pay medical bills and have literally turned to beggars, they lamented at a press conference in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
They had tried lobbying, written series of letters, and had no option left but to resort to placards. But their story is not unique. Across the country are similar stories of old men and women travelling numerous kilometres for verification, lining up under the sun, and dying on the same line, all in a hope to get what is rightfully theirs.
No fewer than 900 pensioners of the defunct Nigerian Airways have died while awaiting their terminal benefits, according to Sam Ezene, chairman of Nigerian Airways’ branch of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners (NUP).
The Contributory Pension Scheme introduced in 2004 to increase efficiency in the national pension scheme has fallen short of expectations, as the Pension Commission (Pencom), Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs) and the federal government have been discovered to breach their ends of the bargain.
A retiree, who left the service in 2017 as a deputy director at the River Basin Development Authorities, told NAN in May that the delay in paying her gratuity and pensions has brought her great hardship.
“We are hoping against hope that our PFA will soon invite us to come and collect our money,” she said.
“It has been extremely difficult to make ends meet with some of the children still in school, feeding and other expenses. The contributory pension scheme is to ensure that a month after disengagement or retirement, a staff should be paid like in the private sector, but it is not so.
“It appears that we are back to the old pension scheme where people who have retired died without getting their money after 35 years in active service.
Older citizens in Nigeria also have very little specialist care needed in their later years. Homes for the elderly are a scarce sight, and there are only a handful specialist geriatric centres in the country. The National Hospital in Abuja, in fact, has only one geriatrician: Ogugua Osi-Ogbu.
Hopefully, when the National Senior Citizens Centre Act is fully implemented by the federal government, the bulk of these problems will be a thing of the past as challenges facing older citizens finally take centre-stage in policy-making.