[Pension series] Abia retirees battle poverty over non-payment of pension, gratuity

Retirees in Abia state have been left to live in penury and squalor after giving their best years in service to the people and the state government. In this report, VINCENT UFUOMA chronicles their poor and harrowing conditions.


WHEN Dickson Onyemeta retired as a level 6 officer from the Abia State civil service in the Ministry of Agriculture in 2006, his plan was to set up a commercial poultry farm with the hope that gains from the farm would be used to take care of himself and his family of seven children.

However, when The ICIR spoke to him on January 2023, Onyemeta said he could only boast of 12 birds he keeps in a cage.

The 70-year-old man blamed the refusal of the state government to pay his then N460,000 gratuity for his inability to set up the farm.

Dickson Onyemeta/PC: ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma

In addition to the irregular payment of his N18,000 monthly pension, the elderly man said feeding and catering for his family had become a nightmare he had never anticipated when he left the service of the state in 2006.

“Look at me; I am a family man who still has children to train even at 70 because I married very late. But I cannot discharge my responsibility as a father due to financial hardship,” he said disappointedly.


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“I left the state civil service in 2006 to leverage my experience in the Ministry of Agriculture to set up a commercial poultry farm that would take care of my needs and my immediate family.

“But my dream was shattered due to the refusal of the state government to pay me my gratuity. My gratuity, which was N400,000, was a huge amount of money when I retired more than 15 years ago. All I have right now is a memory of disappointment.”

“We are suffering!” he exclaimed, while adding that “retirees are suffering, Abia State government is not treating us well.”

He said he now depends on the goodwill of extended family and friends to feed at least once daily.

When asked how he treats his chronic arthritis, Onyemeta said he relies on prayers.

“I believe in prayers. I attend a white garment church, and I believe God will heal me,” he answered.

Like Onyemeta, many retirees interviewed by The ICIR in Abia state share testimonies of disappointments, despairs, hopelessness and anger they have all gone through, especially in the past seven years, in the face of withheld gratuities and irregular pensions payment spanning more than 40 months.

A copy of the state civil service rules sighted by The ICIR entitles workers who have served the state meritoriously for more than 15 years to gratuities and pensions upon retirement.

It reads in part, “Officers who have served for 15 years will be eligible to draw a gratuity of 100 per cent, and an annual pension of 30 per cent of the terminal salary. Thereafter gratuity will be calculated on a graduated scale up to 300 per cent of terminal salary after 35 years.

“Similarly, pension benefits will follow a graduated scale subject to a maximum of 70 per cent of terminal salary after 35 years of service.”

However, findings by The ICIR show that the state has not kept faith with its retired civil servants. The last gratuity was paid in 2002 by the then administration of Orji Uzor Kalu, who is now the Chief Whip of the Senate.

Gratuity by connection

The ICIR met Nwaeze Nnaji, who said his gratuity, which was close to a million naira, was paid in 2006 because of his privileged relationship with Theodore Ahamefule Orji, the then Chief of Staff to Kalu.

He retired from the service of the state in 2003. He said that many of his colleagues who retired alongside him but had no access to higher government officials like him have been unable to access their gratuities until now.

Nwaeze Nnaji/PC: ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma

“I retired in 2003, but my gratuity was paid in 2006 after a series of struggles and intervention by TA Orji, who was then Chief of Staff. He gave me a letter to the former Abia State Accountant-General, who in turn effected the payment of my gratuity.”

His only concern now is the irregular payment of his monthly pension. Nnaji, who used to be a Garri trader shortly after retirement but has now stopped due to the downturn in the trade, lamented the pains of feeding himself, his wife and his daughter, a university graduate who has not been able to secure a job.

Unlike Nnaji, Okorie Benedict, a retired secondary school principal, was not lucky to get his gratuity of more than N2 million despite making an arrangement to give 10 per cent of the money to an individual he refused to mention in the state finance ministry.

The 72-year-old said to access one’s gratuity, you have to be well-connected to individuals in the corridors of power with an agreement to share the proceeds of the benefits when the money gets paid.

“I retired in 2012 as a school principal from Umuagbai Secondary School in Aba Local Government Area. I knew the struggles retirees were going through to access their gratuities and pensions in the state before I retired. My gratuity was more than 2 million Naira,” he said.

“When I left the service, I had an arrangement with someone at the state Ministry of Finance that I would give him 10 per cent of my gratuity if he could help to process it for payment, but that person could not come through for me.

“To get your gratuity in this state, you have to know someone that knows another person, with an agreement to part with a certain percentage of your money.”

Okorie Benedict/PC: ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma

Benedict said that life would have been miserable for him but for his wife, who worked and retired in a Federal Government establishment also, as a secondary school teacher.

***

Before 2004, Nigeria had a Defined Benefit Pension Scheme (DBPS) that determined the amount of pension an individual would receive upon retirement based on their years of service and rank. Despite being a widely used system, it suffered from several drawbacks. Firstly, it was not funded by the state governments and relied on the Pay-As-You-Go approach, which was inadequate. Additionally, the scheme was non-contributory and lacked regulation, leading to concerns about its sustainability.

To address these issues, the Pension Reform Act of 2004 was introduced, aimed at improving the overall pension system in the country. The Act was significant legislation to improve the country’s pension system.

The act introduced several key changes to the previous Defined Benefit Pension Scheme.

Firstly, it established a contributory Pension Scheme, where both employees and employers make contributions towards an individual’s pension fund. The act also established a regulatory body, the National Pension Commission (PenCom), to oversee the administration and management of pension funds.

It also introduced the concept of a multi-fund structure, where employees’ contributions are invested in a variety of assets to maximise returns and ensure the sustainability of the pension system. The act also introduced penalties for employers who fail to remit contributions and provided for establishing a Pension Protection Fund to ensure that pensions are paid even if an employer becomes insolvent.

Checks by The ICIR show that at least 25 states, including Abia, have adopted the Act in the country.

However, since the Act was adopted in 2017, the state is yet to establish a Pension Bureau; yet to register employees with PFAs; yet to commence pension contributions, and yet to conduct an Actuarial Valuation.

It is yet to open Retirement Benefits Bond Redemption Fund Account; yet to commence funding of Accrued Rights and no Group Life Insurance Policy. This information is available on the website of the National Pension Commission (PenCom).

The ICIR reached out to the Abia State Pension Commission (APCOM) for inquiries, but the Commission’s Secretary declined comments, saying it was only the officials of the state government that could speak on the matter.

The State’s Commissioner for Information, Eze Chikamnayo, requested that questions be sent to him via SMS but has not provided answers for more than four weeks since inquiries were officially sent to him.

Few years ago, in March, 2020, Pension Nigeria quoted the State’s Commissioner for Finance, Aham Uko, saying that the state government has an outstanding pension arrears of over N21 billion.

Otegbuna Ocha Chinemere retired as a teacher from the St Silas Old Umuahia Primary School, Utaegbulam, Umuahia South Local Government Area, in 2013. Since she retired, the 62-year-old, who now suffers from a stroke, said life has been very unkind to her.

Otegbuna Ocha Chinemere/PC: ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma

She complained that her monthly pension, which amounts to N75,000 monthly, only comes once in five months. Apart from the stress she had to endure doing what she referred to as fruitless verification exercises, Chimere lamented that earlier last year, the government started paying pensioners in the state half payment.

The mother of three is concerned she is overburdening her 25-year-old son with so much financial stress, whom she said should be thinking of his life.

Abandoned …

Rosemary Ikagalichi Amendu retired from the State Internal Revenue as a Level 14 Officer in 2013. The 68-year-old woman said ever since she retired, life has been very difficult for her. Amendu lamented that the non-payment of her gratuity, which she said was over N2 million, has torn her family of three children apart.

The elderly woman who said her husband abandoned her and her children more than 20 years ago and her son which she trained with a bank loan is yet to secure a job.

Amendu, who looked frail when The ICIR spoke to her in Umuahia, the state capital, accused her children of abandoning her to die since she couldn’t meet some of her obligations to them as a mother. She said she had also planned to set up petty businesses for two of her children, whom she couldn’t train in school due to lack of money.

Rosemary Ikagalichi Amendu/PC: ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma

The Roman Catholic faithful, whose monthly pension is N63,000, recalled how she would have died from a terrible accident if not for the goodwill and interventions of her Parish Reverend Father, who she said footed her hospital bills and other sundry fees. She said she still depends on the church for her upkeep as she can no longer do the menial jobs she used to do to feed herself since the accident.

“My monthly pension was N63,000 before it was cut to N30,000 as half payment. Even this amount does not come regularly. It comes once in five months,” she lamented.

Resorting to menial jobs after retirement…

Unlike some of the aged people interviewed by The ICIR, Tony Uwachukwu still has an advantage of his physical strength to do menial jobs, including digging the soil for local house builders and clearing bushes for farmers to feed his family of four children in basic primary school and a wife.

Uwachukwu retired as a driver from the state’s Ministry of Public Utilities in 2016. The level 13 officer had also hoped that his gratuity  would be paid so he could use part of it to set up a business for his young wife while he concentrates on selling building materials to support his young family, but more than five years after his retirement, his dreams is yet to come to fruition.

Tony Uwachukwu/PC: ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma

“I do menial jobs to feed my family. Although it is not always, I go to the farms for people and carry shovels at my age to dig the soil for a paltry sum of N1,500 daily,” he said.

His statutory monthly pension of N53,000, which has now been reduced to N25,000, rarely gets paid.

The 56 years old man said his only regret in life was declining to work with the Federal Government when he had the opportunity to do so.

Uwachukwu was, however, thankful that he had a personal roof over his family; if not, living would have been very hellish for him if he had to pay monthly house rent.

Chinyere, his wife, recalled several times the shame and pains she has endured each time her four children are sent home for their school fees which are less than N20,000 in a term.

“Yes, we are hoping that one day a responsible government would remember him and other retirees in the state and pay them what they are entitled to in pensions and gratuities,” she said.

“Life has not been fair and easy,” she added in a sobered voice.

Tens of retirees, including Uche Ogbonna, who just left the service of the Umahiaha South Local Government Area as a teacher in August 2021, interviewed in the state by The ICIR, all shared the same story of pains, disappointments and hunger.

Uche Ogbonna/PC: ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma

Ogbonna said although he had already prepared his mind for the kind of struggles, he would go through to access his retirement benefits when he was still in active service, the 61-year-old man major concerns when he was interviewed was how he was going to cater for the school fees of his 19-year-old son, who just got an admission to study Pharmarcy at the Abia State University.

“My first son just got admission into Abia State University. I had only struggled to raise his acceptance fee. I don’t know where to raise his school fees yet, but I will figure it out. I am a 61-year-old young man. I am still strong and I can still do menial jobs,” he said.

Sabotage, harassment, intimidation…

One of the worrisome observations The ICIR made while interviewing some of the retirees was their unwillingness to speak to journalists.

More than five families of deceased pensioners who were visited in different parts of the state chose not to comment for fear of being harassed by the government.

Instead of speaking to the media, they want God to fight for them. when asked why many accused the state government of sponsoring thugs to spy and harass them into silence.

They also accused the leadership of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners (NUP) in the state ofsi working to sabotage efforts to pressure the state government into paying their pensions and gratuities.

This has led some of the vulnerable ones among them to form a separate group under the aegis of the Concerned Abia Pensioners, which is currently being cordinated by Emeka Okezie.

Okezie, who retired in 2012 as a director of education, lamented that the state government has hijacked and infiltrated the NUP leadership, which was supposed to advocate for their rights, and that they are now being used to frustrate the plights of retirees in the state.

Okezie stated how, while participating in a protest to press in their demands to the state government in 2021, he was arrested and detained together with other members of his groups at the state police headquarters.

He said the retirees had to besiege the police station before he was released after more than 24 hours in custody.

Emeka Okezie, Coordinator of the Concerned Abia Pensioners/ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma.

He decried his members’ poor and terrible state, languishing in poverty and poor health conditions, which could have been managed if their pensions were being paid.

He lamented that the pioneer leader of the union, one Dan Amugo, had recently died due to a lack of adequate care.

Okezie noted that several entreaties made to the state government to look into the plights of pensioners in the state have fallen on deaf ears.

A cross-section of the retirees under the aegis of the Concerned Abia Pensioners/PC: ICIR’s Vincent Ufuoma

According to him, the state government owes workers across various ministries, agencies, departments and Local Governments more than 40 months of pension arrears.

“We have made frantic efforts, including street protests, to compel the government to accede to our demands but to no avail. Our members are suffering, and they have died in their numbers without receiving their pensions and gratuities.

“Last year, we buried the pioneer coordinator of this our group, who died due to lack of proper and adequate care. Some of us had to contribute from the goodwill we were getting from people to be able to burry him. His family is living in total neglect.

The state government has hijacked the NUP that is supposed to fight for us. The current leaders of the Union were handpicked by government to thwart our struggles. They don’t have meetings to discuss our welfare. No election has been conducted into the NUP for the past four years. That was why we formed the Concerned Abia Pensioners. We even made several attempts to get this group registered, but the government won’t give us clearance.”

Increasing debt profile, FG’s intervention pensioners still owed

In 2016, the federal government led by President Muhammadu Buhari provided intervention funds to 27 states nationwide to offset and pay the salary and pension arrears of their employees and pensioners due to the crisis that shook the oil market and also affected the revenues received by state governments.

During that period, Abia state, according to state’s deputy governor, Oko Chukwu, received N14.2 billion from the funds.

In addition to the funds, according to The ICIR data hub, the state government has received more than N321 billion in Federal Allocation (FAAC) between 2015 and up till the second quarter of 2022.

Info-graph showing amount of revenues generated and received by Abia State since 2015/PC: ICIR’s Data Hub

Additionally, data indicate that between 2015 and 2022, the state generated more than N107 billion in internal revenues.

Since the restoration of democracy in 1999, analysts claim that Abia state is one of the southern states that is poorly run. The state’s debt profile has more than doubled from N33.53 billion in 2015 to N70.57 billion by March 31, 2021, according to the Debt Management Office (DMO), despite its comparatively high monthly earnings from oil proceeds.

The state has continued its history of debt to its employees, notwithstanding the bailout funding and Paris Club reimbursements from the federal government totalling over N36 billion.

Allegations of corruption, embezzlement by previous administration…

In August 2021, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrested the former governor Theordore Orji  and his son, Chinedu, a speaker of the Abia State House of Assembly, on allegations of embezzlement and corruption.

Theodore Orji, former Governor of Abia State and a serving member of the Nigerian Senate.

The arrest followed a petition dated March 17, 2017, filed by a group, Fight Corruption: Save Nigeria Group.

The petitioners had accused Orji of diverting ”N383 billion revenue from the Federation Account, N55 billion Excess Crude revenue, N2.3 billion Sure-P revenue, N1.8 billion ecological funds, N10.5 billion loan, N12 billion Paris Club refund, N2 billion agricultural loan, and N55 billion ASOPADEC money while in office.”

According to the petition, the N500 million the former governor allegedly withdrew monthly was “not part of the security funds expended on the Nigerian Police, the Nigerian Army, DSS, Navy anti-Kidnapping Squad, anti-robbery Squad, purchase of Security equipment and vehicles for the security agencies.”

The petitioners also accused Orji’s son, Chinedu, of owning about 100 accounts in different banks.

They alleged that the accounts running as corporate and individual, received ”so much deposit in cash without evidence of job or services rendered.”

The EFCC spokesperson, Wilson Uwujaren, was contacted to ascertain the status of the investigation, but he did not respond to several calls for inquiries.

He has not responded to a short message service (SMS) sent to his phone at the time of filing this report.

In 2019, Orji Kalu was convicted of corruption and mismanagement of N7.65 billion public funds.

He was sentenced to a 12-year jail term by the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, about 12 years after the anti-corruption body, EFCC, first arraigned him.

Orji Kalu
Former Abia State governor Orji Uzor Kalu

However, in 2021, the Supreme Court voided Kalu’s conviction and ordered his retrial.

Review of Pension Act urgently needed, say experts

In a recent interview with The ICIR, Olatubosun Omoniyi, a Managing Consultant at Intertems Pension Consultancy Services Limited, highlighted some of the challenges facing pensioners in Nigeria.

According to Omoniyi, one of the major problems is that governments do not prioritise the payment of accrued rights and other retirement benefits.

He explained that many public sector workers did not have their pensions paid into their Retirement Savings Account (RSA) before the introduction of the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS). This means that even though they are now under the new pension scheme, they cannot access their pensions because their accrued rights have not been paid.

Omoniyi also noted that the challenges faced by pensioners in Abia State are worsened because the state has not carried out an actuarial valuation.

He also blamed the delay in pension payments on the state’s failure to compute and confirm the actual amount owed to retirees.

“For many people in the public sector, their pension before the CPS came was not paid into their Retirement Savings Account. So by the time these people retire, even though they are under the new pension scheme, they cannot access it because the accrued rights have not been paid,” Omoniyi said.






     

     

    “The main reason retirees in Abia are not able to get their pension when due is because the state, as at the time they started the new contributory system, did not compute and confirm the actual amount they are owing retirees and people about to retire up to that point,” he said.

    Omoniyi noted that funds for payment of accrued rights and pensions should be prioritised and urged governments to make pension payments first-line charge to resolve delays in the sector.

    “We need to make pension first-line charge. So that even if it is 10 kobo that comes into the country’s account, they get paid first.

    “Retirees of today were once the movers and shakers of the civil service. Those that are currently working need to support projects that ensure pensioners are being settled. They should be at the forefront of efforts ensuring that pension is paid,” he added.

    You can reach out to me on Twitter via: vincent_ufuoma

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