Old retirees in Benue state lead a life of poverty and hardship resulting from irregular payment of pensions and gratuities. IJEOMA OPARA writes about the distressing experiences of senior citizens in the state.
Edited by Ajibola AMZAT
SEVENTY-YEAR-OLD George Okopi recalls with teary eyes, the death of a son whom he lost to an illness he could not afford to treat.
Losing a son due to his inability to pay medical bills was not the reality he imagined during the pen-down ceremony at the end of his career in 2010.
After thirty-five years of working with the Otukpo Local Government in Benue state, Okopi looked forward to retirement with the assurance of stable living.
He was confident of sustaining his small family with his gratuity, which amounted to N2.7 million, and a monthly pension of N59,000.
But, twelve years later, Okopi had received only about N200,000 of his gratuity, and his pension comes three times a year on average.
In 2018, Okopi’s son, Emmanuel, got diagnosed with typhoid and malaria.
Although the cost of treating malaria and typhoid at a government-owned hospital is usually less than N50,000, according to a medical practitioner Kachi Ugochukwu, the old retiree said he was billed N130,000 for Emmanuel’s treatment.
But he could not raise the money for the treatment, and shortly after, his son died.
He wiped off tears from his face with the left hand as he narrated how Emmanuel died barely three days before his final university examinations.
“I lost one of my sons in the university because he was sick. We went to a government hospital but I didn’t have enough money to pay the bills, so we withdrew him, and he returned to school in Makurdi. He died there, three days before his final exams,” Okopi said in tears.
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In 2014, Okopi himself suffered partial stroke that left his right side paralysed.
Since he does not have the money and physical strength to raise his other children, he handed some of them over to relatives who now care for them.
Workers, like Okopi, dread retirement because of challenges associated with idleness and old age, including declining health conditions. In Benue, these fears are worsened by irregular and, in some cases, non-payment of retirement benefits by the government.
The ICIR found that local and state government retirees in Benue receive pension payments only three or four times yearly, while gratuities are rarely paid.
Okopi is one of the thousands of Benue retirees plunged into a life of penury upon retirement.
While he could hand over his children to relatives to care for, fellow retiree Abu Acheme, who also became broke after retirement, married off his daughters to save the cost of living.
Acheme said his monthly pension is N110,000, but the government doesn’t pay regularly. He confirmed to The ICIR that he was being owed arrears of four years and a month, totalling N5.4 million as of September 10, 2022.
Out of his gratuity of about N4 million, the government only paid N300,000, less than 10 per cent, since his retirement in 2012.
“The state owes me four years and one month. I served the government with the hope that I could secure a better future for my children, but I cannot. There is no joy in marrying your children out because you cannot afford to give them a good life,” he said.
Pensioners retire to farming
The ICIR investigation shows that many Benue pensioners have had a raw deal with successive governments who have failed to fulfill labour contracts with their old workforce.
Many shared stories of huge loss, depression, hardship, and frustration due to the government defaulting to pay pensions and gratuities.
For survival, the majority have taken to subsistent farming, regardless of their age, declining physical strength, and security threat on farms. One of them is sixty five-year-old Florence Adogo, who retired as a headteacher under the Otukpo Local Government in 2016.
Adogo ran out of luck in April when she was abducted and brutalised by kidnappers.
Despite paying a ransom, Adogo was shot in the hand by her captors at the point of release.
She has undergone three surgeries and will commence physiotherapy soon. But Adogo is unsure of where the additional medical fee will come from, as she has exhausted her entire savings.
“I spent about N500,000 on the treatment here in Otukpo. Now, I go to Adoka almost every week for the hand. The money I have spent there is over N400,000.”
Despite the fact that her hand is not fully healed from the gunshot injury, Adogo has returned to the farm for sustenance.
“At first, I used to criticise my colleagues who were due for retirement but didn’t want to go. I thought this was a time to rest and receive a monthly bonus. But it is not so.
“My parents are in the village suffering. I have children I should take care of, but I cannot. The only thing that helps me sometimes is the little farming that I do. Thank God it was my left hand they shot,” she said.
In 2015, Nigeria adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
SDG 10 aims to reduce inequality by 2030, especially in vulnerable populations, such as older people. One of the targets is to empower and promote social and economic inclusion, irrespective of age, sex or other status.
For Nigeria, achieving this goal by 2030 seems unlikely, as older citizens continue to deal with social and economic insecurity worsened by non-payment of pensions.
Pushed into debt at old age
When Abichele Elabo retired from the Benue state civil service in 2019, he was still owed five months’ salary arrears.
As of September 2022, Elabo said he had not received a dime as pension payment, so he took up farming like most other retirees. Yet, neither can he afford to pay his children’s school fees nor buy fertiliser to grow his crops.
“The day I retired, two of my children got admitted into the university. Up till now, they are still at home with me. Two others were to write WASCE and NECO last year. I am unable to register them. They are still at home as well.
“The fertiliser I bought for my yams this year, the owner has been pursuing me, and I have been running helter-skelter. I have not paid for it. I have been feeding through loans from local banks. How do I pay them?” he asked.
While many retirees in the state defy old age and take up farming like Adogo and Elabo, some are limited by sickness and other factors.
Septuagenarian Robert Ijoganu had already been diagnosed with glaucoma, an ailment that results in damage to the optic nerve and vision loss, before retiring as a Deputy Director of Education in 2010 under the Benue state government.
He began treatment and a monthly visit to the National Eye Centre in Kaduna. However, after a motor accident on one of such trips, which left eight passengers dead, he developed hypertension and a phobia for travelling.
Ijoganu resorted to purchasing medication from local pharmacies. The drugs are costly and get exhausted quickly. He can barely afford them because his pension of N50,000 only gets paid three times a year.
This amount is hardly enough for Ijoganu to live by. But his failing health makes it difficult to explore other means of sustenance, so he depends mainly on charity for survival.
Ijoganu gradually found himself heavily indebted to the local pharmacy stores, and he no longer could regularly procure his medication. So the condition of his eyes worsened until he became partially blind.
“These glaucoma drugs cost a lot. One costs N5,000, and it lasts for only ten days. I’m owing drug peddlers. There is one by the Open University, Mr Ugbaja. I owe him a lot. He has been very kind to me.
“Our last pension was paid for October 2019. And that money was paid this year. They do not pay more than three times in a year, and there is nothing we can do,” Ijoganu said.
Before 2004, pensions were the sole responsibility of the government under the Defined Benefits Scheme and annually budgeted for, but challenges such as inadequate funds and untimely releases marred the arrangement.
This led to the creation of the Pension Reform Act (PRA) of 2004, which established a Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) to ensure that retirees receive benefits when due.
Employers and employees were expected under the Act to contribute part of their monthly emoluments ahead of retirement to mitigate the problem of funding experienced under the old scheme.
It also established the Pension Commission (Pencom), which regulates the industry in Nigeria.
As of September 2022, 25 states have domesticated the PRA, including Benue, where the law was domesticated in 2019 and provides that the state contributes 10 per cent of monthly emoluments while the employees pay eight.
Like the PRA of 2014, Section 4 of the Benue State Pencom Law also provides that “every person who has worked in the public service of the state receives his retirement benefits as and when due.”
But Section 6 excludes workers who were retired before it was domesticated and those with less than five years in service as of 2019 when the Act was adopted.
This means until 2024, five years after domestication, workers and retirees are not covered by the Benue Pencom law.
No actuarial valuation, inconsistent remittances
Despite domesticating the Pencom law, the Benue government is yet to conduct an actuarial valuation or commence funding of accrued rights, according to the 2021 Pencom annual report.
An actuarial valuation is a critical part of implementing the CPS, which enables a smooth transition from an old system to the new one, considers the entitlements of workers before the new scheme and determines their accrued rights.
It also creates a realistic pension budget which will help with payments of pension arrears.
The report further states that Benue is among states not paying pensions under the CPS, which spells doom for future retirees in the state.
The ICIR reached out to the Benue State Pension Commission (BEPCOM) to identify other challenges hindering pension payment in the state.
The BEPCOM Chairman Terna Ahua demanded that the questions be sent through a letter. He, however, noted that the Commission had limitations regarding pension payment.
“For us, we have our limitations. We pay as soon as they give us money; we can only pay what they give us. The people who are responsible for giving money are the people you should talk to,” Ahua said.
The ICIR sent a letter to the Commission on September 11, but until the time of filing this report, there had been no response.
A letter was also sent to the Special Adviser, Bureau of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs Kenneth Achabo, through the Information Officer Ahangba Ayati, which had also not been replied to at the time of filing this report.
However, the state governor Samuel Ortom had cited lack of funds as a challenge during an exclusive interview with The ICIR in September 2022. He said securing loans had become an arduous task and a decline in internally generated revenue (IGR) made it difficult to clear the debts.
“We’ve done our best; the FG did support us to intervene in the first instance. N28 billion was given as a loan to the state, which we are paying. The balance of over N42 billion was still pending; other states friendly to the FG got it, but I did not.
“They have refused to allow me even get a loan to deplete this one, so on my own, we’ve been trying through whatever we have to pay and we’ve been able to reduce this money to about N37 billion as at today. Despite the drop in revenue, we’ve been able to keep this pace,” he said.
Alleged misappropriation trails intervention funds
Benue has received intervention funds from the Federal Government to help clear arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuities in the past.
In 2015, the federal government disbursed N338 billion as bail-out funds to 27 states across the country.
The funds were specifically meant to clear arrears of salaries, pension and gratuity, according to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, and Benue received N12.5 billion.
The state disbursed N10.8 billion, leaving a balance of N1.6 billion, according to a report by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC).
The ICPC also disclosed it was investigating a double payment of N37.7 million, which amounts to about N75 million, made to the Office of the Deputy Governor from the bail-out funds.
As of 2016, Benue state deputy governor was Benson Abounu. He is still in office to date.
The ICIR could not confirm the state of the investigations as the ICPC was yet to provide the information as of press time.
Benue also received proceeds of the Paris Club Refund, paid to the state in three tranches between 2016 and 2018 for payment of salary and pension arrears.
According to a report by the Federal Ministry of Finance, Benue received over N13.7 billion as the first tranche of the Paris Club Refund in 2016.
In July 2017, Benue Deputy Governor, Abouno confirmed receipt of the second payment of N6.4 billion.
In September 2018, Ortom confirmed that N14.9 billion, the third tranche of the Paris Club Refund, was received by the state, bringing the total to N35 billion. However, a few days later, he said N4 billion had been recalled by the Federal government from the last payment.
According to The ICIR data hub, Benue state has also received a total of N242.6 billion in Federal Allocation (FAAC) between 2017 and 2021.
The state’s IGR between 2017 and 2021 amounted to N63.8 billion.
However, Benue budgeted a total of N33.1 billion for both pensions and gratuities between 2017 and 2021.
Retirees accuse Pension Union of compromise
Many pensioners, including sixty-five-year-old Solomon Ejeh, hope that the National Union of Pensioners (NUP) in the state will mount enough pressure on the government to effect the release of their entitlements.
Ejeh, who retired as a teacher under the Gwer East Local Government in 2016, said he had received only N299,000 in two instalments out of his gratuity of N6.2 million.
But Ijoganu, along with some other retirees, alleged that officials of the state NUP do not have the interests of retirees at heart.
“The union is not a forceful union. The leaders there, they know how to bribe them. They give them their share, and they support the government. There is nothing an individual can do,” he said.
Reacting to the allegations, Benue NUP Chairman Michael Vembe said the union was in negotiations with the government, and more funds had been provided for the monthly payment of pensioners.
He said Local Government retirees would now get pension payments at least six times a year, adding that arrears left unpaid by previous administrations made things difficult for the present government.
He also said negotiations and pleading were options adopted by the union to address the challenge, as it could not be resolved through demonstrations alone.
“When I came in, some were paid just three times a year. I said, ‘no, it is bad; that should stop’. Then we had to negotiate with the governor. It’s not an issue of fighting, you beg. You create a relationship with the man. That is what I did.
“They are going to get about six months in one year instead of three. It’s my effort because I’m not at a dagger war with the governor. Some people feel we should be demonstrating daily. The man who holds the money is like somebody with a knife. You cannot force him,” he said.
While Vembe strengthens his relationship with the state governor, pensioners like James Otah contemplate suicide due to unbearable poverty.
Financial constraints caused by non-payment of gratuity and irregular pension forced sixty-four-year-old Otah into borrowing from local money lenders to sustain his large family.
“I have four undergraduates in school. I look for money from these local banks, and when it is time to pay them, they nearly kill me with frustration. Sometimes I ask myself: should I hang myself? But if I hang myself, the government will not even pay my children,” he said.
Otah, who retired in 2018, had paid several visits to the Pension Board in Makurdi over his gratuity and pension. It was during one of such visits that he realised he had arthritis.
“I remember vividly, March 15, 2021. As I alighted from the vehicle in Makurdi, I could not walk. I had arthritis. This thing consumed over N200,000. I had to go to local banks. My children are 10. Four are undergraduates, and two are expecting to go. But how do I cope?” he asked.
Frustrated, pensioners have carried out several peaceful protests within the state.
Before he emerged as NUP chairman, Vembe had led one of such protests in 2017, where he noted that a pensioner committed suicide due to frustration.
In September 2019, the retirees held another protest which lasted a week. The protesters convened at the entrance of the Benue state government house in Makurdi for seven days, but it was called off after some reassurance by the governor.
Despite having once led one of such protests, Vembe said in 2021 that the protesters were politically compromised with the intention to embarrass the state, describing the protesters as disloyal members of the NUP.
The state governor, Ortom, also reacting to some of the protests, said domesticating the pension law in the state was part of efforts to resolve pension issues in the state.
Life pension for ex-Governors
Irregular pension is a challenge experienced by pensioners nationwide. As of 2019, the Nigerian government owed pensioners across the country over N400 billion.
But while pensioners struggle for entitlements following decades of service, ex-governors and their deputies in about 20 states receive outrageous sums as pensions ranging from hundreds of millions of naira to billions after serving for a maximum of eight years.
One of the most lucrative packages is contained in the Lagos state Governor and Deputy-Governor Pensions Law.
The law was passed in 2007 by the former governor of the state, Bola Tinubu, now the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), in the forthcoming elections.
Under the law, governors and deputies are each entitled to a residential house in Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), 100 percent of their annual basic salary, furniture allowance every two years and funds for house maintenance.
They also get free medical treatment for themselves and family members, pensionable domestic staff and drivers with no limit to how many, a personal assistant each, and funds for car maintenance, utility and entertainment.
Ex-governors are entitled to three cars, two back-up cars and one pilot car for the ex-governor every three years. They also get two State Security Service (SSS) operatives for security, one female officer, and eight policemen.
The Deputy-Governors get two cars, two back-up cars and one pilot car every three years, one SSS operative and two policemen.
However, a few states, including Lagos, are making moves to repeal or amend the law based on harsh economic realities.
It is unclear what Benue state ex-governors and deputies are paid as pensions at the time of filing this report.
A major reason identified for the delay in pension payments is the non-remittance of funds by governments.
Managing Consultant, Intertems Pension Consultancy Services Limited Olatubosun Omoniyi, in an interview with The ICIR, said challenges with pension payment exist because governments do not prioritise accrued rights and other retirement benefits.
“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.
Omoniyi also noted that challenges of pensioners in Benue state are worsened by the fact that the state is yet to carry out an actuarial valuation.
“The main reason retirees in Benue 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.
While retirees in Benue battle depression, destitution and lack, the coming years show no signs of a better life for the retirees, regardless of government promises.