Friday, July 23, 2010

Unending misery of pensioners

The recent death of four Federal Civil Service pensioners while waiting to collect their terminal benefits in Lagos State once again brings to the fore the government's criminal neglect of our senior citizens.

According to the Campaign for Democratic and Workers' Rights (CDWR), the incident brought to 179 the total number of pensioners who have died in similar circumstances in recent years. One of the latest victims, who retired from the Nigerian Postal Service, NIPOST, slumped and died while protesting the non-payment of the retirees' 49-month pension arrears. The three others lost their lives during a verification exercise. What makes it so painful is that the tragedies were clearly avoidable.

Indeed, the tales of woe of most pensioners are heart-rending. And for those still alive among them, there seems to be no light at the end of the long tunnel. Recently, a NIPOST retiree wept openly on television because of his inability to pay the school fees of his children. The kids have since been forced to withdraw from their tertiary institutions. As one retired teacher lamented: "They have made things difficult for us, as if we are not citizens of this nation. I do not know if it is a crime to be old or a retiree. There is no respect for the weak in Nigeria." We share this pensioner's grief on the blatant betrayal of trust suffered by those who have served this nation meritoriously. Another retiree lashed out: "We are yet to see any former state governor or president do verification before his unwarranted and unjustified pension, gratuity or severance package was paid!" A sound, if caustic, point: indeed, herein lies the irony and injustice of it all. Those who received peanuts while in service, who had no access to pillage the national till, are denied their rightful benefits even when they retire and left in the cold.

There is no doubt that the implications of sentencing ex-employees to a retirement of hardship and wretchedness are grave for the nation. Those still in service are inadvertently made to feel that honesty, diligence and hard work do not pay. In this environment, the temptation to engage in sundry sharp practices becomes harder to resist. This has contributed in no small way to the pervasiveness of corrupt practices in today's civil service.

In a bid to avoid this pitfall the Olusegun Obasanjo administration passed the Pensions Act of 2004, with the salutary aim of helping to wipe the tears off the faces of retired workers. The concept was to make both employers and their workers contribute a percentage of the employees' monthly earnings to a Retirement Savings Account, RSA. For this also the Nigerian Pensions Commission (NPC) was established. As at August 2009, about 3.8 million civil servants across the country had signed into the new pension scheme. An estimated N1.2 trillion is said to have accumulated in pension fund accounts since then. Also, 26 pension fund administrators and seven pension fund custodians were put in place to ease the disbursement of their entitlements. But late last year, the Pension Commission raised the alarm that poor contributory culture and corruption were rearing their ugly heads in the implementation of the new scheme. As at mid-2009, only 10 states out of 36 had enacted the pensions fund law. To worsen matters, the Commission alleged that "most employers [were] deducting 7.5 percent pension contribution; yet they fail to remit same to the pension fund" - a criminal act.

Subsequently, there came a serious allegation of fraud made by the Joint Workers Association for Good Governance against a top manager of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSTIF. He was alleged to have diverted a whopping sum of N1.6 billion of the pension assets, in addition to his alleged refusal to transfer over N200 million to the Trustfund Pensions Plc.

That such allegations of monumental sleaze keep recurring while the supposed beneficiaries of the pension funds are subjected to dehumanizing bureaucratic bottlenecks, such as recurrent 'verification' exercises, leading to the preventable death of many retirees, is unacceptable. It is a cruel society that will persist in treating its elderly citizens so shabbily. We call on the Goodluck Jonathan administration to do a critical review of the implementation of the current pension system, so as to determine what constraints are frustrating its benefits to retirees. The case of pensioners who retired prior to the coming into effect of the new Pensions Act deserves special attention to ensure that old malpractices are not being perpetuated. The anti-graft bodies should take measures to expose and prosecute any criminals, however highly placed, converting the sweat innocent ex-workers into their own private gain. Furthermore, state governments that have not done so should urgently enact and enforce the new pensions law within their own domains. Above all, the process of pension disbursements should be streamlined and simplified to reduce the incidence of pensioners dying while waiting in vain.

Let the Nigerian government borrow a leaf from Chile. There the president, Michele Bachelet, signed a pensions scheme into law in 2008, intended primarily to benefit the poorest of workers. The Pension Basica Solidara covered the 45 per cent of lowest earners in 2008 and has since been reviewed to cover 60 per cent by 2011. In addition, the government paid 60,000 pesos per month to the beneficiaries that same year and upped it to 75,000 pesos per month in 2009. Currently, Chile boasts of five competent private fund managers, with assets worth $100 billion.

In the absence of any form of social security buffer here in Nigeria to cushion the misery of the aged, jobless, disabled or otherwise severely handicapped, let those Nigerians who sacrificed their productive years in service to the nation be paid their retirement benefits as and when due.

Daily Independent

Related story: Government failing to provide pension for the elderly

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