Governor Ihedioha of Imo State has set new standards for the treatment of pensioners, writes Okwudili Ojukwu-Enendu
Whereas across Nigeria, all cultures value old age and celebrate it, officialdom apparently views it otherwise. For the greater part of the last two decades, it seemed that old age is a curse, from the prism of officialdom.
Public pensioners, who had spent their youth working for government till old age and taking abridged salaries over the period for the promise and contract of life-long pensions, have especially over this period been monumentally mistreated.
Across much of the nation, governments, both federal and state have attended to the pension contract much in breach. When civil servants currently on seat cranking the wheels of government are owed, one would be an eternal optimist to expect the retired to be paid their pensions. It is common seeing state governments owe their civil servants for over a year. Some lucky ones like in Osun State got a federal grant with which it paid 11 months arrears just before the state’s gubernatorial elections. The former government of Imo, despite being in the same party with the federal government was not that lucky.
In Imo State, civil servants were paid fractions of their salaries ranging from 40% to 70% for the greater part of the last eight years that Rochas Okorocha was in power as governor. As one can guess, that was hardly the scenario under which pensioners would be paid. Yes, pensioners were owed some 77 months of pension arrears – almost seven years of pension out of the eight years that the former governor was in power!
Like in much of Nigeria, not only were these pensioners owed, they were consistently subjected to abuse in the name of pension verification exercises. The narrative is that governments are not notified of the passage of pensioners and families keep drawing pensions for their deceased pensioners, which is an abuse of the system, for the pension is supposed to last the lifetime of pensioner and not beyond.
So, under the guise of verification, these senior citizens are often gathered at designated government offices for the physical exercise. In the light of their ages, many of these pensioners are infirmed, suffering age-related diseases which make movement difficult and expensive for them.
Across Nigeria, including Imo State, photographs of senior citizens arriving verification venues in all manner of vehicles including wheel-barrows, were common. At the venues of these exercises, no provisions are made for their comfort, and they sit on the bare ground, under the elements. Making matters worse was the fact that after these exercises, payments rarely came. That was precisely the case with Imo State under the Okorocha government.
These senior citizens have in places also suffered and endured verbal abuse. A former governor in the neighbouring Anambra State referred to them as dead wood. Okorocha didn’t verbally abuse them, at least not openly, but they would have perhaps fared better if they had been paid their 77 months arrears from a bad-mannered paymaster. Owing them this much and laughing in their faces was open mockery. That was the lot of pensioners in Imo State.
In his inaugural speech on May 29, 2019, the Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha lamented the plight of these pensioners and pledged a positive change for them. As soon as he found a place to put his table in the dishevelled Government House, Governor Ihedioha set up a committee of experts to review the issue of pensions in the state and work out a payment scheme. It was one of his first acts as the state governor, and he made his chief technical adviser, Mr P.G.U. Madu, the committee’s chairman.
The committee found out that there was no proper record on pensions in the state. There were some scattered files, and it served the former government and its head to quote different figures at different times as the monthly cost of pensions (which was never paid, anyway). For Governor Ihedioha, it was an unconscionable situation, and he ordered a speedy and permanent solution to the problem.
Working with dispatch, the committee acquired some 500 units of laptop computers and recruited an ad-hoc staff of some 1,000 youth to work on some 50,000 files and produce an electronic pension base for the state. This was done between the sixth and ninth weeks of the life of the new government.
With this basic file uploaded, the committee summoned pensioners for a verification exercise which is distinguishable from what has been seen in any other part of Nigeria.
Unlike the frequent verification exercises across the nation, this exercise in Imo State is billed as a one-time exercise that would produce a living record for the seamless payment of pensions. Never again would these senior citizens in Imo State be troubled with unending verification exercises.
After this exercise, which includes their biometric capture, their pensions would simply be paid into their personal accounts, and they would receive payment alerts on their telephones at home. Embedded in the exercise is a system that filters out pensioners that have passed on and checks abuse of the scheme. It could hardly be better for the pensioners!
Besides the lasting objective of the verification exercise, one of its outstanding features is the manner in which it is being carried out.
Unlike the widespread manner of leaving these senior citizens to sit on the bare ground and under the sun and the rain, Governor Ihedioha has set the standard of dignity with which to treat these old workers. Across all 27 local government areas of the state where the verification exercise is being carried out, seats with backrest as well as tents in places where there are no adequate halls have been provided for these pensioners for the duration of the exercise.
Recognising the health needs of the aged, each verification venue has a mobile health centre, where the basic health needs of the aged are attended to. These health centres check the blood pressure of pensioners and dispense basic drugs where needed at no cost to the pensioners!
In addition, the government ordered that these pensioners while waiting to be attended to must be given a good meal! This order has been observed right across the state. It is unprecedented!
Furthermore, the governor has ordered that pensioners, who are bed-ridden or physically incapacitated, would have their verification done right in their own homes! All that has to be done is for the relations of such pensioners to get to the relevant exercise centre and give details of such pensioners including contact details. Then the officials would call, agree on date and time and get to the homes to do the verification. The caring welfare state has come to Imo.
To cap it all, the governor has promised that pension payment would start as soon as the data entry and verification is finished. So, these retired workers would soon start getting payment alerts for their pensions, and it would be a continuous thing.
The Ihedioha philosophy is that being a pensioner is not a crime, and the Igbo reverence for old age must be reflected in officialdom. It is a total break from the past!
In doing these, Governor Emeka Ihedioha has started wiping off the tears that these pensioners. Old age would no longer be something to approach with trepidation in Imo State. Dates of birth may no longer be adjusted by civil servants in dread of retirement, thereby making way for the swathe of graduates that need employment in the state.
Governor Emeka Ihedioha has produced a new and pleasant template in the way that governments, state and federal, should treat their retirees. He has set new standards of best practice in this regard which is worthy of emulation and commendation.
––Ojukwu-Enendu wrote from Owerri