Lessons from the Enugu Pensions Imbroglio

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THE PUBLIC SPHERE with Chido Nwakanma

In one week, citizens and political leaders of Enugu State enacted and taught a master class in political science with significant learnings for other players in the South East and Nigeria. Enugu State moved from a House of Assembly’s retrogression seeking to pay outrageous pensions to former governors to one where the Assembly listened to public outcry and citizen activism to withdraw the bill. It was salutary.

Enugu State beat the band backwards to dance to discordant tunes from its ogene. It took the courage of one citizen and many others that stood up for the count for the people’s representatives to feel their pulse. It was red hot in anger.

Greed was the motivator for the planned upward revision of gubernatorial pensions. The bill sought to hand over to each former governor N180m annually and another N250m for vehicles every four years. It would also gift the unelected wives of the former governors N12million annually, supposedly for medical care!

Written all over this bill was an arrogant heist. We can steal state resources with the pen, and what can citizens do about it!
Similar greed was irresistible to members of the Imo State House of Assembly, who during the tenure of Owelle Rochas Anayo Okorocha also inserted themselves into the one they amended. Imo State is one of the states with the good sense to cancel the obnoxious gubernatorial pension provisions. Others include Zamfara State, Edo, and Lagos.

Citizen Ikem Okuhu earned plaudits for raising consciousness through a timely article that criticised the obnoxious plan. It went viral, particularly with citizens, groups, and communities of Enugu State on social media. The noise was deafening, the anger boiling. Citizens had good reason to feel insulted.

Enugu State owes regular pensioners over 12 months in arrears. Citizens have spent the last two months scrounging for water, with the state offering platitudes. Services are in short supply across many areas.

Amidst these, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and his allies in the State House of Assembly failed to read the tree leaves. They brought a bill that reeked of insensitivity. How could you seek to pad more benefits into controversial legislation and practice?
In an earlier intervention, I noted that outcomes in a democracy depend on what citizens put in. Where are the professional associations of Enugu State, from lawyers through journalists to doctors and academics? Citizenship means speaking up.

Citizens, individually and in associations, responded. They took up the call. Good sense prevailed, with significant salutary lessons.
The foremost is the recognition that Nigeria’s democracy demands the active involvement of citizens. There is anger in the South East with the political leadership, from the Governors’ Offices through Assembly and legislators’ houses in Abuja. Citizens express this anger mainly in the Digital Village Square of social media. It ends there. Very few ever articulate these groans and dissatisfaction as statements or petitions to the authorities. Citizens outsourced responsibility for their action to an undefined saviour or God.
Enugu reaffirmed possibilities. Citizens have a strong voice but need to assert that right regularly. The voice of citizens should sound like the roar of the gods to politicians.

To reiterate, pension for political office holders is odious for several reasons.
1. Governments and organisations pay pensions to employees for long service. It is not for service for four or at most eight years. Note that there are over-generous compensations for this short-term political office. Pension is usually for 35 years of service or the attainment of 60 years.

2. Employers fund pensions. “A pension is a fund into which a sum of money is added during an employee’s employment years and from which payments are drawn to support the person’s retirement from work in the form of periodic payments”. Common types of pensions are “defined benefits” and “defined contribution” plan.

3. Since the Pension Reform of 2014 updated in 2018, Nigeria moved from a defined to a contributory pension scheme. It means that workers and their employers contribute a minimum of 18 per cent of the worker’s remuneration to a pool of funds.

4. The political pensions still rely on the Defined Benefits model that put Nigeria in hock. They go to the pot and remove funds even as there were no contributions or provisions hitherto.

5. The courts have prevaricated on the matter, relying on technicalities.

6. The schemes are immoral. You have left a tenured office yet want to continue to earn the remuneration and benefits accruing to that office. Citizens then pay twice: to the incumbent and the ex.

7. Forty-seven former governors in 21 states cost their states N37.36billion in so-called compensations in 2017. There is no justification for paying unearned remuneration to former political officeholders.

In one of the forums to which I belong, defenders of the travesty cited pensions payment to political office holders in jurisdictions such as the US and UK. So, we examined the provisions. In both the US and UK, there are age and length-of-service requirements for post-retirement pensions for legislators.

a) The “youngest age at which a retired lawmaker can begin receiving a pension is 50.”
b) “Even for the longest-serving lawmakers,” PolitiFact says, “federal law caps pensions at 80% of full salary.”
c) In the US, Congress members are not eligible for pensions unless they have served for at least five years.
Here, a one-term governor should not receive a pension for four years of service to the state, which comes with benefits.
We need to do away with the pull-and-grab defined benefits schemes that our Governors, Deputy Governors and legislators impose on their states as pension schemes. There is no scheme, just a law that grants the officials the right to grab state resources.