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Advocates of retirement age extension afraid of retirees’ plights – Ekiti pensioners’ chair

joel akinola

The Chairman, Nigeria Union of Pensioners, Ekiti State, Joel Akinola, tells ABIODUN NEJO about the plight of retirees, what government can do differently to help pensioners and his thoughts on the demand for retirement age elongation for some civil servants

What is your assessment of how the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has treated pensioners in his near-eight years in office?

Pensioners are people who should be well taken care of because they are in their old age. To a large extent, the present Federal Government has been fair to federal pensioners; workers who retired from federal service. The payment of their pensions and gratuities has been very regular and government has been very considerate on the aspect of increase in their pensions. Look at the last increase in minimum wage, federal pensioners had their pensions adjusted. They were also paid the arrears when minimum wage implementation began. The Federal Government has been very fair, kind and sympathetic to the cause of pensioners. Also, the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate put up a very good arrangement such that federal pensioners do not have to go to Abuja for verification. PTAD decentralised it and you can even verify it yourself. They have made life easy for our colleagues at the federal level. However, from the general look of things, life is a bit tough, particularly in terms of cost of living and well-being and pensioners have not been finding it easy. There is no different market, filling stations, banks, hospitals for pensioners. Look at the pump price of fuel, there was a time it sold for about N500 per litre in some places. How will a pensioner earning as little as N50,000 a month survive that? You may not have a car, but you will have to go by public transport. You may need to buy drugs, and things are generally costly. It is out of the meagre pension that we pay for these costly drugs. Pensioners are not enjoying health insurance, so if you go to the hospital, which comes with our age, you pay through the nose for medical care. So, even though the Federal Government is trying in terms of pensions, the socio-economic situation is taking the money away and pensioners are made poorer and sad because of the harsh situation of life.

If the Federal Government has done well, how have the states treated pensioners?

Absolutely no! Pensioners in almost all the states are not having it good. They are treated as people they can do away with; as people without power and electoral value; and as people who cannot strike. They see us as having no effect on them. If we can have one or two governors who are fair to pensioners, maybe it is out of sheer sympathy or good upbringing, but generally, pensioners are not being treated well by state governments all over the country.

What do you think is responsible for that?

Just look at the rate at which pensioners are agitating all over the country. Even the oil-bearing states that we feel are rich are treating pensioners worse, with several months of unpaid gratuities, unpaid pensions and are not bothered about their welfare. There was even the case of some pensioners who, out of frustration, went to the governor’s office to agitate, but instead of coming out to appease them, the governor sent security officers to disperse them, leaving some of them injured. The governors are not treating us well.

Labour is seeking extension of retirement age from 60 to 65 years or from 35 years in service to 40. Do you subscribe to this?

I think why those in service are agitating to have their length of service increased or their age allowed to be 65 is because of fear of retirement. Their agitation is because they are afraid, they know what is happening at present to retirees, so they are afraid of retiring so that they will not face the problem of unpaid pensions, unpaid gratuities and neglect in the society and they will have no power to protest. So, they prefer to stay in service where they are still enjoying themselves instead of appealing to the government to make retirement worthwhile because they will retire one day. It is not staying long in service that matters; life after retirement is even more important than life in service. I will advise them to not only seek to increase their years in service, they should advise the government to take care of pensioners so that they will be happy to retire.

How do you think such extension, if granted, will affect their service delivery?

There is the law of diminishing returns. Whether you like it or not, the more you stay in service, most likely, the more your productivity will decline. Again, fresh blood will not be allowed to come into service with new ideas. You cannot tell me that graduates of 30 years ago will be as exposed as graduates of three years ago in terms of ICT and others. The longer you stay in service, the likelihood of reduction in your productivity.

Some have said that the 40 per cent peculiar allowance approved by the Federal Government for its workers is divisive. How do you view it?

The 40 per cent allowance we are talking about is still too small if you look at the current economic situation. A bag of cement now is almost N5,000. Tell me how people will be able to sustain themselves with what is paid now. The minimum wage for an average worker in Nigeria should not be less than N100,000 if you want them to live comfortably. You would know how much nursery school pupils pay per term; some pay as much as N250,000 per term. These children must go to school and you are going to sustain this through whatever you earn as a worker. In urban centres, a room could cost about N120,000 or even as much as N200,000 per annum. That excludes transportation and feeding. When you calculate all these, you discover that even N100,000 per month that I mentioned is insignificant. It can’t go anywhere. That is why things are generally bad.

Do you think that is aiding corruption?

Maybe that is why there is corruption in the system, because they want to make ends meet by looking here and there. If you want to do certain things in service, you will be looking for what you will benefit instead of doing the job very well. People want to cut corners because their pay cannot take them home. I am not justifying bad conduct, but government is giving room for such. If you are engaging somebody and you are giving them what cannot sustain them, how do you want them to survive? Whatever the government is trying to do, they should be realistic. Rather than dictating arbitrary figures, there should be an economic process by which you give people remuneration worth their labour. What is the value of what is being paid at present? What is N100,000 in Nigeria today? Whatever government is doing should not be politics. What is the average cost of living? We must be living decent lives, that is why you see most of our people travelling out of the country to where there is social security, where people are sure of tomorrow, where people are sure they will not suffer, but here if you want to access health services, you know how much it will cost you to obtain a card to see a doctor. Governments should go beyond political statements, they should focus on reality. Let us evaluate how much it will cost somebody to have decent accommodation, send children to school and have other necessities of life? All these put together should determine what should be the minimum wage which I will call living wage. Whatever the government wants to do for workers, let it be realistic.

May 29 is around the corner when the president, vice president, some governors and their deputies will leave office and many of them will draw huge sums as pensions. What is your take on the severance allowance and pensions for political office holders?

I think this issue has been generating a lot of debates and it has been taken to court. The court has ruled that it is illegal for any elected officer after serving four or eight years to be given severance allowance. This is because when they were in service, they enjoyed the perquisites of office – free accommodation, free transport, etc. But because we are in a society of immunity and impunity, you can do anything. That is why you see somebody who was there for four or eight years as a political office holder will go away with a huge severance allowance. Even when they leave, the state will build houses for them in Lagos or Abuja or any location of their choice. They even give them vehicles, domestic servants and security, whereas these people the states are pampering were allowed to cheat us, they refuse to pay pensioners who spent about 35 years serving the country. We have pensioners whose total gratuity is not more than N100,000 after serving for 35 years. The pensioners, when in service paid for their transportation, they fed themselves, lived in rented apartments and took care of their health, but these people drawing heavy severance allowance have free food, free transportation, free health services and they travel abroad at our expense to receive medical attention. If not for immunity and impunity, the rule is that each pensioner should have their pension reviewed every five years or whenever there is an increase in salary.

Are some states doing that?

None of the states is doing that. Who is taking them to court over that? Even if you take them to court and there is a court ruling that they should do it, who will arrest them? These are the problems we are facing! It is absolutely illegal, it is highly immoral and ungodly for any governor, who, has refused to take care of poor people with less than N200,000 gratuity, to leave service and go away with millions of naira as severance allowance. It is uncalled for. They have extended it to the House of Assembly speakers and their deputies, so they cannot talk. Governors are enjoying security votes and nobody can challenge them on how they spend it, apart from access to other funds. It is against moral justice for anybody to do that, particularly in Nigeria where we are crying that our economy is bad and we are heavily indebted both internally and internationally. We are seriously indebted in this country. Should we continue to be swimming in debt and be slaves to China, the United States or Europe? Are we born to be debtors? Even if we will be debtors, we must invest the money in things that are worthwhile. Unemployment rate is high nationwide, our youths are running abroad to become slaves there and our government is happy. It’s not fair.

Several states owe pensions and gratuities, how do you think this can be resolved?

I think it’s very simple if we have honest and sincere leaders who will play the game according to the rules. The gratuity we are talking about is a kind of contributory system that as soon as you are employed, you have started contributing money for your retirement. Government helps you to save this money starting from the day you resume work. It’s something that should be kept somewhere; the money should be there till when it is 35 years or when you are 60 years old, and as soon as you retire, this money will be paid to you. It is just like your savings. However, because we are in a system of impunity, they continue to spend that money and when it is time for you to retire, the money is no longer available. Government has spent it. Ideally, if government has been faithful, sincere and has been playing the game according to the rules, we should not have any problem. It was government’s failure that brought about the adoption of the Contributive Pension Scheme, such that the money will no longer be with the government. Rather, it will be with a Pension Fund Administrator, which keeps the money. Again, there is a problem; there have been instances where people under the contributory pension don’t get their money when they retire, because government failed to remit its portion with the PFA. The rule is that until the two of you complete your contributions, the PFA will not disburse the money to you and that is more difficult because they will not be receiving pension neither will they be paying gratuities. But in our case, they would be paying us pension, but the gratuities will be no more. The two of them have advantages and disadvantages.

A new government will be in place in the next few weeks. There are a lot of challenges, what do you think should be the priorities of the incoming president?

The country should be secured. There is insecurity in this country – lives and property are not safe. The President-elect, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, should tackle that immediately so that people can walk freely, people can go to the farm, they can travel, do their business and be free to worship. There must be security. The incoming government should look at people’s general welfare. Nigerians are poor; we have more or less become beggars among nations, that is why you see most Nigerians are struggling to survive, even in countries they ordinarily should not have gone to. They just want to escape. They see Nigeria as a country they should escape from whereas in the days of old, people came here to enjoy. The incoming government should look at people’s welfare. It should look at the economy, which is down. Cost of living is very high, health facilities are scarce and medical services are very poor. We should create social services, social security that is not political, empowerment that is sustainable, and create a place where somebody who is not employed can enjoy a minimum living standard. There should be jobs for our youths. Also, our education system must be addressed; it should be stable. The universities should be well funded and lecturers well motivated. A situation where our universities would be closed for eight months is killing the future of the country.

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