Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The plight of pensioners

THE sorry plight of Nigerian pensioners again came to the fore recently when a senior citizen who had worked with the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) died on his way to Abuja to receive his pension. Elder Citizen Michael Igiebor Okhokpa had been ill and so could not present himself at the Pensions Office in Abuja from his base in Benin, Edo State. His son whom he had sent with a letter of authority to receive the money on his behalf, was ignored by the officials in charge. He had to return to Benin to fetch his aged and sick father.

Sadly, the old man gave up the ghost on the way, in Kubwa, inside the vehicle conveying him to Abuja. In frustration, the son took his father's corpse to the paying officers. There was pandemonium when they arrived, as angry onlookers including other pensioners nearly caused a riot. The hitherto recalcitrant officials promptly paid the dead man's pension. Certainly, this is unbecoming of state officials. It shows how callous and insensitive the Nigerian system can oftentimes be.

Getting gratuity and pensions in Nigeria has become a nightmare for senior citizens. Often these men and women who spent their youth serving the country are compelled to make long journeys to Lagos or Abuja, or state headquarters for some officials to ascertain their continued existence. In some cases, the pensioners, where they enjoy good health, do not even have enough funds to make the trip.

In other cases, they simply arrive at the city centre, build a tent and remain there sometimes for months on end while the verification exercise lasts. The example of discharged soldiers who spent months in Lagos and Abuja some two odd years ago waiting for their entitlements, is still fresh in public memory. An attempt was finally made to pay the pensions only after the angry retired soldiers almost rebelled against the Army.

In the past, retirees were paid in their home states at zonal offices across the country. But civil servants colluding with some retirees soon began to defraud the system. Names of retirees who had long died were retained on the payment vouchers. The truth is that in the civil service, at both Federal and State levels, retirees sometimes wait for four to five years before they get their gratuity.

Some ministries are particularly notorious; they seem to derive pleasure from the helplessness of retirees. Proper records are not kept. Unscrupulous officials demand different documents from bewildered retirees. It is perhaps because of this experience that the Federal Government decided that all payments should be made centrally. The Obasanjo government also reformed the national pensions scheme, to make it private sector-driven, with the emergence of Pension Fund Administrators. It is hoped that in the long run, this will eliminate the current inefficiency seen in the payment of backlog of pensions in the public sector.

Retirement is a period workers should look forward to with hope and pleasure. After many years of hard labour, a worker is entitled to some peace and security in his old age. It is for this reason that many people once considered a career in the civil service safe and secure. But not anymore. In contemporary Nigeria, the life of an average pensioner is now insecure and generally, senior citizens are treated shabbily. Help does not come from the State either, and the future is uncertain. Not surprisingly, workers are compelled to protect themselves against future uncertainties by resorting to all kinds of sharp practices while still in active employment. Apart from changing their dates of birth at will, in order to prolong their service period, many deliberately engage in corrupt practices.

The pensions payments system, with regard to retired civil servants who are not covered by the new system introduced by the Obasanjo administration, must be reviewed. Humiliating and maltreating persons who had spent a better part of their lives serving the country is unacceptable. It is curious that the usually discourteous and mean pensions payment officers, who insist on humiliating pensioners, hardly realise that they would also end up as pensioners some day.

Except pensioners receive fair and prompt treatment, the country will unwittingly strengthen the temptation of civil servants to be corrupt. Any society that cannot treat its elderly citizens with care and respect advertises its disregard for values. Retirees should be paid their entitlements without any stress. Michael Okhokpa didn't deserve to die trying to get his pension.