Friday, January 6, 2017

Gov Okorocha’s Rough Treatment Of Pensioners

By Clement Udegbe

The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they becomeJohann Wolfang Von Goethe.

If someone told Imo pensioners sometime in 2009, that one day, they would be pushed to the wall, and then made to forfeit part of their entitlements, they would say it was unthinkable. But that is exactly what they have been confronted with as we rolled on with the Change Agenda in the state.
*Gov Rochas Okorocha of Imo State
Yes, they wanted Change, but they have got chains as lamented by one of them last October. Since 1999, when this Nigerian new democratic experience started Imo, pensioners were paid their entitlements monthly without any hick ups, till May 2015, when government began to owe them, pension arrears started to build up, and by December 2016, most pensioners were owed 19 months arrears because some money was paid in August 2016. Some were owed for more than 20 months.

By mid last year, government started their dribbling, which we call mago-mago treatment of these retirees. First, without any consultations, or discussions with the pensioners concerned, they reduced the length of time of claim of each pensioner, and announced that those owed for 19 months would be paid only for 11 months, while those owed for 20 months and above would be paid for 12 months.

Government accepted to pay full entitlements to only those who retired at salary grade levels 1-7, the junior cadres. Second, after gauging the body language of these helpless, senior citizens, the state government considered it appropriate to hit the elders below the belt, by taking away a substantial proportion of their entitlements disingenuously.

They came out with a letter of set off addressed to the Accountant General of the state, a sample verbiage of which is reproduced here for understanding:

“I,… a pensioner, having retired on a salary grade level…from… with monthly pension of N85, 204.80; Being owed arrears of pension for 11 months which amounts to N937,252.80 do hereby accept, to collect 40% of the said arrears which amounts to N374,901.12 which represents the total accumulated arrears due to me up to December 2016, as full and final settlement of all other claims of which I am entitled to make against the State Government in respect of the said accumulated Pension Arrears. I voluntarily accept this payment due to economic situation in the country presently. I do hereby release and discharge the Imo State Government and his agents from all past, present, and future liability and from all actions and demands in respect of the said accumulated Pension Arrears.”

The pensioner would sign, thumbprint, and have his Traditional Ruler to sign as his witness, to the set off letter containing his bank details, and stating the name of his SDC Ward Coordinator, an APC creation. After owing them for 19 months, and more for some, many would have died in their thousands and now, those of them who refused to die, must forfeit a good portion of their claims or entitlements as a punishment.
Government came up with this letter of set off and foisted it on the hapless, helpless retirees, without any form of consultation, negotiation, or discussion. A pensioner from Isu Njaba Local Government Area, lamented that whenever Chief Okorocha talked with them, they looked like school children before his eyes. They reduced his own from 19 months to 11 months, thereby taking away over 42 % of his total period, and now with this set off of another 60 % of value, something must be wrong with how this government saw and treated them.

 According to him, a pensioner from the same area who indicated the outstanding sum he is owed after the set off, did not find his name on the list of those to be paid, because of the obvious implications. The very unfortunate aspect of the situation is that some of those pushed to the wall, tired, old persons, with no means of living, elders on the brinks, signed the letter to collect the money. After all, it is better to get part of the money, and use it for drugs than to die waiting. But many will collect this money, use it up as quickly as it has come, relapse into uncertainty and eventually die much more miserably.

Pension is a constitutional right of the retired worker, it is neither a privilege, nor a capital accumulation venture or plan, it is to guaranty certainty of steady and regular income for the pensioner. Yet Imo government is using APC community Secretaries to stampede these elders into signing the letter, some of those who signed have their cheques ready for collection. What a way to send people to early graves, and they are happy going there, what wickedness!

The Federal Government we understand released over N60 Billion to Imo State some time last year for the payment of pension arrears, but Imo government in its wisdom, has converted the good gesture of the Federal government to another game entirely. Why lure these elders into this deadly set off trap, when government can pay the much they will, and owe the rest, after all government is a continuum, and Government House Owerri, will remain after Chief Okorocha vacates it in 2019. One way to manage the situation is through the strong intervention of the church.

The church will continue to stand up for the right thing even in this situation. Fortunately, Imo is a majorly Christian state, and the Catholic Church has tremendous controlling position and influence. The church led by the Catholic Church, should not afford to look the other way, while these pensioners are dragged into a very precarious situation with this letter of set off.

I remember the role played by the Catholic Church in the rejection of Chief Ohakim, which paved the way for Chief Okorocha to come in as Governor. The church as a whole, is expected to rise forthrightly and keep the pressure on the Imo Government to review this ugly policy without further ado. A society that treats her elders shabbily will regret it.

*Clement Udegbe, a lawyer wrote from ceeaai@yahoo.com, Lagos.

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