Public Service retirees in Benue State are not only owed several years of their pension benefits, their gratuities also remain unpaid years into retirement. Scores of pensioners have died, and more are still dying, due to the non-payment of pension and gratuity. While there seems to be a sliver of hope with the inauguration of Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Alia as governor on May 29, 2023 , all is still not well as several years of arrears of pension and gratuity remain unpaid. Denen Achussah, in this Special Report, explores the dilemma of Benue’s Senior Citizens.
IT IS most unfair and sheer cruelty that a man will invest 35 years of dedicated service and greater percentage of his useful life into public service only to be discarded at retirement with no adequate benefits to compensate for his years of meritorious service.
Those were the words of Maimuna M. Ikwulono, Esq (Mrs.), first female chairperson of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Makurdi branch, in an address in support of a Motion Exparte moved by the Solicitor General and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Makurdi, for the committal of Iorchur Igbayue, Esq, to mother earth.
Mrs Ikwulono’s words paint a picture of pension and gratuity in the state: A quagmire. Mrs. Ikwulono, in her written address, admitted that both the Bench and the Bar have suffered lose of “well trained, competent, brilliant and highly experienced judges through early and compulsory retirements, most of whom have a lot to contribute to the development of the system and the society at large.”
The Makurdi Bar chair painted a gloomier picture of the quagmire when she stated: Often times, state counsel have been saddled with the unconscionable task of manufacturing defence that can, at most, only reduce government liabilities minimally.
Mrs. Ikwulonu said it is an open secret that retired judges have had to contend with a lot of inconveniences due to the non-payment or irregular payment of their pensions and gratuities.
Stories of misery
In order to appeal to the conscience of the political leadership of the state, pensioners had devised various strategies to attract attention to their misery. One of such tactics was they called “sleep-out protest.”
On 4th September, 2019, pensioners under the aegis of Concerned Benue Pensioners under the then leadership of Peter Kyado, began camping in front of the Benue Government House, Makurdi to push home for the payment of their arrears of pension and gratuity.
But the Ortom government remain unmoved. As a result, many retirees literally resorted to begging for food, while the health of several others degenerated. Those unable to cope with the condition died in droves.
But for God, life would have been “terrible and horrible,” Mrs. Cecilia Mbakese Jebe, told this reporter. Mrs. Jebe, who had been on oxygen for over a year, following the death of her daughter-in-law along with three of her grandchildren in a fatal road mishap in 2019, says if the state wanted to pay her gratuity it would have been at the time she was hospitalised due to hypertension.
“I was on oxygen for one year,” she said, adding that even though she wrote to the governor telling him about her condition in hospital, “nobody responded up till today.”
Mrs. Jebe retired in 2013, after reaching 35 years in service. She has lost track of the number of “months or years” she has gone unpaid her pension, the widowed mother of four told this reporter who met her in Katsina-Ala.
Mrs Jebe, who is from Ushongo LGA, Benue North-East, said working for the state and retiring without payment of gratuity, with monthly pension not forthcoming is “not easy.” It is worse that she can’t tell if she will ever get her gratuity and pension, which is in arrears between 2013 and 2018 and 2020 and 2023. And because she is not the only pensioner in the state, what is required to offset it “is much,” she expressed fears.
“When I retired in 2013, they didn’t pay me until 2019 when they started my monthly payment. So, I don’t know what happened between 2013 and 2018,” Mrs. Jebe said, revealing that apart from 2019, when former Governor Samuel Ortom commenced her payment, “pension was coming like once a year till the former governor left office in May this year. It’s not regular. So, it’s when I get alert that I know that this is the month for which I am paid.”
For Hehe Priscilla Udoon Kurugh, who retired from service in 2014, pensioners have suffered a lot. “We’ve suffered. If not for my children, I would have carried plates to go around begging. Some people do it because some collect N800, some, N500. Judge, what would N800, N500, N1000 get from the market? We’ve suffered!”
This reporter met Mrs. Kurugh, a retired widow in the lobby of her house in Makurdi. She was a cook at the Government House, Makurdi. Despite cooking for governors of the state, one would assume that it won’t be difficult for her to get her gratuity. But that is not the case as her pension and other retirement benefits are in arrears for years now.
“The situation has drastically improved as this man of God has come to save us. Since he came, he had paid us two months and this last month; that is three months, just like that. Every 25th, I said ehn? Is it me like this, getting money in the bank? I thank God. And I thank that little boy for helping us out,” she said.
As if Mr Aleichenu Thomas Adagba, 62, knew that he will not live to be paid his gratuity or pension before his demise, and that his son, who is studying Medicine at the University of Abuja, will be forced to leave school upon his demise on account of fees, he sold his only car and paid his son’s fees upfront.
Adagba, unfortunately, died on December 4, 2022 reportedly from diabetes. Perpetually dependent on diabetic drugs and regular check-ups, coupled with pressures of school fees for his children and family survival, Adagba became very weary as a result of his unpaid pension and gratuity.
This heavy burden from his health and family existential challenges; his widow, Mrs Mercy Adagba, managed to tell this reporter during her husband’s funeral in Ugboju, Otukpo LGA in January 2023, eventually became too much for him to bear.
Adagba did not live to see a dime from his gratuity. Neither has his family been paid even until now.
As this reporter joined his relatives at Ogboju during his internment mid-January 2023, amidst tears and wailings, there were stories told of him by his colleague senior citizens that he was hardworking and a good man. They lamented how he did not live to enjoy his retirement and the fruits of his labour.
His first son, Godwin, now a 500 Level medical student at the University of Abuja, told this reporter that “it’s not a good experience.” Godwin, however, strongly believes that God will see the family through in all their “endeavours.”
Egbodo S. Agana, 63, retired in 2018. He is owed 53 months of pension arrears. I met him in Oju, where he had retired to. Having “been depressed, stressed and distressed,” Egbodo can’t help but “regret” having taken up civil service job. He is a retired Director of Information in the local government service of Benue State.
At his age, when he should be enjoying the fruits of his labour, Agana says he has other things to worry about that bother on “economic, social, cultural and religious responsibility in the absence of finances.”
He was emphatic that he won’t encourage his children to pursue a career in the civil service having suffered depression in his retirement “as if serving the nation meritoriously was a crime.”
It’s not fine with me – NUP chairperson
With the state of pensions and gratuity, Comrade Michael Vembe, the chairman of the Benue State chapter of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners (NUP), says it’s not “fine with” him because getting drugs to keep his health condition “is difficult. There is also the challenge of feeding, school needs of children and their medication, the needs of relatives and meeting social obligations.”
Vembe told this reporter that he is been owed “96 months” in pension arrears. According to him, there are numerous pensioners that are owed more months in pension arrears, depending on when one retired from service. For instance, those that retired in 2010, he said.
The NUP chairperson, who retired on 3rd October, 2012. However, his gratuity, which is still in arrears is being paid “in bits.” He said he gets paid one hundred thousand naira (N100,000) whenever “they pay”, and that he had been paid N100,000 of his gratuity five times since his retirement, leaving unpaid the bulk of it.
According to Vembe, the Benue State Pension Commission, is yet to get money so pensioners could start drawing. He thinks if pensions are paid, life after retirement will be “very sweet.”
Vembe however “believe that” indices are pointing to a paradigm shift, given the governor’s campaign promise to pay pensioners their due and his disposition.
Death in droves
Chris Akombu, who recently retired from service, said pensioners and civil servants died massively from 2015 to 2023 as a result of insecurity and non-payment of pensions, gratuities and salaries.
“It became the trademark of the last administration in Benue State,” he stated, adding: “It was one of the reasons that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was rejected. The irony is that the state keeps receiving billions in monthly allocation, including Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). The money seems to be going down the drain, given the poor history of capital projects in the state.”
“There is no joy,” Nyitamen Michael Shiwua, retired headteacher, who lost his two sons to bandits’ attack on his village told this reporter. He said his two sons that would have been taking care of him were killed, leaving behind their wives and children.
The Makurdi NBA chair earlier mentioned says it’s it is apt to appeal to the new administration in the state to expedite action in addressing the pensions and gratuities of retired civil servants it inherited in the state. She explains that the bulk of the cases pending before the National Industrial Court, Makurdi are pension and gratuity related that are “hardly defendable.”
Huge revenue earnings
Notwithstanding huge amount of federal government’s bailouts, loans and IGR, running into hundreds of billions of naira, successive governors of the Nigeria’s Food Basket State, have done little in response to protest to clearing the backlog of arrears of salaries and pensions.
For instance, in 2015, the Justice Kpojime Commission of Inquiry found that the government of former Governor Gabriel Suswam earned one trillion, twenty-one billion, nine hundred and thirty-one million, forty-three thousand, one hundred and sixty-three naira, sixty-three kobo (N1,021,931,043,163.63) only, from all sources.
The report says the amount earned was higher than eight hundred and two billion, forty-four million, seven hundred and thirty-five thousand, three hundred and thirty-six naira (N802,044,735,336) only approved estimates for the same period (eight years).
In other words, two hundred and nineteen billion, eight hundred and eighty-six million, three hundred and seven thousand, eight hundred and twenty-seven naira, sixty-three kobo (N219,886,307,827.63) was not appropriated). The 219,886,307,827.63, which was not appropriated would have paid dozens of months of pension, critics say.
Where did the money go?
The report recommended, among others, that former Governor Gabriel Suswam and 52 others should refund N107b to the state government. Suswam reportedly left five months of unpaid pensions.
In 2012, Senator George Akume, also a former governor, but then a serving senator and now the serving Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), and Suswam traded blames over the cumulative pension debt owed pensioners in the state. Suswam succeeded Akume as governor on May 29, 2007.
Suswam blamed Akume for leaving behind a debt profile of about eight billion naira (N8,000,000,000) in pension and gratuity.
Mike Iordye, a former Benue State Head of Service (HOS), who served in both the Akume and Suswam’s administrations, who testified on oath before a committee constituted at that time, disclosed that the state was owing pensioners eight billion naira, which he said, was a carry-over from the previous administration in the state led by Akume.
Meanwhile, in his handover speech on 28th May, 2023, former governor Ortom said earnings by his government from all income sources such as Value Added Tax (VAT), Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), other Federal Allocation Account Committee (FAAC) incomes including grants, refunds, and loans stood at N734.96bn as at 30th April, 2023.
He however put the total indebtedness of the Benue State Government at the time of his exit from office at N187.56bn, inclusive of salaries and pension arrears, loans and bonds as well as outstanding contractual obligations.
Pension for ex-governors, deputy governors
Meanwhile, few days to the end of his second term, former Governor Ortom signed into law the Benue Governor’s Pension Bill in the face of continued non-payment of pension and gratuity, with critics describing the law as a “scam.” The law is retroactively expected to take effect from 1999 so that it will cover former governors and their deputies, like Sen. Akume and the late Ogiri Ajene, Sen. Gabriel Suswam and Chief Steven Lawani, Ortom and Engr. Benson Abounu.
All the expenses in the law can be “monetised or cashed out,” according to rights lawyer, Terhemen Oscar Aorabee, even as the former governors are entitled to two vacations abroad annually and the former deputy governors to one vacation abroad annually. The law stipulates that this huge expenditure is to be charged on the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the State, meaning that they are on first line charge and are to take priority against other expenses like workers’ salaries, pensions and gratuity and other social responsibilities of the state, Aorabee explained.
There are other perks the law provides for the former governors and their deputies while the so-called senior citizens, who have spent 35 years or 60 years of age, depending on which came first, serving their state.
When contacted, the chairman, Benue State Pension Commission, Terna Ahua, would prefer to speak on the subject only after briefings with the governor, under who he said pensioners are having a breather.
Chief Press Secretary (CPS) to the Governor, Tersoo Kula, recently said in a statement that “under Alia’s stewardship, the spectre of unpaid salaries and pension arrears has been exorcised. He said like clockwork, workers and pensioners alike have been granted a reprieve, receiving their dues punctually from 25th of every month.
“This timely financial sustenance is not just a gesture of responsiveness but a lifeline that ensures that the wheels of daily life continue to turn smoothly for countless families and economic boost of the state,” Kula stated.
But as he praised Governor Alia, Kula failed to speak on when the workers and pensioners, both the living and the dead, would heave a sigh of relief on his promise to liquidate all arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuities the governor inherited.
But like Mrs Jebe asked, would the governor be able to clear the backlog of arrears of pension and gratuity? On this, time shall tell!
This report by National Record is supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development, Inclusivity and Accountability project (CMEDIA) with funding support from the MacArthur Foundation.