Editorial: Wike And Rivers State Pensioners

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As you probably must have heard, Pensioners in Rivers State have issued a 7-day ultimatum to the Nyesom Wike-led government for the payment of their retirement benefits. They have been owed since 2015 when the governor took over Bricks House as the fourth elected governor of the state since the country returned to democratic rule.

The inability of the government to pay these senior citizens their earned benefits has shown that it is not a government that cares for the masses. The government had over time betrayed its own words, more disturbingly, its promises to offset the debt it owed those senior citizens.

Over 3000 retirees usually throng the streets despite their weakening bodies and failing healths to demand that what they laboured for is returned to them. It can, therefore, be concluded that the governor enjoys seeing these older men and women sweating under the sun as they beg for what is naturally theirs.

Lucky Ati, the leader of the pensioners, told Journalists that if by Tuesday 5th November nothing is done by the state government to pay them, they would again occupy the streets.

Ati lamented that the government had released a budget of over N33 billion for pensioners. Yet, nothing has happened and noted that 4,000 retirees in the state have been suffering from different illnesses, with some even dead.

“It is our right; we are not asking anything outside our right. We entered into pensionable employment that says after 35 years of service or 60 years of age, they are going to pay us gratuity and prompt pension. Between now and Tuesday next week, if the government do not do anything, we are going back to the streets”, he stressed.

During his inauguration speech on 29th May 2019, Wike said positively that: “Our task is therefore not yet done; neither our mission in governance accomplished until we fully and comprehensively deliver on the vision of our founding fathers and the promise of statehood by building a State:

▪ where everyone will have enough for themselves and cater to the needs of their children and families with relative ease;

▪ where quality healthcare will be accessible, affordable and adequate for all citizens, whether poor or rich;

▪ where our children will get a quality education with the right skills to advance their careers and achieve their full potential;

▪ Where senior citizens will retire with security and enjoy their post-retirement in dignity, peace of mind, good health and happiness.

It is left for the governor to answer if his actions since his inauguration have not negated all these promises.

When confronted with protests by the retirees, the Wike-led government ran from pillar to post and blamed specific laws enacted in 2012 during the Rotimi Amaechi’s administration for the delay. But if the law was used to pay those who retired under Amaechi’s tenure, why has it become difficult for those who retired under him to be paid using the same law?

The law, in quote, mandates PENCOM to pay the pensioners their entitlement. Still, PENCOM has said that the state government has not been able to meet its financial obligation to the scheme and cannot pay the retirees their pension contributions until when the law that mandates it to pay both the government’s pension contribution and that of the individual pensioners is changed.

What is sad, however, is the fact that people who served the state diligently are dying due to the inability of the state to pay them their entitlements.

This attitude of government creates the impression that you need to soil your hands while in office so as to escape a horrible end as being experienced by Rivers Pensioners.

When the heat became unbearable in 2018, the executive arm of the state government sent a bill to the state house of assembly for the amendment of the law with the leadership of the house promising to speedily amend the law to ensure instant payment of their gratuities.

It also deployed the tactics of unending biometric exercises to give the pensioners the impression that the state government wants to pay them what is owed them.

They lamented that the government had recently put them on monthly pension allowance but had refused to pay the accumulated pension arrears for three years.

Mrs Iyonaba Idominabo, a pensioner (retired from state civil service) said” I retired in 2012. We have different issues in this pension payment. My problem is balance payment from 2011 to 2013 batch. Those of us that retired that time are short paid.”

“As I am standing here every month I am short paid #80,000 Naira. So if you calculate #80,000 every month from 2012 to date, that’s what Rivers state is owing me.”

Dr Chizoba Gbam said “I retired in April 2015. When you retire, and your papers are being processed, the number of years it takes the government to handle the documents is supposed to be given to you as initial payment. That’s what we call accumulated arrears or initial payments. Some of us are owed 15 months, some 30 months’ others 70,80 months, and when the governor decided he wants to pay instead of giving us that initial payment in bulk, he gave everybody one, one month and went ahead to announce that he has paid pensioners. We expected that he would pay the balance in due time but up till now, nothing.

“A good number of us have died. Most of us are facing serious challenges. I had to go to the school where my twin daughters are writing WAEC EXAMS to write an undertaking to make their school payments. With this present monthly pension allowance, I can’t meet up with such demands and still provide food and shelter for my family.”

While presenting the 2019 budget before the house of assembly on 12th December 2018, Wike said that the sum of 33,000,000,000.00 had been proposed for the settlement of pension liabilities.

“The challenge about the plight of pensioners has lingered for too long, and we are determined to tackle it this time around. Certainly, our senior citizens deserve better treatment than what they are presently getting”, he said before the world.

This was contrary to the statement by the Head of Service, Rufus Godwings who said in May 2018 that “the government was working out details of how to pay those who have not been paid.

While signing the Rivers State Pension Reform Law (No 4 of 2019) into law on 31st May 2019, the governor spoke glowingly of what they intend to achieve as he screamed to all who cared to listen that the law will help in resolving the challenges generated by the Contributory Pension Scheme.

He said that the State Government is committed to ensuring that civil servants and pensioners are catered for, with the challenges they faced wholly addressed.

So why are the senior citizens still being owed months after a budget was passed and the law amended?

The saddest part is that the pension issue is symbolic of Rivers State of today in every respect.