Who will Rescue Imo Pensioners?
If the words of Eme Zelinzki, a famous writer on pensions and retirements are anything to go by, “Senior citizens” who served the Imo State government may be far from one of his famous sayings that “Retirement is supposed to be the great escape from the stresses inherent in most jobs, a time to experience a fulfilling life derived from many enjoyable and rewarding activities”
For retirees who passed through state government offices in Imo State it has been a squalid affair considering the fairy tale trailing their experiences in the hands of those in charge of rewarding them after service. The pensioners have undergone several battles culminating in their court victory, before the present administration succumbed and agreed to pay without the controversial 40% cut.
Few days ago, news has it that the leader of Imo pensioners, Comrade Gideon Ezeji died reportedly out of hunger and starvation after claims of inability to cash three months pay as a result of “bounced” cheques advanced to him weeks ago by the state government.
A malfunction in the pensioners’ system in the state commenced when the present regime came into power in 2011 by paying lip service to payment of gratuities and allowances. The government later introduced a rather obnoxious pattern of payment by dragging the pensioners to their various autonomous communities for verification under an odious Community Government Council, CGC; a policy that merited strong dislike from the retirees. In a bid to bring into relevance the faded CGC, the state government compelled the state pensioners to the whims and caprices of CGC officials for verification.
The pensioners faced untold hardship ranging from an ill-informed officials who infested the exercise with partisan proclivity to logistics problems of accessing the rural areas, especially for those residing in urban areas or outside their locality.
After undergoing the processes for clearance, the pensioners got another mind blogging offer they never envisaged; a 60% pay of their allowances.
The extremely unpleasant gesture from the Imo State government sparked off a season of protests from the retirees who turned Government House, Owerri Gate into a “wailing” spot. The deep sorrow expressed by the pensioners over the 40% cut attracted public sympathy for them which forced lawyers to take their case pro buno at the Industrial Court, in Owerri.
The Okorocha government was forced to make a volte face about the 60% payment often the court declared null and void the action of Okorocha which it said was unconstitutional and unheard off. The governor while adducing reasons for the pay- cut, sighted the economic depression and reduction of monetary fortunes into the coffers of the state. The reasons didn’t go down well with the retirees who were poised for a showdown with the governor.
The decision to offset the accumulated pension arrears gained attention in the public with the media unit celebrating the event as if it was not part of the governor’s constitutional obligation to pay workers and pensioners their entitlements promptly.
Four months after the promise to wipe the tears of the pensioners, sorrow and anguish is still written on the faces of the retirees. From chants of underpayment to bounced cheques, they are still within the enclave of penury. A bleak Christmas is already a stark reality for the pensioners with those unable to sustain the tempo going to the world beyond. The latest in the theatre of absurdities rocking the issue of pension payment is another version connected to bounce cheques. Despite the intrigues ravaging the exercise where the governor alleged that part of shenanigans that affected the payment was the reported illicit acts of fraudsters who defrauded the monies meant for pensions to about N800m, clearance for cheques issued is a story for another day.
Till date no one is in the custody of police or anti graft bodies shedding more light on the reported pension scam in Imo State government. Perhaps it is a ruse to divert the attention of the public over government inadequacies of meeting with the demand of the pensioners. Further developments concerning the reported pension fraud have turned to similar cases witnessed at the national level like the foreign monies found at the Ikoyi Apartment in Lagos and Kaduna airport, where details of the investigation have been swept under the carpet.
The issue of bounced cheque is the new demon the pensioners are facing. It would be recalled that when the state government came up with the decision to slash the monies due to the pensioners, some of the lily-levered retirees who it is suspected to have out of hunger, agreed to buy into the government arrangement endorsed the 60% payment are yet to receive any monies for 2017 after the first instalment. As part of the reasons advanced by the Okorocha administration for the cut-pay agreement, the state governor told pensioners that the approach is to ensure that monthly payment becomes regular and effective.
Despite the agreement, those who agreed to the 40% allowance give away are yet to experience monthly payment as promised earlier by the governor.
Another key point indicating that the pensioners need a real rescuer this time has emerged as the state government has reneged on its promises of regular payment after the Industrial Court Case Judgment. One can recall that during a meeting with the state retirees, in July, Okorocha promised to clear the arrears of the first three months within one week and then the next three months in the other week. Four months after, the pensioners are still in pitiable mood because those who managed to get the cheques for the first three months of 2017 are yet to cash their monies due to cases of bounced cheques. Reports also have it that banks now abhor pensioners cheques issued by the Imo State government because of associated cases of “no money” in government accounts to fund the payment. Since it became difficult to cash the cheques of the promised first three months Okorocha promised to pay since July, discussing about the remaining three months that was expected to have terminated in June 2017 has become a nullity.
Ironically, since July 2007, the Okorocha government made concrete efforts to pay, the State government can be said to have adopted time wasting tactics which in most cases see some of the beneficiaries die before they receive the cheques. Unlike in the past where it takes about two or three days to clear all the cases retirees from all parts of the state, it now takes more than a month for each of the 27 LGAs observe two to three days to complete verification exercise.
As at the time of my write up, all the potential pensioners from the 27 LGAs in the state are yet to be completely verified fuelling speculations that it is a deliberate ploy on the parts of government to mesmerize the retirees. The one month long birthday event of the governor was also employed to slow-pace the verification exercise. During the celebration of the 55th birthday of Okorocha, there were no verification exercises even as unskilled persons and non career civil servants were involved in the checks and issuing of cheques at the IICC complex, Owerri. Their involvement was said to have made the exercise cumbersome for the retirees and worsened their woes.
A very striking feature of the exercise is that after each verification where the pensioners undergo excruciating processes, news of deaths of the retirees are recorded immediately. An example is the death of the pensioners who have joined other fallen “heroes” without a taste of the money he led others to fights for.
Another disturbing aspect of the pensioners’ plight is the unclear number of months and amounts each are entitled to. While some claim 34 months, others are entitled to 24 months unpaid allowances whereas government insists it has cleared all arrears. There are strong feelings that the action of the state governor is in contrast to the court judgment where it knocked off the unilateral decision of Okorocha to declare the months and amounts it would pay.
For now, the pensioners are in limbo seeking for a real Rescuer other than the Rescue Mission government in Imo State. While many are yet to be verified to be entitled to cheques, those with cheques can’t get cash. Unconfirmed stories have it that government wrote to its bankers urging it not to honour the pensioners’ cheques until an approval is given to “treat”. The action has seen a special basket stationed at major banks in the state where cheques of Imo pensioners are deposited.
Those who do not operate accounts in a major old generation bank are worse hit. Sources state that when they take the cheques to their banks they operate, the banks are expected to transact the cheque with the old generation bank (name withheld). But the reverse is the case as the cheques are dumped without adequate attention given to it for cash payment.
With death taking a toll on the number of pensioners as well as the fast approaching yuletide and festive season where they are expected to use money, a redeemer should be available to save the retirees from death and more hardship. The issue of pension payment and workers salaries are of immense concern to the people of the state when reports have it that the state government since 2015 the Buhari regime came on board has received bail-out funds to cater for workers and meaningful Paris Fund meant for people of the state.
I will drop by leaving the Imo State retirees with this Olivia Greenwich sermon in her “practical Guide for Happy Retirement book which posits that “as one embarks on the exciting journey into retirement, you will experience a transition that will be trilling and terrifying” the experience with Rescue Mission is part of the “terrifying experience” until a real rescuer comes.