In this interview, principal general secretary of the National Union of Pensioners, NUP, Comrade Ehada Mohammed, says over 50,000 of its members are presently suffering due to unpaid benefits.
What are the peculiar challenges facing an average pensioner in Nigeria?
We must first categorise them. We have the federal pensioners, that is those who worked and were paid by the federal government. We also have the state pensioners with federal share that is those who worked under the federal government but were still employed by their states. These collect from both governments.
At the state level they do not have problem. The one they get paid from the head of service is where they have problems. Those that are purely federal pensioners have the same problems as they are paid from the same source, the Head of Service. And let me tell you because of the persistent problem that has characterised the process for many years now and the monumental corruption it has suffered, the Pension Task Force was brought into existence. They are called the Pension Reform Task Team now.
We welcomed them at the union level because we are always ready to try anything that will bring comfort to our members. They started on a good note but along the line they derailed. They deviated from their initial task. They are currently chasing shadows. Instead of working with the critical stakeholders like the NUP, they abandoned the union and have embarked on media propaganda.
Our members have been left suffering. In June 2010 when they came on board they did verification for our members. In October 2011 they undertook another verification. We have no problem with that because it is aimed at generating a seamless data of all our members. After this verification exercise done by the PRTT, the plight of our people worsened.
Why do you say so?
Those that have been receiving their pension regularly prior to the exercise had their names removed again. Their names were omitted from the payroll. The verification that was supposed to have solved problems created new ones.
Were reasons given for these omissions?
No reasons were given. They keep on asking the affected members to fill these complaint forms. Many of them come from great distances to fill such forms. Once you fill the form and turn your back that is the end. When we go to them as a union to defend this people they tell us that the affected have wrong account numbers. How can you say someone has a wrong account number that he or she has been receiving pension for over ten years? And of course they are the ones generating the account numbers from their computers there. And there have been allegations that they alter these account numbers through corrupt means so that the banks can reject the numbers and then the funds will go into private accounts. They even do this in connivance with bank officials too. At the end of the day the monies generated from these so called 'wrong accounts' are never returned to the treasury or accounted for. Many of them including a deputy director have been arrested for fraudulent activities.
What has the union done for those whose names have been expunged from the pay roll?
We still have to take it to this same authority. There is no coherent response from them. Our members now see us as not doing anything to help them. We wrote to the Senate president, the House of representative speaker and even the house committee chairman on pensions, we wrote to the minister of finance, the HOS and other stakeholders on our plight. We have not seen any positive response from these authorities.
In concise terms what are the requests of your members?
We want an effective and seamless payment of pensions, arrears and benefits. Let the present task force that has failed and fallen short of expectations be shown the way out. We want the constitution of a civilian pension board as an independent body that will handle the payment of pensions. Let another ad hoc body be set up or let it be reverted to the office of the HOS where we have professionals that can handle pensions.
These professionals have been rendered redundant. Let the pensioners through their union be given proactive role in the process of setting up bodies to manage the pension of their members. We should be part of such teams because we know our people that are scattered all over the country. We are structured. We were once given a task of conducting a verification by Oronsaye in the past which we did very well. But the results were thrown away. If they had made use of it we would not be having all these problems.
All the verification exercises conducted by the task force in the past were inconclusive. Scores of pensioners were still left un-captured. They are aware of this but have refused to do anything. And it is not due to any fault of the pensioners. The time span given them was too short. They promised to redo the exercise but they are yet to do this. They said these people are ghost pensioners. But this is not true.
How many of your members are affected?
Across the country they are over 50, 000. In Lagos alone we have over 15, 000. They are there wasting away and crying. These are genuine pensioners that are recognised by the union. If they doubt us we can provide these pensioners. Even the ghost pensioners they said they discovered we have been begging them to let us see the list but they have refused. Even the HOS does not have the list of the so called ghost pensioners.
Do you have any other grievances?
Yes the issue of death benefits is also burning. Since the inception of the task force they have not paid anyone death benefits. With all the verification done no one can claim to have been paid death benefits. The money which is supposed to have been released since 2011 for this has been withheld and the relatives and beneficiaries of our late members are yet to access this. Where is the money? They keep saying that the money is saved. But we say no. Pensioners' money are meant to be paid and not saved.