opinionBy Yemi Soneye
Protests by postal retirees over unpaid benefits have forced post offices across Nigeria to close.
For the last three weeks, post offices across Nigeria have been forced to stay closed by protesting retired postal workers. Demonstrating against the non-payment or under-payment of pensions and benefits, retirees of the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) have picketed or occupied post offices nationwide leading to a suspension in much of NIPOST's operations. Some retirees are reportedly owed up to 69 months of pension arrears.
Nigeria's pension payments have been highly inefficient and encountered considerable corruption. High-level collusion and recurring payment verifications have been among the tactics used to cover authorities' tracks in stealing billions of naira of the funds allocated for pension payments.
A senate panel found that between 2005 and 2011, pension officers stole a staggering N273 billion ($1.7 billion), while in a separate ruling, it was discovered that N32.8 billion ($290 million) had been stolen from the police pension between January 2009 and June 2011.
Costs and government silence
The protesting retirees have vowed to fight the NIPOST management, which allegedly is holding on to their pensions, until their overdue pensions are paid. Tension had mounted in recent months, and after NIPOST management failed to meet an extended ultimatum for dialogue, nationwide protests began.
In the meantime, customers are resorting to private couriers, who charge higher fees. "I never knew the day will come that I will rue the absence of NIPOST", Fred Nwonwu, a science fiction writer, told Think Africa Press after paying N2000 ($13) to post a document whose postage for which he believed NIPOST would have charged N500 ($3).
But despite the fact NIPOST is losing considerable revenue daily and Nigerians are left with little choice but to use more expensive services, the federal government has not yet summoned NIPOST management, made any public statements about the closed post offices, or moved to effect payments of the pension arrears and gratuities.
This causes concerns about whether the government is aware of events in its own country, or whether the government does not regard NIPOST as a parastatal important enough to act swiftly and get the post offices operational again.
Payment system restructuring
While pension reforms that instituted the a new contributory pension scheme in 2004 have ensured more recent retirees receive their benefits in an easier and more timely manner, those who were part of the old defined benefit pension scheme - which includes the current postal protestors - has yet to be carried out.
The administrative holes that allow and facilitate the stealing of federally-allocated funds need to be plugged, and delays in payment must be eliminated. The government should also carry out periodic evaluation of pension payments under the old scheme and aggressively prosecute corrupt pension officers.
The government has to realise that there is no sense in allowing public institutions to be arbitrarily closed over non-payment of pensions which are its duty to pay in full and on time.
Yemi Soneye holds a B.Tech degree in Agricultural Economics and Extension from Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso, Nigeria. He is a poet and freelance writer.