By Kingsley Omonobi
Since 2006 when Brigadier General Bitrus Kwaji assumed the mantle of leadership of the Military Pensions Board, he has had to fight many battles fromÂ fake soldiers scheming to have their names in the pensions nominal roll, but also the issue of medically boarded soldiers with all its trepidations.
HowÂ to satisfy the Biafran soldiers who were recalled due to governmentâ€™s policy of rehabilitation and the very tricky area of mass verification to fish out not only ghost pensioners but ensuring that identified areas of leakage and fraudulent practices which hitherto existed, were blocked through computerization, were other areas of battlesÂ for the general.
However, one battle which is brewing and for which the peace of the nation is being threatened, is the planned protest by trained and battle tested soldiers which if not properly handled could re-enact the very dangerous Akure scenario where soldiers who alleged that they were shortchangedÂ took to the streets.
This time theÂ issueÂ isÂ the payment of the 12. 5% increment in salary of workers in 2003 and the 15% increment in the salary of workers in 2007.
According to the Nigerian constitution, any time the federal government carries out a review of salary of civil and public servants under which category soldiers fall, such review is automatically supposed to be reflected in the monthly take home benefits of pensioners;Â military pensioners inclusive.
The military pensions board is responsible for the payment of retirement benefits to all retired and discharged armed forces personnel who are existing pensioners or those who disengaged from service before 1st July, 2007.
Such pensioners are now aboutÂ 171, 000 . Therefore,Â one can not help but reflect on the magnitude of the problem staring the MPB in the face.
This explains why sometime in March, following consistent pressure, petitions and assumptions among ex-soldiers that the money for the upward review of the 12. 5% and 15% had automatically transited to the military pensions board for onward payment to ex-soldiers, General Kwaji quickly disclosed that the case for the review of the increment was still with the federal government and that it was yet to be considered, approved or cash backed, before implementation can come in.
â€œAll military pensioners are to note that the expectant reviews in line with Section 173 (3) of the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria 1999, are still before government for consideration and approval.
Be informed that the reviews will be implemented and accrued arrears paid to all beneficiaries as soon as the approval is given and funds released to the board by governmentâ€, heÂ said.
So when on the 25th of May 2009, in Ibadan, Oyo state, hundreds of ex-soldiers from the state embarked on a protest action as prelude to a nationwide protest by military pensioners over the non implementation of the payment of arrears increment, General Kwaji in conjunction with Army and Defence headquarters officials prevailed on the other ex-soldiers through their different associations, to halt the nationwide protest.
This was done according to Vanguardâ€™s investigations because from experience, when soldiers, be they retired or are serving carry out any action arising from anger or as a result of being aggrieved, they not only create panic, their activities may lead toÂ destruction of valuables.
Examples abound both in Lagos, Abuja, Makurdi and other parts of Nigeria where during such ex-soldiers protests, roads are blocked, people are prevented fromÂ goingÂ to work in sensitive sectors like banks.
Recently, some of them tried to disrupt one of the activities lined up for the national l day celebrations in Abuja but for the doggedness of the Police arm of the three services; Army; Air force and Navy.
Instances also abound where soldiers who feel that they have been shortchanged, resort to carrying rifles andÂ could in the process aim atÂ servingh senior military officers .