By Patrick Dele Cole
THE administration of Pensions in Nigeria is a national disgrace. Ever so often the pension administrators insist on a verification exercise. All Nigerians know someone who has not been paid his or her pensions for years – some for over 10 years, despite repeated verifications. It is common to see very old, infirmed, sick people carried to verification exercise in the hot sun, waiting for hours, without food or drink; these people are carried daily to these exercises, many faint, others get more infirmed.
The centres are usually in the cities when most pensioners have retired to their villages. A former Director of the Ministry of Agriculture has not been paid his pension for over 10 years. Yet, we have multiple biometric identification systems – GSM, voter’s registration, Bank Verification Number, BVN, Driving License biometrics, National Identity Cards, etc. There are many permanent secretaries, ambassadors, clerks, nurses, teachers, local government employees, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, retirees, Airways staff, Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, retired officials, Nigeria Port Authority, NPA, workers, etc. who have not been paid their pensions. It would seem that many of these people would never receive their pensions. We ought to be able to capture everybody under some identity system and pensions paid to them through their bank verification numbers without the necessity of this soul destroying verification exercise. The truth may be that the pension purse has been compromised and money diverted by various authorities who use the verification to escape their responsibilities. Some of the evidence that the verification officials ask for one are simply ridiculous – original letters of employment, evidence of end of service and so on.
I have no doubt that apart from the large-scale theft of these funds by various entities, including the Unions, the Pension burden is simply too large to be borne. But this should not stop collating the evidence through an amalgamation of our entire databases and for the Government and companies to meet their pension obligation.
Need for coordination of National or State Policy on Pensions cannot be over-emphasised. There are historical problems with Nigerian Pensions. Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN, which became Nigeria Electricity and Power Authority, NEPA, Nigeria Coal Corporation, Nigerian Railways, Nigeria Airways etc. still have pensioners who have not been paid for a long time. We must find answers to pay their pensioners because it is unethical for pensioners not to be paid. The verification powers and system are unfair: people are too old to be carted all over for a hopeless exercise when all knows that the money will never reach the pensioners. This is ethically unjustifiable.
There is a big hole in the Pension Fund, and now the Government has relaxed rules for the use of Pension Funds. Should BVN not be sufficient? Many pensioners have committed suicide; even so, pensioners still do not receive their money. Two years ago the Director-General, DG, of Pension Commission raided the funds and took several billion naira but nothing happened. He took billions but was only fined N750, 000!! Compare the above to what happened in the United Kingdom (UK) when Philip Green who had raided the Pension Fund by £353 million pounds. He had to refund all that money for British Home Stores pensioners, who worked for him as owner of British Home Stores.
The Daily Mirror Pension fund was similarly raided by Robert Maxwell. He was found dead on his yacht. Why is it that a simple problem like prompt and proper payment of pension should be so complicated? Flour Mills still owes the Seamen Union over 50 per cent of their pension rights. One part of NNPC – PEF – boasts of most modern payment scheme, having staff at every important juncture of the white spirits system – yet they do not have a comparable system in pension administration. The rest are as bad as or worse than NNPC. In the military or civil service – large pensions provisions have disappeared when funded; other pension funds had not funded at all. Now Governors, members of the National and State Assemblies want pensions. Governors have voted pensions for themselves, through the Houses of Assembly they control, the most generous if not scandalous pension packet – they go with all benefits they had as Governors, same salary and staff accompaniment, houses built for them at Government’s expenses in Abuja, their hometown and/or in the state capitals in which they served. This is a scandal.
A major uncertainty and fear exist that the problem of pensions will eventually turn up to be a big black hole – so chaotic is its present lack of direction, effectiveness and compliance. A very large sum of money is collected monthly from workers and intended to go to pension funds and managers. But the record-keeping is pretty poor, disbursement chaotic and investment of pensions funds by the managers questionable and irresponsible. For example, what happens to a pension manager who has recklessly invested funds or put them in ventures which are self-serving? Then there is the problem of the yet unsolved historical pension claims of civil servants, workers in parastatals and even in private industry? The management of the National Provident Fund was opaque and its coffers had countless leakages.
Nigeria is not the only country with pensioners. Others have solved these problems by better accountability; better verification methods. For example, pensions and other related benefits are paid in the United Kingdom mainly through the post office. If we had post offices in Nigeria, they are in a sorry state of decay and thousands have closed. Perhaps reviving the post offices which served as payment centres for a variety of purposes may be an answer instead of the Communications Minister closing the post offices and talking about ICT. Universities and commercial development of post office sites for businesses unrelated to the core job of making communication available as they used to be before throughout the country through Post Offices. Countries that we blindly ape in the new digital universe still have two essential services as the key to their communications – landline telephones and postal services everywhere in their countries.
We used to send money everywhere in Nigeria through money orders and letters from post offices. We should be able to pay our pensioners if our post offices were working.