By Josef Omorotionwan
WITH the virtual collapse of the African welfare system, it was thought that the pension scheme would cater for the welfare needs of the worker at old age.
The pension was therefore a covenant between the employee and his employer: while young, the worker would serve his nation with everything he had: his strength, blood and sweat; and in the evening of his life, his country would cater adequately for him.
Initially, this covenant was respected by both sides, with the result that at retirement, while the letter of disagreement was given to the retiree with one hand, his gratuity was given him with the other hand. And pension was paid to him regularly.
Soon, there was a complete departure from the original agreement. The stronger partner, the employer, began to shift the goal posts at will.
Consequently, of all the service queues, the pension queue became the longest and most tortuous. Government soon began to devise various tactics to cope with its default, including endless screening, in the process of which many died.
For too long, government attempted to play Father Christmas with the pension issue.
It has since become clear that government was not playing the self-assigned role well. We all heaved a sigh of relief when the National Assembly enacted the National Pension Reforms Act 2004 whose major thrust was to encourage savings among employees so that on retirement, they would not be impoverished.
It is too early in the day to totally condemn the Pension Reforms Act 2004 but from what we know, it is clear that the Act was, at best, a revenue drive for government. It has not, and will not, improve service delivery to pensioners.
Under the Act, a deliberate attempt was made to ensure that “remittance of contribution is made as the employer is required to deduct the employee’s contribution from his salary, and within seven days thereafter remit the sum deducted together with the employer’s contribution, to the Pension Fund Custodian of the employee’s choice.”
In furtherance to the government protection strategy, the Act states that penalty for late– and non-remittance under the scheme shall be prescribed by the National Pension Commission. But pending the stipulation by the Commission, the Act provides for an interim “penalty of not less than two percent of the total contribution, which ought to have been remitted.”
This is where we think that the Act could at least have added a line to include sanction against delayed payment of pension to retirees.
The Pension Reform Act has reformed nothing. What it has successfully done is to increase the volume of lootable funds available to the system. Before the Reforms Act, looting of pension funds was in the range of thousands and the lower millions but after the Act, looting blew up into the billions, while the suffering of retirees remained unabated. Here we intend to call only two witnesses:
First, we invite Alhaji Yakubu Yusufu: Your honest confession that you stole “only N23 billion” from the Police Pension Fund simply reminds us of the case of that hardworking farmer who also ate big. One day, he went to farm and before he returned, his pounded yam was ready. The mother used unbroken elephant head for his soup. Towards the end of the meal, he asked: “Mother, why is there no meat in this soup?” The mother retorted: “There was a whole elephant head in that soup.” It then dawned on him: “Maybe that was what scratched my throat in one of the swallows.” He had pressed it into the pounded yam, the same way as some of us deal with the crayfish.
The Reforms Act has perhaps brought surplus money into the system. At the judicial level, you were fined N750,000 (0.003% of your loot)! The moral message we get from this is: If you must do it, do it big!
Second, Abdulrasheed Abdulahi Maina: You were the Acting Director of Customs, Immigration and Prisons Pension Office. The National Assembly smelt a rat that all was not well with close to N200 billion in your care. The National Assembly wanted you to come and shed some light on this
When you failed to appear, a warrant of arrest was issued from the Senate but the Inspector General of Police was reluctant to execute the warrant. The executive branch of our national government dilly-dallied on the issue until you vamoosed from Nigeria. Congratulations!
All these sordid affairs have perhaps been consigned to history. But the rightful owners of the money are suffering and dying on the pension queue. But why has the pension fund suddenly become the easiest money to steal?
The answer is simple: Our system regards the retiree as a dead man. Who would have dared point to strongman Sani Abacha’s money when he was alive? That person’s portion would have been “Danburuba Shege”, with appropriate bullets pumped into his head. Since Abacha’s death, his repatriated loots have been re-looted over and over again.
The only language that our system understands is that of strike and withdrawal of service. To the extent that the retirees can neither strike nor withdraw any service, the system regards them as ineffectual; mere walking corpses.
Two quick measures are recommended here: Our lawmakers must devise stiffer penalties to discourage this reckless embezzlement of pension funds; and today’s workers cannot remain nonchalant when retirees are being maltreated because they, too, will soon fall into the category of the neglected. In local parlance, only the foolish messenger would say that his colleague, and not himself, was beaten. Labour unions must establish units charged with the responsibility for defending the rights of retirees.
Receiving pension cannot continue to look like waiting for the dead man’s shoes. For now, the retiree should be able to claim his benefits at a bank nearest him and as the system improves, his money should get to him in the comfort of his home.