By Owei Lakemfa
DURING a tour of Germany in March, 2012, I had discussions with a number of workers including those of the Bayerische Motoren Werke AG , BMW, makers of high class sports sedans and motorcycles. Their main grouse was a planned increase in retirement age by about two years. The country was facing rapid population ageing and projected that it may spend 12.5 percent of its GDP on pension by the year 2050. So it wanted to keep workers longer at work. But to the workers, retirement is what they look forward to; they want to live the rest of their lives in peace, have full control over their time, be free to spend time with their families or travel to see the world.
In contrast, Nigerian workers do not look forward to retirement which to many of them, is like a death sentence. Back then, many wanted their retirement age increased; for instance professors who retired at 65, wanted it raised to 70 like judges. Many workers wanted their retirement age increased from 60 to the 65 reserved for academics. The incident of workers fraudulently reducing their age in order to spend more years in service, is not uncommon.
The primary reason for this is that there is virtually no life after work; it is not just that the regular income ceases, many do not get paid benefits for years while pension payment is irregular; some pensioners are not paid for five years or more. This is more so in a country without old age or unemployment benefits, where even on things as basic as healthcare and food, it is ‘Everyone to himself, and God for us all.’
In the Nigerian socio-cultural system, people are their brother’s keeper; a system where the young takes care of the old and children assume that their aged parents are their natural responsibility. There is in fact a saying that when the pouch rat gets old, it sucks the breast of the young. But this culture is itself endangered by the fact that many of the young are unemployed or under employed and cannot therefore, take care of their aged.
There is the ongoing case of retirees of the defunct Nigerian Airways which was shutdown in 2005. It was just on September 20, 2017, the Federal Government released N45 Billion for the their pension payment; that is thirteen years of waiting to be paid pension! This should be a record, but hold it, there are public service workers in the country who have waited for twice those number of years to be paid gratuity and pension, with little hope that this will be done in their life time.
This is the case of 632 existing pensioners of the 52-year old Federal Government-owned Nigerian Security Printing and Minting, NSPM, company that has gone Plc. They have fought in the last 26 years for their right to be paid gratuity and pension! They are still fighting with no end in sight; for these senior citizens who spent their youth serving the country, the Struggle Continues.
Their problem began in 1988 when the NSPM which prints the country’s banknotes, coins, postal orders, stamps and other high security documents, established a substandard Pension Scheme rather than the type prevailing under the Public Service Pension Law. Thus, it condemned the staff to a life of penury, misery and dejection.
Since the judiciary is said to be the last hope of the common man, the Mint pensioners approached the Lagos State High Court saying that they are public servants who must be paid entitlements in accordance with the law. They won, including on the issue that the State High Court has jurisdiction. They also won at the Appeal Court. However, their victory at the Supreme Court was a pyric one; on February 6, 2009, it upheld the pensioners submission that they are public servants and therefore entitled to gratuity and pension in accordance with the law, but ruled that the Court of first instance had no jurisdiction as Decree 107 of October, 1993 barred State High Courts from entertaining Federal cases. Note that the quoted law on State High Court jurisdiction came into effect 18 months after the pensioners had gone to court. So after 17 years traversing the High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court, the Supreme Court, employing technicalities rather than the justice of the case, rendered the epic efforts of the pensioners, a virtual a nullity.
So like Sisyphus, king of Ephyra (Corinth) in Greek mythology who was punished by the gods by being forced to roll a big boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back, and he had to repeat the process for eternity, the NSPM pensioners, were forced to go back to the High Court, this time, the Federal High Court presided over by Justice Adamu Bello. This was on June 2, 2009. After three years of their renewed sojourn at the High Court, the case, based on a Constitutional Amendment in the country, was transferred on March 7, 2012 to the National Industrial Court, NIC.?
Given the Supreme Court judgment that the pensioners are public servants who are entitled to gratuity and pension, Justice P.O. Lifu had no problem agreeing that the Mint is a Federal Government Agency, that the Mint Gratuity and Pension Scheme contravenes the constitution and that the pensioners are public servants entitled to be paid gratuity and pension in accordance with the Pension Act CAP 346 LFN 1990. However the Honorable Justice Lifu added a twist that like a Tsunami, tried to drown the rights of the pensioners; he claimed that there was no evidence that all the claimants had spent the statutory minimum fifteen years in the Public Service. Based on this twisted technicality that defeats the ends of justice, he dismissed the case! It was a case of defeating the basic and underlying principle of the Industrial Court which was established not as a technical court, but an industrial one where the justice of the case is what is demanded, not the technicalities that is the culture of normal courts. So the judgment defeated the ends of justice.
Consequently, on February 27, 2017 the pensioners went back to the NIC with a fresh cause of action. There, they are stuck with the Mint which has twice refused negotiations as ordered by the judge, working mindlessly, to stall the case.
The injustice minted out to these pensioners should no longer be tolerated; it is equally an injustice on Nigerians. The Federal Government should bring this to an end by stopping the charade and appropriating the N10, 437,275,394.50 needed to pay the Gratuity and Pension of these 632 senior citizens. All Nigerians must be protected!