By Tonnie Iredia
Anyone seeking to understand the absence of the middle class in Nigeria should start by taking a look at how the elite class has been so powerfully empowered in every aspect of public affairs in the country. The most over-pampered is the political elite. Our constitution for instance provides for immunity for our top executives and their deputies from any litigation in the country. The argument is that if those in that group are not so protected, they may have to abandon their offices daily to face one prosecution or another from aggrieved persons.
Unfortunately, it was assumed that it is only when people drag them to court that they could be distracted, while no one thought of the possibility of they, being the initiators of litigation. So, the law stops any of us wronged by them from taking them to court but allows them to take us to court if we wrong them. What this suggests is that the immunity clause does not stop them from being distracted as many of them are fond of distracting themselves and the entire country through petty partisanship and abuse of power while in pursuit of enemies, real or imagined.
Again, the constitution grants the same class, full salary as pension for life. In which case, such persons whose greatest number of years in service is not more than 8 years only, are to be paid their full salaries for life, whereas most of us who laboured for no less than 35years in service only get a fraction of our salaries. Interestingly, the group members save their salaries for the period they are in office as the state feeds and accommodates them and also takes care of their general needs.
How come it is those who salaries were saved while in office that are now lavishly provided for thereafter? To make matters worse, provisions are surreptitiously made these days for them to get double or triple their salaries plus several other bogus allowances. If this class can be described as Nigerian citizens, the rest of us, not so privileged, are clearly second-class citizens. This ought to stop if insecurity is not to persist in the country because the overwhelming affluence of the privileged group can lead to corruption among the general working class and indeed to all forms of criminalities by the downtrodden populace.
There is doubt if we can halt the ugly trend especially in the states where rubber-stamp Houses of Assembly are ever ready to approve more privileges for their erstwhile governors. A good example is the case of Akwa Ibom state where in May 2014, legislators amidst public indignation, passed a new law offering a former governor and his deputy, severance gratuity allowance of 300 per cent of their annual basic salary as at the time of leaving office. In addition, the ex-governors and their deputies were also to get furniture allowance of 300 per cent of their annual basic salary once in every four years; yearly maintenance and fueling of vehicle allowance of 300 per cent of annual basic salary; utility allowance of 100 per cent of their annual salary; and entertainment allowance of 100 per cent of annual basic salary. An ex-governor and spouse were also entitled to N100m for medicals annually, while a former deputy governor and spouse would get a maximum of N30m. Widows or widowers married to former governors while in office would do with N12m medical allowance in a year, while those of deputy governors would take N6m.
The situation in Lagos was much the same except that the 2007 Law provided other benefits such as three cars, made up of two back-up cars and one pilot car for the ex-governor every three years. One striking difference in the Lagos case was the provision of one residential house in Lagos and another in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, for a former governor and one residential house in Lagos for his deputy. But why a former Lagos governor would need a house at the expense of the state’s taxpayers in a location outside the state where he served is not clear, may be, because Lagos, the commercial capital needs to close ties with Abuja our political capital.
If financially healthy states could afford such expenses, poor Edo state had no business being part of such profligacy, but she did. Just before the comrade governor left office, the state House of Assembly approved for him and his deputy a pension benefit of a residential building worth N200 million and N100 million respectively. The House also amended the Pension Rights Law of 2007 to enable the former governor to enjoy many other benefits including pension for life at a rate equivalent to 100 percent of his last annual salary. This happened in many states except Akwa Ibom which raised hers to 300 percent perhaps because of its uncommon governance philosophy. So far, the highest paying states in descending order are: Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Lagos, Niger, Borno, Sokoto, Jigawa and Gombe.
Painfully, this trend of inexplicable squandermania has encouraged legislators who have been used to perpetuate it, to begin to explore possibilities of helping themselves too. Bayelsa state has already passed a bill proposing a monthly pension of N100,000 for members while the Speaker and Deputy Speaker will be entitled to N500,000 and N200,000, respectively. The bill which was hurriedly passed has however been unable to get the consent of governor Seriake Dickson who has argued that the bill is inconsistent with Section 124 of the country’s constitution. Dickson’s main point is that a State Assembly lacked the powers to expand the categories of public servants who should be entitled to pension.
But as persuasive as Dickson’s point appears to be, legislators in some other states have not dropped the ambition. Although this writer was unable to confirm the current status of the “ Public Office Holder (Payment of Pension) Law 2007 (Amendment) Law” reportedly proposed as far back as 2015 to give life pension to the Speaker and his deputy, in Lagos, a fresh case is that of Kano State which last Tuesday passed what was described as “Pension Rights of Speaker and Deputy Law 2019” which approved life pensions for Speakers and deputies after they leave office. Since 1999, Kano state has had 10 Speakers that may benefit from the plan if assented to by governor Abdullahi Ganduje.
With top politicians initiating scandalous laws to pay themselves humongous life benefits which would make them earn more pay in retirement than when they were in office, how can the nation stop otherwise diligent public officers from helping themselves to the treasury when they are legally discriminated against? It seems patently unfair that those who siphon such huge funds are among our leaders who have the temerity to deny their fellow citizens a paltry N30, 000 minimum wage.