By Emma Agu
WHAT makes history so unforgiving is that those who forget its lessons are often brutally reminded of their idiocy, by experiencing the misfortunes that bedevilled their forebears. While the correlation between the plight of Nigeria’s pensioners and the country’s stunted growth may not be easily perceptible, nothing suggests that a country that permits the scale of humiliation and injustice to which retired workers are exposed
can expect to enjoy prosperity in peace, notwithstanding the overflow of natural and other resources. One does not need to be a soothsayer to realise that, by virtue of the sordid neglect to which senior citizens who diligently served Nigeria are subjected, like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, a huge moral incubus will continue to overhang the country until justice is done.
All over Nigeria, at all levels of government and even the private sector, retirees gnash their teeth as they wait endlessly for either their gratuities or pensions. Paradoxically, while they wait, the younger generation for whom they sweated and toiled, the politicians, civil servants and the rest of us, mindlessly plunder the collective patrimony, always claiming the absence of funds, to settle legitimate entitlements of patriots who served their country with distinction and utmost loyalty. It is as painful as it gets; the depth of betrayal, the death of conscience; the imperilling of hope and the murder of the future.
In spite of their trauma and endless betrayals, these elder citizens continue to live on hope; that every new administration would live up to its campaign promise, of breaking the jinx of non-payment of pensions and gratuities. Each time, they are disappointed.
The pattern of their humiliation cries to heaven for restitution. Perennial verification exercises; dubious biometrics that produces questionable databases; excruciating long-distance travels to Abuja (in the case of Federal employees) that further impoverish the retirees; debilitating and agonising wait on queues under the sweltering heat of the sun, summarize the plight of our elder citizens. Some succor has been brought by the new pension scheme. But it has not eliminated the scourge that afflicts our elder citizens.
It is against this background that the frontal approach of the Bauchi State Government, to the problem of gratuities, should be celebrated as a reassuring shift from the painful insensitivity of past leaders and a veritable model for every state government. Last August, the Bauchi State Government announced the setting aside of a monthly charge of N100 million Naira, for the payment of the gratuities of state workers and another N100 million for local government retirees, until all such outstanding liability it inherited is completely settled.
This may look like a drop in the ocean compared to the N27 billion liabilities it inherited. However, such a view will fly in the face of the evidence, the starting point is that, by swiftly commencing the settlement of the gratuities, the State Governor, Senator Bala Mohammed is living up to the pledge he made, in his inaugural speech that, to promptly redress the plight of the elder citizens. His words were unmistakable, loud and clear. Lamenting the plight of the retired workers, he described his election as “a victory for the senior citizens, the patriots who have been denied their legitimate entitlements in terms of pensions and gratuities and who, for one moment, are left to wonder whether the section of our first national anthem that assures, that the labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain, was inserted in error” (his emphasis). He then pledged that “…immediate steps shall be taken, through a committee that will comprise all stakeholders, to devise ways and means of ensuring regular payment of gratuities while offsetting outstanding liabilities”. The good news is that, in today’s Bauchi and in keeping with Governor Bala Mohammed’s promise, gratuities and pensions are paid as at when due; outstanding liabilities are being offset while salaries are paid as from the 26th of the month.
In decent societies where governments are alive to their responsibilities and where entitlements of citizens are not treated as favours, these actions of the Bauchi State Government cannot count as being spectacular. But in Nigeria, where the provision of amenities such as pipe-borne water and roads earn government officials awards and national honours, Governor Bala Mohammed is demonstrating that his national honour of Commander of the Order of the Niger CON, is predicated on service delivery and contribution to national development.
There is no doubt that the beleaguered senior citizens of Bauchi State are mindful of the fact that neither has the government used the hefty debt portfolio of N150 billion, it inherited, as an alibi to renege on its pledge nor has it compelled them to sign a dubious forfeiture agreement whereby they receive only a percentage of their entitlements. Yet, the monthly receipts of Bauchi State pale into insignificance compared to the monthly receipts of some states that continue to deny or delay their indigenes their entitlements, for unsustainable reasons.
If retired workers in the state have taken the monthly release in good faith, it should be understood within the context of this paradigm shift, this jinx-breaking initiative by the Bala Mohammed-led Administration in the state. That was exactly the position of the Chairman of the Bauchi State chapter of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners, NUP Alhaji Habu Gar. Gar was in order when he remarked that although the N100 million set aside appeared ‘paltry’ compared to the total outstanding, nobody would be talking about accumulated entitlements if previous administrations in the state had taken Bala Mohammed’s approach. By imploring his colleagues to exercise patience, Alhaji Gar has demonstrated the kind of reciprocity that ought to undergird stakeholder engagement as the government wades through the miasma of anti-people policies and actions that it inherited.
To some state governors elsewhere, here is the catch: there will never be enough money to do everything, settle the entitlement; but with the right moral gumption, out there, there is always enough courage, a rich pool of wisdom, to re-order priorities in such a way that human values take precedence over exhibitionist projects. Besides, it amounts to a betrayal of the people’s trust to renege on campaign promises, under the guise of insufficient funds. By fulfilling his pledge to place the settlement of workers emoluments on the first charge, Governor Bala Mohammed has demonstrated that a leader’s word should be his bond and that, in line with his inaugural speech mantra, under him, Hope has come.