Imo State Commissioner of Information Mbadiwe Emelumba fielded these questions on recent happenings in the state. Excerpts:
Some pensioners protested recently in Owerri, claiming they were being owed four months arrears. Why is it taking long to pay them?
First of all, I don’t think that all those who demonstrated in Owerri were pensioners. The Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP), Imo State chapter came out strongly, through their President, Dr. Josiah Ugochukwu, to say that his Union does not know those who went on that protest. So one can rightly say that they are not Pensioners.
The NLC Chairman in the state, Comrade Austin Chilakpu also disowned them. Both Unions called them impostors and mercenaries. It was not government that did that. Those who engaged in that show of shame were sponsored by the opposition to score cheap political points. I will even go further to say that those who used to benefit from the old order of stealing the people’s patrimony hired those old men just to embarrass the government. But the plot failed because they were exposed. Second, It is only about two months of pensions that has been delayed because of on going verification exercise
This government came on board in January and started paying Pensions immediately. In fact the governor sacrificed his February and March security vote to pay Pensions. But when it was clear that there was monumental fraud in both the payroll and nominal roll of Pensioners, government had to pause a while to cleanse same.
And do you know why both the NLC and NUP disowned those mercenaries? Simple! The leaders of the Unions know exactly how serious the Governor is working hard to ensure that only genuine pensioners get paid at the end of the day and not some cabals who had infiltrated the pension scheme to commit all manner of fraudulent acts.
You were reported as saying that eight persons have been collecting N300M from the pension scheme annually. How did that happen?
You will be shocked if you were to see the atrocity being committed by a few against the state. Some current employees of government are receiving both pensions and salaries. There are multiple BVNs linked to few persons collecting pensions for hundreds of pensioners. There are multiple account numbers for non existing pensioners. The most intriguing is that the number of pensioners is stagnant every year even when people are retiring and dying. To make matters worse, we did not inherit any credible payroll scheme from the past government. Everything was in shambles giving the perpetrators of the pension fraud a field day. It was in a bid to clean the mess of the past that His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodinma ordered that the system be sanitized to produce a credible and transparent payroll system for our pensioners. The organized labour is working with the government to achieve this. That is why they were shocked that some unconscionable people dragged frail men to the streets of Owerri in the name of protests against the government.
But it appears as if your governor is fixated with this idea of sanitizing the payroll system while both workers and pensioners are complaining of hunger?
That is not true. The governor that I know is the most compassionate leader ever to rule Imo state. No less a person than Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu described him as a very kind man concerned with the welfare of the masses. Even before he became governor, his house had always been a place where people gathered daily to receive one form of help or the other. Having said that, it will interest you to know that Uzodinma is also a thorough and painstaking man who is averse to any form of indolence, tardiness and corruption.
If there is anybody who wants workers and pensioners to be paid before 25th of every month, it is Hope Uzodinma. But given his track record as a man who wants things done the right way, he insisted that the rot in the system must be cleansed for the government to start on a clean sheet. Let me give you an example of what happened in the Customs just few years ago.
When Senator Uzodinma was appointed the Senate Committee Chairman on Customs and Excise, many thought it would be business as usual with the agency periodically “settling” the Committee. But they were in for a surprise. In the course of his oversight functions, Uzodinma, with his committee members, unearthed monumental fraudulent activities being perpetrated in the Customs. The Federal Government was losing billions of naira in revenue to a fraudulent tariff regime. Officers conniving with companies and others were reaping off the federal government.
He sought the approval of the Senate for a thorough investigation. At the end of the exercise, that committee saved billions of naira for the government and also recovered billions for those who were manipulating duties and excise The sanitization of the Customs gave room for the quantum leap in revenue for the government from that sector up till today. He did the same thing when he was Senate Committee Chairman on Aviation.
So, the man has a track record of performance and zero tolerance for corruption. So what he is doing with the pension scheme in Imo State is for the good of the pensioners and not for himself. Although he is human, susceptible to human frailties, Uzodinma abhors corruption and fraud in whatever colour. He is scandalized to know that a few people have been feeding fat on the common patrimony of Imo State.
That is what he wants to stamp out and he owes no apology to anybody. He is not keeping the money for himself. He is not moved by materialism. He loves money and wealth only in so far as they are used for the common good and for the majority. That is why you cannot see any estate anywhere in Nigeria or abroad to his name, unlike some of his peers.
But when will this endless verification end for the pensioners to be paid?
I assure you that the cleansing exercise is almost at the end. It will be over very soon and the Pensioners will be happy with the outcome because they will be receiving their pensions regularly as and when due.
But those whose names were fraudulently inserted will not be paid. Those who have multiple account numbers, dubious BVNs and discrepancies in their records using such to siphon N330million annually from the purse of the state will not be paid either.
The other day in a Radio programme monitored in Owerri, you were quoted as saying that government will recover all the monies and property the pension fraudsters acquired. Is that correct?
Very correct my brother. In fact, I can say that it is the position of Imo leaders who mandated the governor to do so. During the Democracy Day Celebration on June 12, the governor gave a graphic account of what was happening. The leaders were so incensed that if they laid hands on any of the perpetrators, he would have been stoned to death. I think it was the Chairman of Imo Elders Council, Dr. Edmund Onyebuchi who moved it as a motion that the government should do everything possible to recover such loots from the pension frauds. So the government is carrying out that directive as it were. The government will prosecute all those behind the payroll fraud in the state in addition to recovering the property they acquired with the money they fleeced from the public treasury through fraudulent manipulation of the payroll.
What is your advice to pensioners in the state?
Let me start by saying that they should believe in this governor. Imo is safe in the hands of Hope Uzodinma as our governor. What is instructive here is that this government has been paying pensions since January, when it came into office. Some pensioners had been paid up to March and April as they admitted themselves. But along the line, there was need to cleanse the rot discovered in the pension regime so that was what caused the delay in paying the few outstanding months. So I will appeal to our senior citizens, our dear fathers and mothers, to exercise a little more patience. In no distant time, every pensioner in Imo State will receive his or her pensions promptly as at when due.