By Peter Duru
Few days ago, some Benue State pensioners under the aegis of Aggrieved Benue Pensioners took to the streets of Makurdi to demand the payment of backlog of unpaid pensions and gratuities accumulated by successive governments in the state.
The aggrieved pensioners who marched through parts of Makurdi town displayed placards with inscriptions such as: Governor Ortom the defender of Benue please defend your pensioners; We have faith in you to pay us, among others.
Leader of the aggrieved pensioners, Mr. Akosu Ugba told journalists that they decided to protest to draw the attention of the government to their plight.
He said the record of the accumulated pension owed by successive governments in the state showed that the state pensioners were being owed 34 months while their local government counterparts were owed 74 months.
“We appeal to the present government to take steps to bring down the backlog because we have needs and responsibilities that require money,” he said.
But reacting to the protest, State Chairman of Nigeria Union of Pensioners, NUP, Michael Vember, claimed the protest was political to embarrass the Benue State Government.
According to him, “the protesters are disloyal members of the NUP. I do not want to call them names but we discovered they went to associate themselves with politicians and we are not politicians.
“When I heard about their plans, we met them. At first meeting, we asked what their problem was.
“They raised harmonization of payment of the arrears and immediate payment. We told them we are in talks with the government. We even told them that we are supposed to meet again with the government on October 12, 2021, for further discussion on the welfare of pensioners in the state.
“But I just don’t know why they had to resort to marching on the streets. They asked that five months should be paid to them.
“I reminded them that this backlog was created by successive governments and that we have already reached an agreement with the state government on the modalities for the payment.
“We agreed that because of paucity of funds, we should be paid in batches monthly and when the condition improves, we will all be getting it monthly.
“I was surprised that the following day, they still went to demonstrate. What they want is actually not tenable.
“We told them that we cannot have two leaderships of NUP to see the government because it will mean that we are not serious.
“We are doing our best as leaders to ensure that whatever is being owed us is paid. We will ensure that everything is handled transparently.
“We are all aware that about N700 million is released every month by the government in line with the agreement the union reached with the government.
“Out of that amount, N300million goes to the payment of local government pensioners every month. We made everything known to them, but they still went to protest.
“That is why I said that they probably embarked on the march for political reasons, to embarrass the government. NUP is not part of it.”
We inherited N70bn pension arrears — Ortom
In his reaction, Governor Samuel Ortom who expressed shock at the decision of the senior citizens to take to the streets over unpaid benefits, said: “I must say that I was really taken aback. But I think there is political undertone in this matter.
“When I came in 2015, I inherited over N70billion arrears of pensions, gratuity and salaries.
“We have been able to reduce that to less than N35 billion as at today.
“I am proud to tell you that my administration has been able to put in place a process that will bring a permanent solution to this problem.
“Pension issues and gratuity matters are national problem. Even at the federal level, they still have their challenge.
“Other state also have their challenges. But I have succeeded in domesticating the National Pension Commission’s PenCom law. Already, we have invested more than N1.5 billion in the Contributory Pension Scheme, CPS, account.
“It is there and once we are able to reach the N3 billion threshold, we will be able to borrow money and clear the arrears; and subsequently all those who are retiring will not face the challenge of waiting for government to pay, they will go to PenCom and as soon as you are retiring, you will have your gratuity and pension.
“So these are the efforts we have put in place as a government. The officials of pensioners in Benue state commended me and appreciated what we have done. But we know we had backlog which should be cleared.
“As I talk to you, every month, N700 million is provided for pensioners in the last six months based on the agreement that we reached with the pension union.
“N400 million goes to the state level though it is not enough to cover the entire pensioners but at least, it is said that half a loaf is better than none.
“And at the local government level, we release N300 million making N700 million”.