There have been a lot of irregularities and delay in the payment of the entitlement of pensioners in Nigeria. In this interview, the Spokesman of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners, Comrade Ehada Mohammed spoke at length about what is responsible for the hitch and suggested the way out.
Has the payment of pensioners commenced? - They are always paying them their entitlements; it has never been stopped, but the issue is, there are lots of irregularities inherent in the payment of pension entitlement like skipping of months. Example, if you receive your pension this month, the next month, you may not get it until three or four months before you get the next one. Then there is the problem associated with the arrears which are not be paid. It is difficult for them to pay it and they keep on stock-filling the forms.
There is also the problem of what is called pension harmonization, which is the increase they give to pensioners. These payments were paid in arrears but not immediately. When they paid the arrears, many people did not get their own, and they are still battling with it, even after filling forms several times with nothing coming out of it. They said the verification they did in 2010/2011 will take care of all these problems, rather than improve it; it has compounded the problems. Even after the verification, those that were receiving their entitlements regularly whose names were on the pension payroll were removed again.
What do you think has been responsible for this delay? - We at the union level see it as a deliberate attempt to frustrate the pensioners. Because they do this for their own benefit, and because of that, they don’t want the problem to be solved. They are the people paying the pension; the Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT) is the one generating the data from their system. It is what they give to the bank that will be paid; sometimes, the bank would say there are wrong account numbers.
Who generated this wrong account numbers, is it not from their system? If the account number was wrong, why not correct it before sending it to the bank for payment? How can you say someone’s account number is wrong; I mean somebody that has been receiving his pay for more than 10 years ago and suddenly, you say the account number is wrong? They do all these things just for their own selfish interests.
There appears to be opposition from the highest quarter for payment of these benefits. Why do you think it is like that? - It is not an opposition really. The Pension Reform Task Team was created to address pensioners’ problems. They are yet to address this because there are lots of frauds going on in pension payment, so the office of the Head of Service created the PRTT so that they will address these lingering problems, but unfortunately the PRTT has become part of the problem.
So, when you talk about opposition, it came in the sense that the pensioners and other stakeholders are kicking against the activities and performance of the task team because they are not performing up to the expectations of the people; they are not solving these problems, instead more problems are created. When they came, if they had really started tackling these issues, all these problems would have disappeared.
So, everybody is calling for the removal of these people who are not doing anything, and they are demanding for the referral of the payment to the Office of the Head of Service that was handling it before or they should create a new body that will handle the payment with the involvement of the Pensioners’ union, because we work for them and we know their problems. In fact, we should be pro-actively involved in the management of the affairs of the pensioners because they are our members and we know them to the grass roots as we are operating a three-tier structure, from national to the local government levels.
So, if the pensioners’ union is given the opportunity to do the verification, I’m telling you that the problem will be stopped immediately. But the government will not want that as the officials will be against it because of the benefit they will get from it. If you hand over the task to anybody, that would mean they will not be getting what they are getting now. It is corruption that is killing the pension administration.
Lately, there was a publication outlining names of pensioners all over the country for verification, how far? - When the Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT) came in June 2010, the first thing they did was to conduct a verification exercise to take stock of the civil service pensioners, they did it, then the second one was in October to November 2011. So, when they conducted this, the purpose was to address the issue of irregularities in pension payment, and as I told you earlier, the problem has not been solved.
What were the resolutions of the stakeholders’ meeting held at Labour house recently? - The resolution was that the Pension Reform Task Team seemed to have proved incompetent and incapable of solving their problems and that they should be disbanded; they should go so that a new boardwould be created or they should take it back to the office of the Head of Service which has taken over now since November 2012.
The last payment was made was done by the Office of the Head of Service, although the PRTT has not totally handed over to them, they drew their lines and have started paying. But then, that has not addressed the problem unless the stakeholders have to come and sit down together and chart the way forward because at the Head of Service, they are using old records. So, you see some of the names of those that were being paid by PRTT are missing, while the old people whose names have been lost a long time ago are now getting their money. There is a mix-up.
Has the current probe by the National Assembly impacted positively or negatively on your payment? - We welcome the probe because the pension under the old pension scheme was characterized by monumental fraud, so when they saw this, the pensioners were crying and these are old people that had served this nation meritoriously. So, the National Assembly decided to put up two panels that will investigate the fraud, we welcomed them, in fact our leaders were going round with them because they were taking stock of these things, which is just like a first-hand information they were getting from the pensioners themselves when they came to testify before the committees.
That should have solved the problem but the issue is that they are not paying; they are only investigating what is responsible for the plight of pensioners. So, their reports have indicted the PRTT that they were not doing the proper thing and that is what has placed the pension probe panel against the PRTT, they are always at logger heads. Mr. Maina was always saying that they don’t like him, but it is because of what they have seen and they have to give the correct report and even the report recommended that the task force should be disbanded.
What is your own view of the drama? - In fact, the Chairman of the PRTT, Mr. Maina has to go and re-examine his conscience. We have seen the problem he has. When he started, he was working with the Union, but along the line, he derailed and decided to go on his own. Maybe he did not want us to know the secret going on there, otherwise when we were together with him, we were always guiding him and that should have been the right thing.
Listen to advice, do the right thing and these people will be happy with you and when they are happy, we are happy too. But he refused to take to our advice and decided to go his own way, and now look at the blunder he is committing. At our union level, we want the task team to be disbanded too.
What are the grey areas in pension administration in Nigeria? - The problem of pension in this country is human factor and that is the culture. Corruption is what is causing the problem, because there is no sincerity on the part of the people that have been trusted with the responsibility of solving this problem. They are not been sincere, they are selfish, and they use this pension money to enrich themselves at the expense of the rightful owners of the money who are the pensioners.
They are not doing the right thing; corruption is the problem and to solve it, they have to put the right people at the right place and that is why there is need for the federal government to involve the pensioners union pro-actively in the decision making and the management of pension affairs in this country. If they don’t do that, the problem will continue unabated.
Is the plight of pensioners better now than before? - It is not the issue of comparison now, the people we are talking about still belong to the old scheme, the pensioners that have accessed their pension through the office of the Head of Service and other pension departments like military, we have about seven pension departments, but the most troublesome is the one of the office of the Head of Service of the Federation, the pensioners that accessed their money through this office are not happy. There is nothing like plight of old and new, it is the same thing.