At the head of a group of pensioners protesting the failure of the Niger State government to pay their gratuities and pension was a blind man. Ladan Bello, 65, was a former biology teacher who retired in 2018 as a deputy director in the state’s Ministry of Education.
When Mr Bello retired, he had his sight intact. But barely one year after his retirement, glaucoma struck and took away his vision. He said he lost his sight suddenly and without warning.
“I shouted. I was in the midst of my family. I didn’t know what was happening. Everything just went black. I couldn’t see anyone; I couldn’t see anything,” he said.
On 11 January, the seventh time of the pensioners’ agitation, Mr Bello defied his disability to be among the protesting crowd of unpaid state retirees, demanding the payment of their gratuities and other benefits.
Guided by his friend and fellow pensioner, Ibrahim Babadoko, he marched down to the Government House, some 400 metres from the Legbo Kutigi International Conference Centre, Minna, the muster point of the agitators. And as it has become a habit, he was in front of the line.
During the protest, he stood before the police at the massive gates of Government House, Minna, yelling:
“No going back! Unless we see the governor, no going back!” He told a battery of police officers who formed a barrier behind a Government House roadblock to prevent a possible invasion of the premises.
A police officer, Okey Okere, urged the placard-carrying throng to calm down and withdraw to the shades of the trees beside the Government House gates, but Mr Bello exclaimed: “We didn’t come here for the shades; we want to see the governor. We are going nowhere unless we see the governor!”
But for the seventh time since the mass public protests began last year, Governor Abubakar Bello refused to meet the pensioners. Instead, an open mini-truck with a mounted gun, filled with anti-riot police officers, arrived at the scene, sirens blaring.
The visually impaired protester, Mr Bello, turned in the direction of the blare; his guide had told him the police had arrived.
“We come in peace,” he shouted. “We only want to see the governor. Let Lolo (sobriquet for the governor) pay us our gratuities. And we will go”, he said.
Already, two protesters, Barde Haruna, popularly called Dogo, a lead dancer and actor with the famous Niger State cultural troupe, Gwape International, and Mohammed Sale, a retired driver, formerly with Niger State Environmental Protection Agency, had fainted in the blazing heat and were receiving first aid treatment on the curbs of the driveway to the Government House. Some protesters stood over them, fanning them with Muslim prayer mats. Dogo gasped for breath, his chest heaving rapidly.
Loss of sight
Mr Bello suffered from both glaucoma and cataract. Not being paid his gratuity and pension, he could not afford the treatment required. His relatives, however, rallied to raise the money needed to conduct medical surgery on one of the eyes at ECWA Eye Clinic, Kano. The surgery was successful, and he temporarily regained his vision. However, he was unable to raise the fee for subsequent treatments which included the removal of the cataract that later spread ànd blanketed the eye. Worse, while waiting to get the money, his wife had a stroke.
Later, a cancerous tissue crept into the surgically repaired eye. It was a small speck, forming around the retina, and doctors warned that unless the eye was surgically removed, he risked what they described as ‘metastasis – that is cancer launching a secondary attack on the other eye. Eventually, the left eye, the one which was recovering and regaining vision after the first surgery, was removed.
“If I have had money,” he rued his poverty, “I might have been able to seek medical intervention at the right time. My eyes might have been saved.”
Poorest of the poor
Niger State pensioners are among the poorest in the country. Some retirees are paid as low as N2,000 monthly. The law establishing the state pension has not been reviewed in 47 years. Yet, poor as it is, while some retirees get monthly pensions, some who retired under the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) are paid nothing.
“Some retirees are diabetic. If you don’t pay them their pensions, and the cost of the drugs they are using is skyrocketing, how are they supposed to treat their ailment? In Niger State, retirement inflicts disease burden in the camp of senior citizens, and sometimes, it is a death sentence,” said John Damidami, a former executive director of Newsline Newspapers.
To reverse their depressing lot, the pensioners, under the aegis of the Joint Action Committee, wrote desperate SOS letters to eminent persons in the state, such as former Heads of State, Ibrahim Babangida, and Abdulsalam Abubakar, traditional rulers and the father of the governor, Mr Bello.
In one of the letters, they wrote: “It is no longer news that the camp of retired senior citizens in Niger State is riddled with misery, anguish, disease, and death….No day passes without one or more of our sick members dying because he was penniless and could not access medical intervention; some others are at home bedridden or blind, victims of stroke or diabetes, whose lives are ebbing away in searing pain without any medical palliatives to make their last moments on earth peaceful.”
They said several retirees have been evicted from their rented apartments, while their children and wards have been sent back home from schools because their parents could not pay their school fees.
“It is needless to say,” they continued, “that, because we have not been paid, members of our families and dependents (children, wives, aged parents, etc) have also suffered vicariously. Many have become ill, developed complications, and died because we were handicapped financially to seek medical help for them.”
For instance, Mr Babadoko, the guide who takes Mr Bello to the protest marches, has a pending eviction notice from the house he lived for many years in the Kaffin Tella area, of the state capital, Minna.
“I live in my own house but my house is small and cannot accommodate both of us. If not, I would have asked him to join us when the eviction notice expires,” Mr Bello said. The eviction notice expired in December, and following appeals, Mr Babadoko had been given up until the end of March 2023, to quit.
Radicalisation of retirees
Since Niger State was created 47 years ago, the Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP) has enjoyed the sole right to manage the affairs of retirees from the state public sector and negotiate on their behalf. But since the Governor Bello Administration came to office eight years ago, they have been unable to secure gratuities and other entitlements for their members. Dissatisfied with their sterile approach, which consists mainly in writing letters of appeals to the government to defray unpaid retirement benefits, pensioners formed new unions which adopted more confrontational approaches in demanding their benefits.
“The NUP can do a lot, but they didn’t,” said Mr Bello. “It is due to their laxity and negligence that brought about these groups. Today, it is as a result of the work of these groups (i.e protests) that the government knows that we are existing.”
Since Governor Bello came into office in 2015, he has paid gratuities only once, and on that occasion, he paid only 30 per cent of the amount due to pensioners. As the administration is set to end in May, many of these new groups are alarmed that the government ignored the payment of retirees’ benefits for that long. They wondered why the government refused to pay despite taking N79.6 billion as its share of the Paris Club debt refunds as a bailout from the federal government.
Groups like the Concerned Pensioners (CP), Citizens Forum (CF), Pressure Group (PG), Association of Local Government Retirees (ALGR), Retired Directors Forum (RDF), and Permanent Secretaries Forum (PSF), have remained dogged in demanding their benefits in manners never seen in the state before. Last year alone, they organised five protest marches to the Government House and each time made it clear to the government that they would not stop until it pays what it owes them. And the government owes them a large sum of money. Ahmed Matane, the secretary to the state government, on 11 January, admitted to the leaders of the retirees that the government owed retirees about N63 billion. As workers continue to exit service, the figure continues to spiral.
While the hydra-headed representation of state retirees was exacting unprecedented pressure on the government, it ironically also created an excuse the government used for why negotiations with the retirees stagnated. With many groups organising their own mass protests, the struggle became disorderly and chaotic. Thus the government exploited it to avoid holding any serious dialogue with any of the protest groups. After every wave of protest, representatives of the government would ask: “With which group should we negotiate? If we discuss with you, should we also call the other groups?” While the protests continued, the representatives of the government contented themselves with merely receiving the leaders of each wave of protests, making bland remarks, but avoiding making serious commitments.
During the first mass public protest, Mr Matane told the protesters that the pension scheme was bedevilled with many problems, which make gratuity settlement difficult. He said there was a need to clean the pensioners’ roll because while some retirees were overpaid, some were short-paid. He also said there was a need to expunge ghost pensioners from the list of retirees.
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He added that some of the issues that the pensioners canvassed, namely consequential improvement in their pensions and the amendment of the state CPS law, would require the intervention of the state legislature, which the government would soon seek.
He praised the state government, saying it was one among a few in the country that consistently paid monthly pensions.
However, representatives of the protesters were quick to point out that pensioners have been screened at least 17 times and did not expect the hindrances that the government identified to be still valid.
This was the situation on the ground when leaders of all the groups, recognising the need to speak with one voice and take the struggle to a new level, decided to coalesce under the platform called, Joint Action Committee (JAC), to fight for the benefits of retirees.
JAC enjoys a huge support, and riding on the crest of that support and unity, it has already organised two successful waves of mass protests and warns that unless the government did something substantial, the mother of all protests was underway. During its first mass protest, it blocked the driveway to the Government House, preventing guests from going into the seat of government to witness the swearing-in of newly elected local government council chairpersons. It took the intervention of the APC gubernatorial candidate, Umar Bago, for the protesters to free the road.
Among the actions JAC had taken since it came into being last year are the review of the 47-year-old pension edict, drafting amendments to the state’s Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) law to take effect from 2007 and forwarding same to Niger State House of Assembly, and writing appeal letters to some statesmen in the state, seeking their intervention in the resolution of their plight. They also interfaced with frontline gubernatorial candidates in the state, during which they shared ideas about how to resolve the disagreement.
But by far, the greatest impact of the mass protests is that they have disturbed the smug feelings of the government, and the “I-don’t-care-attitude” towards pensioners. The retirees are saying, in one word, that they cannot be ignored. As a consequence of their civil actions, the government has so far released about N2.5 billion to offset gratuity liabilities. The pensioners have sent a message to the government that they are a force to reckon with. Although it has not always kept to terms, it plans on releasing N1 billion monthly, according to a plan agreed upon between the government and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).
A cesspit of corruption
Like many states in Nigeria, the Niger State government runs two pension schemes – the Defined Benefit Scheme (DBS) and Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS). While the former is solely funded by the state government and enjoyed by a restricted number, defined by the year of their entry into service, the CPS is jointly funded by both the employee and the employer, in this instance, the Niger State government. However, the CPS in the state itself, ultimately intended to replace the DBS, has become a cesspit of corruption; its operation clearly shows that the people, not the system or models, are the critical reasons why even best-planned policies fail in Nigeria.
During the second half of the administration of the immediate past governor, Mu’azu Babangida, the CPS suffered many waves of abuse, mainly the diversion or outright theft of contributions made by both the state workers and the government. When the Bello Administration took over in 2015, there were widespread arrests of elements in the old administration suspected to have perpetrated the CPS scam, but the administration failed to prosecute suspects and recover the looted funds. Consequently, not only were the suspects freed, the government downplayed, even decriminalised, the issue and invented the phrase, ‘missing contributions’, to describe contributions that did not reach Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs).
To make up for the ‘missing’ funds, the administration promised to double its counterpart contribution. While this was expected to address the situation, another suspected scam occurred: All third-party deductions from salaries of workers, on behalf of multiple organisations, including those meant for PFAs, ‘disappeared.’ To date, no satisfactory explanation has been given for their whereabouts or what they were used to achieve.
Worse, the government itself, a key stakeholder in CPS, blatantly refused to contribute its quota, as required by law. However, with pressure from the Nigeria Labour Congress, which went on strike, the state government agreed to refund the end-users of the deductions. With the refund process running into glitches, mainly as a result of a lack of financial discipline, the CPS suffered financial anaemia as no refund was made, meaning that retirees under the scheme could not access their pensions or gratuities.
The human cost of this, lamented JAC Vice Chairman Daniel Zita, is that many retirees under the scheme fell into the ghastly hands of disease and untimely death.
“Many of our people are sick and dying. We have told the government that if they have any evidence of the diversion of (CPS) funds, they should give it to us. We are going to arrest and prosecute them; we are going to call for an application of mandamus to compel them, to bring them to justice. But because the perpetrators of this scam are known (i.e. highly placed) the government does not want to take any action,” he said.
As it stands today, the body of retirees from the state public service is divided into two: while those on DBS get their monthly pension and agitate to get their gratuity, retirees on CPS enjoy neither and agitate for both.
Some retirees interviewed observed that the unfolding scenario in Niger State shows that the problem with both the old pension scheme (DBS) and the new one (CPS) is one and the same: corruption and lack of political will to honour the commitment.
Mohammed Isah, who retired from the state’s Ministry of Science and Technology, said that funds are available to implement either of the schemes, but what is lacking is political will. “I believe that the capacity to pay (pensions and gratuities) is there, capacity in terms of ability to pay, even if it means paying in instalments, in batches, to reduce the heaviness of it, but that you just refused to pay completely is unconscionable. No pension scheme is bad if the political will is there,” he said.
Mr Damidami agrees. “If, today, the government wants to pay gratuities; it can pay. At least, a very serious government will look for money elsewhere, to douse the tension, but when you keep turning deaf ears to the cries of retirees, it means you are not sensitive to what they are going through.” He said.
For Mr Bello, the recurring fixture in all the mass protests, all hope is not lost. He still nurses the hope that his remaining eye will be rescued from the clutches of glaucoma if he gets the fund to pay for surgery soon.
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