One afternoon in the late 1990s, Pat Isaac climbed to the roof top of a water tank on the premises of the defunct Nigerian Airways to check the tanks. As a staff of the department in charge of water supply, the check was a routine activity, he told PREMIUM TIMES.
But that afternoon, what was a routine check took a tragic turn and he missed his steps. Within seconds, he narrated, he came down crashing from the edge of the iron bars above which the tank was placed. He lost consciousness, with his face damaged and head turned backwards.
“That was the last thing I could remember,” he said, slowly, his head bent sideways. “I spent many, many months at the hospital and people felt I may not survive it. But I thank God I survived. It was an Indian doctor that treated me.”
Few years after the incident, Mr Isaac said, he retired from the services of the Nigerian Airways. But for more than a decade after his retirement, until the first week of October, the old retiree said he lamented and waited in vain without receiving his entitlement from an organisation he served diligently.
“It was harrowing,” he said of the experience. “We waited for many, many years. We were abandoned by the government. Many of our people have died; many have become weak and incapacitated. It is really sad we were treated that way. We thank God this government remembers us now.”
Mr Isaac’s situation is not an isolated case; it is one of many sad tales retirees of the defunct Nigerian Airways told PREMIUM TIMES on Monday. The retirees, who all filed out for verification ahead of payment of their outstanding entitlement, said they had lived through pains over the years as the government neglected them.
Alimi Kuye, a retiree, told PREMIUM TIMES he personally knew of about five of his colleagues who died due to their inability to pay for medical treatment in the periods they received no benefit from the government.
“Many people have died, as you can clearly see from what people are saying,” he said. “Many died from avoidable ailments; many have become paralysed because they couldn’t afford hospital bills and money for drugs. It is sad.”
Another retiree, who identified himself simply as Adigun, spoke of the government’s neglect of retirees in harsh words, lambasting past governments for their ‘nonchalant attitude’ to the plight of poor pensioners. He also commended the Nigerian government for addressing their plight.
“Our past leaders failed us. They abandoned us when we are helpless and have no strength again to work. It is sad. We thank the Buhari government for coming to our rescue.”
The Nigerian Airways came into being in 1958, and ceased operations in 2003 during the Obasanjo administration which ended in 2007.
The succeeding Yar’adua government paid some entitlements to some of the airline’s workers, while its successor — the Jonathan administration — did not.
Weeks ago, the Nigerian government announced its readiness to pay outstanding entitlements owed the Nigerian Airways pensioners. The payment will be effected after a verification conducted in three centres nationwide, supervised by officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC).
But the exercise which was initially scheduled to end on October 22 was later extended by one week following disruptions in the arrangement.
At the Airforce Base venue of the screening and verification in Lagos, PREMIUM TIMES observed that while many of the pensioners were all smiles in anticipation of the payment of their entitlements, others looked tired and worn out due to the rigour involved in the exercise.
PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the exercise begins with the pensioner obtaining a verification slip and a designated number, after which he could be eligible to receive the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA) form.
At the Lagos Airport verification centre, after collecting the PICA form, the pensioner moves ahead for signature at the side of the premises and after that, he goes for EFCC check. The EFCC check is to curtail fraudulent claims and confirm other account-related details, our correspondent gathered.
The pensioner would then be captured for record and accountability purposes, PREMIUM TIMES learnt, after which he could go home and await payment.
Since Friday, Mr Adigun told PREMIUM TIMES, he and other retirees have been shuttling the Airforce Base section of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, which is one of the three selected verification venues nationwide. He explained however that he had not successfully completed his verification.
“The process is not bad but the crowd is much,” he said. “The EFCC people work till late in the evening. Hopefully, by tomorrow (Tuesday) many would have been attended to. If you were here on Friday or Saturday, you would have no space to even stand.”
Sylvester Okorie, another Nigerian Airway ex-staff, told PREMIUM TIMES many of pensioners slept around the premises of the verification venue over the weekend because they could not afford transport fare to their various places on a daily basis.
“I live in Igando, Alimosho local government area. I slept here on Saturday through Sunday and now. If by the end of today, I am not able to complete and get to EFCC (verification unit), I will sleep till tomorrow,” he said.
He explained that he was not alone in the compound as many others, too, slept overnight to avoid Lagos traffic and get to the venue on time.
“I need about one thousand naira to get here from Igando. Where will I get that every day? Its’s better to just sleep here.
“In spite of that even, I got number 184 on the queue; my friend who came later got 271. Many people slept here last night. It is difficult but we thank God this government remember us.”
Mr Okorie worked for years as a police officer, he said in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, and that accounted for why he was still strong and could withstand the rigour of the exercise.
He said, “I see many of our people being carried about and I thank God for (the nature of) my body system. I worked in the Police for years before joining Nigerian Airways and retiring there. Many of our people have to be taken around; the sight is pathetic. None of us deserves to suffer the way we were treated. We thank God now.”
Mr Okorie’s friend, also an ex-staff named Alex, said he came from Maza-Maza area of the city and could not afford to go back daily due to paucity of funds. “We are poor retirees; we can’t afford to be going and coming every day. That’s why it is important that this process is made easier and faster, even though they are trying.”
He also said that many pensioners had to be taken in ‘wheel chairs’ to come for verification, adding that the process is long because there are too many pensioners involved. He however praised the government and lambasted previous governments for their failure to come to their aid.
“Imagine how tired and weak our people are. These are people who served Nigeria. What message is the country passing to younger generations?” he asked, rhetorically.
Makeshift ‘Canteens’, photocopier operators spring up at verification centre
PREMIUM TIMES observed that as the verification exercise continued slowly on Monday, some traders devised ways to make quick money.
At the entrance of the verification centre, there are food sellers doing quick businesses as the exercise progressed. Many of the pensioners, PREMIUM TIMES observed, took turns to buy food and drinks from the traders.
Due to the nature of the exercise, PREMIUM TIMES learnt, there are also numerous photocopier machine operators in the building, ostensibly to attend to the concerns of pensioners.
“The traders have helped us a lot by their presence,” said Mr Adigun. “Many who couldn’t go home can eat here with the little they have left,” he added.
“Again due to the nature of what we are here to do, the photocopier operators too have been of help, We have to make copies of many documents and we can’t do that outside.”
Light at the end of tunnel?
According to Mr Isaac, while waiting for the payments for decades, many former workers of the airways survived on crumbs from relatives and children while those who had no such luxury have died.
“The last time we were paid was around 2008, when Yar’adua was president,” said Mr Okorie. “Since then we have received no payment from the government.”
“Anytime we had meeting and deliberation, they always announce that people have died; almost every week. With this payment, people will live fine now.”
A staff of PICA who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES at the Lagos verification unit on Monday but declined to have his name in print because he was not authorised to speak, said the pensioners would have their accounts credited before the end of the week.
“Although I understand they will get about 50 percent of their entitlements but payment will be effected after verification is done, latest before Friday,” he said.
“The exercise is moving and as you can see, the crowd has reduced drastically.
“By Wednesday or Thursday, despite the extension, we may not have anybody on ground again as they will likely have cleared everybody.
“If you were here last Friday and Saturday, you’d understand what I mean. The exercise is smooth and everybody will smile later.”
Thankful, joyful pensioners
A few of the pensioners who have had their verification completed spoke glowingly of the federal government’s resolve to clear the backlog of entitlements.
A pensioner, Kunle Ajayi, said he had waited endlessly for the moment and thanked the Nigerian government for the initiative.
“The government has done well by paying us. I have completed my verification and I have been done the ‘capturing’. They said we will get alert by end of the week; we are grateful.
“Although the exercise may appear tough because of our ages, we still appreciate the government who remember us,” said Mr Adigun.
For Mr Okorie, both Presidents (Umaru) Yar’adua and Buhari deserve commendation for their resolve to pay the entitlements.
“Yar’adua is dead but he was the one who paid us before he died. (Goodluck) Jonathan was there for years and he never remembered us. He abandoned us,” said Mr Okorie.
“We remember Yar’adua and pray for him. We pray for Buhari who remembered us –– God will remember him too.”