Eze Ajoku is the president of the Coalition for the Rights of Older Persons in Nigeria (COSROPIN). A former Nigerian senator, who represented Imo East Senatorial District in 2005, he also heads Darlez Care Orphanage Home and Coalition of Cregivers, Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Nigeria. In this interview, he outlines the survival challenges faced by older/senior citizens in Nigeria and efforts to turn the tide through advocacy and legislation.
PT: Would you say our senior citizens have been fairly treated over the years?
Ajoku: First of all, who is an older citizen in Nigeria? Primarily, that is anyone who is 60 years and above. That is what the nation has accepted. That is why the government retires people at 60. They declare them at that time, ‘’senior citizen, older persons, not fit for work so you should go home’’. In terms of treatment, what happens when that person is sent home. Immediately a civil servant is retired, his (or her) health insurance is stopped. He has no more health coverage. If he has to go to the hospital if he is sick, he has to pay from his pocket. Secondly, that civil servant doesn’t get any form of payment from the government till about one year and six months (after retiring). That is why those who retire either die or get into a worse medical condition because at that time, if they didn’t steal while in office or were corrupt, they would be empty in terms of financial support. In that way, you will find out that our older persons are not well treated. There has been some improvement in the regularity of payment of pensions in the last few years but in some states, pensions are not even paid three or four years after you retire. When we are talking about older persons, we are not talking about those in the FCT but older Nigerians wherever they are located. Some of the things the older persons are denied is health coverage, social security and financial security. That is not a good way to treat older persons.
PT: Culturally, Nigerians respect older persons, at least ideally. What would you tie to this current negative trend, you outlined?
Ajoku: There is a failure in the system for people to recognise that one day they would also retire and that things are not right. For example, if I am in service now and I realise those who retired before me were not well treated, I will put in place measures to ensure they are better treated, then there will be policies in place to ensure that all these things are covered because it is the government that develops policies and work systems to ensure all are covered. That why those of us in NGOs put pressure on the government to put in place policies that will benefit all people. The failure of workers while they are still in service to put in place policies and procedures that will cater for them when they retire is the cause of all these. A civil servant who is not corrupt is going to face a hard time when he retires.
When I was a much younger person in Lagos, one of my mentors, a good example of a Christian believer in government, decent man who was not corrupt, not only did they take his insurance and all these things I am talking about, they moved him out of his house and allocated that house to another senior civil servant. If not that during the Obasanjo era they sold those houses to people (civil servants), if civil servants were still occupying government houses, the day they retire, they move out, another civil servant moves into the house. It is the institutional framework that denies them those benefits. If you look at government plan and initiatives, they do not in any way accommodate older persons. It is the work of NGOs like COSROPIN, that has given birth to the National Senior Citizens Centre where now there is an agency that should be looking after older persons. But that agency needs the cooperation of other agencies in order to make an impact.
PT: As a former senator, who is well-travelled, what are the best global practices of how other nations treat senior citizens?
Ajoku: In Nigeria, there is no social security structure that when you are working you pay. Our pension system does not provide us that social security. In developed climes, senior citizens are respected and they are well treated by their government. They are looked after. Most Nigerians who are in the U.S. are in care business. They establish homes and the government puts their older persons in those homes and pay for the older persons to be looked after. They are not like our old people’s homes. They are care homes. Once you are 60 years above, you have a discount on your medications, travel and I guess in accommodation, there must be some packages for older persons. That’s what happens in other climes and we are yet to get there (in Nigeria). All the care homes I know are still owned by individuals. The government has not set up anything to look after older persons. In this country, there are less than nine geriatricians (doctors for older persons). There are no geriatric wards so that if an older person goes to the hospital, there is a ward that he (or she) goes to and doctors there are specialised in treating diseases of older persons. When an older person goes to the hospital, he does not go with only one type of ailment, most are diabetic, hypertensive, they have arthritis: you find out that anytime he goes to the hospital, he is a combination of those things, including his eyes. We have made no arrangement or provision to look after our older citizens.
PT: What sort of legislative and institutional framework are you exploring to ensure the rights of older persons are defended in Nigeria?
Ajoku: When the Coalition of Societies for the Rights of Older Persons came on board, one of the things we identified first was that there was no legal framework on which to advocate the rights and privileges of older persons. That was why we set about putting together a bill. We started putting together that bill in 2016. Between 2016 and now, that bill has been passed by the Senate and is at the last stage of concurrence with the House of Representatives. What that bill seeks is to define some of the rights and privileges of these older persons. We have also together with the government developed a National Policy on Ageing that should also cater for the needs of older persons driving all relevant MDAs to work together to ensure that older persons are looked after. A lot of awareness has now been created. The activities of the humanitarian ministry are helping. They are not reaching out to all older people but in their social security they are capturing some older persons. Right now, the government is responding to some of these needs. I am on two ministerial committees. One of them is fashioning out health insurance for Nigerian older persons. We are going to present to the minister our report and thereafter we will present our recommendations. Funding such insurance should not be a problem against the backdrop of many organisations that are swimming in profits in Nigeria.
PT: Tell us more about COSROPIN and how it was birthed including its achievements so far.
Ajoku: The Coalition of Societies for the Rights of Older Persons was a recognition by some of us that NGOs, CSOs and retirement groups are not speaking with one voice for the government to hear them. During the 6th anniversary of Graceful Ageing Fellowship (GRAF), we felt there was a need to gather all those in ageing related businesses to come together and that is how we formed the coalition. The work of the coalition is to put pressure on government. We have held two national conferences on ageing. The government participated. We have been advocating through MDAs for better treatment of older persons and I am glad that government is responding. In 2016, when we started, we went for defence. We appreciate efforts of some senators in the past to come out with bills that would look after children and older persons. Eventually we wanted an older person’s commission. But the bill, after it had gone through all the stages, ended up becoming the National Senior Citizens Centre bill that the president signed. There is a National Senior Citizens Centre. The board has been appointed. It is the only agency now to look after older persons. COSROPIN was the one who took that bill to the humanitarian ministry and prevailed on them. The minister assured us that she was going to ensure that the centre was actualised and also that the policy was implemented. COSROPIN is a member of the board. The coalition consists of senior civil servants, the army, navy, police, air force, Nigerian Union of Pensioners, everyone working in the ageing sector, etc… We are expecting that the bill that will provide the legal framework for the rights and privileges of older persons to be entrenched will soon be passed.
PT: Are you taking up this challenge because you are an older citizen or are there aligned reasons for your passion?
Ajoku: I got into ‘ageing’ by the special grace of God. When I was 62 years old, I had finished from the Senate. I was going through all those older persons diseases: diabetes, hypertension, etc and it was very bad at a time. The doctor said I needed a lifestyle change. He lectured me on the need to change my lifestyle: food, exercising, spirituality, etc. when I did all these things including taking my wife to him to find out what I should be eating, I found out that I was improving. I felt God was saying to me that what you have learnt that is making you to feel right, many of your mates don’t know it. So teach your mates. I spoke to my pastor who called members of the church who were 50 years and above. And that was how Graceful Ageing Fellowship started. It was to be Graceful Ageing Forum but we went to CAC, they said ‘Forum’ cannot be registered. So we just ditched the ‘F’ and called it Fellowship. That was why I basically got into healthy ageing. It was from healthy ageing that God started helping me to reach out. I established Graceful ageing fellowship across this country. Port Harcourt, Owerri, Aba, Enugu, Jos, Makurdi, Minna, Lagos and moved to Ghana, Liberia and Cote D ‘Voire. Managing them became too hard as I had to be in those locations. It was taking a toll on my health so we focused on Abuja. It was during our 6th anniversary that I felt look, government will hear our voices because most of the people I knew in ageing were just struggling and that was one of the things that has led to the emergence of COSROPIN…
Also, my mother also is an older person. She is still alive and will be celebrating her 103 years on earth on the 26th of December. I am 74. Both me and my mother are in the class of older persons. My wife is over 60. We have looked at those that surround us in the rural areas and we see what they are going through. It is not a fight for myself anymore. It is a conviction. This country has given a lot of benefit to me. I was in the Senate, worked, I run a business. I have decided to spend my energy to get government that has the capacity to improve the lot of older persons…COSROPIN has become a voice for older person. I was returned as the president of COSROPIN this September for another three years because people feel I have the passion for older persons. It is humanitarian service for me…what binds all of us together in the care for older persons.
PT: What are benefits of the centre when fully operational?
Ajoku: It is only agency of the government that is concerned about the issues of older persons. The centre will now liaise with all government agencies to ensure that policies are in place. The centre will be given money for programmes and that is why the NGOs are there. The government has never on its own succeeded in most businesses. The CSOs, NGOs are normally the extension of their work in the rural areas. The centre will be expected to work with NGOs. For instance, the Ministry of Women Affairs has the Women Development Centre. The Women Development Centre is working with the National Council of Women Societies (NCWS). They are the ‘leg and the arm’ of the Women Development Centre. The NGOs like the coalition, which has right now about 82 members, should be the foot soldiers of the centre. If the centre is not using the coalition, then it is trying to recreate the wheels and wating national resources. The coalition is in every state and readily on the ground. The centre will be a policy making and programme development centre but the implementation of those programmes will need foot soldiers and that is where the coalition comes in. And that is why most African countries are making efforts to make coalitions on ageing.…
PT: What nuggets do you have for younger persons?
Ajoku: They must understand that they will get older someday. The Igbos have a saying: if a young man wants to show his strength, and breaks the stools which old people sit on, when he gets old, he will not have the pleasure of the old people’s stool because it’s broken down. Do all you can to support your older parents because they laboured to support you even when they did not because they lacked. Respect and support older persons. Whenever you find yourself, put in place policies that would take care of yourself when you get old…
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