The Akwa Ibom State Governor, Chief Akpabio, last week displayed a high degree of sensitivity to the feelings of the people when he announced that he would ensure that some of the controversial clauses in the state Governors and Deputy Governors’ Pension Law are amended. The pension law, which was assented penultimate week by the governor after it was passed by the lawmakers, had come under severe criticism amongst different sectors of the country.
Specifically, the law had put a ceiling on the amount former governors, their deputies and their spouses could spend annually on medical bills at N100 million and N50 million respectively. Irked by this development, a cross-section of Nigerians and the civil society organisations descended on the Akpabio.
But as it later turned out, not only was the law misunderstood by the governor’s critics, the figures attributed as the medical pension benefits were grossly exaggerated, at least when compared to other sister states.
The governor, who stated that the new law was a mere amendment to the one that had been in existence since 2006, said he was not seeking personal interest with the law as being speculated in some quarters. Akpabio, who took time to explain the law and the motive behind it to journalists in Lagos, last week, stated that the new law was not seeking his own interest as being speculated in some quarters and described the controversy generated by the law as “political, unwarranted and a siege on truth.”
According to the governor’s explanation, when the Akwa Ibom law is compared to similar laws enacted in other states like Lagos, Rivers, Gombe, Kwara, Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, among others, the Akwa Ibom pension law is far better. The governor, who said he was deeply saddened by the vilification of the state lawmakers for undertaking a course of action, which should have been applauded, enjoined them to maintain the status quo by reverting to the open-ended situation inherent in the law before it was amended.
Akpabio, who noted that with the excision of the controversial sections from the amendment, “the agents of falsehood would lift their siege on the truth and not distract the good people of the state from the task of the uncommon transformation of our dear state,” adding that he would as an interim measure use his executive fiat to set up a medical council that would verify all future medical claims by former governors and deputy governors of Akwa Ibom. In the long-term, he said, a new legislation would be proposed to cater to a health insurance scheme for former executive office holders in the state.
The governor, who chronicled how the law was enacted in 1998 and amended in 1999, 2002 and 2007, stated that prior to the current amendment, it was being abused because of the lacuna in it. He recalled that he had been compelled to sign off several medical bills submitted by his predecessors and deputy governors that could not be verified, therefore necessitating the amendment that would have placed a cap on medical expenses.
Former governors and deputy governors and their spouses who were not sick, Akpabio explained, “Were not to receive a dime from the fund. These sums, which were for the governors and the deputy governor’s medical treatment, suffered the most bashing from a mischievous vocal minority, who sought to reap political capital out of it. In their frenzied desperation, they even claimed that the law was made for my personal benefit. They lost sight of the fact that I am not among the beneficiaries as I am not on pension.
“The Governors And Deputy Governors Pension Law was first enacted in 1998 as the Special Grant (Former Chief Executives) Edict. It was amended in 1999 by the Special Grant (Former Chief Executives (Amendment) Edict of 1999) and was retained in Cap. 122 Laws of Akwa Ibom State 2000. It was amended in 2002 by the Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Law 2002, which was later repealed by the Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Law 2006 assented to by my predecessor in office on 26th April 2007.
“In the course of its implementation, we noticed a lacuna in the 2007 law, particularly on account of its open-endedness in the provisions relating to the medical expenses and provision of funds for the employment of domestic staff for the former governors and deputy governors and working with the House of Assembly, we sought to protect the law from abuse by putting a ceiling on the medical expenses for the treatment of these senior citizens of Akwa Ibom State.
“The ceiling, which was pegged at N100 million per annum for former governors and N50 million per annum for former deputy governors, was never meant to be given either in part or in whole to anybody at anytime for any reason.
“It was meant to be paid to health institutions involved in the treatment of the former governors or former deputy governors and their spouses. It was, therefore, deliberate falsehood and organised misinformation to claim that the said money will be paid to former governors or deputy governors every year. This has never been the practice and the amendment has added nothing to give credence to this obviously politicised orchestration.”
Wondering why critics descended heavily on the law, the governor urged them to study a similar enactment in Lagos State. While comparing the two laws Akpabio, said while the new law in his state offers two cars to governors every four years, Lagos gives six cars every three years to former governors and their deputies.
He added that while Lagos equally offers free medical treatment to governors and their deputies as well as members of their immediate families, it also offers them accommodation in any area of their choice in the state, while governors who served two consecutive terms are also given a house in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
In the case of Akwa Ibom, it is only the governors and deputy governors as well as their spouses that are entitled to medical treatment, while their choice of accommodation is limited to a five-bedroom maisonette in Akwa Ibom, adding that similar pension laws in other states were a lot more generous than the one in force in Akwa Ibom.
In a country where public officers are hardly sensitive to the opinion of the people, Akpabio has therefore received commendations on his decision to rescind the controversial law.
A former senator and presidential aide, Mrs. Joy Emordi, acknowledged the governor as being 'truly the people’s governor’ for showing the strength of character in his decision to reason on the side of the people.
Similarly, a former Minister for Lands and Housing, Chief Nduese Essien, noted that by proposing a quick review of controversial aspects of the law, Akpabio has further proven that he is a democrat.
Speaking to THISDAY, Essien said he was one of those who interacted with the governor privately on the dust raised by the pension bill, and expressed satisfaction that the governor stood on the side of the people. “I didn’t join others to castigate him publicly, but I reached out to him privately because I have always known him to be a listening governor," he said.
He maintained that the hallmark of a caring and sensitive administration is defined by the ability of the leader to listen and take decisions based on the advice of his people.
In the same vein, the chairman of the Ikeja branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Onyekachi Ubani, lauded the decision, saying Akpabio has done what true democrats do by listening to the outcry of his people. Ubani said by his action, Akpabio has not allowed such an issue to erode the reputation and achievements the administration has recorded in the last seven years of his governorship.
"With this, I believe Akpabio can continue with his development programme for his people and end his tenure better," he added.
But a former deputy governor of the state, Dr. Chris Ekpeyong, is not in support of the decision to remove the N100 and 50million ceiling. Ekpeyong, who spoke with THISDAY last week, faulted the uproar generated by the law and concluded that the content of the law was grossly exaggerated and blown out of proportion by a cross-section of Nigerians.
He wondered why the law drew so much attention when Akwa Ibom was not the only state in the country that had enacted such a law.
“I don’t know why people blew it out of proportion as if Akwa Ibom is the only state in the country that has enacted such a law. May be it is because of the governor’s extrovert nature. There is nothing new or strange in the law. Other states have similar laws that are worse. Go and study them,” he said.
The former deputy governor attributed the uproar to the political intrigues in the state ahead of the 2015 elections, adding that there was nothing in the law that was strange. He argued that the law had been in existence since 2000, adding that there was nothing new added to it other than pegging the amount to be collected by the state's former governors and their deputies.
Describing Akpabio as a governor who has done better than the previous governors of the state, Ekpeyong wondered why Nigerians would show so much interest in the affairs of the state. He argued that what Akpabio was trying to do with the new amendment was to save money for the state by pegging the amount to be collected by former governors and deputies, instead of leaving it open-ended like the previous government.
He said former governors and deputy governors had held series meetings where they agreed that there was the need to amend the law for it to be explicit, in terms of determining the limit of the amount due to a particular former officer.
“The new amendment was in the wisdom of the governor, who felt it was better to define the limit of the amount to be drawn by the former governors and their deputies instead of still leaving it open-ended. In the wisdom of the governor, it was better to define the limit of the amount to be drawn by the former governors and their deputies instead of leaving it undefined.
“I really do not know why Nigerians reacted like that to the law. This law in question exists in other states and I did not hear of any uproar it generated in Katsina, Kano, Bauchi, Lagos, Rivers, Imo and other states. I don’t know why that of Akwa Ibom will be an exception. I think what I see is that they want Akwa Ibom people to go cap-in-hand, begging for food,” he said.
The former deputy governor, who disclosed that he was the one who mooted the idea for the law in 2000, argued that rather than castigate the governor for his initiative to save the state’s resource, he should have been commended.
“They just heard N100 million for medical treatment and everybody went berserk. They simply cashed in on the fact that Akpabio is an extrovert to a fault. The whole uproar is because of the political intrigues in the state ahead of the 2015 elections. This is my house; he did not build it for me. But he has done better than the previous governors. I don’t know why Nigerians are interested in Akwa Ibom State,” he said.
Contending that the law was in accordance with 1999 Constitution, the former deputy governor challenged those berating the law to go ahead and examine similar laws enacted in other states, noting that they were a lot more generous than the one in force in Akwa Ibom. He said a lot of people reacted to the law the way they did because of Akpobio’s extrovert disposition.
Also comparing the Lagos State law with that of Akwa Ibom State for instance, Ekpeyong said while the new law in his state offered two cars to governors every four years, Lagos gives six cars every three years to former governors and their deputies. He added that while Lagos equally offers free medical treatment to governors and their deputies as well as members of their immediate families, it also offers them accommodation in any area of their choice in the state.
In the Lagos law, he said governors who served two consecutive terms are given two houses – one in Lagos and another in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). But in the case of Akwa Ibom State, the former deputy governor said only the governors and deputy governors as well as their spouses that are entitled to medical treatment.
On his part, the state Commissioner for Information and Communications, Aniekan Umanah, also said the law was grossly misunderstood.
Speaking at a programme on Planet FM 101.1 in Uyo, the state capital and monitored by THISDAY, Umanah said the law that had been in existence since 2000 and amended in 2006, was amended by Akpabio because it was being abused by the former public officers. He said the governor amended the law to put an end to endless medical bills by the former governors and their deputies.
“The bill is simply an amendment to the law enacted in 2006. It exists in several states of the federation. What the bill seeks to achieve is to put a ceiling to an endless medical expenditure. The old law didn’t put any cap on medical expenditure. There was no ceiling. But the governor in his own wisdom decided it is important we put a ceiling so that we don’t make it an open-ended any more.
“The governor is not seeking an amendment in his own interest rather it is in the interest of the state because if you leave expenditure open-ended, it means you can spend close to N500m in one year without anybody stopping you since there is no law that puts a ceiling. People must also understand clearly that medical expenses provision is not a payment provolone. It is not as if you have access to it. There are procedures before you can get it.”
The Speaker, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Sam Ikon, said as long as Akpabio remained a governor, he was not entitled to benefit from the law. He added that the law was only an amendment to three clauses of the existing 2006 Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Law.
He condemned what he termed the politicisation of the new law by a section of the media and pointed out that the law is “just a third version of the second amendment to a law that had already existed.”