Following the public outcry that greeted the recent amendment of the Governors and Deputy Governors’ Pension Law in Akwa Ibom State, the state House of Assembly last week repealed the law. Davidson Iriekpen examines the issues
Last week, the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly repealed the controversial portion of the state Governors and Deputy Governors’ Pension Law in response to public outcry. This followed the transmission of the law back to them by Governor Godswill Akpabio. The governor and the lawmakers reasoned that the section that had attracted the general condemnation was the provision for free medical services for former governors and former deputy governors and their spouses at a sum not exceeding N100 million and N50 million per annum, respectively.
The bill to repeal the controversial section of the law was sent to the Assembly by Akpabio and read at the plenary. Soon after, the state lawmakers repealed the free medical services section of the former Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Law 2014. Section 1 (d) of the bill now provides free medical services for former governors and deputy governors and their spouses without any monetary value attached.
It was gathered that on receiving the bill, the Assembly allowed it to pass through first and second readings and immediately dissolved into committee of the whole where they considered the bill clause by clause. After the deliberation, the deputy speaker, Mr. Udo Kerien, moved a motion to adopt the committee report and it was seconded by Mr. Ekong Samson. After the motion, the bill was read a third time and was passed on the floor of the house with 11 out of 26 members in attendance.
Speaking after the passage of the bill, the speaker, Hon. Samuel Ikon, said the Assembly had in demonstration of its people-oriented nature bowed to public pressure by amending the contentious section of the bill. Ikon said the action of the lawmakers was a demonstration of democracy, stressing that all the members that were presented at plenary when the bill was passed agreed to the bill.
Since the controversial portion was expunged from the law, the lawmakers have been receiving commendations for being sensitive to the plight of the common man.
The pension law, which was amended late last month, had generated a lot of condemnation across the country, prompting Akpabio to announce his readiness to remove the controversial clauses in the law.
The governor had come under severe criticism by Nigerians many of whom had, apparently, not taken time to review the amendment to know the motive behind it. But as it turned out, not only was the motive behind the law misrepresented by his critics, the figures attributed as the medical pension benefits to be enjoyed by ex-governors and their deputies were small when compared with similar laws in other states, like Lagos, Rivers, Gombe, Kwara, Kano, Kaduna, and Bauchi.
Akpabio had explained that the new law was a mere amendment to the former governors and deputy governors’ pension law that had been in existence since 2006. He said he was not seeking personal interest with the law as being speculated in many quarters.
The governor frowned on what he called the vilification of the lawmakers when they ought to be commended for putting a cap on the ex-governors and ex-deputy governors’ pension law. He hoped 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.”
Akpabio added that he would as an interim measure use his executive powers 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 make for a health insurance scheme for former executive office holders in the state.
He narrated how the pension law was enacted in 1998 and amended in 1999, 2002 and 2007, stating 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 on several medical bills submitted by his predecessors and deputy governors that could not be verified. Issues like this, he said, had necessitated the amendment to put a limit to the 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,” he said.
Akpabio said, “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. 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 the critics had descended heavily on the law, the governor urged them to study a similar enacted in Lagos State. Comparing the two laws, Akpabio said while the new law in his state offers two cars to ex-governors every four years, Lagos gives six cars every three years to former governors and their deputies. He added that Lagos offers free medical treatment to governors and their deputies as well as members of their immediate families, and 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 ex-governors and ex-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. He added that similar pension laws in other states were more generous than the one in force in Akwa Ibom.
In a country where public officers hardly listen to the voice of the people, the Akwa Ibom lawmakers have been commended for repealing the controversial portions in response to public outcry. The governor has also been commended.
A Lagos-based legal practitioner, Okon Ubot, said, “No matter what anybody thinks, we really need to commend the lawmakers for listening to the voices of the people as far as the law was concerned. I know of states in the country that won’t even blink, much more repeal the law. They will just allow Nigerians make ‘noise’ for a few weeks and then sweep the issue under the carpet. We really need to give them credit because if they refused to repeal the law, there is nothing anybody would have done.”
A former senator and presidential aide, Mrs. Joy Emordi, said Akpabio was “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 of Lands and Housing, Chief Nduese Essien, said with the quick review of aspects of the heated law, Akpabio has shown that he was a democrat. “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,” Essien said.
In the same vein, the chairman of the Ikeja branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Onyekachi Ubani, lauded the decision of the governor and the lawmakers, saying Akpabio has done what true democrats do by listening to the outcry of his people. “With this, I believe, Akpabio can continue with his development programmes for his people and end his tenure better,” Ubani said.