But for those with hearts of stone who would rather give their babies live snakes rather than delicious fish, it is a shock to hear the heart rending rendition of live stories of hundreds of thousands of Nigerian aged pensioners who have so far been dispatched to their early graves by those thieving bureaucrats in government offices who corner the pension entitlements of retirees.
As far back as two decades ago, I grew up in a neighbourhood with children of some retired Nigerian Railway Corporation workers and even police retirees who were subjected to the horrendous ordeals of traveling from Kafanchan in Kaduna state to the so-called pension offices in the then federal capital of Lagos in search of their pension and entitlements.
Some of these patriots who dedicated their youth to the service of humanity and the Nigerian nation were left desolate by the system and allowed to die miserably without enjoying the fruits of their labour.
Sadly, it is unlikely that there is any rational Nigerian who has not read about the sad experiences of retirees in this country who have been made to stand in the heat of the scorching sun and other elements of the hot temperate weather for many hours even in their fragile condition just so that those who run the corrupt pension scheme in the various government offices can verify their identities. Many were known to have collapsed and died before it was their turn.
These miserable tales of Nigerian pensioners received even much more notorious rating and further tarnished the global image of Nigeria when it emerged few months back that a serving permanent secretary in the Federal Civil Service in Abuja; a director in the office of the Head of Civil Service of Nigeria, among other accounting officers in the pension office, allegedly stole over N30 billion belonging to the Nigerian police pension.
Public outrage swelled when the Abuja High Court slammed an apparent slap on the wrists of one of the notorious convicted pension thieves charged before his court with a pronouncement of few months jail sentence or an option of fine running to few hundreds of naira.
This erstwhile top civil servant who allegedly cornered mind blowing and/or humongous public fund from the police pension was reported to have immediately paid the paltry fine and was on the verge of regaining his freedom when public protests compelled the powers-that-be to order his re-arrest for retrial.
That Abuja High Court Judge was dragged before the National judicial council [NJC] and slammed with a year suspension from duty without salaries for this spectacular official indiscretion of setting a big time pension thief almost free of sanction for his monumental crime against pensioners.
The Nigerian National Assembly has also intervened in the series of scandals trailing the federal pension office in the recent time.
Perhaps, the most enduring panacea aimed at addressing the various challenges confronting the administration of pension schemes in the country was the recent passage by the National Assembly and the signing into law by President Goodluck Jonathan of the pension Reform Bill into an Act of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Observers are keen to point out that this reform of the corruption-ridden pension sector as recently done by the current federal administration is another remarkable achievements in the human rights annals of Nigeria.
Some human rights scholars have even equated this achievement of the pension reform Act of 2014 with the signing of the National Human Rights Commission amendment Act which was done by the current President Jonathan government which has given financial and operational independence to the human rights commission of Nigeria. For a long time to come, the legacy set by this government in the area of cleaning up the stench ridden pension sector will remain enduring. But there is the urgent need to demand accountability on the part of the oversight agency so that the good provisions of the new Act would see the light of the day and for would be pension thieves to be made to face the full weight of the law.
The Pension Reform Act of 2014 is a remarkable human rights milestone because it is meant to clearly promote section 34(1) of the 1999 constitution (as amended) which spells out thus; “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of person, and accordingly – (a) no person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment”.
With the coming into being of this Act, it is expected that the dignity of every pensioner would become sacrosanct and the chances of corruption has significantly been eliminated. But the onus lies on the enforcers of the law to ensure effective use of the law.
Already, President Jonathan has also sent to the senate for confirmation, as Director General, the name of Mrs. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, who was acting as director general of Pension Commission (PENCOM) and spearheaded the advocacy for the passage of the pension Reform Bill into the pension reform Act of 2014.
Among the salient aspects of the pension Reform (amendment) Act of 2014 are: to enhance the powers of the National Pension Commission, in the institution’s regulatory and enforcement activities, enhance the protection of pension fund assets, unlock the opportunities for the deployment of pension assets for national development, review the sanctions’ regime to reflect current realities, provide for the participation of the Informal Sector and also provide the framework for the adoption of the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) by States and Local Governments.
It is widely believed that the reform is a product of the joint effort of the Goodluck Jonathan administration and the National Assembly to put an end to the era of impunity and, in some instances, of widespread corruption in the various Pension Departments.
The Act as currently reformed has enhanced the regulatory authority and efficiency of the commission to provide greater oversight on, and reposition the Pension Transition Arrangement Departments (PTADs) for greater efficiency and accountability in the administration and payment of pensions under the Defined Benefits Scheme.
From the benefit of hindsight, the implementation of the provisions of the Pension Reform Act 2004 dealing with the establishment of Pension Transitional Arrangement Departments (PTAD) for the administration of pensions for pensioners under Defined Benefits Scheme has been challenging due to not only many ambiguities in the law, but also widespread corruption.
For instance, while the number of pensioners under this Defined Pension Scheme or old pension scheme (that is those who retired before the Pension Reform Act 2004 came into being) were supposed to be dropping since no new people are joining and those under it are aging and transiting to the great world beyond, the number has been increasing.
Various Pension Departments inflate the numbers with ghost pensioners (those who never existed and those who existed, but had died and were not declared dead to the government by the Pension Departments). An instance whereby a serving commissioner in Abia state alleged recently that his late Father’s name has remained in the pension list long after he had died. But with these pension reforms, such irregularities would be weeded out.
It was under the former pension regime that all corrupt cases originated unlike the Contributory Pension Scheme.
The Act as amended has now therefore repositioned the Pension Transition Arrangement Departments (PTADs) to ensure greater efficiency and accountability in the administration of the Defined Benefits Scheme in a way that payment of pensions would be made by the Accountant General of the Federation directly into pensioners’ bank accounts in line with the current policy of the Federal Government rather than channeling the benefits through the various Pension Departments.
It is the expectation of the majority of Nigerians that the enforcement of these pension reform amendment law of 2014 will restore sanity and discipline in the administration of pension schemes in Nigeria to save retirees from the unwarranted ordeals of dehumanizing torture.
Besides, the Pension Reform Amendment Act 2014 prescribes new offences and stiffer penalties against the violation of the pension law and all forms of mismanagement or diversion of pension funds and assets under any guise. This is about the most important and interesting aspect of the Act which, if enforced vigorously, will be the final nail on the coffin of corruption and looting of pension fund in Nigeria.
– Mr. Onwubiko &Ugochi Izuagba (Miss), work with Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria.