By Ethelbert Okere
In a previous article entitled, “WHAT IHEDIOHA AND UZODIMMA HAVE IN COMMON”, I pointed out that when the whole story of our dear state, Imo, will be told, the two Excellencies, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha and Senator Hope Uzodimma will occupy a pride of place. The point I was making was that though they worked from opposite directions for the 2019 general elections in the state, the combined effect of what they did at different places and time saved the people from the embarrassment of having Uche Nwosu, Governor Rochas Okorocha’s son-in-law, foisted on them as governor. Of course, the story of Okorocha’s perfidious plan to impose Nwosu on the people is too well known to warrant any repetition here, aside from the fact that we need not be reminding ourselves of that sordid episode in our collective history.
Rather, what we should continually look at is the beauty of what the duo achieved for the people of the state regardless of the fact that they were pursuing their individual ambition. What Uzodimma achieved at the primary elections of the All Progressives Congress (APC) by defeating Nwosu, Ihedioha completed at the general election. I am aware that some pro-Uzodimma elements would put a question mark on my scoring of Ihedioha but we cannot run away from the fact that he was at least pronounced the winner of the March 9, 2019 governorship election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC); amid pressure on the latter to declare the election inconclusive and call for a run-off between him and Nwosu.
Those who are in a position to known did not hesitate to point out that had INEC called for a re-run, the situation might have been different from what we have now: Nwosu would most probably be the governor of Imo state today; a situation Imolites had found too grave to contemplate, not because he was not qualified to be one but because his mentor, Okorocha, went about his plans to have Nwosu succeed him in a most unacceptable manner, including bribing a section of the electorate with money belonging to the state.
Ihedioha’s victory was to be later upturned through a judicial process that passed all the rigor of electoral litigation. But in spite of the hostility unleashed on Uzodimma by the Ihedioha camp – which was quite understandable – Uzodimma posted yet another collective mileage for the people: Contrary to what many had expected under the circumstances, Governor Uzodimma continued with all the projects began by Ihedioha. Not only that. Uzodimma also allowed all the panels and commissions of inquiry set up by his predecessor to continue with their work. As it is now, the state has benefited hugely from that gesture, benefits that would not have been there having Uzodimma played the typical Nigerian politician, and stopped the projects started by predecessor or disbanded the panels and commissions of inquiry.
The question, therefore, is: why are some members of the Ihedioha camp quarreling over Governor Uzodimma’s decision to continue with the verification of the pensions data started by his predecessor? It is on record that Governor Ihedioha delayed the payment of pensions for about three months (between June and August 2019) during which period his administration was looking into various aspects of the state’s finances, including a widely known pensions scam. It is also on record that while the delay lasted, there were agitations by pensioners who accused the then governor – as they do now – of simply pocketing their pensions. Even after the payment resumed towards the end of August 2019, Ihedioha continued with the verification exercise, with the hope of completing the exercise, get to the root of the matter and solve the problem of pensions fraud once and for all. But for reasons we all know, he couldn’t continue. In other words, the verification exercise ceased.
In a recent article published by Mr. Chime Aliliele, former executive chairman, Imo State Pensions Commission under the Ihedioha administration, he made reference to a “pension database and verification details of later exercises done in December 2019 and January 2020 that have not been processed and uploaded to the pension payroll.” Does this not, therefore, put a lie to the claim by some elements in the Ihedioha camp that the verification exercise embarked upon by the Uzodimma administration is unnecessary because Ihedioha had done everything. Aliliele even contradicts himself when, after admitting that certain verification details were yet to be processed and uploaded into the pension payroll, he still went ahead to write that “months of pension arrears after the Ihedioha administration had STRAIGHTENED things out cannot be covered by any deceitful utterances or publications. Imolites know better”. But I ask: is this not taking the same Imolites for granted? Which do they take; non-completion of the verification exercise, as admitted by Aliliele himself, or that the Ihedioha administration “strengthened” things? The two positions are clearly contradictory.
No doubt, Aliliele set out to defend the administration he served, which is quite understandable, but he ended up inadvertently achieving what he didn’t intend to: Which is to vindicate Governor Uzodimma for continuing where Ihedioha stopped. Aliliele proved that Governor Uzodimma had nothing else in mind other than the interest of the people in opting to continue with the pensions verification exercise – as he did on the contracts and the panels – in order to have the matter resolved once and for all; as Ihedioha had most probably intended to. Needless to ask, should Uzodimma not be commended for sustaining the noble objective of cleaning the pensions mess?
To every well-meaning citizen of the state, the answer is not difficult to fathom; which is that Governor Uzodimma deserves a pat at the back. To say otherwise is to assault the collective intelligence and sensibility of the people of the state.
Even more baffling is the claim by some of Ihedioha’s men that the verification exercise being carried out by the Uzodimma administration over the huge pension scam is an “over-dramatization” because the anomalies were discovered by the Ihedioha administration and handled. Really? Do they mean that Ihedioha discovered that only eight persons were taking home N330 million as pension annually and refused to make it public? Are they saying that Ihedioha discovered that 1000 people who retired as far back as 1976 are still receiving pensions and refused to disclose it? Are they saying that Ihedioha discovered that a former secretary to the state government who died some years ago is still in the pensions payroll and kept quite over it? What a bad way to project a master. But the Ihedioha we all know could never have concealed the above anomalies if ever they were discovered under his watch. How did I know?
It was under Ihedioha that the Financial Advisory Committee set up by him, and which was headed by Abraham Nwankwo, that it was discovered that for eight years, proceeds of Pay As you Earn (PAYE) tax disappeared between the MDAs (Ministries, Departments, and Agencies) and the office of the Accountant-General; that is, they never got into the coffers of government. It was also during that period that it was discovered that the state had 230 banks accounts fraudulently operated by some appointees and some civil servants. These discoveries were fully disclosed and Imolites hailed Ihedioha for that.
Now, could Ihedioha have disclosed all that and decided to conceal a more heart-rending discovery about 1000 people who retired 40 years ago at the age of 60 and are still ‘receiving’ pensions at the age of 104; or that only eight people pocketed N330 million every year. Again, the Ihedioha we all know could not have made these two discoveries and kept quiet, especially against the backdrop of the glaring hostility that existed between his administration and that of his predecessor, Rochas Okorocha. I can state, without any fear of contradictions, that the administration of His Excellency, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedoha, was unable to uncover that aspect of the perennial fraud in the state’s pensions system, as recently revealed by His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodimma; not because it lacked the capacity but simply because it had no time to continue.
In his second article in twenty-four hours over the matter, Aliliele tried to debunk the revelations made by Governor Uzodimma. Let’s see some of the points he raised. One, Aliliele admitted that four, out of the eight names of pensioners who were being paid N330 million annually, were not verified during the exercise made during their time. Yet, these names were in the system while they were carrying out the verification exercise. Question: why were they not verified. Recall that he admitted in his first article that some data were yet to be uploaded into the server before the Ihedioha administration was ousted. Question: What offense, then, has Uzodimma committed to directing that the verification exercise should continue? Two, Aliliele admitted that under Ihedioha, the pensions of most judges were reduced because what they were receiving contravened the law. Question: Is this not admittance that something had been going wrong? Three, he claimed that a deceased former secretary to the state government did not earn pension under Ihedioha but that he was receiving before Ihedioha came. Question: Is this not an acceptance that the dead fellow had been receiving a pension even if he did not under Ihedioha. In other words, what offense has Uzodimma committed to informing the people of that? Or did government and governance in Imo state begin and end under Ihedioha?
Four, the former Imo pensions boss claimed that they discovered that fourteen people who retired in 1977 were verified as still being alive, hence they have continued to receive a pension. Question: Now that the matter has gotten to this, mightn’t Aliliele take some senior Imolites to visit those fourteen pensioners that are over 100 years of age, one after the other, so that the people can see for themselves. To play the Devil’s Advocate, I strongly recommend that to him so that he can finally ‘nail’ the governor.
In this second article, Aliliele wrote: “… we also reported after the verification exercise that the pension payroll we met was dubious, that there were double-loaded accounts, and that we saved N200 million per month after the exercise. It beats me why the state government will keep going back to mention the problems we identified when we came on board and took care of of…?” This is the height of perfidy. So, for Imo state, governance ended with Ihedioha? Is Aliliele suggesting that Imolites should take that exercise as so perfect and its outcome so sacrosanct that no other administration in the state should talk about pensions matters anymore? But I ask: Could exercise conduct within just three months been able to perfect a system that had been riddled with fraud and corruption, as admitted by Aliliele himself, for at least a period of sixteen years? From the submissions of Aliliele, as seen above, there is glaring evidence of lapses in the exercise undertaken by his team. To, therefore, suggest that no other administration should do anything about the matter is a direct insult to the people. Even so, witness Aliliele further contradicts himself: “The deep rot in the system were identified and were being addressed”. Here, “being” means that the process was still ongoing. So, what offense did Governor Uzodimma commit by continuing with the process?
To be sure, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha showed a lot of promise as governor but to argue that he achieved everything on earth within a space of seven months in to make a mockery of his largely successful career and as well make the highly sophisticated and discerning Imo citizenry look stupid. Is that what we what? In an earlier article, I had wondered why some of Ihedioha’s men always become nervous each time matters about his short-lived tenure are mentioned; prompting them to most often resort to ill-digested commentaries and outright personal insult on government functionaries. Such proclivities are not in the interest of the former governor because they inadvertently portray him as so vulnerable that, outside the cacophony on Facebook, he cannot handle issues concerning his performance in office in a more organized manner. But I do not believe that this is the case, giving all we know about him; which means that His Excellency may need to take steps towards repudiating the idiosyncrasies of some of his men that do not altogether edify his post governorship image.
I have said in at least there previous articles that it would be a big illusion for Governor Uzodimma and insiders of his administration to expect members of the Ihedioha camp to clap for them, under the circumstances. But it is now becoming obvious that the understandable hostilities of members of the Ihedioha camp are no longer directed only at Uzodimma and his administration. The Ihedioha camp, perhaps most unlikely without his knowledge, seems to have widened the scope of its enemies, to include people who are innocent of the subterfuge and counter subterfuge associated with what led to the ouster of Ihedioha and the coming in of Uzodimma. But I think it is high time the generality of the people insisted on separating the regrets of a temporary political setback from the imperatives of organized partisan opposition in a democratic setting.