By Ethelbert Okere
It is not entirely surprising that some people are trying to reap political capital from an observation I made in an interview with some Owerri-based newspapers on the pensions matter in our dear state, Imo. I have also observed that some pensioners themselves took offense at my comment. One actually called me to say that I was “cruel” while another said I was “unkind”.
One political commentator claimed that it “was another page of excuses and blames on Imo workers and pensioners for the failure of this clueless, inept and incompetent regime to pay salaries and pensions for many months”. Another gale of rhetoric on clichés. He continues: “But the only worry is that it’s coming from a clergyman of a sort that touches lives with his heart-searching and heart-rending sermons”. The fellow wrote further: “No blame at all should be leveled against the hated and flogged unpaid pensioners and serving workers.”
I had in response to an observation by one of the reporters to the effect that the worry about government’s efforts to get to the root of the matter is that it “seems to be lasting forever”, I told them that complaints about unpaid salaries and pensions did not start with the current administration in the state and that because the matter of delayed salaries and pensions is perennial, it has become a handy weapon for most workers and pensioners to explain themselves out of embarrassing financial situations.
I think the statement is innocent and straight forward enough and did not in any way suggest that pensioners or civil servants are to be blamed for the delays. I don’t know where that interpretation came from. Ordinarily, my attitude to the tendency of some elements to reap political capital out of the pensions challenges is to see it as cheap, but now that it is becoming increasingly evident that the matter will remain susceptible to convenient semantics, I think we would do our state no better good than to be more exhaustive in our appraisal of it.
At no time has the administration of His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodimma, blamed the pensioners and civil servants for the wages and pensions logjam. Where he has laid the blame squarely on is on the humongous and perennial financial scam that has been visited on the collective patrimony of the people in the past eight years and even beyond.
Thus, although it goes without saying that some of the pensioners and serving civil servants might have been, directly and indirectly, complicit in the perennial heist, no government would use that as an excuse to deliberately delay payments. In at least two previous outings, I expressed the view that any governor who, knowing full well that salary and pension bills were fraudulently manipulated and goes ahead to approve such bills, becomes part of the fraud. Differently put, I think we should set such a standard and the time to start is now.
I laugh each time I read or hear that the immediate past administration, headed by the highly cerebral and down to earth fellow, His Excellency, Rt. Hon. Chukwuemeka Ihedioha, perfected everything about pensions before he left office after just seven months. In at least three articles, I had kept asking, “How?”. At the risk of sounding repetitive, let me once again note that the former governor should feel embarrassed with such superlatives because it is simply impossible. One of those who commented on my interview under reference even wrote, “… if Uzodimma wanted, he too should have sustained the great pace and tempo of good works set by the governor he took over from …” And I asked: “Great Pace?” How?
Just last week, an internal audit report in one of the most strategic agencies of government in the state, the Imo State Universal Basic Education Board (IMSUBEB), showed that more than sixty dead persons are still in its payroll and that several people who are above the retirement age of sixty are still in its employ while not less than forty members of staff who had absconded for years are still in its payroll. Now, if such a discovery is just being made through an internal audit exercise, not one conjured up by Governor Uzodimma to target Ihedioha, as some of his people would claim, then how “great” was the previous pensions verifications exercise made under His Excellency, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha?
In an earlier report, it had been discovered that 1000 people who retired as far back as 1976 are still in the pensions payroll of the state. In a rebuttal, one of the former administration’s insiders said the figure is 14 and not 1000 and I said in my own reaction: “ show us the fourteen because at age 104 at least, they deserve special attention from the state government, not just pensions”. As I noted in the interview that is now a bone of contention, mum has been the word since then. Ditto for the matter an N330 million which was being cornered by just eight people. Three names sakes of the eight names mentioned in the report came out to say that they knew nothing about the fraud and I said in response: “where are the other five?”
In the same rebuttal, a key functionary in the administration admitted, in black and white, that part of the pensions verification exercise under Governor Ihedioha was yet to be concluded and uploaded into the server by the time that administration was terminated. I ask: Is that not good enough reason? What is wrong in admitting that because of the unexpected exit of His Excellency, Rt. Hon. Ihedioha, from office, he could not complete the exercise and indeed could not continue with the bright ideas he had on how to take the state to the next level? Let me ask for the umpteenth time: How could an exercise that lasted for only about three months been able to correct a monumental pensions scam that had existed for at least sixteen years? How could, how could, how could…!! Please somebody should give me a cup of water!
Going back to the main topic of today, however, it is petty that some of the pensioners felt the way they felt with my observations in the interview in question but I as I noted earlier in this article, it was not intended to shift the blame over the pension logjam to them. Conversely, I think they should also repudiate any ploy to reduce the matter entirely to that of “we versus them” or indeed, “we versus Hope Uzodimma”. Differently put, they should resist being dragged into an unnecessary dramatization of their plight by those who may be hell-bent on using the current challenges they are confronted with as a weapon for political self or group aggrandizement.
Let’s face the reality as Ndi Igbo who is essentially conservative, I think it gives a wrong signal of a family whose aged father or mother is seen carrying a placard on the streets for whatsoever reason. In other words, I want to assume that it might not be true, after all, that those who have been seen protesting on the streets of Owerri were hired by the so-called opposition. I am inclined to so believe because not one rebuttal has come from the genuine pensioners to say that those protesting were hired.
On the matter on Tuesday, August 3, 2020, during which a faction of the pensioners disagreed on a planned protest and there was a clash, some people claimed that one of the factions was fake and was hired by the government to “flog” the genuine ones. Yet, there has been no word from the real pensioners repudiating the fake ones and indeed taking measures to ensure the total elimination of the fake amongst them. Even so, the government does not need to take such extreme measures as flogging since it is on top of the situation.
As I noted earlier, if the genuine pensioners yield to the antics of some politicians to use them as cannon fodder, then it may become necessary for the rest of the society – not every Imolite is a pensioner or civil servant – to begin to interrogate the matter with all the required rigor; which means that it will no longer be as simple as matching out into the streets to protest since by so doing, the pensioner may, knowingly and unknowingly, trample on the rights of the other citizen.
As a matter of fact, some of the pensioners can, by every measure, be described as “elder statesmen” or women; which means that, even as hard as things are today, they are still expected to do the things with the hesitance of age. This is why I believe that those who went to town to say that some of the pensioners were flogged, when nothing like that happened, are those to be sanctioned for dragging the collective esteem of our elder’s statesmen to the mud.
In any case, I advise Ndi Imo that we should not make another song and dance about “flogging” because our fellow compatriots out there will say to us: “There You Go Again”. They would remind us that ten years ago, we claimed that a certain Rev. Father was flogged and as a result of which we nearly pulled down our state. Yet, less than two years after, those who masterminded the false allegation came out to confess that there was no such thing. An entirely new song was waxed to repudiate an earlier one that heralded the alleged flogging. The rest of Nigeria would tell us that whatever we are suffering today, including the pension palaver, got impetus from that fake tale about flogging. So, let our elder statesmen and women, the pensioners, stop subscribing to this caricature of the collective image of our dear state.
Differently put, the pensioners, whether individually or collectively, should endeavor to comport themselves better and not to allow anybody to drag their image to such a low that even a mere contemplation of flogging their aging bodies could exist. Fortunately but ironically, they can find solace in the wisdom of the Lagos kid: “CALM DOWN”; and trust that the Uzodimma administration is on top of the situation.