By Ivor Takor
Governor Nyesom Wike has made giant strides in the development of Rivers State since he assumed office as the Governor of the state in 2015. He deserves a place of pride as a role model among State Governors in infrastructure development. Numerous development projects have been completed and are ongoing across the state. There is no doubt that he is going to leave a lasting legacy that would remain indelible in the hearts of Rivers people at the expiration of his tenue in 2023.
He was reported in the media to have boasted to having laid a solid foundation in leadership by completing all the projects he inherited from his predecessor and will complete all projects he initiated so that his successor could have a smooth sail in initiating his own projects and pursue them. If he will actually achieve that, then it is a pleasant clean break from the trend, where uncompleted projects initiated by previous administrations and abandoned by subsequent administrations litter the landscape of the country.
Wike was reported to have recently declared that he is now moving to stomach infrastructure. This declaration, no doubt is following the footsteps of his Colleague former Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti state, a fellow Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) stalwart. Talking about stomach infrastructure, Governor Wike was quoted to have said that he has worked for the people of Rivers state and fulfilled virtually all his campaign promises and that the remaining period of his tenure; he has to play politics of stomach infrastructure.
In July 2018, Dr. Ugoji Egbujo writing on Fayose’ stomach infrastructure, said it was a new theory propounded on winning elections. He suggested that the stomach was the route to the mind, particularly for the hungry, who long term developmental planning, had no chance against instant gratification in the contests for voters’ minds especially amongst the rural poor. According to Egbujo, no one condemned the mere tokenism that stomach infrastructure represented.
It is within the prerogative of Governor Wike to formulate or adapt and implement any policy that will guarantee his party winning the forth coming election in his state so long as the policy does not run contrary to any law of the land especially the electoral law. There is no country, including those with advanced democracy, where the incumbent will not do everything possible towards ensuring that his anointed successor wins the next election. Governor Wike has presented himself as an apostle of former Governor Fayose with regards to stomach infrastructure with election in mind. In 2014, Ekiti governorship election, Fayose defeated the then incumbent Governor Fayemi in all local government areas. Fayose resounding success at the polls was attributed to stomach infrastructure.
Expectedly, the proclamation of stomach infrastructure by Governor Wike attracted reactions from various quarters. Among them was that from the Rivers state Council of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners. The Chairman of the Council, Lucky Ati was quoted in the media to have said that “No gratuities or accumulated arrears of pensions have been paid so far, except for monthly pension”.
He further said that “some pensioners are owed 30 to 40 months arrears of pensions and gratuities. If he wants to do stomach infrastructure that is his business but our pension and gratuities are our statutory rights and it has nothing to do with stomach infrastructure.”
The question put to us is whether Lucky Ati was stating the obvious or he was just shouting wolf, where none existed. This led me to search for an answer. I went to the website of the National Pension Commission (PenCom) the Regulator of pension matters in the country. We looked at the status of implementation of the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) and other pension schemes adopted by state governments. Our findings revealed the following:
1. Rivers state has enacted a law on the Contributory Pension Scheme. Therefore the state has keyed into the CPS.
2. The State Government has established a Pension Bureau/ Board in line with CPS law. The Pension Bureau/Board is responsible for the management of the CPS.
3. The State has carried out an actuarial valuation on the scheme. The purpose of actuarial valuation is to enable the state government to know its pension liability to employees of the state, who were in employment under the old Defined Benefits Scheme before the commencement of the CPS.
4. The state has opened a Retirement Benefits Bonds Redemption Fund Account (RBBRFA). The RBBRFA is an account where a specific amount based on actuarial calculation, which is a percentage of the monthly total salaries of the public servants of the state, who are members of the CPS is paid. The funds in the account are invested and meant to pay for the accrued rights of employees who were in service before the commencement of the CPS. My findings revealed that this is the beginning of the problems of employees and pensioners of the state for the following reason: “Rivers state government has not been funding the RBBRFA from where accrued rights of retiring employees are paid. The state Government funded the Accounts once in 2012 with the sum of N300 million. The reason for the funding had nothing to do with its desire to pay accrued rights of retiring employees. The motivation was because the State Government wanted to float a Bond and was eyeing pension funds to be invested in the bonds. However, because PenCom came out with a policy that pension fund will not be invested with any bond of a state government that has not keyed into the CPS the state government paid the money as proof of haven fully keyed into the scheme. All those who are retiring now are those who were in service before the commencement of the CPS and the bulk of the money from where their gratuities and pensions are to be paid from is under the accrued rights. Therefore on retirement, without money in the RBBRFA their gratuity and pension cannot be paid”.
5. The second problem is that of remittance of contributions. I found out that: The state government has only been remitting the contributions of the employees into their RSAs. This means that the state government as the employer has not been contributing for the pension of her employees, which is a contravention of its own pension law”.
It is for the above two reason that retiring employees of Rivers state are being owed pensions and gratuities. The non-funding of the RBBRFA does not guarantee the payment of accrued pension rights of retiring employees. This is compounded by the employer, the Rivers State government noncompliance with her own pension law by non-contributing for employees’ pension.
The most effective way for employers (public and private) to secure their employees’ from old age poverty and destitution is through a pension plan. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has declared social security, with pension as a pillar, a human right, which in practical terms is understood as a need to guarantee universal protection.
There are two legal frameworks that guarantee pension international and national. The international legal frameworks are two namely; the ILO Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No.102), which is a core ILO Convention, which Nigeria, a member of ILO has ratified. The second is the ILO Invalidity, Old Age and Survivors’ Benefits Convention, 1967 (No.128). This Convention, envisage the provision of income security to people who have reached pensionable age.
The ILO Conventions have been domesticated in national laws. For workers in the service of state governments, section 210(1) of the 1999 Federal Republic of Nigeria Constitution (as amended) provides that “Subject to the provisions of subsection (2) of this section, the right of a person in the public service of a State to receive pension or gratuity shall be regulated by law”. While subsection (2) of the section provides that “Any benefit to which a person is entitled in accordance with or under such law as is referred to in subsection (1) of this section shall not be withheld or altered to his disadvantage except to such extent as is permissible under any law, including the Code of Conduct”. It is in compliance with these Constitutional provisions that Rivers State Government and others enacted pension laws for their employees.
Pension helps an individual to maintain a standard of living close to when the individual was in active service in retirement because it guarantees a monthly income for life. It is therefore not surprising, that most Nigerians still want pension. Some former Governors enacted laws granting life pension for themselves and their deputies. The latest attempt was at the National Assembly, where some federal legislators wanted to insert pension for Principal Officers of the National Assembly in the Constitution.
Therefore, the reaction of Lucky Ati the Rivers State Chairperson of Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP) on Governor Wike’s stomach infrastructure should not be seen as a criticism of the policy but a reminder and a wakeup call to the state governor on his government’s liability to the workers and pensioners of the state. The press in reporting Wike’s stomach infrastructure policy, credited him to haven said that the empowerments that the policy will bring is for those who have been patience. No categories of citizens of Rivers State have been patient with the governor like the State civil servants and pensioners. They have patiently kept quiet as their constitutionally guaranteed rights to pension is being withheld and altered by the state government.
I therefore join workers and pensioners of Rivers State, who are not among those with “opportunities” of being able to primitively accumulate fraudulent and ill-gotten wealth during their service to the state to appeal to Governor Wike to comply with the provisions of ILO Conventions, the Constitution and the Pension Law of the State. This is will be done by paying pensioners the arrears of their pensions and gratuities as well as releasing money for accrued rights and employer’s contributions under the Contributory Pension Scheme.
In doing so, he will be leaving a legacy as a Governor who addressed issues connected with the nagging issues of taking the state pensioners out of the line of old age poverty and destitution. It is not a gratuitous matter it is a guaranteed right. The State has the resources to enable the Governor to do that. It is a matter of the political will to do so.