By Obike Ukoh, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
When Governor Hope Uzodimma of Imo, abolished the payment of life pension to former governors and speakers, he reasoned along the same line with Zamafara Governor Bello Matawalle.
Uzodimma, when he assented to the bill described payment of pension to former governors and speakers as anti-people.
Matawalle, when he annulled the Zamfara pension law, stressed that no ex-governor is poor, given the perks of office they enjoyed, in most cases, for eight years.
He stressed that whoever attained the position of a governor and other top political offices were already financially well off.
As a result, such persons should not be leeches when out of office, he asserted.
Under the Zamafara Pension Law, former governors are to receive N10million monthly as pension for life; two personal staff; two vehicles replaceable every four years; two drivers, free medical for the former governors and deputies and their immediate families in Nigeria or abroad; a 4 bedroom house in Zamfara and an office; free telephone and 30 days paid vacation outside Nigeria.
Uzodimma, when he assented to the bill repealing the “Governors and Speakers Pensions and Privileges Law of 2007,’’ explained that his government sponsored the bill because it was illegal and designed to allow a few privileged people feed fat on the commonwealth of the people.
He said the law was against the Pension Act which stipulates that only those who have put in a minimum of 10 years in public service were entitled to pensions, adding that former governors and speakers stayed in office for a maximum of eight years.
He also wondered how the same people who collect fat severance allowances at the end of their tenure can turn around to be paid pensions as well.
“As a young state grappling with enormous challenges, it dawned on me that the Imo State Governors and Speakers Pensions and Privileges Law No 5 of 2007 was a bad omen.
“At the age our governors and speakers are leaving office it will not be out of place to assume that many of them will be alive and kicking in the next 15 years or more.
“This will mean that by then the state will have more than 20 governors and speakers qualified for pensions and privileges.
“I was alarmed that the financial implications for the state will not only be scandalous but indefensible.
“ My simple calculation told me that there could come a time when the state could be spending more than one third of its resources to maintain former governors and speakers.
“The same governors and speakers also received severance allowances, amounting to several millions of naira, when they disengage from office.’’
The governor stressed that the Pensions Act made it very clear that only those who have served in the public service for a minimum of 10 years are pensionable.
“Paying governors, speakers and their deputies who spend a maximum of eight years or less in office is actually criminal because it is against the law of the land.
” It is noteworthy that I am supposed to benefit from this law when I leave office as governor; yet I called for its repeal.
“This should leave no one in doubt that I am acting in the best interest of our state and our people.
“I believe that those of us who have had the privilege of occupying exalted positions must be human enough to resist the temptation of feeding fat from the lean resources of the state at the expense of the people,’’ the governor said.
Even before the repeal of the pension laws by Zamfara and Imo states, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) had filed a lawsuit before a Federal High Court, Abuja, to order the 36 state governors in Nigeria to “publish details and breakdown of payment of pensions to each of the former governors and other ex-officials, and the names and number of ex-governors and other officials receiving pensions under their respective state pension laws between 1999 and 2019.”
The suit followed SERAP’s Freedom of Information (FoI) requests dated Dec.9, 2019 to the governors, expressing concern that: “Granting pension for life to ex-governors and other officials represents the use of public office to advance private interests, suggests the misuse of legitimate discretion for improper reasons, and has created a more cynical public view of politics and politicians.”
The provisions of most of the pension laws passed by state houses of assembly, made provisions for mouth-watering monthly pension and other allowances similar to that of Zamfara.
Mr Declan Emelumba, Imo Information Commissioner, who shed more light on the issue, said the state currently has about 15 people who had served either as governors, deputy governors and speakers.
He said that about N1.2 billion would be saved annually through the abolition of the pension and gratuity payments to the former governors and others.
The commissioner explained that the money would be channeled into the execution of people-oriented projects.
Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, a Board of Trustees (BoT) member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), backed Uzodimma for halting pension payments to past governors, deputy governors and speakers of House of Assembly.
The PDP chieftain said: “I commend the governor for abolishing the law. I also commend the House because we have to develop our institutions.
“In our constitution, there was no time pension was meant for politicians. I think the governor has taken a very right step. I am sure all patriotic Nigerians will support him.
“There is a difference between political appointment and career appointment. You see a civil servant has a career and that is his job, politicians, some of them have had a career, so such people were on pension even before they joined politics which is a vocation.”
He urged other governors to emulate Uzodimma by repealing pension laws in their respective states.
An elder statesman, Dr Ezekiel Izuogu, who spoke on the issue, argued that anybody who has had the opportunity of serving as governor, deputy governor or house of assembly speaker should not be paid pension.
He said some of them went to the National Assembly where they are receiving salaries and allowances.
“They should consider the common man. Those who find themselves in these positions should be considerate; they should not take more, they should refund some money to the common purse so that the common man can be taken care of.’’
South-East President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youth Wing, Okey Paul Nwankwo, also welcomed the development.
He said: “I think other governors should emulate Uzodimma’s bold courage. We are behind the governor and will continue to support him to bring in good ideas and innovations that would help to move the state, the South-East and the entire country forward. ”
An activist, Mr Ebubeagu Ekenulo, on his part, lauded Uzodimma for repealing the pension and gratuity law that provided for payment of pensions to former Imo governors.
Ekenulo said that the governor’s action demonstrated selflessness in governance.
He described the action as a road map to sustainable development and economic stability in the state, saying that people of Imo would be better for it.
“This shows that the governor is for the people. He is selfless and determined to rescue the economy for the people to enjoy.
“He does not care about his personal gain and benefit but what the totality of Imo people will gain.”
Ekenulo urged Imo people to continue to support the governor, to reposition the state for the greater good of the people.
The activist who called on other states of the federation to replicate the action of Uzodimma, wondered why some former governors would be earning pension together with other official salaries.
Ekenulo explained that the law contravened the 1999 Constitution as amended, which according to him, stipulates that a pensioner must have worked for at least 10 years.
Dr Ifeanyichukwu Abada, Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Nigeria Nsukka, who commented on the issue of pension to former governors, urged state houses of assembly to reject requests by governors to make law that would grant them life pension.
Abada, the immediate past Head of Department of Political Science, said contemplation of life pension for governors and political appointees remained an aberration, illegal as well as an act of fraud.
“Life pensions are only meant for civil servants and other private employees who were strictly recruited to work according to set down public service and industry rules after retirement.
“It is therefore illegal and act of fraud to pay a governor or any elected officer pension as the constitution has not stipulated so,’’ he said.
The don advised state legislators in the country to resist any attempt by any governor to lure or force them to make a law that would give legal backing to the alien practice not captured by the constitution.
“The only way we can strengthen and safeguard our democracy in this country is to reject such impunity, undemocratic act and fragrant abuse of power.
“It is undemocratic and abomination for a governor who served only eight years to receive life pension,’’ he said.
He also explained that most of the governors were fulfilled rich Nigerians while some others were already pensioners.
According to the lecturer, the amended Pension Act strives on contributory scheme and not offered on a platter of gold.
In the same vein, Mr Quadri Olaleye, the President, Trade Union Congress(TUC), says political leaders by virtue of their tenure in office do not qualify and should not be paid life pension.
According to him, an individual must have put in not less than 10 years to 15 years in service or clock 55 years of age to be qualified for pension in the country.
“As politicians, the highest they can stay in office is eight years, so they are not qualified under the pension law.
“ All the conditions put in place for pension, they are totally disqualified, they are not qualified for it.
“So based on the parameters, I want to say they are not entitled to pension and whatever they have taken as pension is fraud against the Nigerian populace,” the TUC president said.