BasseyUbong

ON PENSION FUNDS AND RETIRED WORKERS.

We are hearing stories – unconfirmed – of arrests of citizens who bar their minds on the management of the COVID-19 crisis in some states. As Ibibio elders say, you can deny someone food but you cannot deny that person the right to speak. My experience in high public office office is that it is better to accept both criticisms and critiques but to be wary of unbridled praise. What I always object to is abuse. A chief has aversion for abuse not reasoning, so say our elders. Better policies are usually the product of ‘many good heads’, for elders also say that knowledge does not reside in the head of one person. That is an aside.

I just read in The Punch Newspaper online (I can’t afford the hard copy) that Hajia Aisha Dahir-Umar, the Acting Director General of National Pension Commission (PenCom) appeared before the House of Representatives to make a contribution to the ongoing debate to revise the 2014 National Pension Act.

The key issue presented in the Punch report is that the lady does not support increase of lump sum payment from 25% to 75% by a revised Act. Her argument is that the balance of 25% would be too small to spread out to the pensioners in line with their contributions while in service more so some of the pensioners could live up to 20 more years after retirement.

I agree with her and add that 50% would be better first to make monthly pay out reasonable (pension does not respond to price trends because it is fixed). The second reason is that in South America pension funds are used for economic development. Therefore a sizeable percentage withheld would be better for the nation if well used. That would be workers contribution to national development post-service, after all they will still get the money.

A good example of such use is the case of subsidy removal on petroleum products by the Dr. Goodluck Jonathan government. The PH-Ogoni-Ette portion of the East-West road was financed by SURE-P.

In my memo to the House last year through my able representative Rt. Hon. Onofiok Luke, I had raised this issue. I have no idea whether it was the reason for the sudden announcement by FGN that N2 trillion was approved by Fed Exco Council to be taken from the N9.7 trillion war chest that PenCom has. I pray the rumour that the money was approved to be used to offset 2019 campaign expenses is absolutely untrue. Unfortunately, like Israel, when anything uncomfortable is published, the govt keeps mum. Which means, as we were taught in primary school, it could be a case of silence implying consent.

My other contribution to the debate (sadly our National Assembly rarely calls for public hearings and memoranda on bills) is that the most important aspect of pension is timing of payment. The 2014 Act simply says “as soon as is possible.” This is used by PenCom to delay payment of pension. I went to Uyo office of my Pension Fund Administrator (PFA) Stanbic/IBTC. I was told of “accrued rights.” I asked if something can be made through the sister organization, Stanbic/IBTC Bank as a loan using my Retirement Savings Account (RSA) as security. The stone-faced girl dismissed me with a story that nothing can be done until PenCom releases money.

I called one number I saw on the Net. A pleasant young man answered, singing the same well-rehearsed song of accrued rights and indeterminate wait for mother PenCom. On guaranty of business loan for desperate pensioners, he said it is against the law. I read the Act in full. There is no such provision. In fact almost 50% of the Act is on the structure and staffing of the Commission, which in my opinion is an aberration. He ended with the words, “I sympathize sir.” Does sympathy put food on the table? I had asked. I had also argued with him that fighting corruption is a mirage for anyone who knows what the future looks like and has access to money that can be taken to hedge against an uncertain future. What can an ordinary staff do beyond expressing sympathy?

My suggestion therefore, for anyone who has access to the National Assembly is that our lawmakers should explicitly state in the revised Act that pension, if not the bulk sum, at least the monthly basic salary at retirement must be paid at most 30 days from the date of retirement. That is human; that i humane. I wonder how Hajia Aisha, a mother, gets home, eats with her family, then sleeps well when she knows that millions of Nigerian children go to bed hungry because their retired parents or grandparents have no money yet their life’s contributions in millions of Naira are being warehoused by Aisha and company. Many of the children of retired persons have been withdrawn from school because their sponsors, now retired, can no longer foot school bills. Should anyone be surprised if they are involved in antisocial activities just to survive? Anyone can be a victim.

For those who don’t know, 15% of workers salaries (7.5% of theirs and 7.5% of FGN contribution, paid unfailingly every month) are being held by a group of public servants for absolutely no justification.

Permit me to mention that documentation for retirees commences exactly 12 months before they retire. Even if PenCom staff use long hand rather than calculators and computers, they can conclude computations in one year. If Akwa Ibom State govt has been successfully paying her pensioners one month after retirement for years, why can’t FGN do it? It is simply a case of political will, for some people are playing games with peoples lives.

It is sad that PenCom is happy to pay what they feel like to families of pensioners who have passed on, in many cases generating crises in those families when the issue of sharing formula arises.  The worker could have shared his or her money without crisis. A close person waited for 28 years for her arrears from PenCom. When it came, she shared it by herself. No one complained. Same thing happened in my wife’s case, that one within one year (I mean gratuity) because she was with Akwa Ibom State Government.

 PenCom should even realize that accumulation makes it extremely difficult to pay. Ask ASUU how easy it is to be paid approved allowances in arrears.

The National Assembly should acquit itself well. NLC and staff unions of institutions appear powerless. In fact ASUU has joined the fray by incorporating its PFA knowing that there is so much free pork in pension. Meanwhile its retirees in some cases wait for 24 months to receive first monthly pension. This is one issue workers unions should expend effort on. Subsidy on petroleum products even to big business is debatable, for no country in the world sells petroleum products below production cost.

Will I be dubbed an activist? Thank you, but begin to pay pension, just the basic for a start and save lives and blood pressure.

God bless PenCom, National Assembly, and Nigeria.

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