At a recent visit of a delegation from the Edo State chapter of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners (NUP) to Government House in Benin, the Edo State Governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki assured the State and Local Government Pensioners of his administration’s willingness to tackle issues of unpaid pensions and gratuity.
At the meeting with leaders of the pensioners, Obaseki said his administration was currently working out modalities to ascertain the pension crises in the state with a view to ensuring that pensioners got their entitlement as soon as they retired from active service. This is quite commendable because it is very sad to find pensioners go through agonizing conditions after completing their meritorious services to the state and the nation. Many of them go through hellish situations just to get captured in the pensioners data base or even commence receiving their entitlements. Sadly, many others do not even live to enjoy their pension benefits.
The assurance of the governor to pensioners and his expressed understanding of their pains and challenges is indicative of a ray of hope on the other side of the tunnel for Edo State retirees. Putting efforts to resolve the pensions challenge in the state requires the support and cooperation of everyone in the state.
It is then important that revenue generation must be jerked up. Collection of taxes, rents and rates must be shored up and freed from all forms of encumbrances and leakages so that government can collect all the revenues needed to address the hydra-headed pensions issue.
The ban on illegal collection of taxes and levies by nongovernmental agents is good and a most welcomed development in the state. The state government should resist all pressures and temptations to go back on this lofty decision. In the past, allowing individuals and nongovernmental organisations to collect government revenue for government in the state merely created some billionaires among some street urchins and never-do-well fellows. Sticking to the ban would definitely help government to address the challenge posed by paucity of funds in the state.
One point must be clarified. Obaseki inherited an accumulated pension bills and several unattended cases. In fact, the Pensions board was shut down and closed to new retirees for over one year. More and more people are retiring almost on a daily basis from public service in the state as the issue rages.
It is therefore good that the new Revenue collection policy put in place by the administration of Mr. Godwin Obaseki would ensure that revenues were properly accrued to local governments. The government has even gone ahead to approve the deduction of one per cent pension dues as requested by the Local Government union. This, in my considered view would go a long way in stabilizing the local government pensions system in the state.
Also, the plan by the government to prioritise the issue of people who have retired and yet to start receiving pensions before working out plans for harmonization of pensions and other sundry issues is commendable.
The good news, however, is that the administration of Mr. Godwin Obaseki has started implementing the contributory pension Scheme since January 2017. The Edo State Contributory Pensions Law (as amended) regulates the administration of the contributory pension scheme for the public sector workers in the state. The National Pensions Act, from where the state Pensions Law is derived from spells out participation in the contributory pension scheme which applies to two categories of employees. These categories comprise of all employees in the public sector and those in private Organizations with employees numbering 15 and above.
There is also a provision for Private Organizations with less than three employees based on guidelines issued by the National Pension Commission (PenCom). Under the Act, both employer and employee are required to make a minimum of 10% and 8% respectively of the employees monthly emoluments. There is a review of the definition of ‘monthly emoluments” to mean the total emolument defined in the employees’ contract of employment provided it is not less than the total of the employee’s basic salary, housing and transport allowance.
Pension funds can be invested in specialist investment funds and other financial instruments as approved by the Commission. There are penalties for offences of misappropriation of funds, reimbursement or payment by a Pension Fund Administrator (PFA) or Pension Fund Custodian (PFC) to a staff, officer or director. In situations where the PFC fails to hold funds to the exclusive preserve of the PFA and PenCom or where it applies the funds to meet its own financial obligations, the Act will sanction such appropriately. These are safety nets put in place in the law to safeguard investments by Civil Servants.
With the implementation of the Pension Law by the Edo State Government, a more holistic approach has therefore been undertaken to deal with all sorts of pension issues on a permanent and sustainable basis. The road may have not been smooth even though it is indeed a radical departure from the past.
To take this further, Governor Obaseki, recently appointed 15 pension fund administrators to undertake the enrollment of employees in the state public service in accordance with the Pensions law and the administrators have since swung into action to capture all eligible public servants in the state..
Interestingly too, the government has taken giant strides in paying backlog gratuities and it is being carried out systematically devoid of corruption and nepotism as was the case in the past.
While these are highly commendable steps by the new government, there is, however, the need for the governor to take deeper steps in resolving all pending cases of unpaid pension arrears and gratuity for state and Local Government owned pensioners in the state as well as the harmonization of pension for old retirees. Once this happens, with the commencement of the enforcement of the State Pensions Law, then the Obaseki regime would be crowned the hero of workers and pensioners in the state.
• Mr. Dan Owegie is a chieftain of the Edo State All Progressives Congress (APC).