Lawyer and prolific writer, Nana Ogbodo, often brings an unmistakable passion to every endeavour he has been involved, as evident in his current job as Executive Secretary of the Local Government Staff Pensions Board in Enugu State. Despite the herculean task that payment of pensions has invariably become in Nigeria, he has sufficiently surmounted this challenge and earned the pensioners’ trust and support for his principal, the state’s governor, as a result. In this interview, Ogbodo outlines the achievements made by the present administration in putting smiles on pensioners’ faces, among other issues. Excerpts
Can you recall some of the challenges you met when you were appointed as Executive Secretary of Local Government Staff Pensions Board?
On resumption of office after my appointment, I came to meet the challenge of debts that had ossified to such extent that some pensioners were no longer expecting that they could be ever paid. You can imagine where you found out that the last year that gratuity was paid in this state was as far back as 2001. So from 2001 up to 2015, when this administration came on board, no retiree at the local government level – whether you were a teacher or you were a local government staff – ever received his or her gratuity. It was that bad. Coming to the monthly pensions, they had, in fact, forgotten how to count it in months. Most pensioners you ask of the last time he was paid would simply say, “Well, I received one sometime ago”. Nobody could tell you “I received it in January 2007 or 2015”, as the case may be.
And then, the reason for all these is that the fund made available for the payment of pensioners were so small compared to the number of pensioners that ought to be paid. The last time there was improvement in the funding was 2012. And even when that fund came, it was not enough to pay all the pensioners at the same time. That was the genesis of the batch payment system which we met when we came. The batch payment system was that the pensioners were shared into three groups: batch A, batch B, batch C. And indeed, it was getting to a point that batch D was inevitable. However, there were still some little group of pensioners that were called “regular pensioners”. These were pensioners who had retired so many years back; so, those ones were constituted as regular pensioners as they were paid on monthly basis while the rest were being paid in batches.
What was the Batch Payment system like in specific terms?
The worst experience in the batch system is that somebody could retire today but will end up spending more than two years before coming on board into the payroll. We saw all these things as injustice on its own. For me, injustice arises when equals are treated unequally. A situation where some group of pensioners were being paid monthly, while majority of other pensioners were paid whenever it pleased the system. We found it reprehensible and what we did was to bring everybody under one umbrella. Interestingly, those people who were the “regular pensioners”, who were being paid monthly, constituted the leadership of the pensioners. So, I felt they were being paid and so didn’t push hard for the general welfare of their members especially during previous administrations when there was relative liquidity in government.
It was distressing to imagine that from 2002-2015 they did not clamour for anybody to be paid gratuity. They had taken it for granted that gratuity was no longer part of their benefit. Even pension, as it were, could not even be collectively assumed to be part of their rights as it was being paid just whenever it was possible. So we now brought all the pensioners under one umbrella. We felt that both leaders and the led should have a similar experience, so that if the leaders have any proposal to make to the government, they should feel the pains themselves and do what their leadership propels them to do. Looking back, I would say most of them feel happier than they were when we came.
How was this change of fortune achieved beyond bringing them under one platform?
Governor Ugwuanyi is a man with vision, passion and compassion. And these are the virtues that have defined his legacy. He is a man without guiles and incapable of intrigues, and with whom there are no broken promises. He assured us that he was going to touch the lives of pensioners and he did it in so many ways. Last year, when the federal government bailout funds were released to states, he brought out a whopping over N2bn to address the issue of the pensioners’ plight. It was from this moment that so many years of gratuities were paid, and also many months of arrears of pensions were paid. It was just at a very beautiful time because it ran into last year’s Christmas celebration. So pensioners in the state had the best Christmas celebration. This year again he has yet intervened and pulled out some hundreds of millions of naira with which we have addressed again some months of arrears of pensions. These had accumulated over the years, but indeed we have brought it to at least lower than three months. So, to that extent, we have done very well.
What would you say is the major challenge in addressing the pensioners plight in the state?
Well Enugu has had this singular fortune, or perhaps I should say misfortune, of being the capital of the old Eastern Region, the old Eastern Central State, the old Anambra State and the old Enugu State. You may not believe that there are some people from Cross River and Akwa Ibom that are receiving their pensions here in Enugu because they were teachers here before they relocated to their state. One thing I noticed is that those who really handled the affairs of asset and liability-sharing vis-a-viz the creation of states has not been particularly fair to Enugu State. One would have assumed that when states are being created, pensioners from the new states should have been transferred to their states. The challenge is so much because Enugu has the highest number of pensioners to address and the resources available is dwindling. Some people have even suggested that we send all the pensioners back to their various states but the governor said no. I see reason with that, as it is in consonance with his general attitude as a compassionate person. But it is indeed part of the challenges we are having.
What do you think is the way out?
The way out in my view is to key into the new system of pension fund administration. Because I cannot see this system sustaining for too long in the future. If you watch this files (pointing to a stack on his table), it is the files of new retirees that came in yesterday. All those who were employed from 1985 as either teachers or local government staff are retiring this year. There is a great need to key into the contributory pension system so that these problem of looking unto the government perpetually would not have to be. It could be introduced, we are trying to sensitize workers to know that it is in no way against them. Most of them do not really understand these things and we keep on trying to sensitize them that the best way out is for them to key into the new pension system of administration. The pension administrators will take care of them from a private relationship angle. One can sue them if they even fail. Most of them are resistant to such persuasions, but we are getting them convinced.
Some pensioners visited the Government House, Enugu, recently, and in addition to some requests, praised the governor and even pledged to support his re-election. That is unusual given the often fractious relationship between pensioners and governors as evident in many states. What do you think informed this?
No governor in this current dispensation has been as compassionately-disposed to pensioners as Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi. I told you how he took gratuities that were unpaid since 2002 to the level where we are now, and how he used billions of naira to address the arrears of pension last year. I told you how much he has brought this year for some other arrears to be cleared. I also told you that every month, N100m is dedicated to payment of gratuities. And one thing he would not want to hear is that you left somebody who came in 2009 to pay somebody who came in 2017. That is enough for you to trust his sincerity. He has been conscientious in providing the N100m every month. They know that they have never had it so good. Pensioners are the most sensitive, knowledgeable people in our society. They are also the community leaders we have. Anybody that could do so much to make them get up and say they are supporting you for second tenure, such person has scored it most high.
And it is not unfounded because their jubilation, their happiness that day was natural, you can feel it; it was palpable. They were just expressing a sentiment of gratitude to a man who had employed silent dignity to achieve so much. A man who has touched their lives in so many ways. I’m very happy to be associated with the system that has positively impacted the lives of pensioners. Pensioners are the leaders in various communities. They are very sensitive and it surprises me how they were quiet all these years until Ugwuanyi came because one would have expected such people to have interrogated past administrations on their plight before this administration. I wish we have had it so good financially.
So it was not unfounded; their happiness and support are consequences of what the man Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi has done in their lives. When they came to greet the governor, it was even their own confession that more than N500m is employed every month for payment of pension across the state. This is a huge amount for a state like Enugu that is almost at the last rung of revenue allocation. It would have been a tragic tale, but for the creativity that the governor has been able to exhibit. I even sometimes wonder how we would have been able to cope because the thing keeps increasing by the day. Whereas there are older pensioners who receive as small as N10,000, there are newer pensioners that receive as much as N130,000. So things keep increasing and my advice is still constant. The sooner we key into this pension fund administrative system, the better for all of us so that we can save ourselves and the government the stress.