Nation Forgotten Nigeria’s Neglected Pensioners

After decades of service, retired public servants in Nigeria are spending their retirement years in depravation.

‘They don’t care about us. The past state government even referred to us as deadwood,’ a pensioner in Benue state, Alphonsus Anyebe says, visibly piqued. Owed retirement benefits and bereft of options, Nigeria’s elderly public service retirees have turned to laborious farming and other back-breaking trades to stave off hunger. But even subsistence labour is not enough to relieve the poverty caused by the government’s neglect of its duties, especially in paying retirement benefits promptly.

Exact figures on owed retirement benefits in Nigeria are scant. Regardless, in December 2019, Premium Times Nigeria reported that the federal government alone was owing its retirees over ₦400 billion in accrued benefits. Equal to the entire budget of Ogun State for 2019, and more than three times the budget of Niger State for the same year. Apart from the federal government’s ₦400 billion accrued pension debt, individual states, like Abia, were reported to owe as much as 32 months’ worth of monthly payments dating back five years to 2014.

‘The only thing that has kept me going is just my small farming,’ Anyebe, who is 63, says of the farming he does in his backyard that barely provides food for his family. His children cannot go to school and currently sit at home, as he cannot afford to pay their tuition fees. Anyebe is one of many Nigerian pensioners who are unable to pay their children’s school fees because they are owed retirement benefits.

Understanding Pensions in Nigeria

To fully understand the problem of unpaid retirement benefits in Nigeria, it is important to first examine the structural patterns that underlie Nigeria’s pensions history. The administration of pensions for public workers, like most of the elements of Nigeria’s civil service, has British colonial origins. In the 1940s, the colonial government launched a pension scheme for African staff employed by the government. The scheme was given the force of law by an ordinance in the 1950s that spelt out which workers the scheme applied to and the nature of benefits, which included ‘gratuities’ based on 5 per cent of each month’s pay for every month of ‘continuous service’. Under the ordinance, only ‘servants’ who earned a minimum annual salary of £50 were eligible; moreover, pension was not an automatic right and could be withdrawn by the governor general if he found a servant guilty of misconduct.

Several reforms after this original British provision, in 2004, the Nigerian government passed a Pension Reform Act. This act set in motion the current arrangement for pension administration in Nigeria popularly referred to as the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS), where workers have a retirement savings account that is managed by the pension fund administrators. The CPS is funded with monthly deductions from employees’ salaries and contributions by the employer.

But before the 2004 Act, pension benefits were paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund by the budgetary provision of the government. Civil servants did not have to directly contribute to their own retirement benefits while in active service. Under this arrangement—called the Defined Benefit Scheme (DBS)—retirement benefits consisted of the gratuity, a lump sum, and monthly pension payments guaranteed to workers for life.

Many public servants whose employment predate the Pension Reform Act of 2004 were not transferred to the CPS, and so, currently draw their benefits from the old scheme. Unlike the CPS, the old scheme does not have readily available funds.

An ‘Emotional Walk’

Omoregie Osakpolor, a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Lagos, has intimate knowledge of the plight Nigeria’s elderly face. Having spent years observing his father’s anxieties and laments, he decided to document the circumstances of suffering pensioners across Nigeria’s 36 states, starting a multimedia project called ‘Nation Forgotten’. ‘I have been travelling across Nigeria, searching for senior citizens and their families, engaging them in topical conversations and trying to learn from the joys and plights of retirement’, Omoregie says of his documentary project, which is ongoing.

Omoregie approaches the documentary as an ‘emotional walk’. In this way, he seeks to humanize the issue (owed pensions in this case), by zooming in on pensioners, their stories and individual lives. As opposed to the general media coverage of the subject, which tends to situate pensions within broad economic or political commentary.

While interviewing pensioners, Omoregie’s aim is usually to extract their work history, expectations before retirement and situation after retirement. Most of the stories show an active public servant looking forward to retirement and making plans to start a business with their pension payments, and then disappointment after retirement when the government does not fulfil its financial obligation.

So far, Omoregie has only visited eight states and in each state, he interviewed retirees and captured their story in video and pictures. He allowed me a peek into the lives of these pensioners across the country by discussing and sharing raw footage from the project. From the footage I saw, in heart-breaking details, how retired public servants suffer through their final years; their struggles in meeting basic needs let alone in providing for their dependents.

‘I Would Have Died’

‘The federal government has been relatively diligent with payments under the old scheme.’ Omoregie explains that ‘most pensioners I meet who are owed were employed by state governments or local,’ pointing out that state governments are more prone to owing gratuities and monthly pension, despite bailouts from the federal government.

Even so, pensioners who were employees of the supposedly diligent federal government have complained of corrupt practices and neglect. Omoregie tells me that four years after his father (now 73) retired, his father did not get any monthly pension payments. Even now as he receives the monthly payment, in the past two months, two thousand naira ($5.52) has been deducted from his pay, with no explanation. Up to this time, only 70 per cent of the old man’s gratuity has been paid.

In January 2019, Omoregie interviewed the retiree Hassan Maina, who worked for Kaltungo Local Government in Gombe State. Maina was 64 at the time of the interview, and he was owed more than two years’ worth of pension payments. According to him, he had not been paid one kobo of his gratuity, despite having served the local government from 1978 and 2013 (25 years).

With a Muezzin’s sombre call to prayer in the background, Maina tells the story of his wife, Ruth’s death. The illness that would kill her manifested the month he retired. And as she lay on her sickbed, he ran around to complete the retirement documentation that would make him eligible for monthly pension payments. A public servant herself, Ruth died seven months after she retired and, in that period, she was only paid three months’ worth of her monthly benefits and nothing of the lump sum gratuity she was entitled to.

The date Maina’s wife died is scribbled with chalk on a wall in his parlour. Against the same wall, are the prosthetic limb and crutches she had to rely on after amputation of one of her legs, kept, perhaps as a memento.

‘When we could not pay the full medical bills, the doctor asked us to take her home. That she might even recover faster in a place she is familiar with,’ Maina says about his wife’s amputation, her subsequent relapses due to high blood pressure, and her eventual death. He adds that three of his former colleagues at Kaltungo have already died without getting anything of their retirement benefits, ‘even my friend Sule Habila that we retired the same day.’

Down south in Benue, after years of frustration, and unpaid monthly pensions and gratuities, aggrieved pensioners decided that it was high time the government learnt their grievances. In September 2019, they laid siege for seven days to the governor, Samuel Ortom’s house in protest. Three pensioners reportedly lost their lives during the course of these protests.

Months before this protest, in January 2019, Omoregie was in Benue to interview pensioners for the documentary. In Benue, another pensioner, Patrick Itodo, shared how he took a pay cut in 1990 to join the Benue State government, just so he could be closer to his home after his father died—as the new head of the family. Itodo retired at 60 in 2016, and as at January 2019, was owed at least 14 months of pensions.

‘Because I live in a village, by other people’s generosity, we are able to survive, me and my wife and family,’ Itodo told Omoregie. Close to a year before this interview, Itodo fell ill and had to be taken to a hospital in the country’s capital Abuja, 290 kilometres away from his home. The illness involved monthly trips to the capital and surgery for the impoverished pensioner.

‘If not for my uncle and some others who paid the bills,’ Itodo said, ‘I would have died.’

‘A Reference for Many Years to Come’

As our conversation on retirees draws to an end, Omoregie tells me of a pensioner he met in July 2017. Cletus Ezeme is a seventy-nine-year-old retired headmaster in Enugu State, and ‘The Enugu State Government had not paid him his gratuity since he retired in 2008, and his monthly pension allowance had been irregular. When I went back in December 2018 to check on him, I was told he died a few months earlier without getting his gratuity.’

It is easy to see why these heart-breaking stories are an emotional walk for Omoregie—how these elderly Nigerians are spending the final years of their lives hollow, in lack and deprivation, despite decades spent in public service. But why then does he take this walk?

He says: ‘I believe this would stand as a reference for many years to come, and possibly influence change. And when eventually this problem is solved, the work would be a testament to this sad moment in our history.’

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