Pensioners in Benue State waited several years for their pensions and gratuities. Although there is respite following the emergence of the incumbent Governor, the elders told Denen Achussah what they endured and how they survived.
It is most unfair and sheer cruelty that a man will invest 35 years of dedicated service and a great percentage of his useful life into government service only to be discarded at retirement with no adequate benefits to compensate for his years of meritorious service. Those were the words of Maimuna Ikwulono, a lawyer and the first female Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Makurdi branch.
Her words paint the picture of pension and gratuity in the state: A quagmire. Mrs. Ikwulono, in her written address, admitted that as a result of non- payment of pension and gratuity, pensioners in the state have seen “hell.” Some resorted to begging for food, she said.
This fact was corroborated by Mrs. Cecilia Mbakese Jebe, a former civil servant from Ushongo Local Government Area, Benue North East, who was on oxygen for over a year, following the death of her daughter-in-law with three grandchildren in a fatal road accident in 2019. “If not for God, life would have been terrible and horrible,” she said. She has lost hope in the recovery of her pension and gratuity because, according to her, if the state wanted to pay her gratuity it would have been at the time she was hospitalised for hypertension.
“I was on oxygen for one year,” she said, adding that even though she wrote to the governor telling him about her condition in hospital, “nobody responded up till today.”
Mrs. Jebe retired in 2013, after reaching 35 years in service. She has lost track of the number of months or years she has been owed in pension, the widowed mother of four lamented.
The experience of working for the state and retiring without payment of gratuity, with no monthly pension is worse that she cannot tell. And considering how compounded the debt is on the government—pension arrears spread between 2013 and 2023, and the number of those who are in the same shoe with her—she doubted if she will ever get paid.
“When I retired in 2013, they didn’t pay me until 2019 when they started my monthly payment. So I don’t know what happened between 2013 and 2018,” Mrs. Jebe narrated. And apart from the 2019, when the former Governor Samuel Ortom commenced her payment, she says she received her pension once in a year till the former governor left the office in May.
“It’s not regular. So it’s when I get alert that I know that this is the month for which I am paid.”
However, and relying that “God will make a way,” Mrs. Jebe notes that it’s fresh air for pensioners in the state under the current administration.
Priscilla Udoon Kurugh, who retired from service in 2014 began saying she could have started begging alms if not for her children who are taking care of her.
Before her retirement, Mrs Kurugh was a cook at the Makurdi Government House. She was not paid her gratuity during her retirement and rarely receive her pension after the retirement.
As if Alechenu Adagba Thomas, 62, knew that he would not see his gratuity or pension before his demise, and that his son, studying medicine, might be forced to leave school upon his demise on account of non-payment of fees. Before he died, he sold his only car and paid his son’s medical school fees upfront.
Alechenu was diabetic. He needed drugs and regular check ups, and coupled with the fees of his children, life was difficult for the family, narrated Mercy Thomas, Alechenu’s widow.
Alechenu did not see a dime from his gratuity. Neither was he paid his pensions. During his internment by his relatives at Ogboju, this reporter heard stories of a deceased who was a good man and the lamentation of how Alechenu did not live to enjoy his retirement days.
His first son, Godwin, is a 500-level medical student at University of Abuja. Though he did not know how the family would survive without the retirement payment of his father, he “believes God would see Alechenu’s family through all their endeavours.”
Like Alechemu is Egbodo Agana, 63, who retired as a director of information in the Local Government Service of Benue state in 2018. He is owed 53 months of pension arrears. As he responded to this reporter, his voice sounded stressed, distressed and depressed. Egbodo could not help but regret having taken up a civil service job.
At his age, when he should be enjoying the fruits of his labour, Egbodo said he could not fulfil many of his responsibilities due to financial restraints. He vowed, not in this life will he encourage any of his children to find a career in the civil service.
Michael Vembe, the Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners (NUP), Benue State chapter, retired from civil service in 2012. And according to his calculation, he is being owed 96 months in pension arrears. He also said there are some pensioners who are owed even more.
Vembe lamented that protests, including “sleep-out protest,” failed to improve the situation. On 4th September, 2019, pensioners under the aegis of the Concerned Benue Pensioners under the then leadership of Peter Kyado, camped in front of the Benue Government House, to push for the payment of their gratuity and pension arrears. But despite this effort, there was no tangible result from it.
According to Chris Akombu, who recently retired from service, after insecurity, non- payment of gratuity and pensions lead the cause of death of pensioners and former civil servants between between 2015 to 2023 in Benue state.
“It became the trademark of the last administration in Benue State,” he stated, adding that it was the very reason the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was rejected.
The irony is that the state keeps receiving billions in monthly allocation, including Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). The money seem to be going down the drain, given the poor history of capital projects in the state.
Notwithstanding huge amounts of federal government’s bailout interventions, loans and IGR, running into hundreds of billions of naira, the state has done little to clearing the backlog of arrears of salaries and pensions.
For instance, in 2015, the Justice Kpojime Commission of Inquiry found that the government of former Governor Gabriel Suswam earned over N1 trilllion from all sources, an amount earned was higher than the estimated N802 billion.
In other words, the over N219 billion that was not appropriated would have paid dozens of months of pension, but it did not.
In 2012, Senator George Akume and Gabriel Suswam traded blame over the cumulative pension debt of the pensioners in the state. Suswam succeeded Akume, Nigeria’s Secretary to Government of the Federation, as Governor.
Suswam blamed Senator Akume for leaving behind a debt profile of about N8 billion in pension and gratuity. Mike Iordye, a former state Head of Service (HOS) who served in both the Akume and Suswam’s administration, testified on oath before a committee constituted at that time that the state was owing pensioners N8 billion, which he said was a carried-over from the previous administration in the state led by Senator Akume.
Although there was evident drop in revenue, which stemmed from the two recessions experienced under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, the Ortom administration did not show serious commitment to either issues of pension or the plight of pensioners in the state.
Meanwhile, a few days to the end of his second term, former Governor Ortom signed into law, the Benue Governor’s Pension Bill. Critics like Terhemen Aorabeeven, a human rights lawyer, described the law as a “scam”, because it is expected to take effect from 1999 so that it will pay pensions to all the former governors and their deputies since the beginning of the fourth republic.
According to the law, the former governors are entitled to two vacations abroad annually and the former deputy governor to one vacation abroad. The expenses are on the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the State, meaning that they are on First Line Charge and are to take priority against other expenses like salaries, pensions and gratuity of the citizen, Aorabee explained.
The Game Changer
Not long after Fr. Hyacinth Alia became the governor of Benue State that the pensioners started smiling again. Mrs. Kurugh, who had lost all hope, sat in the lobby of her house in Makurdi and reminisced how livelihood is returning back to normal for her.
Since the governor resumed office, Mrs Kurugh said she has received three months’ pensions. She also received the pension two times in June, and once in July, and with the promise by the Governor that the pensioners will be getting their entitlements every 25th of every month.
“The situation has drastically improved as this man of God has come to save us. Just like that. Every 25th. I said ehn? Is it me like this, getting money in the bank? I thank God. And I thank that little boy for helping us out,” she said.
Tersoo Kula, Chief Press Secretary (CPS) to the Governor, recently said in a statement that “under Alia’s visionary stewardship, the spectre of unpaid salaries and pension arrears has been exorcised. Like clockwork, workers and pensioners alike have been granted a reprieve, receiving their dues punctually from 25th of every month.
“This timely financial sustenance is not just a gesture of responsiveness but a lifeline that ensures that the wheels of daily life continue to turn smoothly for countless families and economic boost of the state.”
But like Mrs Jebe asked, would the governor be able to clear the backlog of arrears of pension and gratuity? Pensioners await, murmuring “time shall tell.”
This report was supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development, Inclusivity and Accountability project (CMEDIA) with funding support from the MacArthur Foundation.