By James Udemba
When a civil society group fought relentlessly last year to compel serving senators and ministers to refund pension funds they collected from their states as former governors, the members never bargained that their job would be made easier by a governor who ought to benefit from the rash of laws being made by State Houses of Assemblies to impoverish their states. Thus when Governor Hope Uzodinma of Imo State repealed the state’s law on Pensions for former Governors and their deputies, many were shocked that he could summon the courage to frontally confront a monster that was not only offensive to the letters of the constitution but an affront to the sensibilities of the masses who are daily being buffeted by hunger, disease and destitution.
To some, what Uzodinma did was nothing short of class suicide. But reactions from well-meaning Nigerians suggest otherwise. If anything, majority believe that that action was long overdue. It was a question of who would bell the proverbial cat. It was a question of having a man or woman of moral high ground to call a spade by its real name and not a farming instrument. And luckily, Uzodinma chose to be that man who, in many years to come, will stand out as having sacrificed his today so that thousands of youths will have a tomorrow.
Before that civil society group raised the alarm on the prodigious amount being carted away by former governors as pensions, many Nigerians were aghast that some of these politicians were receiving double pay as senators and ministers. The concern of the CSO was that the politicians were committing a crime by receiving double pay and not necessarily that their states indulged them. Consequently, the group sought an order of the court to compel those politicians to refund one set of payment. It was within the same period when Nigerians were shocked to know that a former governor of Zamfara state was collecting a princely N10million monthly as pension. His successor reasoned that the amount was outrageous and refused to pay.
Uzodinma, on the other hand, went a step forward by totally repealing the obnoxious law to save money for Imo people for development projects. Known as Imo State Governors and Speakers Privileges Law No. 5 of 2007, the former law prescribed payment of pensions to former governors, their deputies and speakers of the House of assembly for life! To Uzodinma, the provision was both immoral and criminal in nature. Speaking after signing into law the Act that repealed Law No. 5 of 2007, the Governor was categorical that “the law was against the Pensions Act which stipulates that only those who have put in a minimum of 10 years in public service were entitled to pensions whereas former governors and speakers stay in office for a maximum of eight years”.
Not done, Uzodinma also explained that the financial implications of allowing the law to stay would be enormous, said he, “I was alarmed that the financial implications for the state will not only be scandalous but indefensible. My simple calculations told me that there could come a time when the state could be spending more than one third of its resources to maintain former governors and speakers”. He said it was also indefensible for the government to pay that huge amount of money to former officers who had already received millions of naira as severance allowances while retired civil servants are yet to get their gratuities. In other words, apart from the criminality involved in violating the Pensions Act, continued payment of the pensions will drain the scarce resources of the state and deprive the main retired public servants their due after 35 years of toiling for the state.
One striking thing about Uzodinma’s patriotic act is that he is also denying himself millions of naira that would have been paid to him as pensions after leaving office. Another is that the current House of Assembly totally agreed with him and went ahead to pass the bill which now has become a law. Although one may not accuse the architects of the former law of greed, it is now glaring from the action of Uzodinma that they erred by appropriating to themselves more than they are entitled to.
Indeed, if a former governorship candidate of the then APP in Imo State, Engr. Ezekiel Izurgu had his way; the beneficiaries of the former law should have been made to refund every kobo they collected as pensions. According to the foremost scientist who designed the first made-in-Nigeria car, Uzodinma’s action could not have come at a better time than now when the masses are suffering. “They (politicians) should consider the common man. The common man is suffering. Those who find themselves in these positions (governors) should be considerate. They should refund some money to the common man who cannot eat even once a day”, he submitted. He however noted that by taking the lead, Uzodinma has set a worthy example for his colleagues and others who might find themselves in a similar position.
Izuogu’s position is equally shared by a member of Board of Trustees of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and business mogul, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu who enjoined other state governors to abolish the pension laws for former governors in their states. Said he “I commend Gov. Uzodinma for that law. I also commend the State House of Assembly because we have to develop our institutions. There was no time in the history of this country that pension was made for politicians. There is a difference between a political appointment and career appointments”.
Iwuanyawu further argued that what pained him most in the rash of those pension laws was that majority of the beneficiaries were also earning pensions after retiring from government establishments and becoming politicians while others who are ministers and federal lawmakers are collecting double salaries from both the federal and state governments. He said now that Uzodinma has pointed out the illegality of that actions, it has become urgent for states operating the pension laws to do away with them without further delay.
In a move to expedite action on the matter, the Youth Wing of Ohanaeze Ndigbo in the South East said it was already leading a campaign to the other four Igbo states to follow Uzodinma’s example by freeing more money for the development of their states. According to the South East President of the Youth Wing, Okey Paul Nwankwo, the Youths have gotten a template from Senator Hope Uzodinma on solid ways of securing their financial future through the abolition of obnoxious pension laws that are anti-people. He was of the view that any governor who truly loves his people will not allow the payment of pensions to former governors and speakers after they would have collected several millions of naira as severance allowances.
Now that the Imo State Governor has taken that bold initiative by repealing the law in his state, how many of his colleagues are prepared to follow suit, knowing fully well that they will be committing class suicide? Is it not mind boggling that with the plethora of lawyers in the country, a tiny few had been breaching the laws of Nigeria with impunity without anybody challenging them? Could it have been a class conspiracy or outright negligence that this had been allowed to fester for such a long time? Whatever that might have been the case, Hope Uzodinma has blazed the trail. Nigerians are awaiting those who would follow suit to be courageous and stand to be counted on the side of the masses.
- Udemba is an owerri based public affairs analyst