By: JOHN FWAH
At exactly 6.40p.m. of Tuesday, 3rd October, 2017, yours sincerely walked out of the massive Professor Mahmoud Yakubu Assembly Hall of the Nigeria Defence Academy (NDA) Staff School, Kaduna, venue of the pensioners verification by Pension Transition Administration Directorate (PTAD). By the time the processing officer handed the print out of the Pensioners Verification Acknowledgement Form (PVAF) to me, I received it with two hands, bowed and said , ‘Thank you Madam. God bless you all.’
I may not be the last man standing as the hall was empty with the dispatching of other pensioners who were asked to come the following day for continuation of their verification. All the same, I held my head high as a proud pensioner. I was so happy that I am alive to be counted as one of Nigeria’s pensioners to the glory of God. When I was given this assignment to put down what it was like to be a pensioner on a date the PTAD was conducting verification, I said it was experience worth sharing for all to learn, improve, make amends where necessary.
The screening and verification exercise was meant for retired staff of New Nigerian Newspapers (NNN), NICON Insurance, Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) Civilians and Nigeria Re-insurance under the Defined Benefit Scheme (DBS) of the Federal Government.
What the pensioner passes through before he or she enjoys the gratuity, benefits and monthly pension is better imagined than described. For want of better words to describe such an experience, I say it was harrowing. I don’t wish my enemy to taste it. Going back memory lane as a retired staff of NNN, it was 18 years of untold hardship and hopeless situation where many turned beggars. Very few of these pensioners who are strong and healthy are lucky to be endowed with handworks like masonry, carpentry, repairers, by which they were able to contend with the harsh economy in the country to survive.
Many are suffering ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, while some are hit by stroke. A colleague, Merver Ayila, was brought in from Benue State for verification under a terrible state of what was described as improved stroke condition. This was so because it will be simpler for him in Kaduna center than Abuja due to his health condition. Let me quickly point out that the surprising aspect of the process was that Ayila was made to pass through the process of under going numbering, sitting for hours under the canopy. He had to be helped when his number was called for the real verification inside the hall. It should not be so. Such cases should be attended to immediately as they arrive. Call it preferential treatment if you like.
The NNN pensioner, like other pensioners, had a very rough road to this verification. Federal Government’s take over of the institution without enabling decree did not help matters. The lacuna was what enabled Northern states governors take over what was theirs from the Obasanjo regime in 2006. The retired ones grouped to form union of pensioners under the NIgeria Union of Pensioners (NUP) and protested several times to the management for non payment of their monthly pensions.
Many were not paid their gratuities. Several letters were written by members of the NNN branch of the NUP to former governors of Kaduna State, Senator Ahmed Makarfi and former Vice-Pesident Namadi Sambo. I could recall that late President, Umaru Yar’adua, then as Governor of Katsina State, while Chairman, doled out 50 million Naira for the settlement of salaries and pensions. To his credit, he set up the Alhaji Aliko Mohammed committee to fashion out how the issue of the institution be handled. The recommendations of the committee which was highly commended by the governors never saw light of the day.
The issue of NNN and Kaduna Textiles Limited (KTL) turned political at a point because of their status as legacies of late Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. The advantage the NNN enjoyed was the fact that it is a media outfit, which it exploited maximally. In addition, it attracted sympathy of its former management staff who are in various positions in both public and private sectors.
The retired staff had to seek redress in law courts as bonafide retired staff of Federal Government newspapers. The resolution of filling a suit in court was highly debated by members of the NNN branch of the NUP at their several meetings under the mango tree at the Nigeria Union Of Journalists (NUJ) secretariat of Kaduna State Council.
There were those for and against but better reason prevailed that court as the last hope of the common man was the best option. The NNN NUP officials, including Idi Sule chairman, Yakubu Adele, Abdullahi Jalingo and Barrister Albert Bosah Iweka, himself a veteran journalist, with his team of lawyers without borders, took the case to court. The court verdict went in favour of the pensioners which directed the Federal Government to absorb and pay the gratuities, pension arrears as prayed by the pensioners.
The rest may now be history because, no event, no history. Suffice it to say that the Northern States Governors Forum (NSGF) after one of it’s meetings directed its agents, Capital Properties to put up the NNN properties for sale, which the firm promptly advertised. The sale of the properties attracted another round of court process which is still on going. The new adjourned date is 17 October, 2017 when the lawyers of NNN would move motion against the sale.
Barrister (Mrs) Sharon Ikeazor, Executive Secretary and her team of PTAD officials, have danced and we have seen and clapped for them. Ikeazor displayed she is amiable, simple and a caring mother. The truth is that the journey to this stage of verification was rough and tough. Those who were verified must thank God for His Grace and mercy to be part of the process. The mere sight of these pensioners sitting under the canopies at the venue attracts sympathy and pity as it is obvious that 90 per cent are dejected and hopeless. Their looks paint pictures of elderly people who have wasted the better part of their lives and nothing to show for it when it matters most. Some were being managed/packaged by their loved ones as they could barely stand the rigours of the verification process.
As at the last count, about 200 NNN pensioners have died. Among them, Okon Akpapkan, Shehu Sani, composing room manager and father of Senator Shehu Sani, Clement Nda-Isaiah father of the publisher of LEADERSHIP Newspaper Sam Nda-Isaiah, Stephen Bamigbele news editor and Abubakar Baba, correspondent at Yobe State.
Meanwhile, on pension arrears, New Nigerian Pensioners have vowed to frustrate restructuring of the company even as the union resisted bid to withdraw the case from court.
The action was in anger over the loss of over 200 members and the deteriorating health condition of several other pensioners of the NNN, hence they have vowed not to withdraw the court case against the company and the Federal Government until the last kobo of the N8.8 billion areas of pensions owed them is paid.
The Chairman NNN Pensioners Union, Idi Sule expressed this when fielding questions from newsmen at the venue of the PTAD) verification for pensioners at the NDA, Kaduna.
He said that they resolved not to withdraw the law suit, which since instituted, has prevented present owners of the company from restructuring it to become vibrant as it was in the past.
Sule said that the amount approved for payment of arrears is a meagre N2.1 billion, far from the actual areas of N8.8 billion as at December 2016.
“We have lost up to 200 pensioners and up to this moment, people are bed ridden. It was a pathetic sight to behold as some came here for verification in ambulances,” he said.
Commenting on the verification exercise, he said they are yet to believe that the government is sincere in paying them, but are only waiting and would believe only when they receive alerts and go to the ATM and succeed in cashing money.
He explained that for 24 years, they have been in the struggle of getting their pensions.
“Initially, it was pegged at N2.1 billion but a committee set up by the Northern Governors which was headed by the Kaduna State Secretary to State Government, reviewed it and it was discovered to be N8.8 billion from January 2000 to December 2016,” he said.
But the Executive Secretary PTAD Sharon Ikeazor disclosed that the directorate (PTAD) has discovered and removed 15,600 ghost pensioners from the Federal government payroll following verification exercises as part of efforts to sanitizing the payment of pensioners.
She added that the pensioners once verified will enter the Federal government pension payroll within four months, adding that the ghost pensioners were removed from the payroll in December 2016 because their accounts were not connected to any BVN numbers.
“When we took the ghost pensioners out of the payroll, there was no much outcry and only few were actually genuine cases and they were put back on the payroll,” she said.
Speaking further, she said that the present verification which is taking place simultaneously will not end there as the process is continuous, adding that pensioners can visit their office in Abuja and Kaduna to complete their verification.
“New Nigerian Newspapers is a special case, we have less than 700 pensioners in New Nigerian. We are doing it batch by batch. We are expecting 998 pensioners in Kaduna from the three agencies and about 5,000 in total.
“We are conducting the entire verification for civil servants, police, parastatals and para military. Civil service verification is expected to be concluded in 2018. We just began that of parastatals and hope to conclude it in 2018.
“After the verification there would be computation then after four months they would be on the payroll because it has to go through audit process before payment is made electronically. We maintain a TSA account with CBN and pensioners are paid from that account through e-payment,” she said.
On the success of the ongoing verification, she said that well articulated planning is making it successful. She however warned pensioners without BVN number to get one linked with their account as they cannot be paid without the BVN number. “We don’t have challenges because we planned and strategized ahead to have a seamless and smooth exercise.”
It is very interesting to testify the verification of the pensioners by PTAD. The directorate deserves commendation in organizing a successful verification. It was well organized in terms of the location of the venue in the confines of the NDA with the large hall fitted with ceiling fans and air conditioners, in addition to standby generator in the event of power failure from public supply.
The approach of the officials of the directorate is worthy of commendation. They are completely hospitable in character and practice. It was there I saw where an officer was concerned about some pensioners sitting position. He will politely request, advice, ask you to please get up and go to the other side under the shade of canopy while he gives out the form and number. An officer will raise his or her voice to call out the numbers which could be done many times over to ensure it was heard while you are politely ushered into the hall.
The setting of verification in the hall is that of chain like movement. The pensioner approaches the first set where he or she submits the form and originals of the documents needed. He or she joins the queue to the screening section. Here your finger prints captured, snapshot taken, documents scanned. The final stage, before you get your PVAF, you are cleared if no question arising from the information you supplied. One important observation is that it was never a dull moment as they take turns to refresh or take snacks, action goes on. If there is hold up, it is either the finger print or scanning is slow.
However the directorate should improve on the feeding. The quantity of meal served needs to be improved upon. What was served was more of snacks than a meal for a hungry sick man or woman. Only lucky ones get the meal served in disposable take aways. There should be sufficient supply of drinking water as many pensioners were dehydrated even as they were hungry.
Finally, as senior citizens, pensioners who have gone through verification process deserve medals. It is not enough to present them with the Pensioner Verification Acknowledgement Form. These are men and women who have put in the best part of their life in the service of their fatherland. Therefore, the medal award is more deserving.
It will serve as a motivation and encouragement to future Nigerians as well as give them more sense of purpose while in service of the nation. This is calling on the Committee on Pensions of the National Assembly to make the medal award to pensioners a matter of national importance. It is also appreciated that the honorable members have in their forefront the issue of pensioners, especially when some of them are pensioners or have relatives who are pensioners.
Fwah, a former Sports Editor of New Nigerian Newspapers and a Kaduna based media consultant sent in this piece.
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