‘Life pension for governors, deputies an aberration’

Oshoma

Lagos-based legal practioner, Liborous Oshoma, in this interview with GERALDINE AKUTU, said ex-governors were raping their states of scarce resources through hurriedly packaged pension laws. This he said amounts to feeding fat on public purse. He wants a review of such laws in order to stem the tide.

Governors and their deputies get severance packages at the expiration of their tenures. Is there any need for the bogus pension that some of them are now enjoying?
The essence of pension is to cater for people who have served meritoriously and to discourage the attitude of people who want to keep things aside for eventualities in case one is out of office and money is no longer available. In other words, pension is a way of maintaining a person outside office. But in Nigeria especially, political office holders are not discouraged from stealing public funds even when they know that there would be packages for them when they leave office. Put differently, the pension for them has not been able to forestall their punitive attitude or their knack for treasury looting. The fact that you make pension available to former public office holders does not rid them of the greed that is prevalent among them.

So, to that extent, if what pension is to achieve is now defeated, I really don’t see why we should continue paying them pension blindly. We should review it to be a one-off package or contributory. As a public office holder, you should be made to contribute a portion of what you earn, while the government contributes a portion towards your pension. It should be reviewed in such a way that those former state governors already earning pension from state governments should not benefit from another form of pension because that is the provision of the law. For instance, if you are a former governor serving in the Senate and still drawing salaries from the government, your pension should be suspended. You cannot be enjoying salaries and pension at the same time. It is not done as it is contrary to the provisions of the law.

Many are of the opinion that what these former governors and their deputies are earning as pension is simply outrageous. Do you think otherwise?
I believe that what they are earning is simply outrageous. When a former governor, who is now a minister or senator, in addition to what he/she takes home now is still entitled to security aides, medical trips abroad, cooks, car renewal every two or three years, houses in Abuja and his state of origin, I strongly believe that this is not right. That is why they will never let our hospitals, security agencies and other such organs work effectively in this country.

By the time you calculate all what goes to a former governor at regular intervals, you would simply wonder what he needs the pool of cars at his disposal for. Meanwhile, this is a man that would have used his position to acquire wealth illegally while in office. This kind of scenario further strengthens the fact that the essence of pension has been defeated by what these former governors are enjoying. The sustenance of governors and their deputies after their tenure, should never be to our detriment, rather if a public office is to serve, then we should be talking about service and if you must be entitled to pension, it must be contributory pension that you contributed during your tenure, the same way, it is stated in the Pension Act of 2004.

So, in essence, apart from the pension for former governors being outrageous, it has also not succeeded in discouraging public office holders from dipping their hands in the public purse while they serve their tenure because we have seen cases where people that looted our treasury are not only being celebrated, but are still given pension which is illegal. This is part of the reason political office is so attractive, and also the reason people kill and maim just to get there. We should never have in place these types of luxurious pension packages in a country where the human capital index is so low; where the poverty rate is so high, and where some people can barely feed. This amounts to feeding fat on the public purse, and it should never be encouraged at all.

Is making laws to grant ex-governors that served for a maximum of eight years pension running into millions of naira not obscene?
That is the point I tried to make earlier. Go and look at how these pension laws were hurriedly packaged. In some cases, some of these laws were assented to as these governors were leaving office. The one in Akwa Ibom State was packaged in 13 days and that was the reason there were glaring loopholes. As poor as Kwara State is, the state assembly equally hurriedly packaged the same law. The package in Edo State was not even debated on the floor of the state House of Assembly. All these packages were hurriedly prepared and so did not go through the scrutiny of proper lawmaking procedures. I don’t think most of them would see the light of the day for long. The idea of giving pension to former governors is an aberration, a very sad development. I strongly believe that this pension for governors should be done away with because it is not something that we should be discussing in view of the very high level of poverty. I keep on asking, why should a house that is worth N3million, N4million or N5million be built for a former governor, when the man has already built a massive one worth several millions for himself while in office?
Ordinarily, this pension was supposed to take care of people who could not take care of themselves in a civilised society where you could not steal from public purse. Joe Biden took a public train back to his base when he left office as the vice president of the United States. That is why you see presidents who got into office getting poorer after they left office. Bill Clinton became poorer after he left office as former President of America but here, you will leave office as a very rich man and the state will pay for your ostentatious lifestyle with humongous allowances. I think it is criminal, illegal, wrong, satanic and should be abolished. If those resources are channeled into infrastructural development, the society would be better off as people would be taken off the streets, shelters provided, public transportation improved and schools upgraded. School fees for homeless children who have no future can as well come from such funds.

Now it is former governors and their deputies that are collecting these jumbo pensions. Later, senators will start asking for theirs. These excesses should not be tolerated. We can’t continue like this. I find it very sad that people that laid down their lives; spent 35 years of their youthful days serving the country are queuing up and doing verification here and there in order to get the pittance that they are paid as pension. And it is in the same country that another man served as governor for four or eight years and ends up getting humongous allowances, which are delivered to him in whichever manner he chooses. Most of these aggrieved pensioners, who have waited so long to get their pension celebrate on the day they are paid.

How good an idea is challenging these pension laws in court by aggrieved workers or pensioners?
Yes they can, but I doubt if anything will come out of it because of the technicalities and bottlenecks associated with Nigeria’s legal jurispudence. So, what we can continually do is to use our votes at every election to change the political environment, by electing people that mean well for the country; people who would work towards reversing these obnoxious laws. Going to court, there is no guarantee that the suit would see the light of the day because it would definitely go through a lot of legal somersaults and jamborees. Most especially, the law has been packed and assented to.

Some affected persons have taken steps to either put an end or reject such pensions. Is this a good development?
This is a country where information ordinarily that should be public information is hidden from the public. It is not enough for people like the Senate President Bukola Saraki to just say he is no longer receiving pension. We need to see proof from the state government, the Office of the Accountant General of the state to truly show he is no longer receiving pension. If he has received before, he should return everything to the state coffers. There was no period where he stayed out of government. Other former governors should also do the same thing since the Senate is increasingly becoming the retirement home for former governors. There is no reason states should sustain the ostentatious lifestyle of former governors, even as the former governors are still collecting hefty allowances as senators or ministers.

It is really sad that this is a country where you need to be corrupt to be respected. The ones that are not corrupt are mobbed and seen as the dregs of the earth. How do you expect an economy that is ruled by corrupt people, who claim to be fighting corruption to grow?
Can the National Assembly intervene to save cash-strapped states from this kind of conundrum created by state assemblies?

The National Assembly is not in a better position to curb this menace because they are complacent in this matter. The National Assembly especially the Senate has almost become a retirement home for former governors and these are the same persons that are accused of drawing pensions and still collecting salaries. Is it Akpabio, Danjuma Goje or the other beneficiaries that would want to forfeit their largesse? People should understand that the power of change resides in their thumbs. At every election, we should be very interested in who represents us right from councillorship to the topmost office in the land. That is how we will come to our own aid and have people who mean well to govern the affairs of the nation. Otherwise, if we are waiting for the National Assembly to come to our aid, we will wait in vain. So, the National Assembly can’t do that because some of their members are the ones that are benefiting from the obnoxious pension laws.

Can’t state attorneys general be compelled to make a move towards discontinuing the payment of such bogus pensions?
A situation where an attorney general is answerable to the governor or the president as the case may be would only complicate and make matters worse. If the governor is a stooge of the former governor who is drawing pension, do you think that the attorney general would muster enough courage to intervene in the interest of the masses? The answer is no. But if you have the office of the attorney general distinct from the commissioner for justice or ministry of justice as the case may be, the attorney general will be answerable to the people to some extent, and will be answerable to the governor for the benefit of the state, even though he draws his strength largely from the people. So, when anything that is hypothetical or contrary to the expectations of the people happens, he will be the first to take such a matter before a court to challenge it. What we have in Nigeria is an aberration. The only hope is the people themselves not the accountant general, the attorney general or members of the National Assembly.



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