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 OPINION: Restoring Pensioners Dignity in Imo, By Austin Uganwa

(AFRICAN EXAMINER) – Imo State Governor, Rt. Hon Emeka Ihedioha last Friday restored the self-worth and optimism of the largely distressed Imo retirees. At a stakeholder meeting he organized at Concorde Hotel in Owerri to interface with the senior citizens, he put to an end the anxieties surrounding the 5-year non-payment of pensions. He told the perplexed pensioners drawn from the Nigerian Union of pensioners, (NUP) and organized labour that the government would commence the payment of pensioners from this week specifically, Thursday.

The governor captured the assurance graphically and sequentially: “The verification exercise embarked by the government to ascertain the actual number and amount to be paid to the pensioners has been completed.   The consultants handling the exercise have told me that integration of the collated data with the banks will be done between Monday and Tuesday, while the report will be presented to, and ratified, at the State Executive Council Meeting on Wednesday thereafter the alert will start hitting your phones”.

Naturally, Sam Mbakwe Hall, Concord Hotel, venue of the meeting was electrified over Ihedioha’s assurance. The pensioners consequently gave the governor an inspiring but sustained loud ovation. Euphoria and cheers palpably rent the air.  And became more manifest when Ihedioha announced that he had set aside over N822 million representing 17 percent of the state’s federation allocation, based on the computed figures, for the payment of the pension arrears.

Ihedioha had during his campaign period and inaugural speech, May 29, this year assured Imo people of making pension reforms one of the focal points of his administration. He had noted of guaranteeing the restoration of the dignity of the retirees as one of the priority options of the new government. The intensification of the pension revamp is instructive of Ihedioha’s steadfastness towards accomplishing his campaign promises

Not a few Imolites perceive the commencement of regular payment of pensioners as cutting-edge and momentous. The reasons are not far-fetched. Records are evident and verifiable that the last time the pensioners in the state were paid was in 2014, five clear years ago. At that time they were paid far below their pension entitlement and were made to queue for days to obtain their cheques. Pathetically, some of the cheques even failed to clear.  It is also on record that there has been an upswing in the number of deceased pensioners in the state in the past five years resulting from their inability to take care of their fragile health due to  non-payment of  pension  by the past administration headed by Owelle Rochas Okorocha

However, even in the face of the meritorious manner many of the senior citizens served the state, it is most disconcerting that the past administration dishonoured them, impacting on the deflation of   their self-esteem. This veracity intrinsically forced them to wallow unfortunately and manifestly for years, in pains, despair and hopelessness. These evidence-based realties informed the jubilation and acclamation that greeted Ihedioha’s announcement of commencing the payment of pensions, after five years. The regular payment of the pension will not only enhance the pensioners’ livelihoods, it will most importantly restore their confidence and pride.

Ihedioha’s pursuit of pension revamp in Imo was methodical. First, he set up a 6-man committee headed by Evans Uzokwe  to investigate the 5-year pension arrears owed to retirees in the state by the past administration and to provide a framework on  the best approach to be adopted by the current administration to grapple with the pensions conundrums

Thereafter, a team of consultants was engaged by government to work jointly with the committee headed by Mr. Pascal Madu, the Chief Technical Adviser to the governor with a mandate to undertake verification and biometric capturing of the pensioners. This became imperative because of lack of reliable and computerized data on pensioners in the state.

Ihedioha further explained the urgent need for the verification exercise and biometric capturing. Apparently peeved by the agony the pensioners have been passing through on account of non-payment of pensioners entitlement he  stated that the essence of the biometric capturing is to reform, standardize and sanitize the pension administration in the state such that  data on the pensioners would be accurate and reliable and  the record efficient enough to render another verification exercise in the state  needless

For enhanced results, the exercise was conducted in two phases to cover the state and local councils pensioners. Apart from ensuring that Imo youths were hired for the exercise as an avenue of empowering them, the governor mandated the committee to take the verification exercise to the local government headquarters and down to the wards towards making it convenient for the senior citizens to access the exercise. This was a major departure from the past when the pensioners would be made to travel to the state capital Owerri for the exercise

Consistent with the government’s policy of restoring the dignity of the retirees, the pensioners’ welfare was fascinatingly accorded top priority during the duration of the verification exercise. Meals were provided for them while proper medical care and facilities such as wheelchair were readily made available to the pensioners that needed them

The exercise typically hatched profound results. Apart from yielding credible and reliable data on pensioners in the state,  Pascal Madu, head of the committee that undertook the exercise submitted that it unlocked lots of fraudulent records in the system. According to him, the exercise uncovered well over 7000 ghost pensioners bringing down the total number of recorded pensioners from 25,000 to 18,000. The implication is a sharp drop in the amount used monthly to defray pension in the state. It accordingly tumbled from N1.3b to N 822m, resulting in government gaining over N400m monthly.

Dr. Uganwa, Senior Special Assistant to Imo Government on Documentation, wrote from Owerri


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