The Pension Conundrum and way forward for Abia state Government By Obinna Oriaku

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Recently, I decided to ignore some of the development in our state, because I wanted to give the current administration enough time to navigate the burden of leadership for at least one year. After one year in office, it would then be the best time to take stock.

However, I have to come out of my hibernation to appreciate the Governor for at least looking at the way of pensioners. I have consistently frowned at non-payment of pension arrears and frowned even more at the continued inconceivable payment of half pension amount to Abia retirees. How did that culture of holding back some amount from the meagre pension creeped into existence?.

I must admit that we owed pensions arrears of about 10 months before the 2019 election, However, under my watch we never paid HALF pension . We still seek to know why with enhanced allocation as witnessed from August 2019, the state resorted to paying HALF pension.

The problems of pension payment in Abia state predates Alex Otti’s administration. These problems are fundamental and must be addressed, else they will continue to reoccur notwithstanding who is Governor or his political party.

Before 2015 , the pension wage-bill for state pensioners averaged N390M and graduated to N560M monthly. This was a huge burden understanding that montly allocation as at then averaged N2.7 billion with a total monthly obligation of about N2.3billion.

There was need to review what gave rise to the high pension figures. We discovered serious fraud in the data base of pensioners. There were systemic compromise among staff of the agency. The fraud was so entrenched that we discovered names of individuals that were never civil servants, some were arrested and taken to Police headquarters in Umuahia.

We also discovered that most civil servants who were deceased and should have be removed from the data base were all left and the families of these individuals were complicit in that fraud .

We also discovered that figures were manipulated as some of these retirees were earning from different sub – treasuries in the state. Besides, a particular threshold were being paid manually at different sub – treasuries.

This brought about the need for automation and physical biometric capturing of these retirees. This did not go well with the pension cabal as efforts were made to frustrate this noble exercise.

Then , it was fashionable to be a sub – treasurer than being a Permanent secretary. These sub – treasurers whose responsibility is to pay pensioners at different 19 sub – treasuries were very influential and people went even to prayer houses to be made one. That process was closed with automation of pension payment.

We succeeded in gathering the initial database of the entire pensioners in the state and started the first online electronic payment of pension. Many of them were excited as alerts were coming in for even those in Omugwo while at US, UK and Canada.

One of the major problems of pension is the astronomical growth in the number of staff retiring as permanent Secretaries. In Abia state, it’s now unfashionable, an aberration to retire at level 14 to 16. Every body wants to retire as a permanent secretary. This is the bane of our civil service growth as most of these officers compromise standards to be in the good book of the government of the day to ensure he or she is compensated with a Permanent Secretary position before retirement.

The impication is that the pension wage bill grew since their exact salary amount is transferred as pension on retirement. for instance, a Permanent Secretary that earns N420k as salary while in service is paid N420k as pension on retirement.

The present government must strengthen the conditions and qualification for appointment as permanent secretary to correct the basterdization which will help restore the glory of Permanent. Secretaries and civil service in general. Before now , people aspire to be Permanent secretaries because, the Government is from their zone or their brother.

Currently, Abia State montly state pension should average N740M which is high and has become a huge burden . I want to believe the figures will come down by the end of this current verification.

The decision of the current government to import or engage the pension verification agents and their decision to avoid local staff or civil servants involvement in the verification has contributed in few identification of fake and fraudulent names into the database.

I have said that this government should not make same mistake most of us made initially when we came in. Not all civil servants are fraudsters, there are problems that must be solved with local inputs and pension harmonisation is one of them.

The government will not achieve much in the area of clinical pension reform if they continue with this approach of verification. My advice is that they should bend down and identify some sincere civil servants that understand the local peculiarities.

The total outstanding pension wage bill for the state was about N21billion as at June 2023 and we understand that about N11 billion was used to defray these outstandings which is commendable .

How the outstandings will be sorted out will determine the way forward .However, we thank the Governor, Dr. Alex Oti for touching these outstanding pension arrears. This will enable most of them meet their immediate needs

*Oriaku was a former Abia state Commissioner for finance, 2015 to 2019

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