Pensioners in Akwa Ibom and Cross River states weep as the government they say have abandoned them.
In Cross River state, Octogenarians took to road block to express their plight after about 2,000 of them were declared ghost pensioners, an action, which not only cause inconvenience to road users but attracted the government to look into their plight.
No fewer than 1600 local government pensioners in Cross River State, many of them septuagenarians and octogenarians, have been declared non-existent or ghost pensioners by the state government.
Recently, more than half of them converged opposite the office of the state auditor general from far flung local government areas of the state like Obanliku, Yala and Bekwara, to protest the exclusion of their names from payment of pensions in the last six months.
They had trooped out very early in the morning with plastic chairs, mats and placards. The male pensioners disrupted vehicular traffic on the Murtala Mohammed highway – the only major road into the city, while the females blocked traffic flowing out to other neighbouring states. Many of them had their drugs handy and snuff bottles.
A few of them were on wheel chair, one on crutches while many had their walking sticks, DailyTrust reports.
They were all chanting angry songs against the government, calling for the resignation of Franca Inok, the auditor general of local government, accusing her of corruption, inexperience on the job and the main reason for their plight.
No amount of persuasion from sympathisers, motorists or the armed soldiers who came with intention to forcefully disperse them would make them budge.
The soldiers became helpless as they could not use their horse-whips, given the plight and age of the pensioners.
Their refusal to un-block the road caused severe traffic gridlock in the city.
They told reporters that they were over 2000 pensioners in the state but that Inok had allegedly declared them ghost pensioners, even though they had presented themselves for verification and clearance exercises over ten times.
One of the pensioners, Madam Christy Bassey, 80, said: “I am being owed five months pension and this month will make it sixth. I am from Akamkpa. Last year, the Auditor General, Franca Inok, called for verification of pensioners to confirm those who are still alive. Even with our names and the forms we filled still intact, she declared more than 1600 of us ghost pensioners.
“After she declared us dead, the local government pension board decided to carry out another verification exercise and we, again, presented ourselves at great pains to many of our members who are unable to walk. Some are blind, while many have different age-related health challenges. When she heard of it, she told the board that ‘look, these are the ghost pensioners she discovered’.
“She, again, invited us for another round of torture called screening. Personally, I have been here for the ninth time. Some of the people you see here came from very far across the 18 local government areas, and you know how our terrain is. Some people were brought on stretchers, some on wheelchairs. Why are they punishing us this way?” She asked.
Another pensioner, 81-year-old Pa Eteng Obeng from Obubra LGA, said “I have come to Calabar several times to take part in one verification or another. The latest not too long ago and what was the outcome? They published a list that showed I was dead when I am not. Is this fair? If the idea of these endless exercises is for them to continue to steal our sweat, they have struck the wrong chord. I am very unhappy over the stress they have put me. For six months, I have been begging to eat, to buy drugs. Upon these, they are very disrespectful.”
Madam Theresa Eyo is over 60. She retired in June. She is currently taking care of herself from the little savings she had while in service and hopes that government would begin payment of at least pension. She has not been paid since June 2020. She tried to process her payment but the same problem of no money and constant verification has been the case.
She said she hopes that the governor will address the plight of pensioners like herself, who have served the state. She said that it was smooth prior to now.
When contacted, the state accountant general, Mr Joseph Adie, lamented that allocation from the Federation Account is not enough to pay workers’ salaries.
He said that the highest allocation that comes to the state is N3bn, sometimes N1.1bn, and N1bn respectively.
“I am sure you will be surprise that even those states that have the highest allocations are owing pensions; they are not making effort to pay, but we have tried, we are paying. In fact, at a point, we were setting aside N200m every month for pension.
“As we speak, we have cleared 2013, and we have paid 2014 and have paid up to February 2020.”
Also reacting, the commissioner for local government affairs, Mrs Stella Odey, said the state government was not owing verified pensioners.
Odey promised that every genuine pensioner will be paid once they undergo screening and are captured in the payroll.
She said the periodic screening exercise became imperative following the discovery of a high number of ghost pensioners in the payroll. “No verified pensioner is owed a dime by the state government.”
Addressing the protesting pensioners, Odey said, “I urge you to submit yourselves for screening in order to be captured for payment.”
Mrs Odey disclosed that staff now manning the pension board were directly drawn from the local governments as demanded by the pensioners “so that they can take adequate care of their files and I have conceded. We have done that.
“If you have not been screened, then there is no way you can be paid. That is why we say come and do screening, so that we can capture you as a pensioner.
“Do you know that government has been paying so many ghost pensioners? That is why we are doing the screening,” she said.
Also in Akwa Ibom State, Pensioners have accused Gov. Udom Emmanuel of negligence.
According to them, Emmanuel has ‘failed and refused to pay them their gratuities and other benefits; starving and frustrating them.
“Decon Udom Emmanuel has failed as Governor of the state.”
They added that “as Governor of the state, he has remained a nightmare to workers and pensioners in the state.”