Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Wike abandons pensioners, lavishes car gifts on lawmakers, judges

The combined worth of the SUVs was enough to settle salaries and gratuities of at least 320 pensions, an official says.

• September 26, 2020
Governor Nyesom Wike
A photo of Governor Nyesom Wike used to illustrate the story [PHOTO CREDIT: ICIR]

Queen Dele and Lucky Ati are two of thousands of pensioners who have not received their entitlements since they retired from the civil service under Rivers State.

Yet, Governor Nyesom Wike has been spending state funds on new cars for the already-comfortable lawmakers and judges.

Barely hundreds of retirees have received pensions since Mr. Wike assumed office in 2015, an official said, even though he is governing an oil-producing state that a public finance watchdog recently deemed solvent.

Last month, the governor drew backlash for distributing 41 SUVs to state and federal judges.

A representative of the retirees’ union said the combined worth of the vehicles was enough to pay salaries and gratuities of at least 320 of its impoverished members.

The judges were deemed already members of the elite who could afford to fund a comfortable lifestyle of their own.

Ms. Dele, who retired in 2015, tells Peoples Gazette the government did not start paying her pensions for more than three years after her 35 years in service. She also says her pensions for those 42 months have currently not been paid. 

“Life became tougher in 2017 when my daughter returned from the north where she had gone for her youth service,” Ms. Dele says. “She contracted meningitis.”

The 60-year old retiree says her daughter almost lost her brain because the family could not raise N18,000 for medicine. Church members and friends intervened to save her by picking up the tab for drugs and associated costs.

Mr. Ati was the coordinator for pensioners who retired from the state civil service between 2012 and 2019. He also served for 35 years before retiring in 2016.

He says the government still owes him pension for the first three years in retirement, and that others who retired between 2012 and 2020 have also not been paid a gratuity. 

The federal government instituted the Pension Reform Act in 2004 that included the contributory pension scheme, which mandated public and private employers to contribute to their personnel’s pension.

Rivers adopted its version of this federal law in 2017.

Mr. Ati tells Peoples Gazette that the former Rotimi Amaechi administration, which enacted the state pension law, did not arrange its take-off. 

Rotimi Amaechi
Minister of Transportation and former Governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi

“We thought the contributory pension law that the previous administration domesticated was the cause of our problem,” Mr. Ati says. 

Mr. Ati says the government began paying them their pensions about six months after the state pension law was amended in the year 2019, but their past pensions and gratuity have yet to be sorted.

But the regulatory lapses in the pensions arrangement are only a part of the agony retirees have been subjected to in Rivers.

Mr. Wike’s administration, rather than look into the issues and resolve, has instead been spending state funds on expensive gifts for the political fat cats. 

Between September 2017 and last month, Mr. Wike gave cars to the state’s representatives in the National Assembly. Judges also received similar gifts.

A government statement said in August that the purpose of the gifts at the time was to “ease [the lawmakers’] movement and enable them to discharge their legislative duties effectively.”

But federal lawmakers already take a huge chunk of federal budgets, and their offices readily come with vehicle and furniture allowances.

The Rivers public procurement law allows the governor to unilaterally approve the procurement of goods using state funds, if the value of those goods does not exceed 30 percent of the state’s yearly budget.

This provision is susceptible to executive abuse without appropriate safeguards to check excesses. It is a loophole that public finance and accountability watchdogs say the governor has used to reward his network.  

Hamzat Lawal, the founder of Connected Development, tells the Gazette, “It is quite insensitive for the governor to purchase cars worth hundreds of millions for lawmakers and judges when retirees have not been paid.”

A spokesperson for the Wike administration did not return multiple requests seeking comment this week. But the governor has often justified his decision to prioritise patronage of his network as a “consensus building effort.”

George Sekibo is one of the senators who received cars from Mr. Wike. He did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Rivers judiciary declined comments to Peoples Gazette Saturday morning.

Isaac Urang is another Rivers pensioner who has not been paid entitlements.

He tells the Gazette he struggled to raise N350,000 for a surgery after he retired from the civil service in 2018.

To enforce rights of its members, a union of the retirees in Rivers said it would consider suing the state.

“Many of our members have already died waiting to receive pensions and gratuities,” Tonye George, a union leader, tells the Gazette. “We have asked our lawyers to sue Governor Wike before it is too late for other retirees.”

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