Uba Osigwe was one of the most powerful and colorful personalities to have occupied the office of the Secretary to Imo State Government in modern history. That was in the 90s. As a civil servant, he retired when he was 60 years. In the fullness of time, he also died.
But certain officers in Imo State Public Service felt the man was not properly honored by the government. So, they decided, on their own accord to correct that by paying him pensions in his grave! Nobody is sure who collects the pensions on his behalf since he cannot do that from the grave.
While Osigwe is dead, a former Chief Judge of the State is still kicking. Those benevolent spirits are also paying him N300,000.00 above what should be his due. Again, nobody knows who collects the surplus. But eight persons who collectively collect N330M from the pension funds are known. Maybe, they will tell the government whether they actually receive the money or some others collect on their behalf.
Welcome to the bogey pension fraud in Imo state where 2,000 of the 23,000 listed pensioners are by the grace of Accounts Officers and their collaborators earning fraudulently way above what should be their entitlements. Also, of the N1.4billion pension wage bill, 80 percent of it goes to only 8,000 of the 23,000 pensioners.
And the money is paid without recourse to basic data such as last grade level, last pay package, and date of retirement which ordinarily should form the fulcrum for the computation of any worker’s pension. That precisely is what has been giving Governor Hope Uzodinma sleepless nights. That accounted for the delayed pension payment and the resultant face-off with beneficiaries of pension fraud in the state.
When Uzodinma assumed office in January this year, he authorized the immediate payment of pensioners, something that none of his immediate predecessors did. But he was also baffled that there was no credible nominal pension payroll. Even the Head of Service, according to the governor, denied knowledge of the document.
To make matters worse, no officer of the departed administration handed over any document to Uzodinma. The consultants hired by Emeka Ihedioha could also not help after they received a hefty monthly payout of N500M for the so-called verification exercise. A decision had to be taken after three months of paying blindly.
As a politician, Uzodinma knew the backlash of delaying payment to the senior citizens would be there. But as a governor who swore an oath to serve transparently and in line with the constitution, he had no choice but to order a forensic audit of the entire pension scheme in the state. That was when the skeleton started tumbling out of the cupboards. The summary was that the pension scheme was nothing short of a fraud, a bazaar, where a criminal cabal was feeding fat on the patrimony of the entire citizenry.
Said Uzodinma, “as a responsible government, we had to sanitize and cleanse the scheme of this mind-blogging fraud and save the state from the hands of a few accounts officers and their collaborators who were milking the common patrimony of millions of naira every month”. Incidentally, just as the government was moving closer to arriving at an acceptable and genuine nominal roll for the pensioners, the beneficiaries of the old rancid order struck back.
Series of demonstrations and protests were organized, demonizing government and accusing it of insensitivity. Others were also busy, issuing threats of making the state ungovernable for Uzodinma.
Mercifully, the organized labor reacted quickly to douse the tension by exonerating the government from any perceived act of wickedness. First, the Chairman of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Austin Chilakpu disowned those who went on protests, saying that they were mercenaries. The Chairman of Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP), Dr. Josiah B Ugochukwu, similarly distanced his union from the shameful act of leading frail men and women to the streets in the name of protests.
Both leaders hinged their arguments on the fact that the government had taken them into confidence before embarking upon the cleansing exercise. They further noted that the members had been duly briefed and could not have embarked upon the protests when the government was working for their interests.
But mischief makers and those desperate to retain the old order increased their tempo of media attacks on the government. Subterfuge and blackmail became the order of the day, while the government was dared to make public names of those it claimed were defrauding the state of the millions of naira. Not even the plea by the governor that the cleansing exercise was almost over and that pensioners were to be paid soon could sway them. Issuing ultimatum upon ultimatum to government became a new fad.
Knowing that the fraud was endemic and systemic; committed to its avowed transparency and accountability stance, the government last week revealed the names of the eight persons who had been collecting N330million annually as a pension.
They are Ajokubi H.A. N65M; Njoku Damian N5M; Obasi Canice N3M; Anyanwu F.N. N150M; Emenalo Theresa N3M; John Sunday N2M; Ajoegbo E.O. N2M and Ekedere Eunice N32M. That was also how it revealed that Uba Osigwe was earning a pension from the grave while retired judges were being paid under a consolidated health system! If a known name like Osigwe could be used to swindle the state, only God knows how many other ghost names have found themselves into the pension nominal roll.
To sustain an efficient and corrupt-free pension scheme, the government has taken the following measures: Automation of the nominal roll, stoppage of the manual payment, the abolition of the use of consultants and the abolition of the use of microfinance banks which was discovered to be a huge conduit pipe for salary and pensions thieves.
The governor has also promised to migrate Imo state to the contributory pension scheme in a bid to ensure that they get more value for their services. And with the digitalized system of payment now in place, any pensioner can easily access the website to know exactly how much he is being paid and how it was computed.
Also in a bid to carry both the pensioners and Imo workers along in the new pay regime, Uzodinma at the weekend hosted the leadership of Nigeria Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress and Nigeria Union of Pensioners where he personally explained to them the processes that led to the cleansing of the nominal roll. He announced to them that appreciable progress had been made and that pensioners have started receiving their pensions.
According to him, “I am glad to inform you that the cleansing exercise has been successfully concluded. As I speak to you, all the verified pensioners have been paid up to June. Interestingly, this cleansing exercise has saved the state N700million. I believe that any genuine pensioner will be happy and eager to see the day when their pension payments can be automated, wherein they can simply log in to the government website and see the details of their payment. That day is here today!”
But to those who thought they would bully and blackmail the government into submission, the battle is just beginning. To Imo people who genuinely mean well for the state, they should be happy that Uzodinma stood firm and fought the cabal to a standstill. It is quite exhilarating that the government presented the facts and figures to convince all those doubting Thomases of its sincerity in tackling the pension fraud in the state. They should be proud of a governor who refused to bow to the pressure of a tiny minority who wanted to lord it over the majority.
The next phase of the battle is what Imo people are looking forward to. As the governor boldly declared, “we can say that we have pinned the cabal of fraudsters down and the time has come for them to pay accordingly for their sins which is the next phase of our crusade”.