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Nasarawa needs N48bn to clear backlog of gratuities – DG Pension Bureau

Nasarawa needs N48bn to clear backlog of gratuities – DG Pension Bureau

The Director-General, Nasarawa State Bureau for Pension Administration, Suleiman Nagogo, in this interview with Correspondent Solomon Attah, sheds light on the challenges faced by the bureau, covering issues of funding, pensioners’ welfare, outstanding payments, its commitment to resolving the constant garnishing orders against the state government and the complexities of implementing the contributory pension scheme. Excerpts:

There are lots of expectations from the board in regards to pension welfare and pension matters in the state. What are the issues so far?

As far as the responsibility or mandate of this office is concerned, it is the payment of pension and gratuity to retirees that is the major issue. The core issue that affects our activities here is nothing other than funding. It may interest you to know that as at today, those who retire from the state civil service as at last January 2024, numbered at about Four Thousand, Three Hundred and Thirty Eight (4,338). As at February, I have signed files over 100 of those who have recently retired.

In order to upset the gratuity of these 4,338 retirees, we need nothing less than Sixteen Billion Naira (N16bn) from the coffers of the state government, from the first kobo to the last kobo. It will interest you to know that such skyrocketed figure is not far from the fact that, before the coming of Engr. Abdullahi Sule on board as governor, we have the issue of percentage payment of pensions to pensioners.

That kind of percentage payment, perhaps, selective payment gave rise to the accumulation of this amount of money to pay state retirees their entitlements. Of course, you cannot blame the immediate past administration for some of these problems. The accumulation started way back, even before the coming of the previous administrations. It is the outcome of continued delay in payment that has given rise to this huge amount of money, which the state government today cannot simply burst off at a go.

Let’s go to the local government retirees. We have about Nine Thousand, Five Hundred and Fifty One (9,551) local government retirees in the state as at January, 2024 and many more files are coming and we require nothing less than N31.8bn in order to upset such entitlements from top to button. If we put N31billion and N16 billion together, you will see that the state government requires about N48bn. If I may ask, how much does a state government earn from the Federation Account Allocation Committee? How much accrues to the state government as internally generated revenue? If I ask you, infrastructural development that has been scheduled to be executed by the state government, how much is required? If we put all these state commitment together and take N48billion for the pension office alone, you will be able to know that in terms of naira and kobo the state government is nowhere near it yet. That is why, since the assumption of office of His Excellency in 2019, he made a promise that during his tenure as the Executive Governor, he would do his best to address the challenges bedeviling payment of pension and gratuity and truly; I will tell you proudly that payment of pension is being done by this office, with the support of His Excellency, Engr. A. A. Sule, and every individual that is collecting pension in this office is being paid 100percent of his pension. Whether the person is from the local or the state level he’s enjoying one hundred percent of his pension. In terms of gratuity, the governor has directed that we effect this payment on a quarterly basis and so, in every three months we summon people together, we put the sum total of what has accrued to this office and share it among the number that money can take. The good thing about it is the fact that, we can tell you with every confidence that we don’t draw up the list of people that benefit from this quarterly payment of gratuity base on religion, ethnicity, creed or colour, just as I promise when I took over. People get to enter that list in compliance with the policy we met on ground and that policy is the policy of first come, first served. I will equally tell you the truth that, that policy of first come, first served is not respected 100percent, why, because, at times, you have people that are subjected to very peculiar circumstances health wise, that no matter how hardened you are, you are compelled as human being to look at that case and put him or her on board whether it is in compliance with the policy or not. We have cases like that.

Secondly, we interact as part of various agencies and organisations operating in Nasarawa State, for example a House of Assembly member cannot come to me and say, these are people that laboured for us to come on board, can you take one of them and assist them, and the DG Pension will say, he has closed his eye because of first come, first served policy; he is not going to respect that. So, we bend over backwards and entertain some of these cases. You will not find absolute 100percent compliance with that policy in view of some of these considerations or if His Excellency asks me to look at this person’s case and I say to him ‘No! You said we should comply with first come, first served policy; I am not going to do it Your Excellency’. Can I do that? Tomorrow you will not find me on this seat and nothing will happen. These are some of the exceptions other than the rule you can find in the payment of pension and gratuity in Nasarawa State.

Are there special packages, especially in the last budget to ensure there is improvement in the payment of pension and gratuity?

The major issue as I told you earlier is about the quantum of money we require to pay gratuity both at the state and the local government levels. His Excellency, the Executive Governor, Engr. Abdullahi Sule, has recently approved the release of certain amount of money to the tune of One Billion Naira (N1bn) and he gave a clear instructions to the effect that what he wants to see is for the board to look at all outstanding arrears of payment of gratuity from 1999 and see if we can bring it up to date to the year 2011, so that the state would have settled all backlog of such gratuities. So that the state will begin to face from 2012 upward, because this has been the policy of government, we will start from the bottom, and that is what we are doing, to pay until you progress to the last person that has recently retired, other than exceptional cases that I have told you earlier. In order to meet up the requirements, we have held meetings with the retired Permanent Secretaries, who served the state meritoriously. The Head of Civil Service of the state was at the meetings, who fashioned out how to address the directive of His Excellency in terms of compliance and if we are to comply, can we really pay everybody his entitlements? If we need to pay everybody his entitlements for instance, retired Permanent Secretaries alone will require N778m to pay their entitlements from beginning to end. We will require much more than the amount to settle the claims of retired Justices, who served the state from one point to the other. The One Billion naira, in view of the directive of the governor, we need to sit down and streamline what portion can go to retired permanent secretaries, how much can go to retired Justices and how much to each and every ordinary civil servants. Who is entitled to that payment? These have been streamlined.

There is a move by certain private pension organisations to engage the state in contributory pension scheme. What is your view on that?

On the issue of contributory pension scheme, it may interest you to know that the State House of Assembly has since 2009 or thereabout passed into law the issue of implementing the contributory pension scheme, but since I took over the mantle of affairs of the board in 2022, that law has not seen the light of day because of its implications. What implications if you may ask? I am a beneficiary of the contributory pension scheme as we speak and I have been part and parcel of implementing this contributory pension scheme that has been passed into law by the federal government and in 2004 until it got amended recently. Before you engage in this contributory pension scheme, there is the need for the governor to develop a good will in his time to want to implement this law, and the good will that is required is actually; firstly, save money in support of its implementation; secondly, get the civil servants to have adequate buy-in into that contributory pension scheme implementation because, their own percentage of salaries will be required to be withheld monthly as their own contributions towards the implementation of the law; thirdly, you need to appoint very reliable pension administrators and charge them with the responsibility of implementing this contributory pension law to the extent that, they do not convert people’s money into their own business use, while you find it difficult at the end of the day in paying people their entitlements, even when they have partly contributed for its implementation after their retirement. As soon as you have that problem the whole idea is messed up; in fact, if you don’t take time, the state can be set on fire. I contributed my money, you as the government contributed part to set up the law, now am retiring, one year after I can’t get my entitlement. You think people will take it easy? It can be very volatile indeed. So, reliable pension fund administrators will need to be appointed after a very thorough assessment of their credentials so that you don’t fall into the wrong hands when you have the implementation process going on. All these are basic elements of implementation of the contributory pension scheme in the state. That is why when the 6th House of Assembly wanted to pass that law and then invited the Pension Bureau to appear before as to help, before you know it, and believe me, without consultation the Labour Unions went on the streets, moved to the House of Assembly and told them ‘you cannot do that; we have not been consulted, no reference have been made and we have not met with you…, look what is even the meaning of the contributory pension scheme, we don’t know, blablabla’, the leadership of the State House of Assembly had to retrace their steps, saying that they would actually give room for adequate discussions with the Pension Bureau before they could implement it.

Some time ago, hardly a month passes without the account of the state being garnished; for some time now, the matter is no longer so obvious. How were you able to tackle that?

It has never rested my dear brother. That matter is still as current and is still as a burden as it has always been to the state. Until I assumed office, there is a body called Concerned Group of Pensioners; this group took the state government to the High Court in Makurdi and secured a judgement in their favour, and based on mutual understanding between the group and the state government, certain percentage of amount of money has being made available to the concerned group, and on each payment of gratuity that the board is to make, and that agreement has been respected. The concerned group is still in existence. You can find out from them and confirm what I am saying, that we are working closely with them, until they even got to a point where they are dissatisfied with the role their counsel is playing in going to various courts across the country to secure order of the court to garnish the accounts of the state government.

So, from nowhere you will be seating, trying to respect what the trial court had given, somebody who is their counsel will go to another court and say, the state government is not doing enough and that court will respect his utterance where we had represented and then a garnishing order is issued, and before you know it, they have garnished the accounts of the state government. That is how open the situation is that you cannot control. So, everyday you see us siting here, we will not be surprised to see there is a garnishing order against the state government accounts in any of the banks the counsel chooses and he does so after finding out, which of the banks the state government has money in. He will then use the bank and secure court order to garnish the account. That is one aspect.

As regards to local government retirees, a certain body called the Patriotic Forum also recently secured judgement from the same High Court in Makurdi, where a garnishing order was issued to them and the government accounts in UBA or so has been, and all the monies there have been transferred to an individual account and shared amongst the retirees. This to me is a violation of the court process that we are in, and even before the court process. When I came on board as DG Pension, I tried to address the concerns of the Patriotic Forum. I came in and I realised the fact that, this matter was lingering between the so-called patriotic forum and the bureau for pension administration, due to a committee that His Excellency has setup under the chairmanship of the then Chairman of Wamba Local Government, who was asked to review the issue of promotion, that the local government was granting to its retirees, especially at the point of their living the service, thereby continuously inflating the figure of their retirement benefits to the point that, it cannot be allowed to continue unabated. That committee sat and reviewed all the cases of retirees of the local government and discovered a lot of discrepancies that all the 13 local governments are part and parcel of. They were responsible for those discrepancies and he made recommendations to His Excellency. It was based on that recommendations that many of those local government retirees were reverted to their actual salaries and grade levels, and their entitlements computed and are being paid to them. That constitutes the basis of their grouse that they went to court. We are still in court. The High Court in Makurdi has passed its judgement; that judgement has been appealed and the appeal is about to be heard by the Court of Appeal any moment from now. The outcome I cannot tell you, because I don’t know but whatever it is, we are pursuing the case to its logical conclusion, since the Patriotic Forum has refused to meet with the officials of the Pension Bureau, because when I took up the matter, I set up a committee to review the issues and hear from them the basis of their grievances, with the view of correcting same. They agreed. I then setup a committee under the chairmanship of the Director of Administration and Supplies of the bureau. The first day they were to meet, their counsel protested that, if they are not going to chair or preside over the committee, they are not willing to work with the representative of the bureau to resolve the matter and they worked out. Despite my appeal to them to return to the table for discussion, because you cannot be a judge over your own case, it doesn’t happen anywhere. Let’s sit down so that, whatever that should be done, should be guided by fairness, accountability, who will give you reasons why you are dissatisfied, you are free to come and see us at the bureau. We will address where we make mistake, they said no! If they can’t chair the committee, then to hell with it and that is how they disbanded the committee and it never worked. That is the situation, until they now decided to embark on this litigation under the same counsel that has been pursuing that of the Concerned Group of pensioners, one Barr. Sunday Okpale. He is the one that got them to appreciate the fact that he is going to serve them so that he gets his percentage when he secures the judgement. That is the situation that led to where we are today with the local government employees and is really unfortunate to say the least. These are people that have failed to take interest of their state at heart. These are people that really believe, they should constitute a problem to their state because of their own personal gains and interest, and that nothing should be done correctly rather than the wrong that was done, should be perpetuated, which is unfortunate.