Imo does the wrong thing for the wrong reasons
Imo State’s revocation of the payment of pensions and gratuities to former governors and speakers, and their deputies would seem to have been inspired by a dubious mixture of vengefulness and populism rather than altruism and prudent economic management.
Speaking while assenting to the Bill on the Repeal of Pensions and Gratuities, Governor Hope Uzodinma claimed that the payments were unconstitutional and inequitable, and represented a massive drain on the meagre financial resources of the state.
Uzodinma argued that the pension payments contradicted specific provisions of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended), which require that eligible pensioners must have worked for at least 10 years, and added that they enabled beneficiaries to receive pensions along with regular salaries and allowances when they moved on to other positions. Ending payment of the pensions, he added, would help the state to “recover the billions of public funds that would have been lavished on a privileged few.”
Given Nigeria’s widespread poverty and deprivation, the governor’s actions would seem to have much to recommend them. They appear to acknowledge the strong desire for greater probity and accountability on the part of public office-holders, and ostensibly highlight the need to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent on development projects rather than the welfare of highly-placed individuals.
This, however, is not the case. Uzodinma’s assumption that the beneficiaries of the pensions scheme are undeserving is flawed. Regardless of their uneven performances over successive administrations, governors and their deputies do in fact work very hard. When the administrative, political, ceremonial and other aspects of their statutory functions are considered, it will be seen that prodigious amounts of time and energy are spent by them in governing the states they were elected to lead.
Regardless of the relative competence of past Imo State chief executives and their deputies, there can be no doubt that their offices imposed very great burdens which tasked their capabilities to the utmost. An average working day for the typical governor consists of several meetings, speeches and addresses, visits, receiving guests, attending to petitions and requests, and dealing with emergencies, among others.
These are tasks that are worthy of ample remuneration while in office and generous pensions after exiting. The argument that governors and deputies are able to amass corrupt wealth due to their positions does not invalidate this reality. Reasonable pension benefits actually help to deter the temptation of governors to take care of themselves while in office. In any case, ex-governors and deputies can always be subsequently held accountable for their actions.
Uzodinma is on surer ground when it comes to former speakers and their deputies. As leaders of the state house of assembly, their offices are appointive and their tenures can be notoriously unstable. There is no reason why a speaker or a deputy speaker should be entitled to pensions and gratuities purely on the basis of presiding over the affairs of the state house of assembly.
The Imo State governor’s motives are, however, suspect. Given his controversial emergence after a surprising Supreme Court judgement, the repeal of the pensions legislation seems to be targeted at predecessors for whom he has little affection; denying them duly-approved pension benefits appears to be a mean-spirited attempt to underline his judicial triumph in the most brazen manner possible.
Instead of withdrawing pensions and gratuities for public office-holders in their entirety, the Imo State Government should have adopted a more nuanced approach to the matter by reducing the size of pensions and gratuities to more acceptable limits, restricting those eligible for such benefits, and refining the conditions under which they can receive them.
Thus, the templates established by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) should be used to ensure that gratuities do not attain outrageous levels. They should be restricted to governors and their deputies only. Any beneficiary who assumes public office subsequently will automatically be denied pension benefits for the duration of their stay in that office, while those convicted of corruption should be permanently denied pension benefits.
The populist ballast the supports the governor’s decision comes from the belief that those in political office are corrupt and too rich from thieving to deserve any pension. That is specious. Such presumption tars everyone and convicts the innocent. We should rather punish the corrupt and reward the innocent. To say all are corrupt and so should not get pensions is also to surrender to such corruption. We should do the right thing because of the right people and not the wrong thing because of the wrong people.
Governor Uzodinma must realise that government is a continuum. Allowing vengeance and other base motives to determine state policy is self-defeating, as it is not only counter-productive and diversionary, but establishes dubious precedents which do more harm than good.