The national campaign to legally deal with the impunity of former public office holders is gaining traction with the Imo State lawmakers’ recent repeal of the law that provided obscene gratuities and life pensions for ex-governors and former speakers of the state House of Assembly. Enacted in 2007 by the Achike Udenwa administration and enhanced by one of his successors, its implementation has haemorrhaged the state’s treasury. It is an insensitive and self-serving law with similar ones in at least 21 states of the federation. And agitation for the specious law to be scrapped by a coalition of civil society groups has resulted in profound judicial pronouncements. As of 2017, the scheme had gulped N37.36 billion, according to one media tally, to maintain 47 ex-governors.
A product of an executive bill, Imo State followed a trail blazed by Zamfara State last year, when its governor, Bello Matawalle, masterminded an expeditious repeal of the law, which cost the largely agrarian state N700 million annually to implement. About 15 former public officials in Imo, comprising ex-governors, deputy governors and ex-speakers were beneficiaries of the discredited largesse.
In Kwara, the state assembly, capitulating to pressure in 2018, only passed a bill that suspended the payment of pensions to such category of persons who were still in public service. But the incumbent governor, Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq, promised during his 2019 campaign to abolish the law if elected. He should redeem that pledge.
In a ruling, the Court of Appeal viewed public office holders’ huge pensions and gratuities as repugnant and offensive to good conscience. The court said, “It is not morally right to pay an elected public officer or a political appointee pension and gratuity or severance allowance for holding such an office for three to eight years as the case may be. It cannot be justified in the context of the present social realities; it amounts to gross social injustice.” Perhaps, inspired by this position, the presiding judge of the National Industrial Court, Jos Division, Kenneth Amadi, had in December 2019, nullified the Taraba State Governor and Deputy Governors Pension Law 2015.
While Abdulaziz Yari was in the twilight of his second term in office as governor, the state assembly in March 2019 amended the extant law, which enhanced the benefits. From N7 million and N2 million monthly for an ex-governor and deputy, it was hiked to N10 million and N5 million respectively. Other entitlements included two vehicles, replaceable every four years; free medical treatment for him and his immediate family; 30-day paid vacation within or outside the country and a five-bedroom apartment in any location of his choice in the country. As the state assembly lawmakers argued, the huge cash entitlement is “detrimental to the socio-economic wellbeing of our people.” So it is for each state where this obvious abuse of office has not been tamed.
This avarice is a legacy of the first set of governors who completed their tenures in 2007 after spending eight years in office. Lagos State ignited this obscenity when Bola Tinubu, as governor, signed into law the pension bill that gave a former governor life pension at the rate of N30 million per annum, a house each in Lagos and Abuja for those who served two terms; six brand new cars every three years and retinue of domestic servants and security details. In Gombe, an ex-governor has N300 million pension benefit, just as Godswill Akpabio, as governor of Akwa Ibom State, signed a pension law that provided N200 million annual benefit to an ex-governor; N100 million and N50 million per annum for medical treatment for him and his deputy respectively; cars and maisonettes in the state and Abuja to boot. But public fury that greeted the bizarre medical provision inspired its withdrawal.
In a landmark judgement, Justice Oluremi Oguntoyinbo of the Federal High Court sitting in Kagoshima directed the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such pensions. Being a governor in Nigeria confers many financial advantages both legitimate and unlawful through which they enrich themselves. One such means is the security vote, which is not accounted for. This ranges between N200 million and N750 million monthly currently. A former governor is presently being investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for spending N38.8 billion in this regard in eight years. In the Court of Appeal confirmation of the convictions of Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame over this matter, it held that “if you fail to give account, then you must return it to the state coffers; if you fail to do so, it then amounts to stealing and a dishonest breach of public trust”.
Former governors should not continue to be leeches on the states. Matawalle was absolutely right when he asserted that whoever attains the position of a governor and other top political office holders are financially well to do. They should not be a drain on state resources. The fact that an ex-governor like Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State has refused to collect these outrageous entitlements speaks volumes that former occupants, whether in Lagos or other states, can live without these jumbo offers.
Elsewhere, public interest is at the centre in determining pension for political office holders. In Indiana State in the United States, a governor may not receive the retirement benefit as long as he holds an elective position with any federal, state, or local governmental unit, and he may not receive the retirement benefit until he has reached at least age 62 years.
It is said that most of these former office holders left their states in tatters: mired in both domestic and foreign debts; decrepit social infrastructure; piled-up arrears of workers’ salaries, gratuities and pensions of retirees. Some of them also end up as ministers and senators.
Without a doubt, public services such as roads, healthcare and education in states where this seeming raid on the public treasury is ongoing cannot be delivered, if this trend is not obliterated. Besides, most of the states are not economically viable as shown in their abysmally poor internally generated revenues. With the economy in dire straits, cost-cutting measures such as scrapping former governors’ entitlements, ending sitting governors’ outrageous lifestyles, abolishing sleazy security votes are financial breathers states and their citizens should pursue immediately.