By Lawrence Njoku, Enugu
|[FILES] Former Enugu State Governor, Sullivan Chime|
These are the basic facts: The Enugu State Pension Law had been in existence since 2007. Two years after Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi came to power, the law was amended (2017) and had operated at the amended level until Thursday, March 11, when the leader of the State House of Assembly, Ikechukwu Ezugwu, dusted it up and presented it at the plenary for review.
Furthermore, it was the same Ezugwu, who represents Udenu State Constituency that also brought it up for amendment in 2017. Udenu is also native constituency of Governor Ugwuanyi.
Those who know the composition of the current Enugu State House of Assembly would readily agree that it would be the least among the institutions of the state to indulge in unwholesome activities that could unsettle the state.
This is because the 24 members belonging to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the political arrangement that threw them up was such that could not give them room for them to operate independently. There is no record that lawmakers ever differed with the executive on any issue of concern in the state.
It was therefore a wonder recently, when the leader of the House and lawmaker, representing Udenu state constituency, Ikechukwu Ezugwu, decided to up the ante when he sought an amendment in the now suspended 2021 pension bill for ex-governors and their deputies in the state.
BUT, reintroducing the private member bill to amend the pension law, Ezugwu had stated that it was borne out of the desire to make it “all encompassing”, insisting that the former chief executives and their deputies needed to be well cared for by the state they served for eight years.
The bill was titled, “The Enugu State Gubernatorial Pensions Bill, 2021.” It had sought in its section 7, among other things the review of staff and entitlements of former governors and former deputy governors in the state.
It reads in part: “There shall be provided by the state government for a former governor the following: -a personal assistant on salary grade level 14; annual basic salary as fixed by law and house maintenance allowance fixed by at 300 per cent of annual basic salary.”
Others are “annual salary for five domestic staff, which include three drivers, a cook and a gardener, fixed at 300 percent of annual basic salary, adding that they would be entitled to vehicle maintenance allowance fixed at 300 per cent of annual salary.
“In the three vehicles, one of which shall be a backup vehicle, the standard of which shall be equivalent to the vehicles used by the governor when in office and shall be replaced every four years; adequate security for the governor during his life time at the expense of the state government; free medical services for his persons and spouse and medical allowance not exceeding 12 million naira per annum for one surviving spouse, provided that such spouse was married to the governor while in office.”
THE plenary had hardly adjourned when voices rose in condemnation of the proposed bill. There were protests, threats, text messages, public display of phone numbers of the sponsor of the bill and other principal functionaries, urging people to call them and register their displeasure to the bill among others.
The voices had risen over the financial implications of the bill on the state and the fact that pension and gratuity had remained a thorny issue in some states that were paying them to ex-governors and their deputies before now.
For instance, it was gathered that in January last year, an Industrial Court acting in a suit brought by a former acting governor of Taraba State, Garba Umar, had declared as null and void, payment of pension and gratuity to former governors and deputy governors, that are not in consonance with the one fixed by the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission.
Umar had dragged the state government to court, claiming that he was entitled to gratuity as a former acting governor of the state, 300 percent of his salary as medical allowance and other benefits as provided in the Taraba State Governor and Deputy Governor’s pension law, 2015.
Earlier in December 2019 in Lagos, a federal high court also declared illegal pensions collected by ex-governors and their deputies in the state and ordered the federal government to recover pensions collected by former governors serving as Minister and National Assembly members.
The court had also directed the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such pensions. This is as some governors have continued to cancel the payments following prevailing economic challenges.
THOSE opposed to the Enugu State law did the arithmetic and held that it would further plunge the state into borrowing, since according to them, it would take as much as N1.153b yearly to meet the proposed pension and N1.250b yearly on vehicles every four years.
A don and initiator of Save Enugu Initiative (SEI), Prof Edeogu Nweze, who put the governor’s monthly take home at N2.22m stated: “Based on the bill, an ex-governor will be entitled to the following every year: Pension = N26, 640,000; House maintenance allowance = 200% of annual basic salary. N26, 640,00 x 2 =N53, 280,000; vehicle maintenance allowance = 200% of annual basic salary, N26, 640,00 x 2 =N53, 280,000; medical allowance not exceeding N12, 000,000; free medical care for him and his wife; adequate security. Let’s say N5, 000,000; salaries of three staff @N100, 000 each = 100,000 x 3 = N300, 000 X 12 = N3, 600,000. Total = N153, 800,000. Then three vehicles every four years; let’s say each vehicle will cost N50, 000,000 = N50, 000,000 x 3 = N150, 000,000.”
Nweze said at the end of his tenure next two years, Ugwuanyi would have become the fifth ex-governor that served the state, as others before him are Jim Nwobodo, Okwy Nwodo, Senator Chimaroke Nnamani and Sullivan Chime.
“So, in a year, the state would spend 5 X N153, 800,000 = N769, 000,000 on five former governors alone, N384, 500,000 on the former deputies. That is: N769 000 000 + N384 500 000 = N1, 153,500,000 every year,” he added.
Wondering where the state could raise such an amount as well as meet its obligations to workers, pensioners and other developmental needs, a lawyer, John Ibezim, insisted that it was not in the interest of the state to allow the bill.
Ibezim, who took a tour of the opportunities in the state, stated that though Enugu had maintained regular payment of workers’ salaries among several other infrastructural developments, stressing, “That does not mean that we have survived economically.”
He queried: “How many industries belonging to the state government are working in the state presently to contribute to solving our employment needs? If Enugu has become as viable as the lawmaker who initiated this bill would want us to understand, how come the state still owes pensions and gratuities to people who invested about 35 years serving the state? Did the lawmaker consider the implication of bringing up this bill at this time and who is he trying to impress?”
When he led a protest to the House of Assembly on Tuesday, shortly before the suspension of further deliberation on the bill, Executive Director of South Saharan Social Development Organization (SSDO), Dr. Stanley Ilechukwu, had described the bill as insensitive and ill-timed in the face of current economic challenges, which he said had retarded development.
“We remind the honorable members that similar laws have been repealed by their counterparts in Lagos, Zamfara and Kwara. The tax payers are already under enormous strain from the increased cost of living and do not need added burden of unjustifiable pension to retired executives,” he declared
Chief Willy Ezeugwu, National Coordinator of the Save Enugu Group (SEG) insisted that it was unfair to continue to pay former governors and their deputies for serving the state for just eight years. He noted that it was a dis-service to the state to continue to bear financial burden of privileged few in the society.
Calling for outright repeal of the insensitive bill, Ezeugwu declared: “It is shocking that while a state like Lagos, with high internally generated revenue that runs into billions of naira monthly has abolished pensions for former governors, the Enugu State House of Assembly allowed such a bill to pass first reading when such a law will deplete the state’s meager revenue by over N2billion yearly.”
APPARENTLY overwhelmed by the massive show of outrage against the bill, the lawmakers on Tuesday suspended further discussion on it to make room for wider consultation.
Speaker of the House, Edward Ubosi, stated that though the review was constitutional, the suspension was to enable the lawmakers take a critical look at the bill.
“This bill is a bill of 2007 and was amended in 2017 to accommodate former governors like Jim Nwobodo and Okwesilieze Nwodo, who served in another state as governors. The bill is a constitutional matter. The problem is that the House of Assembly members have not seen what is in the bill.
“We should be allowed to sight what is in the bill to know what to delete and what to add in it. We just stepped it down in the house to allow us to look into it. We can’t say anything until we finish studying it to make an input. We will form a committee after studying it and invite the public to make their own input because we are representing the masses and cannot say anything without consulting them,”
The sponsor of the bill, Ezugwu had earlier hinted on the possibility of discontinuing with the bill when he stated that the House was “so sensitive to the feelings of our people and therefore, appreciates the feedback and reactions of our constituents and the public,” assuring that it would follow “due procedure and do the needful during the plenary.”
He had, however, insisted that no effort was being made to further plunge the state into more financial stress, explaining that the indictment of the lawmakers was for the overall good of the citizens and persons living in the state.
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