Systemic corruption and unfair practices have been uncovered in the pension scheme for civil servants in Nigeria.
The system leaves some elderly people who have retired from the civil service sick and penniless, while government workers in pension departments solicit bribes before paying out pensions to retirees.
It also features people being declared ‘dead’ arbitrarily and having to prove they are alive before their names are reinstated on the payroll of pensioners.
These revelations, which came in the latest investigation by BBC Africa Eye, also showed that in the midst of the rot and penury associated with civil service pensions, politicians are being offered outrageous retirement packages.
New Telegraph gathered that the five month investigation began when Africa Eye was approached by Obaji Akpet – a reporter and producer from Cross River State,
Southern Nigeria, with a complaint that that his mother, a nurse, was denied her retirement benefits for several months until she was compelled to offer bribes to officials at the pension office.
According to the report, when she retired and was looking forward to receiving her benefits, she was asked to pay cash directly to an official working in the pension department before they would pay out her pension.
Via a hidden camera, Obaji filmed a civil servant accepting money, and suggesting senior managers in the department also needed to be paid before the pension paperwork would go through.
Despite these payments being made, Obaji’s mother’s pension didn’t arrive until for five months later, a delay that caused her extreme financial problems and left her feeling like she was “in hell fire” and “no more a human being.”
Africa Eye also uncovered a list of over a thousand people in Cross River State whose pensions had been stopped because the state had decided they were no longer alive. Many on the list spent months trying to prove they were alive, often travelling long distances to the state capital,
Calabar. And this doesn’t just happen in Cross River State, but is replicated in states throughout the country. Africa Eye heard firsthand testimonies about the extreme hardship caused by being arbitrarily declared ‘dead’, and trying to survive without a pension.
One man told the investigation he had travelled to the capital five times to prove he was alive and sometimes stayed there for up to two weeks, with no resources.
“At times, we sleep outside while the rain is falling, that is why I’m sick until now and my body is not like before”, he says. Others said that once they arrived at the pension office, they were subjected to treatment they describe as ‘dehumanising’.
Ekpenyong Ewa was declared dead and when her pension was stopped, after months of writing letters, visiting the offices and begging for it to be sorted out, she took an active part in a public sit-in outside the Auditor General’s office. She said she was then intimidated into making an apology, which was filmed and put on the internet to further humiliate her.
‘Ghost Pensioners’, a term used to describe people who don’t exist but are somehow ‘receiving’ pension payments, are a real problem in Nigeria and according to Jerry Uwah, a finance journalist, sometimes there are more fake pensioners than real ones on the pension books of a state.
But creating fake or ghost pensioners is not something ordinary people can do, he says: “The people at the top, they will pay those ghost pensioners immediately and the money goes in their pockets. It’s not something that a clerk can do because it would be discovered.”
At the other end of the scale, we found politicians awarding themselves huge pensions and additional perks and, in some cases, trying to change the law to give themselves even more. As one politician told us,
“What a typical state governor takes home as pension can settle the wages of over 3-4000 teachers. Why should the state dedicate such sort of money to former governors?”
Kolawole Oluwadare, the Deputy Director of SERAP, an organisation that advocates for more transparency in government, says “technology should be available to identify pensioners.”
He has been trying to find out through the courts exactly how much retired politicians receive.
The Federal Government set up a Pension Reform Taskforce in 2003 to address the complaints arising from the old pension system and evolve the new Contributory Pension Scheme. By 2015, the chairman of the Pension Reform Task Force was accused of laundering N2.3 billion from pension funds for which he is currently on trial.
The government has alleged that members of the Pension Reform Taskforce opened fake accounts and were using them to launder money that was stolen from pension funds.
Despite the president’s assurances to pensioners that the system will be sorted, Africa Eye found a pension system still hampered by corruption, causing devastation in the lives of elderly and vulnerable Nigerians while allowing the rich to retire even richer.