Okon Bassey in Uyo reports that a bill passed by the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly and signed into law by Governor Godswill Akpabio is generating controversy
Since its inauguration, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly had never come under severe attacks and criticisms of its activities until recently. For the past one week the media had been awash with the controversy trailing the “Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Bill 2014” forwarded by the State Governor, Mr. Godswill Akpabio, to the Assembly for consideration and passage into law.
The State Assembly and the State Governor had both been criticized by a cross-section of the citizens over certain provisions in the new pension bill.
Akpabio had in a covering letter attached to the bill dated May 15, 2015 with the title: “Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Bill 2014”, which was addressed to the Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Hon. Samuel Ikon, said his decision to send the bill was in pursuant to Order 7 Rule 2(1) of the Standing Orders of the State House of Assembly.
The governor had in the bill urged the lawmakers to enact “a law to provide for the grant of pensions and other benefits to elected former governors and deputy governors and for other matters related there with”. The governor was specific that the implementation of the bill when signed into law would commence June 1, 2014. The bill has been passed by the Assembly while the governor has also signed it into law.
Beneficiaries of the new law
The bill spelt out that “an indigene of the state who has held office as democratically elected governor or deputy governor of former Cross River State and a person who has held office as a democratically elected governor or deputy governor of the state shall when he ceases to hold the said office be entitled to certain benefits.
The controversial provisions
According to the new law, the entitlement of former governors or deputy governors are (a) pension for life at a rate equivalent to the salary of the incumbent Governor or Deputy Governor respectively; (b) a new official car and a utility vehicle once in every four years, one personal aide and the provision of adequate security for his person during his lifetime at the expense of Government; (c) provision of funds to employ a cook, chauffeurs and security guards for the Governor at a sum not exceeding N5million (or equivalent of USD 50,000.00 in Nigeria currency) per month and N2million now N2.5 million (or the equivalent of USD 20,000.00 in Nigerian currency) per month for the Deputy Governor; (d) provision of free medical services for his person and spouse at a sum not exceeding N100 million (or the equivalent of USD 600,000.00 in Nigerian currency) per annum for the Governor and N30 million now N50 million (or the equivalent of USD 200,000.00 in Nigerian currency) per month for the Deputy Governor; (e) provision of befitting house not below a 5-bedroom maisonette in either the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja or Akwa Ibom State for the Governor and a year accommodation allowance of 300 % of annual basic salary for the Deputy Governor; (f) provision of furniture allowance of 300% of annual basic salary once in every four years; (g) provision of yearly maintenance and fuelling of vehicle allowance of 300% of annual basic salary; (h) provision of severance gratuity of 300% annual basic salary as at the time the officer leaves office; (i) provision of yearly utility allowance of 100% of annual basic salary; and (j) provision of entertainment allowance of 100% of annual basic salary.
Section 1 sub-section 2 of the bill states that “a former governor or former deputy governor who receives a severance gratuity under the provisions of the Public and Political Office Holders (remuneration) Law Cap. 101, Laws of Akwa Ibom State, 2000 (as amended), shall not be eligible to obtain any other severance gratuity under this law.
Section 2 states that where a former governor or former deputy governor dies, government shall:- (a) make adequate arrangement and bear the financial responsibility for his burial; (b) pay a condolence allowance of a sum equivalent to the annual basic salary of the incumbent to his next of kin; and (c) provide one surviving spouse with medical allowance not exceeding N12 million per annum: Provided that such a spouse was married to the Governor at the time he or she was in office, and if a wife, had served the states as first lady.
Those who will not benefit
On Eligibility, section 3 stresses (1) the provisions of this law shall not apply to a former governor or former deputy governor who:- (a) resigned his office unless such resignation was on health grounds; or (b) was removed from office by impeachment; or (c) had not held office for a period of three years or more.
Sub-section 2 of section 3 says the provision of paragraph (c) of sub-section (1) of this section shall not apply where a former governor or former deputy governor holds office for a period of less than three years as a result of death or a military intervention or a declaration of a state of emergency or there remained at assumption of office less than three years of tenure.
Section 4 states that the governors and deputy governors pension law, 2006 is hereby repealed. While section 6 deals with interpretation; section 6 stresses that this law may be cited as the Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Law, 2014 and shall come into force on the 1st day of June, 2014”.
Workers in the state kicked against the pension law as the Nigerian Labour Congress, Akwa Ibom State vowed to lead a protest march to the State House of Assembly in order to stop the passage of the bill describing it as shocking and unacceptable. The State Chairman of NLC, Mr. Unyime Usoro, said “we are mobilizing our members for protest to the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly on Monday (May 26). We will resist what they are going to do. Since 2007, pension for public servants in Akwa Ibom State have not been harmonized in line with the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Since that time even with the minimum wage that has just been implemented, the Akwa Ibom State government has not seen the need to bring the pension allowances of these people who worked for 35 years to be in line with the constitution.
While reacting, the Chairman, Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO) in the state, Barr. Clifford Thomas, said such bill should have been subjected to public debate since money involved is going to be Akwa Ibom state funds.
“It is too sensitive for 26 persons in the state Assembly to pass such bill. It is one of those things that the state governor should have canvassed during his town hall meeting seeking the zoning of the governorship ticket”
A concern citizen of the state, Etim Ekong said the bill reflects the very character of the promoter of the bill – selfish, self-serving and greed. Despite all that he has from the state, he still thinks of being paid such jumbo money from public fund throughout his life. I believe that the next governor will repeal the legislation.
Also reacting, a former Deputy Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Hon. Uwnen Udoma, said “I see a lot of greed in the framing of this particular bill. You spend up to N350 million on a single individual and if they are up to four this is about N1.4 billion in a year; and N1.4 billion is equal to some allocations for a month of some states of the federation. If you are paying four about N1.4 billion in a year how are you going to take care of the rest? We are about 3.9 million people in Akwa Ibom State.
“Secondly, there are specific clauses in the pension that are not acceptable, if it’s a pension law, it should be enjoyed by everybody (past governors and deputies). But this present amendment of the pension law of 2006 that has been passed into law in 2014 has excluded so many people like the former Governor of Old Cross River State, Chief Donald Etiebet, former Deputy Governors of Akwa Ibom State, Chief Ufot Ekaette, Chief Michael Udofia, Mr. Nsima Ekere, the present Deputy Governor, Lady Valerie Ebe.
“In pension you don’t exclude, you can only earn pension if you are up to 10 years in government service as public servant, but if you are elected public office holders, after your tenure in office, it is only severance or gratuity that you get. But because there are chief executive officers of a state, we tend to make this law so that we can safeguard their lives, but coming through the back door to pass this law shows this government is self-saving, the government is not protecting the interest of the people at all.
“In fact we are wasting a lot of funds that could be invested in agriculture; establishment of industries promised each of the 31 LGAs, the government is not doing anything about it. Even this N1.4 billion could be used to provide security of lives and property of Akwa Ibom people. There are a lot of insecurity in Akwa Ibom. The Akwa Ibom State pension for past governors and deputies is almost 300 per cent higher than any other state in the country. I can say that as a former lawmaker, it is outrageous we don’t accept it at all.
Speaking further, Hon Udoma said, “There were specific amount in the previous laws; but if you add everything together it would not be up to N20 million in the whole year. If you check the old law it is specific. Vehicles was to be provided every four years, they had security provided by security operatives, some other allowances, put it together they are not up to N20 million.”
Despite the protests against the bill, it was eventually passed into law on May 26, barely a week after it was received by the Assembly. The Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Elder Samuel Ikon, while briefing the media said there was misrepresentation because the law exists in some states of the federation with even very high figures without any protest by the indigenes of those states.
“We only dealt with three sub-clauses. This law had been in operation we only provide safeguard to check abuses. Nobody is saying governor should spend N100 million. We are only putting a ceiling. We should stop this dirty politics. This is a law that another governor can come and repeal. Before now, when a governor dies his entitlement stops. So we made provision for a medical allowance for the spouse not exceeding N12 million, about N1millon monthly. This is only when there is medical need. if not no money would be spent.
“It is deceitful and sad to say we rushed the bill. If we had finished the bill same day what is bad (with that)? We could have finished it if we were not tired. We have passed so many bills but not criticized as this one. Members did not oppose the bill, they argued for certain amendments. In the parliament, when your position is defeated you allowed the bill to go. This bill exists in other places, we have seen the one of Rivers and Lagos states. I didn’t know a bill can be so publicised like the former Governors and Deputies Pension bill. We have nothing to hide we did the right thing to conserve fund leakage. This allows the Governor and Deputy to concentrate to do their work. We are here to make good laws”, the speaker explained.
The Speaker argued that it was the responsibility of every state government to cater for the welfare of elected former governors and deputy governors after they had served the state selflessly and meritoriously.
On his part, the State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Mr. Aniekan Umanah, said the law only provides a limit on medical expenditure for former governors and deputies governors.
“Even though we wish our former leaders to be sound in health, the money approved is the maximum approval that can be approved in a given year, and is not given out just like that. It is only after verifiable due medical processes.
On the provision for former governors’ spouses in the event of the death of former governors, the commissioner said it was not in the good image of the state for a former governor’s wife to struggle for survival after the death of her husband.
“For God’s sake, where has our society dumped its sense of gratitude to leaders who toiled day and night for the state, that people would wish that former governors and their families should be neglected and allowed to suffer?”, Umanah asked.
Also reacting, the leadership of the All Progressive Congress (APC), Akwa Ibom State argued that the contents of the bill were criminal and fraudulent. “It was not passed into law in the best interest of Akwa Ibom State. The speed through which it became law is suspect and confirms the speculations that members of the House were influenced by Governor Akpabio to pass the bill without question.
“It is total unacceptable for a sitting governor to unilaterally fix benefits for himself and spouse and coerce the Assembly to pass same into law,” the party said.
The State Publicity Secretary of APC, Obong Samuel Udobong, at a press briefing noted that even the salaries of primary school teachers in the state were yet to be paid, while other retirees of the state civil service’s gratuities and pensions, some from 2009, have not been paid.
The party regretted that, the State House of Assembly was not helping to address the welfare of citizens who had served the state for 35 years, saying the passage of the bill, “gives credence to our long held position that this government is naïve and insensitive. They know no shame and care very little about what Akwa Ibom people think or feel about it. We were shocked to the marrow that a House of Assembly can still go ahead to pass this bill into law after the condemnable that trailed it.
“It reveals and confirms the disconnect that exists between the government and the governed in Akwa Ibom State. While Akwa Ibomites are wallowing in hunger and deprivation, seeking simple bailouts of food, shelter, clothing and job opportunities, the government engages in scheming to steal the commonwealth, become richer and widen the gap that exists between the rich and the poor in our society.”
In his explanation, Akpabio who signed the bill into law on May 28, less than 24 hours after it was passed by the House, said contrary to media reactions, the reason for the passage of the amended pension law which had been in existence since year 2000, was to block loopholes and check abuses of the open ended privileges extended to former chief executives and their deputies .
According to Akpabio, “the Nigerian constitution empowers the State Houses of Assembly to make laws for the well being of its people, so we have today made the Pension Law for former governors and their deputies. This law was made in the year 2000 and was amended in 2006 and is now being amended in 2014”
He said “the new law states that all staff of the former governors, should not earn more than 5 million naira annually and staff of former deputy governors should not earn more than 2 million naira annually.”
With the law assented to, Akpabio noted that “no former governor can spend more than 100 million naira in a year for medical expenses and no former deputy governor can spend more than 50 million naira for medical expenses, because such extra money would not be spent by the state government, because we are making sure that we cover all the loopholes of financial wastages”.
“For the widows of former governors, they would receive a minimum of N1 million monthly for medical expenses and N500,000 for the widows of former deputy governors”, he said.
He noted that the monies so appropriated would only be spent when any of the beneficiaries is admitted or being treated in any hospital, adding that, if at the end of the year, no one visited the hospital, the money would be returned to the treasury.