Nigeria News

NIGERIA: The Rude Side of the Law

The tendency by public office holders, especially governors, to continue to live off the public purse long after office through the enactment of obnoxious laws has been institutionalised with the aid of state assemblies. Davidson Iriekpen writes
 
What started like some jokes when a sitting governor in Kwara State pushed for a law to allow him, his predecessors and their deputies collect outrageous pensions from the state treasury after office is now the in-thing across the federation. Today, more than a dozen states out of the country’s 36 now have laws allowing their governors perpetuate their stranglehold on the states’ resources by living off public purse in perpetuity.
 
 
One common characteristic of the laws is that they are often hurriedly packaged and put in place by the state governors – in collusion with their rubberstamp assemblies, few months before they leave office. And because the situation has continued unchecked, it has gone from bad to worse. For instance, the law is now operative in states like Kwara, Lagos, Rivers, Bauchi and Benue, among others.
 
 
A new dimension was added to the law when Governors Danjuma Goje of Gombe State and Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State introduced their own versions. While Goje did not wait for his tenure to elapse before paying himself and his deputy, John Yoriyo, a whopping N300 million in their first tenure in 2007, the Amaechi law which came into effect in 2012, provided that governors who successfully serve two terms should be provided with houses in any part of Rivers State and Abuja, while deputies will be entitled to a house in Rivers.
 
 
They will also be entitled to pension for life, equivalent to the basic salary of a sitting governor/deputy, three cars replaceable every year with full complements of domestic and security staff, all paid by the state government.
The one that is currently causing heated public debate is the Akwa Ibom State Governors and Deputy Governors' Pension Law 2014.
 
The law, which appears to be the fastest ever forwarded to the state assembly by Governor Godswill Akapbio, was passed within a week and after two hours of its passage, signed into law by the governor. Not even the opposition and the objection raised by the indigenes of the state, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) could deter the lawmakers from going ahead with the passage of the bill that was never subjected to public hearing. The reason was simple: their inputs were either not needed or immaterial.
 
 
Interestingly, the current law, which outrageously upgraded the one by Governor Victor Attah of 2000, denied two former deputy governors of the state, Obong Chris Ekpenyong and Mr. Nsima Ekere as well as the current deputy governor, Valerie Ebe from benefiting in the pension largess. It spells out that “an indigene of the state that 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.” Such benefits include, pension for life at a rate equivalent to the salary of the incumbent governor or deputy governor.
 
 
The reason the law would not apply to the two former deputy governors is because they were either impeached or resigned from office. The current deputy governor will not benefit from the law by 2015 when she would leave, she would not have spent up to four year in her current position. The only reason she would benefit from the law now is if she plays a very fast one by resigning on health grounds.
Another benefit is the provision of a new official car and a utility vehicle once in every four years, one personal aide and the provision of adequate security during his lifetime at the expense of government. Also, those entitled to the pension as recommended by the lawmakers are to be provided with funds to employ a cook, chauffeurs and security guards for  the governor at a sum not exceeding N5million per month and N2.5 million per month for the deputy governor.
 
 
The law equally makes provision for free medical service for the governor and spouse at the sum not exceeding N100 million per annum for the governor and N30 million for the deputy governor. The law provides a befitting house not below a five-bedroom mansionette in either Abuja or Akwa Ibom State for the governor and a yearly accommodation allowance of 300 per cent of annual basic salary for the deputy governor. There is also the provision of furniture allowance of 300 per cent of annual basic salary once in every four years; provision of yearly maintenance and fuelling of vehicle allowance of 300 per cent of annual basic salary.
 
 
“Provision of severance gratuity of 300 per cent of annual basic salary as at the time the officer leaves office; provision of yearly utility allowance of 100 per cent of annual basic salary; and provision of entertainment allowance of 100 per cent of annual basic salary,” are all provided for. The law explained that a former governor or 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 the law. Where a former governor or deputy dies, the bill stressed that government shall make adequate arrangement and bear the financial burden for his burial and pay a condolence allowance of a sum equivalent to the annual basic salary of the incumbent to his next of kin.
 
 
“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 has served the state as first lady.”
 
 
Not many Nigerians are surprised at the alacrity with which the Akwa Ibom assembly passed the bill. All across the country, Houses of Assembly are in the pockets of the governors. While the governors determine who gets elected into the assemblies and even the National Assembly, they also determine who become the speakers and other principal officers. Once the speaker decides to show traces of independence, he is immediately removed.
 
 
In a state where over 80 per cent of the population is poor, the pension law is seen as the height of greed and recklessness. For the indigenes of the state, the fact that the governor has performed does not mean that he should greedily allocate such humongous allowances to himself for service just for serving eight years in office. There are a lot of indigenes of the state who served at the state or federal level in equally important capacities who do not earn a quarter of what Akpabio wants to pocket in a year as pension. Moreover, there are still areas that need attention of the government.
 
 
For a governor who would have used his position to acquire assets, not a lot of the indigenes of the state and Nigerians are happy over the pension law that would see an Akpabio pocket over N300million annually at the expense of the state for serving just eight years in office. Though the assembly feels the new law would stop such office holders from stealing, Nigerians know better. They have witnessed how governors would after leaving office procure perpetual injunctions to restrain security agencies from investigating them, all because they have something to hide.
 
 
Even the lawmakers who supported such an obnoxious law, apart from the few instant millions that they would get as inducement for their ignoble role in passing such a bill, they end up impecunious in a few years while the governors continue to rip the state off of huge benefits.
 
 
Justifying the law during the signing ceremony, Akpabio said contrary to media reactions, the law was meant to block loopholes and check abuses of the open-ended privileges extended to former chief executives and their deputies. The governor also disclosed that the law was to streamline and bring sanity to the state finances, which he said has been misinterpreted by the public.
 
 
He noted that the monies so appropriated would only be spent when any of the beneficiaries were 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.
 
 
After alleging that the law became necessary because the government had been spending huge resources in taking care of former governors as well as deputy governors and their spouses, a former governor of the state, Attah, came out to challenge Akpabio to publish how much he has paid him (Attah) and past leaders of the state as pension.
 
 
“If Godswill Akpabio says he conceived the new law to put a ceiling to the expenses made on previous leaders of the state, somebody should have had the guts to ask him how much he has been paying to the past leaders. You journalists are afraid of Akpabio and that is why you have always shied away from asking some pertinent questions.”
 
 
Other indigenes of the state who were not persuaded by the governor’s logic have also described the law as the height of greed and recklessness. They asked him to immediately amend it.
 
 
A former senator from the state, Effiong Bob, has described the pension law as replete with “wicked and audacious” provisions that should infuriate any right-thinking member of the public.  Bob, who is currently the pro-chancellor of the University of Benin, in an open letter to the governor was quoted as saying:  “I write to express my utter surprise at the conception, drafting, and passage of the Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Bill 2014 which by your consequent assent, has now become law.
 
 
“When news about the envisaged law appeared in the media, I thought it was one of those pull-him-down media speculations sponsored by your political opponents. The reason is that it was completely outrageous in its entirety. However, when on Monday, May 26, it was passed into law by the state House of Assembly, I was stunned beyond words.”
 
 
Bob expressed surprise at the speed at which the assembly passed the controversial law, which he said, would further impoverish the people. He also expressed concern on the failure of the lawmakers to conduct a public hearing to obtain input from Akwa Ibom people, whose resources would be used in financing the outrageous law.
 
 
Continuing, Bob wrote: “I am also stupefied by the fact that a bill of such critical nature could be passed into law within less than seven working days of its receipt by the House. The bill was drafted and sent by you with a covering letter dated May 15. It was received by the Acting Clerk of the state House of Assembly on May 19, 2014; and was passed into law for your assent on Monday, May 26. On Wednesday, May 28, you signed it into law. What a historic speed!
 
 
“With all sense of humility and gratefulness to God Almighty, having served as a councillor; deputy speaker of the state House of Assembly and a two-term senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I am quite familiar with at least the elementary process of passing a bill into law. At every level of the legislature, bills of such critical dimensions are usually, without exception, subjected to public hearing and intense debate before passage. In this particular case, every process leading to the ultimate passage of that bill by the House was shrouded in ridiculous secrecy. This has raised more haunting questions than answers.”
 
 
Bob said the bill, “contained wicked and audacious provisions that right-thinking members of the society are still wondering under what influence it was passed by the House.”
He further queried the provision of a whooping N130 million annual health benefits for Akpabio and his deputy on retirement, saying that a total of N1.3 billion would be paid out by the time the state has 10 surviving former governors and deputies.
 
 
“What kind of sickness are we envisaging here? This is completely out of harmony with decency. Imagine a situation where we have up to 10 former governors and deputies in the state. They will drain the state of a cool N1.3 billion a year. Have you thought of what this amount could do for the State in the areas of industrialisation, agricultural development, education, and health and job creation? This is unfair and unacceptable.
 
“Your Excellency, I want you to understand my position and that of other silent Akwa Ibom people on this issue. Nobody is saying that a former state governor and deputy should not be entitled to certain benefits on leaving office. They are surely entitled to such benefits. But such benefits must be reasonable. They must fall within the confines of what the state can afford. What we see here is indecent greed. The tax payers must not be strangulated to satisfy such gluttony.”
 
 
The former senator noted that a section-by-section examination of the law has revealed deliberate attempts at draining the state of its financial resources just to satisfy the voracious appetite of a few people.
 
 
“It must be understood that while this kind of law already exists in other states of the federation, the one of Akwa Ibom State is absolutely ludicrous. This is a state where more than 65 percent of the people are jobless because there are no industries for people to work; where then is the morality in enacting such a law? Is this another version of uncommon transformation?
 
 
“Considering the fact that a governor and his deputy only hold office for a maximum of eight years, it smacks of extreme callousness and even cruelty for them to draw such huge benefits while those who put in 35 years and above in public service wallow in penury.”
The state chapter of the NLC, led by Usoro, described the law as indicative of the high level of greed and insensitivity among the country's leaders. He said since 2007, public servants in Akwa Ibom State have not been paid their harmonised pension entitlements in line with the Nigerian constitution.
 
 
Even with implementation of the harmonised remuneration package and minimum wage for workers nationwide, the Akpabio administration has consistently refused to do the same for workers in the state, he said. He noted that most of the workers who put in about 35 years in service before retiring in line with the provisions of the country's constitution are yet to be paid their pension allowances.
 
 
Usoro said workers in the state were shocked that the government would suddenly send to the assembly a bill hurriedly put together to satisfy the governor, who he pointed out, is not under any financial pressure.
"The NLC in the state is surprised that the state government is doing this. It is simply outrageous. It is only reflective of the high level of greed and insensitivity by the country's leaders. I don't know why the governor should display so much insecurity. It is unthinkable that a person in the position of the governor, who can even do without the pension, can do a thing like this. Other states have done similar things, but this is simply outrageous. We will fight it by all means to ensure that the right thing is done," the NLC Chairman said.
 
 
According to him, if the governor, who the NLC believes does not have any reason to fear for the future, has taken steps to secure himself against any eventuality, what happens to the average worker who has not been paid his entitlements.
"What kind of eventuality will make the governor demand N200million benefits for himself every year if not greed and insensitivity to the people's interest," he said.
 
 
The lead director, Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Eze Onyekpere, also described the proposed law as outrageous and pure madness, saying the workers and members of the civil societies should mobilise immediately to stop it.
 
 
"I am not from Akwa Ibom State. But, if it is not stopped, other states would copy the wrong thing, and one can imagine the implication on the states' economy a few years down the line. If Akpabio takes as much as N200 million per annum, what it means is that even his predecessor, Victor Attah, would be earning as much.
 
 
"Considering that both of them are not in a hurry to depart this world in the next 20 to 30 years. Imagine that every four or eight years a governor leaves and is paid that much. If Akwa Ibom State has about five to six former governors, one can calculate the cost on the state. In line with the Fiscal Responsibility Act, we just cannot allow these things to continue. We must fight it," Onyekpere said.
 
 
A civil society group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), also criticised the new law. In a statement issued in Lagos, the group said the legislation was "immoral, unfair, unconstitutional, unreasonable, and a rip-off on a massive scale."
 
 
The statement signed by SERAP's Executive Director, Adetokunbo Mumuni, said: "There is absolutely no justification for such a law at a time the pension systems across the country are in poor shape, and pensioners continue to be denied the fruit of their labour. The governor cannot lawfully give to himself a steady stream of public funds for life at a time millions of pensioners face cut to their pension schemes and remain in poverty without any state support.”

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