Ofonime Honesty

Barely three calendar years ago, Chief Godswill Obot Akpabio in collaboration with the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly led by Elder Sam Ikon, threw the masses into delirium by passing into Law, a controversial bill which made humongous retirement provisions for former Governors, former Deputy Governors and their spouses.

That the Executive Bill was passed into Law within 24 short hours after being received by the state parliament plus the fact that the masses were not consulted for inputs really emboldened the Assembly’s reputation as a ‘rubber stamp of the executive arm.’ Well, according to the present Speaker, Mr. Onofiok Luke, the present Assembly has metamorphosed from a rubber stamp into an iron seal. Hear him: “People are saying that we are a rubber stamp Assembly but I want to tell you that we are iron seal to all activities of His Excellency.” Brazen declaration!

In addition to N200 Million annual pay to ex-governors and deputies, the Akwa Ibom Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Law 2014 makes it mandatory for ex-governor’s and deputies to enjoy pension for life at a rate equivalent to the salary of the incumbent governor/ deputy governor respectively.

A new official car and a sport-utility vehicle every four years; one personal aide and provision of adequate security; a cook, chauffeurs and security guards for the governor at a sum not exceeding N5million per month and N2.5 million for the deputy governor, are the other benefits they are expected to enjoy.

The Law also provides a furniture allowance of 300 per cent of annual basic salary every four years in addition to severance gratuity and a medical allowance not exceeding N12 million per annum for the spouse of an ex-Governor provided that such a spouse was married to the Governor at the time he or she was in office. N2.2million goes to ex-governors as entertainment allowance while N2.1million goes to ex-deputies. To cap it all, the state is mandated to bear the burial expenses of an ex-governor and pay condolence equivalent to the amount of basic salary of the incumbent governor.

The belief that the House of Assembly later repealed a section of the Law earmarking N100m medical allowance for former governors and N50m for former deputy governors is however shrouded in uncertainty because the Assembly refused to publish the Law in public domain after its passage. Journalists were only shown the Bill before passage.

While a great percentage of the populace wailed over the Law, the former governor, Godswill Akpabio, (now the Minority Leader of Nigeria’s Senate), as per Channels Television, alleged that the Law had been in existence, that he was the one implementing it. “It’s a laughable situation that people generate controversy over the pension law. The law has been in existence in Akwa Ibom State. I am the one implementing it.”

He however contradicted himself by claiming that, “all the former elected governors and their deputies have been enjoying the pension.” Dear readers, how did they “enjoy” it when it when the Law, according to him, wasn’t implemented?

Former Governor Obong Victor Attah promptly returned fire. “You (journalists) should go and look at the Law critically and ask him whether Obong Attah has been enjoying any of the benefits provided for in the Law. You should also ask him whether he built a retirement home for me either in Uyo or Abuja. Ask him to tell you how much he has been paying to Obong Attah as retirement package after I left office. These are questions Akpabio should answer and should provide verifiable records to Akwa Ibom people and Nigerians.”

Attah’s debunking of Akpabio’s claims is corroborated by the fact that the first civilian Governor of the Akwa Ibom State, Obong Akpan Isemin, singularly battled kidney related problems till 2009 when he succumbed to death. His widow, Obonganwan Imoh Isemin blamed poor facilities at the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital, where a reported lack of electricity plus dilapidated dialysis machines prevented the departed elder statesman from receiving dialysis treatment. Why the state government did not fly the legendary Isemin abroad for treatment will forever remain a case study for historians.

Claims and counter-claims aside, the Akwa Ibom Governors and Deputy Governors’ Pension Law 2014 lacks moral justification. It amounts to brazen robbery for a state where the aged, who wasted their useful years in the civil service, are denied gratuities decades after retirement. Ouch! Our senior citizens have been reduced to objects of mockery. From far flung places, they go for futile “screening exercises” in Uyo. Some slump and die due to strenuous exertions. These screenings, what for? To worsen issues, next of kins of primary schools retirees who were on a peaceful march demanding payment of their parent’s gratuities were arrested by the Udom Emmanuel administration and charged to court.

That Akpabio hurriedly put the Law in place before leaving office leaves a sour taste. If you consider the fact that Nigerian public office holders are arguably the highest paid the world, then any justification for the Pension Law should be defeated.

Truth is, this Law is draining the state coffers hence incapacitating the present administration from fulfilling sundry obligations. Why can’t the beneficiaries of the obnoxious Law adjust to a normal life after leaving office? Must the state continue using a large chunk of her revenue to fund the extravagant lifestyle of these persons? Past American leaders like Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama are earning megabucks through book publishing and public speeches. Why are our past leaders so lazy?

It is public knowledge that with the present economic realities, President Muhammadu Buhari volunteered a 50 per cent slash in his salary. Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, followed suit. Disappointingly, Akwa Ibom state receives the highest revenue allocation from the federal government but no public office holder has volunteered a slash in his earnings. Chief Akpabio, who masterminded the Law, is now earning from dual sources having gone to the Senate in 2015.

The foregoing added to the fact that Akwa Ibom State has received several tranches of the Paris Loan refund yet huge debts including gratuities are not paid banishes any shred of sanity from the Law. That the masses have refused to ask salient questions about how their commonwealth is managed is quite disheartening. Poverty is indeed slavery.

The Akwa Ibom former Governors/ Deputy Governors Pension Law without any equivocation is a conduit pipe fashioned to please a cabal of sacred cows. How long this aberration will continue is beyond my guess. However, our greatest undoing is to continue clapping for this circus band that draws no smile from the audience. A circus band whose stage is filled with looted Naira notes.

Dear readers, in concluding this brief piece permit me to hand over to Festus Keyamo, SAN. Worried by the trend, the firebrand legal luminary described it as “totally immoral.”

He continued: “a question we should ask is, have we blocked the holes to prevent public stealing? And the answer is no. We have not. We have not blocked those holes. If we have not done this, then to me, it is salt on injury for somebody to be in public office with opportunity to steal and for him to still come back to enjoy such bogus benefits. Having said that, for me it is a double compensation for the beneficiaries.”

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