SCANDALOUS PENSION BENEFITS FOR FORMER LEADERS
The pension benefits that have been approved by the National Assembly for former Nigerian Presidents, Heads of State, Heads of Federal Legislative Houses and Chief Justices of the Federation are nothing short of scandalous considering the blatant manner in which the details confirm the impression that the sole purpose of public service is to secure a life-time protection for oneself, even when the record of the individual’s performance does not justify such privileges. We run an economy that services the privileges of the already over-privileged, an economy that promotes waste and inefficiency with little consideration for the poor and the aggrieved. In a season where the world economies are making austere plans; with the UK shaving off expenses and benefits and the USA saying loudly to the President through the mid-term election verdict that the economy cannot wait much longer for the economic prosperity promised; this action can be nothing more than insensitive.
The principle of pension benefits for certain special categories such as former heads of government is an acknowledged worldwide practice. In reality, it involves ensuring that those who have served the country are protected/provided for out of office and that they are not exposed to any form of ridicule, more so as they remain for the rest of their lives, national assets who can be called upon to act on behalf of the fatherland. In Europe and North America in particular, public service is seen as a special privilege. Political leaders truly want to serve. The people demand so and the laws of the land reinforce this principle. They seek to help their people and provide a platform that can be built upon by successive generations. They can be seen making an effort at all times. And they are accountable to the people who actively take ownership of the democratic process. Compensation packages for such persons in and outside office are nonetheless subject to taxpayers’ scrutiny. In the United States, former Presidents are covered under the Former Presidents Act of 1958, the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, the Presidential Threat Protection Act of 2000; and they are entitled to compensation for life, including the maintenance of an office, allowances for a certain number of staff, free postage services, secret service protection for their spouses (except he/she remarries) and children (up till the age of 16) in addition to medical and official travel privileges. Members of Congress are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System Act of 1986 (for those who have been members since 1984), and the Civil Service Retirement System (for members prior to 1984). For this latter category, there are very strict conditions, such as the attainment of the age of 50, service in the Congress for at least 20 years, and the pension scheme is contributory, not an absolute privilege as it attracts a per centage of taxation. There are also well laid out retirement benefits for Justices of the Supreme Court, but these are not articulated as special privileges as in the Nigerian example. In the United Kingdom, former Prime Ministers do not constitute themselves into a burden on the state, although they enjoy privileges as well. What is different in the Nigerian example? The 1999 Constitution at Section 84 (5-6) provides pension for the President and the Vice President only. In the new law as proposed, the list of beneficiaries has now been expanded to include the Senate President and his Deputy, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and his Deputy, and the Chief Justice of the Federation. The inclusion of the Chief Justice appears supernumerary as there is an existing pension scheme for judges, from which a retired Chief Justice benefits, except the intent of the new law is that the identified privileged persons can enjoy two types of pension. This should be re-examined. Why for example should Generals Gowon, Obasanjo, Babangida, Buhari, and Abubakar draw pension from the military and another for having served as Heads of State, or Abubakar Atiku from Customs in addition to the proposed package. Such persons should be required to give up one of the pension benefits! The extension of pension benefits to the Senate President and his Deputy, the Speaker and his Deputy is absolutely unnecessary. There is a caveat that no one who is impeached from office is entitled to the benefits, but what length of time should a Speaker or a Senate President spend in the position before he or she is entitled to life-time pension? A person spends may be four years as Federal legislative house leader, and for that he becomes a burden on all Nigerians for the rest of his life? The smuggling of the Federal Legislative Houses Leadership into the benefit scheme is self-serving, and it is further demonstration of the extreme greed of our present crop of lawmakers. Besides the reference to impeachment as basis for disqualification is inadequate; it must be added that any former beneficiary who is convicted by a court of law stands disqualified. There has been an issue, since the matter was proposed in 2006, about whether or not former military Heads of state should benefit from the special pension scheme. It would be most instructive to test this matter in a court of law but notwithstanding, there must be as a preliminary step, a clause in the proposed law, stating clearly that all coup makers and their spouses, should such a situation ever arise again, cannot benefit from this special scheme. The proposed law states that the past leaders shall be paid an amount that will be fixed from time to time by the Revenue and Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission and approved by the National Assembly. It is important to spell out in clear terms, what constitutes this upkeep allowance, in the same manner in which the Americans have very clear guidelines. This is important because it is taxpayers’ funds that are involved and the people have a right to know how much will be spent to keep their former leaders happy in retirement. It is reported that allocations for past leaders’ welfare began in 2005; since then the amount has grown considerably, and has been shrouded in so much mystery, although there is an indication that with the new proposal the new annual budget for the former leaders could be in excess of N2 billion. This, given the Nigerian system, would not include other privileges which would be extracted with the deployment of an accustomed parasitic instinct. Spouses and children of deceased former Presidents and Vice Presidents are also entitled to special privileges: the spouses until the last one dies (!) will receive an upkeep allowance, and the children will be educated up to university level. This is an unbelievable proposal. What is so special about the education of the children of deceased Presidents and Vice Presidents? In the United States, the children of former Presidents are entitled only to secret service protection up till the age of 16. Is there in the proposed Nigerian law, a prescribed limit to the number of wives that can benefit from this package? Will it include wives who have gone on to have children for other men, and are clinging to the name of the late President in order to get state benefits? Who is a spouse properly defined? Will Presidents be required to submit a declaration of spouses form (!) and does the law cover spouses “acquired” before and after office? This is a tricky part of the proposed law which could be abused, and turned into an insurance scheme for all kinds of persons. In the US, the provision for spouse refers to only one spouse, even without the Act having to say so. Imagine such former Presidents as General Olusegun Obasanjo and Vice President Abubakar Atiku. Obasanjo’s many spouses (until the last one dies) could be on the state benefit list for the next 100 years, and only God knows how many under-aged children the man may leave behind to be educated to university level at state expense! Nigeria cannot afford that please, and we all must say No to such absurdity. Compensation for former political leaders is a source of taxpayers’ anguish in many countries, but this has a special resonance in Nigeria where many believe that former leaders do not deserve any special pension privileges given their poor record of performance while in office. It is also generally believed that Nigerian leaders take good care of themselves while in office. They amass enough wealth, (may be with one or two exceptions) to last them and their children and descendants more than two lifetimes. Using state funds therefore to maintain their spouses (!) and to send their children to school up to university level would be seen legitimately by many as excessive. Where the scandal really lies is that in many states, laws have been enacted since 1999 extending similar special privileges to Governors and their Deputies, Speakers and Deputy Speakers, and state Chief Justices. The state legislatures may now take a cue from the National Assembly and also amend (where the laws already exist) or enact laws which confer privileges on spouses and children. The cost for the taxpayer is imaginable. In a country where there is so much poverty, where many can hardly feed once a day, where the majority cannot afford to send their children to good schools or beyond the primary school, where at this very moment there is a squabble over the national minimum wage; to advertise more privileges for an already over-compensated elite could be provocative. The Nigerian leadership elite must learn to eschew rapacity. They are quick to point to examples elsewhere, but whereas it is so easy to talk about privileges, they should be more interested in service and sacrifice. In the enabling US laws on this subject, there are such clauses as “unless they choose to decline it.” Nigerian leaders don’t ever consider waiving their right to privileges! This debate over compensation package for former leaders is about five years old, the energy and enthusiasm that have gone into it have been remarkable since the Bill was originally sponsored by Senator Dalhatu Tafida in 2006. And yet our lawmakers have not paid as much attention to the national pension payment crisis: the non-payment of arrears of pensions in the public sector and the agony that ordinary pensioners experience in seeking access to the starvation packages that the Nigerian government provides. How selfish!