It is indeed, gratifying to note that smiles and happiness have returned on the faces and in the minds of senior citizens in Imo State, after a horrifying reign of despondency for eight years in the hands of the former administration in the State, under the leadership of Rochas Okorocha, Napoleon’s prototype in George Orwell’s fable, The Animal Farm.
By the early morning of Thursday, October 17, 2019, all manner of mobile phones belonging to Imo pensioners, came alive and started buzzing with bank alerts from various banks, conveying the beginning of the payment of their long given-up pensions. Could this be real? Is this happening in Imo? Is this not black magic or a hoax?
These and more, where the questions in the minds of the bewildered Imo pensioners across the State. Some were reported to have even re-checked their phones severally to confirm if the messages were meant for another person, but mistakenly found their way into their phones. But alas, it was real! The bank alerts were for them. Governor Emeka Ihedioha has kept to his words in line with his mantra “My word, my bond”.
Ordinarily, payment of pensions ought not to have called for such celebrations by Imo pensioners because it is a social obligation any government owe its retirees. But the case of Imo was different. The pensioners have every reason to celebrate given the pains and very bitter experiences they were subjected to by the past administration of Rochas Okorocha.
Under Okorocha, Imo pensioners resigned their fate to God for salvation. The former governor treated pensions payment as a ‘favour’ being done to the senior citizens and not their right. He owed them over 72 months arrears spanning over six years. He callously subjected them to strenuous and indefinite verification exercises, all to keep dilly-dallying their payment because in reality, he never meant to pay them.
At a point, he introduced an obnoxious and unorthodox policy for pensioners to sign for 100% payment but collecting 60% at the end. He distributed forms where he drafted an undertaking for this purpose on behalf of Imo pensioners. The pensioners were merely expected to endorse the pre-printed forms containing this wicked undertaking and clause already inserted therein or else, no payment.
Even at that, still no show at the end of the day. Okorocha’s meanness came to a climax when N35 billion bail out fund loaned to Imo State by the Federal Government for the payment of outstanding workers’ salaries and the retirees pensions, developed wings. The fund was channeled to purposes only known to Okorocha. Workers and pensioners weren’t paid a dime from the humongous amount. Same applied to “Paris club refunds” equally given to Imo by the federal government.
Instead, pensioners were given dud cheques which were never honoured by banks even as I write this piece. Okorocha never bothered, after-all, he is the “Lord of the Manor Farms”. Pensioners in Imo lamented, wailed and begged, but Okorocha had made up his mind to punish them for no known sin of theirs.
However, all these were to change with the emergence of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha as Governor of Imo State. Being a leader with a human face, he quickly amongst other measures, convened a meeting with the leadership of Imo pensioners Association in order to have a first hand information on the real magnitude of the problem. Next, he set up a committee headed by the retired Head of Service, Chief Evans Uzowuru to fashion out ways of addressing once and for all, the pensions issue in the State. Then came the biometric data capture of all pensioners. This was done to ensure that everybody was carried along.
It is instructive to point out that “if you don’t plan to succeed, you have planned to fail”. Ihedioha, because of his honest and due process background, kept pleading with Imo pensioners to give him just three months to fix the alarming rot in pensions administration in the State. He was methodical in his approach and never allowed himself to be distracted by Okorocha’s criminal dislocation of the system.
In keeping to his words, precisely, on Thursday, October 17, 2019, the results manifested practically to the consternation of not just Imo pensioners but also to arm chair critics who took Ihedioha’s assurance with a pinch of salt. Perhaps, some had thought Ihedioha’s promises were mere political rhetoric’s for which politicians are known.
Imo pensioners joy therefore, knew no bounds. Anybody in their position would feel the same. Finally, Ihedioha has pushed despondency and melancholy away from Imo Pensioners. He has given them joy and hope for a better tomorrow. I even heard one of the pensioners shouting joyously within my neighborhood at World Bank Housing Estate, New Owerri, that fateful Thursday morning after receiving his bank alert, that Ihedioha has done in five months what Okorocha could not do for several years.
Another resident of the Estate, Onyewuchi Anowey, perhaps out of excitement , did a mathematical calculation of the scenario on facebook thus;.
Okorocha’s 365 days x 8 years = 2,920 days of NO pensions payment, while Ihedioha’s 30 days x 5 months = 150 days only and Imo pensioners are already smiling.
The above, vividly captures the mood in Imo today. Both pensioners and non-pensioners alike are grateful to Ihedioha for not only restoring smiles and hope for the pensioners, but also for making the process of biometric data verification and subsequent payment very stress-free and seamless for the pensioners.
For the first time in the history of Imo, pensioners received their money in the comfort and confines of their homes. No bank queues and shuffles, no filling of tellers etc.
That the hope of Imo pensioners have now be revived after years of hopelessness not just the issue, but rather, the innovative bent Ihedioha brought into the matter is worthy of commendation and even emulation by other States’ Governors.
Systematically, Ihedioha has put a nail on the coffin of corruption within the pension administration in Imo. Under Okorocha, his own appointees were caught in massive pension fraud, but he covered the pension thieves in the likes of “Maina” (their godfather). They were released after their arrest without prosecution, thus making Okorocha an accessory to the pension fraud.
On the contrary, Ihedioha has made it clear that corruption has no accommodation whatsoever in his administration. As a leader, who lives by exemplary conducts rather than precepts, no appointee of his dare play the Okorocha hanky-panky game in his administration.
Today, pensioners are receiving their payment in their homes. No further verification in the near future except where there is cogent reasons for that. The state government, aware that no system is perfect, has equally opened communication lines (channels) through which complaints (if any) arising from the latest innovation can be expeditiously treated.
The new innovation has also exposed the prevalence of 8,459 ghost pensioners from both the State and local governments pensioners record. As a result of this exposure and subsequent ratification, over N280 million pension funds lost monthly has been saved.
Prior to the biometric data capture exercise, which of course, the pensioners still relish till date, because of the unique manner they were treated with quality food and beverages while the exercise lasted, many Imo Youths were trained by experts in pension administration invited by Ihedioha to come and assist savage the dilapidated system. The implication is that Imo now has a repertoire of competent and ready–made ICT pension management staff, who are on stand–by, ever ready and alive to their expected responsibilities.
Indeed, one can say without any iota of equivocation, that Ihedioha came prepared for the governance of Imo. His greatest quality or attribute as a governor, I dare say, is self–contentment. He is not avaricious, lustful for monetary or material acquisition and does not keep damaging company.
Furthermore, I am particularly happy that Imo senior citizens can now look forward to better days ahead. The days of gnashing of teeth and regretting why Imo is their State of origin are gone and gone forever.
Kudos to Governor Ihedioha for his midas touch and for appreciating the fact that the pensioners, who gave in their all in the service of Imo State government deserve conducive resting time while still alive. May God bless and continue to guide Ihedioha aright.