By Simon Kolawole
If I were a former governor, I would be cursing Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State by now. He has inadvertently revealed a best-kept secret: that ex-governors and their deputies are a drain on state resources in their own right. Not satisfied with all the goodies they gulp while in office, they want to keep the perks flowing and growing for life. I don’t know what Akpabio had in mind when he decided to amend the Akwa Ibom Governors and Deputy Governors Pension Law 2006. Whatever it was, his move has opened a Pandora’s box. We are now seeing what we never saw before.
The initial headlines suggested Akpabio had fixed a pension of N200 million for himself. I had to take time to read the new law and compare it with what was amended. What I saw is different from what I was hearing. The pensions were fixed before Akpabio became governor. In fact, the 2006 amendment was signed by the then governor, Obong Victor Attah. There are just a few alterations in the one amended in 2014. The 2006 version provided that a former governor would collect an annual basic salary (ABS) equal to that of the incumbent. The 2014 amendment retained this. The 2006 law provided 300% of ABS for yearly accommodation. This was changed to five-bedroom maisonette in the 2014 version.
The old law provided one new car every four years while the amendment added a back-up car. The furniture allowance remains unchanged. The old law said “funds shall be provided” to employ one cook, a chauffeur and two security guards “as applicable in public service”. The new law provides that lump sums of N5 million and N2.5 million should be paid to former governor and deputy respectively so that they can employ domestic staff by themselves. The provision for one PA was retained, as well as the severance gratuity of 300 per cent of ABS. Entertainment allowance of 100 per cent ABS was also retained, while utility was increased from 50 per cent of ABS to 100 per cent. Under security, the provision for “adequate security for his person” is also not amended.
And now to the controversial part: under the 2006 law, it said “free medical treatment for governor and deputy governor and their spouses”. In 2014, Akpabio proposed an upper limit of N100 million worth of medical coverage for the governor and his spouse, and N30 million for the deputy and his spouse. In media interviews, he said he decided to put a limit because it was being abused. Meanwhile, from now on, the money will not be paid directly to the beneficiaries but to the hospitals, according to him. Now that Akpabio has decided to withdraw the amendment, there will be no legal ceiling again, but a limit can be set through executive circulars, he said.
Ironically, of all the governors’ pension laws that I have seen so far, it is only Akwa Ibom that tried to put a ceiling on the medical. Other states simply provided for “free medical” some not just for spouses but for “families”, including those who have more than one wife. Their married children could even benefit. It would be interesting to know what states have spent on medical treatment for their ex-governors and deputies. In a country where ordinary people are dying because they cannot afford medical bills as low as N2000, nothing justifies free medical treatment for those who are more than wealthy enough to pay their own bills.
Leaving Akpabio out of the picture, so that we do not lose track of the purpose of this discussion, we need to further cross-examine public office holders on their understanding of public service and prudent management of resources. Agreed, the idea of lucrative pensions is to make sure our former governors do not suffer after leaving office. It is a form of insurance and an incentive to make them serve truthfully without tampering with the treasury, knowing that their welfare is taken care of after they leave office. Unfortunately, the prospect of jumbo pensions has never solved any problem. It has neither stopped nor slowed down looting. The aim is thus defeated.
To make matters more complicated, many former governors end up in the Senate and begin to collect more jumbo allowances. Imagine all the benefits and powers that belong to a governor. Imagine all the benefits that continue to flow after he leaves office. Now imagine that, on top of those, the governor ends up in the Senate to earn even more benefits. Even those who do not end up in the Senate continue to benefit from enormous contracts they awarded to their fronts while in office. It is depressing how a few politicians control so much in a country where over 70 per cent of the people live on less than N170 a day. This world is certainly unfair.
Meanwhile, you have public servants who serve for 35 years before they retire. What are their benefits compared to those enjoyed by governors who spend only four or eight years in office? I have a suspicion that the pension benefits of one ex-governor will be more than that of the entire civil service. I used the word “suspicion”, not that I am sure. But by the time you calculate the new cars ex-governors get every three or four years, along with the salaries of the full complement of personal staff, and all the allowances covering entertainment, house maintenance, utility and medical treatment, I may just be correct. Sadly, those who really served this country drop dead on queues waiting for their pensions.
Let’s conclude before I lose my mind. I have two conclusions. The first is that governors and their deputies are, without any questions, enjoying too much at our expense. To add insult to injury, they carry this enjoyment into “retirement”. Slash those benefits by 75 per cent and redirect the money to specific projects in health and education. Or donate the money to charity if there is no sector that deserves funding. My second conclusion, similar to the first, is that we still have a wrong notion that we are very rich in Nigeria. That is the only reason lawmakers approve this kind of pensions and benefits for ex-governors and their deputies. They don’t know what they are doing. Honest.
And Four Other Things…
After writing this column, I got the sad news that Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, one of Nigeria’s most distinguished public officers ever, had died in India. I was very close to her, right from when she was DG of National Agency for Drug and Food Administration and Control (NAFDAC). The last time we exchanged SMS was on May 1, 2014. She wrote: “Simon, I will see you when I am free. Right now I sleep most of the time. My love to your wife and my pikin (that’s what she called my daughter).” But we will never see again. Devastating.
BYE TO BAYERO
In a country where conventional wisdom is to promote your religious and ethnic affinities above the national interest, it is refreshing that there is still a space for leaders like the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero, who died on Friday. A peacemaker and bridge-builder, he offended many irredentists by refusing to “toe the line”. His palace was attacked after the 2011 elections for allegedly “selling out” by not supporting a Northerner. Boko Haram went for him for opposing their murderous ideology. Bayero was a foremost northern Fulani Muslim monarch, whose best friend was a Southern Yoruba Christian monarch. Awesome.
NEWSPAPERS AS BOMBS
I know some things are considered sensitive at this critical moment in national security, and so you wonder how exactly to react to insinuations by the military that there was an intelligence report that newspaper vans were being used to convey “security sensitive” materials (they mean bombs). Consignments belonging to Daily Trust, The Nation and Leadership newspapers were therefore confiscated. There is an attempt to link certain sections of the media to the insecurity in the land. Coming days after the integrity of certain generals were called to question by newspaper reports, the “intelligence” is quite predictable. Rubbish.
The World Cup kicks off in Brazil on Thursday. I love football the best leisure God created. But last week, I got this SMS from publisher and radio host, Martin Udogie, that instantly sobered me up: “I’m a passionate soccer fan. I can still remember the very 1st FIFA World Cup I watched on TV, the 1978 WC in Argentina. Since then, I have watched 8 others (‘82, ‘86, ‘90, ‘94, ‘98, ‘02, ‘06, ‘10). But in solidarity with the Chibok 276, I have decided NOT to watch any of this year’s WC games while the girls are still in captivity.” Sobering.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Simon Kolawole/Thisday