How we stopped Okorocha from short-changing pensioners – Durueke

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“What happened in Imo State was that the government issued a notice where it unilaterally cut the pension benefits of the pensioners.

Uche Durueke, Executive Director of Centre for Peace Across Borders, led the Nigerian Bar Association’s team that represented Imo pensioners and secured judgment against the administration of Governor Rochas Okorocha for making illegal deductions on their pensions.

He speaks on the unending National Minimum Wage impasse and what the parties should do.

We have this back and forth issue over the new national minimum wage; what do you think is the solution?

First and foremost, the issue of wage in this country is reflected in chapter four of the constitution. If you go there, you will find that the constitution provides for what it calls living minimum wage for the Nigerian worker. So, I think that this is the framework that in negotiating minimum wage; the question should be the wage that we are asking for or the wage that we are saying that we are not going to pay, will it satisfy the minimum living wage for a Nigerian worker? And this will take a lot of things into consideration. The present status of our economy in terms of market demands and also family demands; if you take what is being paid in some other countries that Nigeria is better than, you will find out that many of them are earning more than the Nigerian worker. So, on that basis, if you talk about salary increase for Nigerian worker, I will say yes.

But one thing about salary and the economy is that, if the economy is well organised and our money is strong enough, we don’t need to have a bloated kind of sums of money going out there because what we get will give us more than what we will get now; than what we are asking. The point I am trying to

make is that the demand by the Nigerian worker is not a greedy demand. It is a demand that is anchored on the prevailing economic situation in the country. For me, I will want the government to see it that way because today we’re all going to buy things from the same market; our children go to the same school. A city like Enugu, if your child is in private school, how much does the school take; and if you have about three or four of them, you can’t train them. Look at the issues of hospitals too. So, these are the issues. As far as I am concerned, I think that whatever process that is left should be fast track by the Federal Government. There is nothing to hide about it. The nation belongs to all of us.

What do you say about this fear that bloated salary could cause inflation?

That was the point I made earlier. Yes! It is a fear but the situation is that if you don’t increase salary and there is still inflation, how would you address it? What is the cushioning package; if you say ‘I am not going to increase salary because of this fear’, what is the cushioning package that you are going to give to the workers?

(Cuts in) Does that bring the issue of social security?

That is the thing. That is the point I am making. We don’t have that kind of functioning security regime in the country. For you to say ‘ok where your salary is not reviewed upward, that is being cushioned by these, these, and that.’ What is the cushioning package that you are going to give to the workers? The situation is a dicey one. How will the worker survive? That is the challenge. Yes! People would say that we have National Health Insurance Scheme. How many workers are benefiting from that and to what extent? Talking about pension, you will find out that many pensioners are being owed. If you look at it, you will discover that many are depending on the little that they were able to save while working. If you are unable to save, what happens when you retire or disabled in the course of your job? We need to start getting some of these things right in terms of our governance processes. I think that if we are able to fix our governance challenges, some of these issues might not be a big issue if the economy is stable.

Since it will be difficult to implement the various national social security laws, would you recommend a national policy while the states have their own laws on social security?

If we have a national policy that is not a law, it will be difficult. I grew up in Enugu and I can say that it is my second home. I come from a civil service home.

I can recollect that as a young lad in this town, if I was sick, I would just go to Park Lane Hospital and get treated because my father was a civil servant. Today, you find out that those facilities are not there across the country. It might just be in one or two states. Those days, you find that civil servants in many establishments had quarters. Today, it is not like that because we are talking about monetisation. You can see the challenge. Those years, workers had means of transportation. But it is not like that.

You were fighting for the pensioners in Imo State when government allegedly wanted to short-change them. What actually happened?

What happened in Imo State was that the government issued a notice where it unilaterally cut the pension benefits of the pensioners. Whether it is N1 or N2 that the pensioner gets, it should be 100 percent. The government slashed 60 percent and said that it would give them 40 percent and the pensioners protested it different times. The Nigerian Bar Association stepped in and decided that it would give them legal assistance. I had the privilege to lead the legal team for the NBA and we went to court and our case was that the government hadn’t the power to slash the pension of the pensioners; that that particular act was illegal. The matter proceeded into arguments and the court heard us and gave judgement in favour of the pensioners. But the basic issue today that one must ask is: are the pensioners being paid regularly as they ought to be paid? The answer is no. Though recently, I read that the state government said that it would pay them about N5 billion or so. I don’t have the correct figure here. From the documentation that I have, the amount that the government owes the pensioners is more than the amount it said that it would pay.

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