Governor Hope Uzodimma of Imo State appears to be making a u-turn on his earlier hard posturing on rising pension arrears in the state.
Apparently burdened by an arrears of N56.4 billion, Governor Uzodimma unguardedly tagged pensioners in the state as ‘’ghost retirees’’. Irked, the senior citizens took to the streets to press for their outstanding payment.
Shaken, the governor has given assurances that his administration will not owe any worker or pensioner in the state or local government civil service their salaries, pensions or entitlements during his tenure.
He said he has a covenant with God to sincerely serve the people of Imo and that he will be committed to the promise throughout his tenure.
Governor Uzodimma reiterated this during his first Christmas Day Mass at his home Church, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Omuma, in Oru East Local Government Area.
This may be a piece of good news for the dying pensioners in the state. During the dying days of last July, four retirees slumped and were hospitalised during a protest to demand for five months arrears of their pension allegedly owned them by the state government.
News Agency of Nigeria reports that the incident happened at the protest scene around the Government House roundabout in Owerri, the state capital.
One of the retirees, who slumped but was revived, Margret Onuoha, said she retired from the state civil service on Grade Level 14, and that her late husband, Eugene Onuoha, also a retiree, died in the struggle in 2016 and was never paid till date.
Mrs Onuoha said her health condition had worsened in the last five months that she has not received her pension.
The protest that was led by the state Chairman of Imo Pensioners Intervention Committee, Iyke Ohaneje, caused heavy traffic as the protesters blocked the popular Okigwe Road roundabout, displaying placards with inscriptions; “We are not ghost retirees”, “Uzodimma is playing politics with our lives”, “Pay us our money now or face the wrath of God.”
Ohaneje said the protest was about the third the pensioners had embarked upon and accused the state government of ignoring the plight of the retirees, pointing out, “government is owing us a total of 45 months pension arrears, but we are asking it to pay us five months arrears accumulated since March 2020.”
Continuing, he said they embarked on the protest because the state government had alleged that they were ghost pensioners, adding, ‘’government has accused us of being ghost pensioners, but we have woken up from the grave to tell the government that we are not ghost retirees.”
Addressing the retirees, Police Commissioner, Issac Akinmoyede, appealed to the protesters to maintain peace and channel their grievances to the appropriate quarter. He also assured that he would communicate their message to the governor for action.
National President of the National Union of Pensioners (NUP) has been appealing to Governor Uzodimma to pay retirees in the state their pension arrears amounting to N56.4 billion.
The Uzodimma administration is said to have inherited the debt from the Rochas Okorocha government.
And the pensioners have been locked in a bitter battle with the state government following its failure to pay the retirees
NUP President, Abel Afolayan, who made the appeal on behalf of the pensioners during his recent visit to the governor at Government House, Owerri, lamented the plight of the senior citizens.
Afolayan, accompanied by members of the union’s chiefs in the South East, said the pensioners needed the money to solve their financial problems.
According to him, some of the retirees are suffering from various health ailments and lack money to pay medical bills, pointing out that retirees should not be allowed to suffer because they were part of the contributory pensions scheme.
Afolayan lamented that some of the senior citizens died without enjoying the fruits of their labour, and assured the governor of the support of the union and retirees for his administration.
Uzodimma has however, decried the fraudulent practices that marred salary and pension payment in previous administrations, saying his government had been trying to deliver corruption-free salary and pension payment.
He urged the retirees to be patient with his administration, promising to pay them.
“By the time we took over office, we found out that pensioners and salary payroll were highly manipulated. It became a conduit for looting our resources with fake names as a result of this ugly trend, so we embarked on a verification exercise and we were able to sanitise the system and still on it’’, he says.
Successive governments in Imo are known for owing backlogs of pensioners, setting up a brawl with former public servants many of whom died in the process of waiting for such payments
He recalled the events that brought him into politics, the contest for governorship of Imo State and the reclaiming of his mandate at the Supreme Court, noting that “the people of Omuma have many reasons to be grateful to God for making one of their own governor of the state.”
According to him, his desire to govern Imo was predicated on “the will of God”, insisting that he has never ventured into anything without first seeking God’s direction, the reason he was able to overcome the challenges he encountered on assumption of office on January 15, 2020.
He disclosed that contrary to popular perception, he discovered that the problem of Imo State is more with the civil service system than the politicians, regretting that massive corruption was the order of the day in the Imo State Civil Service when he assumed office.
He said though his predecessor, Emeka Ihedioha’s administration, noticed the anomalies plaguing the system and tried to do some verification, their efforts yielded little results then until his administration came on board and embarked on full automation of the payment system of the state.
Governor Uzodimma said that relying on the automation, 43,000 workers and 21,000 pensioners in Imo State had been paid their salaries and pensions up to date.
He maintained that those who have not been paid are those who have issues with accurate bio-data or those receiving double salaries or pensions and therefore queried by the automation system.
He challenged those claiming to be owed to approach the data centre with their pension identification number and relevant details so that their status will be revealed and payment effected if they do not have issues.
The governor also promised to publish in the newspapers by January 2, 2020, details of all Imo workers and pensioners who have passed the automation process and have been receiving their entitlements till date so that those still in doubt will know how serious the government is with the automation.
He maintained that he has come for the good of Imo people irrespective of party affiliation, pointing out that though he is the Governor of an APC-led government, he presides over the affairs of all Imo citizens regardless of party leaning.
He therefore called on Imo citizens to pray for the state and assured that there is light on the horizon and better days ahead for the state.
In his sermon earlier, Parish priest of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Omuma, Rev. Fr. Ernest Chike Dike noted that Christmas is a season of celebration of the Light of God sent unto a people living in darkness through Jesus Christ his son.
“Light had come into the world that hitherto has been in darkness. When you invite Jesus the darkness in your life will disappear”, he said.