Civil service pension as death sentence

Pension offers benefits and costs to different categories of people globally. To the civil and public servants in Nigeria, it can be seen as a death facilitator while it offers joy to politicians and political appointees. Recently in France, there were protests by labour unions and citizens when President Emmanuel Macron signed into law, reforms to increase retirement from 62 years to 64 years. Paradoxically, the Nigerian labour unions are calling for extension of retirement age from 60 years to 65 years or 40 years of service. A world of two tales.

Everybody prays to retire after years of service in a workplace. As one approaches retirement age, the prayer from friends and family is simply that one lives not only to receive his/her retirement benefits but to live long to enjoy the benefits. You would feel that the resounding amen from the expectant retiree is truly from the heart. The jubilation that followed the extension of the retirement age of teachers to 65 years by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) last year and the recent demand from the labour unions seem to indicate otherwise.

When, some 10 years ago, the retirement age of professors was raised from 65 years to 70 years, one would think many academics would not take advantage of it but retire early to seek challenges in other universities at home or abroad or possibly engage in writing books for graduate and undergraduate students in the various disciplines. Time has proved that this was not so. Many academics below the professorial grade started working hard to get to that grade in order to benefit from the 70-year pension advantage. It is not because they prefer to die in the classroom but the uncertainty of the pension and amount involved. Recently, a professor retired prematurely before 70 years but after 35 years of meritorious service and the salary dropped by half to around N200,000.00! He is still battling with the pension.

Not far from the time of adjustment of the retirement age of professorial grade to 70 years, the non-teaching staff in the universities were able to move from 60 to 65 years. So, one is not surprised when the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress in his address on May 1, 2023, demanded a 65 years blanket retirement age for all civil and public servants. But truly, how many people really work hard from the age of 60 years? How many drivers can still drive efficiently at the age of 60 years and how many gardeners can still cut or trim flowers efficiently at that age? I have no doubt that office cleaners and messengers would have been tired of doing the same things over and over for 40 years! More importantly, how many of the civil servants claiming 60 or 65 years are really that age? But that is not the appropriate question to ask. The real question is to ask why would people want to die in active service?

The life expectancy in France is 82.18 years using the 2020 figure while 52.89 years for Nigerians for the same period. This means that averagely, a French man or woman can live up to 82 years while a Nigerian, man or woman lives up to 53 years. If we are concerned about pension, it is better for Nigerians to retire earlier than the French to enjoy their pension before recall to the great beyond. Ironically, while the labour unions in France are calling for an early retirement age, their Nigerian counterparts are calling for a longer work period and by implication shorter time for the enjoyment of pension. Is there really enjoyment?

The rationale for the two worlds is that a Nigerian sees pension period as a death sentence while the French sees it as an opportunity to stop exploitation of his/her efforts and start enjoying the benefits of the hard work. A retiree in France, like in many developed and emerging economies, is regarded as a senior citizen with almost all social entitlements free of charge or minimal charges. Movement towards pension in Nigeria is moving into uncertainty and hardship. While working, the take home pay, if and when paid, can hardly take the worker home. We have one of the lowest wages in Africa and one that hardly cares to pay pension as and when due.

Before the actual retirement, many workers start developing high blood pressure based on what they heard or what they saw happened to those before them. Gratuity that is taken for granted elsewhere is the first battleground. It is only those who earn some good salaries and emoluments that have opportunities to save for the future but Nigerian civil/public servants are not in that class unless they forcefully or tactfully stole some money while working.

Nigerian civil/public servants work without salaries for many months. One of the governors, in the labour day message he sent, commended the leadership and the worker for “their commitment, resilience and painstaking disposition in the face of obvious challenges arising from the delay in payment of their salaries …” It was reported that the governor was owing not just the salaries of workers but also the pensioners meager allowances. It is obvious that whenever the governor has money to pay, he is likely going to pay the workers before the pensioners. A governor once told pensioners that he has not paid those alive and the dead (pensioners) were worrying him about pension! So, why does one need to retire when he/she is already regarded as dead!

The labour unions themselves could not see that the extension of pension age is for the government to buy time. They could not see that the longer people stay on the job, the more difficult it would be for their children to be absorbed in the civil and public service. They did not see the need to start fighting the government to pay pensioners both gratuity and pension as and when due but only fight for workers on the job, forgetting they too will sooner than later become pensioners.

There was the story of a woman working in the pension office in one of the ministries. She specialised in creating problems for pensioners to get their pension. She would, after collecting bribe, advise them on what to do to quicken the process of collecting their gratuity and pension. In her characteristic greedy manner, she did not take care of her subordinates. Before she retired, she had done all the necessary processes such that she could facilitate the payment of her gratuity and pension from the following month after retirement. A week before the due date, her file got missing. For the one week, she was breathing down the neck of everybody in the office but on the last day, nothing was achieved. The staff wished her well after retirement. Twelve months later, her file was still missing! What you sow is what you reap!

During the last election, some civil and public servants refused to participate in voting because they believed the governor, who would be going on second term, owed them salaries. It was a wrong step. They should have gone out to vote against him instead of staying away. These days that votes count somehow, civil servants should speak with their votes. Unfortunately, the governor won by a small margin. Albeit, some governors did win on the basis of good rapport with workers and their entitlements.

There is a need for salary and pension reforms in Nigeria. Paying workers low wages and failing to pay pensioners their entitlements in time or at all promote corruption in the civil service. Workers use the official time for private concerns to shore up their salaries and allowances as well as steal funds whenever they have or create the opportunity to embezzle to prepare them for retirement. What the labour unions should work for is for retiring labour to get their entitlement in time and should be adequate to let them live well after serving their state or nation, not elongation of period.

There is no justification for politicians to work for eight years and live well on pension schemes or humongous severance pay thereafter while those who worked for over 20 years are left in penury. It should be the concern of labour unions to show interest in what happens to pensioners since they will find themselves in the same position later.

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