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Varsities Groan Under Burden of Unpaid Pensions

This is not the best of times for the authorities of the country's first generation universities of Ibadan, Benin, Obafemi Awolowo University, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

Apart from the difficulty they are facing in paying their serving staff, which is reportedly due to the inadequate recurrent grant from the federal government, Vice-Chancellors of these universities are also losing sleep over the non-payment of pension to retirees for about 17 months, many of whom have started giving up the ghost due to want of money to care for their medical needs. The situation is unique to these first generation universities which came into existence more than 40 years ago, apart from the University of Ibadan which is 54 years old. Thus, they harbour large number of retired staff who had started working with them right from inception, and had therefore put in the statutory 35 years of service.

These pensioners are in two categories and they both suffer the same fate of irregular payment of their pension. The first are those who retired before 1991 and those who retired after 1991. While the pension of the pre-19991 group is paid directly from the recurrent grant given to universities, the post-1991 retirees are paid by the Federal Government through the NICON Insurance Company.

The predicament of the first group is inextricably intertwined with the alleged inadequate recurrent grant which the federal government gives to federal universities. Yet the guideline given by the National Universities Commission (NUC) on how the recurrent grant should be expended is that only one percent of it should be used in paying pensions. But this amount falls short of the actual pension bill, making it difficult for Universities to pay them.

Professor Ginigeme Francis Mbanefoh, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka vividly explains this scenario.

He says: "The NUC formular is that we should pay the pre-1991 pensioners with one percent of our recurrent grant. In my own case, at UNN, this one percent of my recurrent grant is about N2.1m. And the pension bill for this group of pensioners is around N18m." This shortfall puts both the Vice-Chancellor and the pensioners in a difficult situation. This is because preference is given to the payment of salaries of serving staff to the detriment of retirees.

Mbanefoh says: " I do not even have any opportunity of taking out that N2.1m because the total package I got is not enough to pay those on the ground."

Similarly, the huge pension bill of over N30 million which the University of Ibadan has to pay its pensioners is also weighing down on the University, which is still grappling, like other big Universities, with shortage of subvention in paying its serving staff.

While it is easier for the pre-1991 retirees of universities to ask questions from bursars and Vice-Chancellors why they are not being paid, the same cannot be said of the post-1991 retirees whose gratuities and pensions are paid by the federal government through NICON Insurance.

At the UNN for instance, this group of retirees are being owed arrears of seventeen months while many who retired two years ago have not collected their gratuities. The story they get from NICON is that the federal government has not remitted their money to it.

Mbanefoh, in an attempt to lessen the hardship of the pensioners had taken it upon himself in paying the post-1991 retirees initially with the expectation that NICON would promptly pay him back.

This is how the University is being owed to the tune of nearly half a billion naira by NICON. The pension of this group of retirees is estimated at about N40 million monthly.

These unpaid pensioners can be found standing or sitting in groups at the UNN's campus in Nsukka discussing their fate. They look gaunt and wear long faces. They still reside on the campus even though they have retired years back. The university authorities do not have the effrontery to ask them to move out of the their official quarters since they have not been paid their terminal entitlements.

They are an additional burden on the University which has an unenviable unique feature of acute shortage of infrastructural facilities as well as the largest number of uncompleted projects in comparison with other first generation universities.

This situation is so because it took off in 1960 without a grandeur master plan, and the civil war truncated the implementation of the one that was drawn up later. The post-war reconstruction efforts were also disrupted by the economic downturn witnessed in the '80s.

But what are the background of some of these pensioners who are currently oscillating between life and death occasioned by unanticipated deprivations?

Dr William Dikedi Nwaegbe, retired at UNN in May 2001 as a senior lecturer at the age of 65, after putting in 28 years of service. Nwaegbe had joined the service in UNN in 1973 and was immediately drafted to Calabar to start the University of Nigeria there. He had the singular honour of gathering all the students of the new university together to teach them the first lecture in the university on the Use of English. But for the financial assistance which he said has been coming from one of his daughters who works with a Lagos-based bank, Nwaegbe could have possibly gone blind, or could have lost the battle to survive. A large chunk of the money that comes in to him from his daughter is eaten up by drugs recommended by doctors to prevent him from going blind.

If Nwaegbe has to contend with eyes problem and is still holding tight to the string of life, Barrister Nyama, who retired as a Principal Assistant Registrar and Mr Idika, who retired as a Higher Executive Officer were not so lucky as they had been snatched away by the cold hands of death which struck by capitalizing on their inability to pay for proper medical attention.

So bad was the situation for Idika's immediate family that they could not raise the money to bail out his corpse from the hospital where he died. The hospital management had refused to release his corpse for burial because he did not pay for his treatment till he gave up the ghost.

Isiguzo Peter Nwakire, who retired in 1996 as a Reception Assistant after putting in 35 years of service, laments the non-payment of his pension for the past 17 months thus: " I have two universities graduates who have not started working. I'm responsible for their feeding and upkeep, including five other children of mine who are struggling to get admission.

"My wife sells vegetable in the market. It was one Reverend Father who gave me N2,000 yesterday. I appeal to government to pay us all the arrears of our pensions."

Copyright 2002 Global Action on Aging
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