Comrade Bolum Martin Nwachukwu has a long history as a social activist and workers’ rights defender, with emphasis on workers’ salaries, pension, gratuity and allowances. He is the Branch Chairman of Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Branch Chairman of Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), where he is working intensely to turn around a harsh reality marked by multiple forms of failures of successive governments.
In this in-depth interview, offering keen insights and fascinating facts about Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa’s consistent efforts towards clearing backlogs of workers’ pensions, Comrade Bolum examines the mysteries behind the protests by local government retirees in Delta State. Excerpts:
You are the chairman of TUC in Delta State and again Chairman of Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria Delta State branch. In recent times there is this outcry about Pension in Delta State. There has been demonstrations, petitions upon petitions of nonpayment of Pensions by Governor Okowa led administration. As the Chairman of TUC and ASCSN we would like you to throw more light on this matter.
Well I’m surprised when they talk of nonpayment of Pensions in Delta State. I want to start by properly introducing myself. I’m Comrade Bolum Martin Nwachukwu JP (KSM). Like you earlier said I am the Delta State branch chairman of Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria, chairman South-South zone of same association. I’m also the chairman of Trade Union Congress (which is the Labour Center) Delta State Council and also the chairman of South-south zone of Trade Union Congress.
I think I’m an authority in Labour matters. Not only that, on the issues of pension I actually represent the workers of Delta State in the Pensions Fund Management Committee. There is a Fund Management Committee that oversees to the payment of Pensions. I represent the workers there. NUT chairman is also there and the chairman of Pensioners is also there in the Committee. So, I think I’m an authority on this. What I’m going to say is based on what I know and they’re verifiable. And after saying it I’m going to address this thing once and for all because I’m surprised at the campaigns going on; people protesting and saying that Delta State Government is not paying pensions.
But the truth is very far from the positions that are in the public. Based on that, I would want to tell you that when this government took over in 2015, we had a Pension Administration backlog of about N95 billion. With this N95 billion suffice it to say that the former administration paid only N7 billion as Pensions throughout their time. This Government came and we engaged them immediately. And from that time till date Governor Okowa has expended billions and people say he is not paying Pensions? I want to put it on record here that in the State Pensions scheme where I work as a representative of workers and a member of the Funds Management Committee, has as at the end of December 2022 which is just some weeks back, paid up pension of every retirees between levels 1-6 in the Delta State Contributory Scheme. The Governor does not owe anybody. Also for levels 7 and above, the Bureau has paid up to June 2020, not minding the liabilities that were met. So, the State has only pensions of July 2020 to December 2022 to offset. That is why you don’t see people in the state pension scheme protesting.
But I will also tell you that people think that Pensions are just for persons who are retired. Pension is beyond that. For those of us who are still working, government contributes 10% every month towards our Pensions.
So, we’re paid Pensions every month such that when we retire we can assess our retirement savings account. While we the workers contribute 7.5% government is contributing 10%. And as it stands today till December 2022 Okowa’s government is not owing workers a dime. The governor has paid up to date the State’s counterpart 10%. So, Pension is being paid. And that amounts to about N400 million every month. Then, for those who have retired, the accrued rights that is where the issue is. Okowa government releases N500 million every month to offset the accrued right of retired Pensioners. That is why we have been able to pay up to June 2022 for those who are levels 7 and above and for levels 1-6 they have been paid up to December 2022 because of these releases.
Aside from this monthly releases which comes about N900 million every month, there have been different interventions. When there is a windfall, – there was a time some money was refunded to the states, – the governor intervened with one billion; and another two billion. But between September 2022 and November Governor Okowa has released N5 billion to the State Pension Scheme to enable the State offset the backlog which has brought us to where we are today.
And by the special grace of God I know that before he leaves in May 2023, he would have offset everything that has to do with Pension arrears. As we’re talking now there is a Committee headed by the Head of Service to look at ways of clearing this Pension arrears. And they’ve been talking with Pencom to see how we can do it. He’s determined on doing this.
If governor has spent this monies you pension, why the protests
Why the protests? Who are those protesting?
It’s unfortunate that the people the politicians carry to protest are the Local Government workers. Many may posit that Local Government workers and the State government workers are all staff of Delta State Government. I want to ask a simple question, do we, the state workers protest or call Buhari for our salaries? Or Pensions? No. We have three tiers of Government: Federal, State and Local Government. It is he who employs workers that pays salaries. Is that not so? And he who pays salaries pays pension. The truth is that it is the duty of the Local Government chairmen who employed these primary school teachers that should be able to pay their salaries and pension.
They were not employed by the state government. Ask those protesting to show their employment letters, it was signed by the Local Government chairmen. We have what we call Education Authorities in all the 25 local government areas. They do the employment of teachers. The local government staff is employed by the local government themselves through the Local Government Service Commission. None of these is an agency of the State Government. Remember there’s autonomy for the local government; their monthly federal allocation goes straight to their accounts. And it is their responsibility to pay their retirees. There are so many retirees at the local government because they’re employed in the 25 local government areas. If 1000 teachers are employed in a day by the local governments, they will all retire on the same day and time. So, there are lots of them. This notwithstanding, the state government did not just abandon them to their fate. The same Governor Okowa they are protesting against releases N500 million monthly to the Local Government pensions Bureau to support them in the payment of their Pension aside from the money they get from their JAAC to pay pensions which is not enough.
Between September and November 2022, Governor Okowa has released N5 billion. The same thing he did to the State Government he did to the Local Government as a support for the Local Government Pensions Bureau.
Many of those people protesting, I saw one woman on television saying she’s a retired Head teacher; that Governor Okowa has refused to pay her. And that woman had been paid. The last time they went on protest they asked that woman, ‘why are you protesting? Have you not been paid? She said, “yes, she has been paid but she’s protesting because of others. Why are they lying? The problem is that we’re turning this campaign thing to mean something else.
Where it pains me as a Labour Leader is that they are trying to use the workers as pawns in their political game which is not acceptable to workers. And that is why we as labour leaders must protect our end. We must speak the truth so that people will know that we don’t have problem with the government.
Politicians should do their politics and campaign with issues and not using the workers. The workers should not be mis-informed or misled.
The truth is that as it stands today, Governor Okowa administration has done wonderfully well for the workers; releasing money for payment of pensions; he has made it a priority. He assured us when he was coming in of the things he needed to do for us as Governor before he became Governor; he promised to pay salaries as at when due which he did. Our arrears have been paid; for workers’ welfare; he has built a befitting Secretariat for us; he has been making sure that workers are well taken care of. And for the issue of Pension he has taken it head long. From a debt profile of about N95 billion he has reduced it tremendously. And mind you, in 2011, there was a review of the accrued rights as minimum wage was reviewed from N7,500 to N18,000. The previous government did not do anything about it. They were still paying pensions based on N7,500 minimum wage. But when Okowa came, we got an approved accrued right valuer to review the accrued rights to meet up with the new minimum wage of N18,000 and the money increased. When Okowa came he set up a Committee and we looked at it and additional Pension liability of N16 billion came in from there. This is what Okowa is still paying. If we had left it at the N7,500 minimum wage regime, maybe Okowa would have finished paying by now. But what he is still paying now and working seriously to offset includes the additional N16 billion; that’s why we talk of harmonization. I as a Labour Leader I went to Exco on this Pensions matter. He invited myself, the NLC chairman and other Labour Leaders to Exco and we went to defend our position and Exco approved the harmonization which he has started paying. Those who have been paid earlier are now receiving the second leg of their pensions through their harmonization arrears.
Out of the N500 million that comes every month, N200 million goes to new people who have not been paid while N300 goes to the old. Everything that comes from intervention (the N1 billion, N2 billion, N5 billion as the case may be) goes straight to those who have not been paid at all. That’s what the Bureau has been doing. And they have been doing it on first come first serve basis. So, all senior persons who have submitted their documents to the Bureau are being paid as at when due. And we’re in June 2020 as at date. And we hope that by May 2023 he may have been able to offset all arrears because Governor Okowa is doing everything to see that we get fund to offset this. I think the man has tried.
Ask me, politics aside, if the workers and pensioners want to be very sincere, I think Governor Okowa deserves our votes because he has done well for workers of Delta State and we’re solidly behind him. Those who are using pension to campaign against him do not have facts and figures and that is why we have to put the records straight.
Mr. Chairman you are the Labour Leader, what has your office done to meet with Local Government chairmen; give them mandate or ultimatum that these people should be paid their pension?
Good! I would tell you this; NULGE is a member of NLC. NULGE goes to JAAC meetings every month. They have even gone to the Governor. I must tell you that without the financial intervention of the State Government, the Local Governments would not be able to pay salaries. That is why they no longer owe Local Government salaries in Delta State. Recall that when minimum wage was approved, Delta State Government paid state’s workers; local governments were not paid. Labour leaders met with the Governor and appealed to him to intervene in the local government. After the discussions with the Governor, he said, in that case, he would give 50% of the cost of minimum wage for Local Government workers to enable the Local Governments raise the remaining 50% to pay their staff minimum wage. Till date Local Government is only using the 50% that Governor Okowa has given them to pay every other month their minimum wage. They’ve not been able to do their own beat of it. I don’t know what is wrong; I’m not in the Local Government system but I think they should look into their system.
You are the chairman of TUC, what have labour leaders done in terms of meeting the Local Government chairmen?
Well I don’t know but I would want to put some records straight. The Local Government chairmen are politicians and not under any Labour center; they’re ALGON. And NULGE is under the NLC. And I know we have been talking like organized labour with them; we have even gone to the Governor to look for intervention; we’ve even presented issues before JAAC and NULGE has been working with them to see how these things are done.
Why don’t the protesting local government workers take their protests to Local Government? Why the State?
Because these things are political. I must be very frank with you. Instead of people protesting to the Local Government chairmen, ALGON, who gave them employment; whose duty it is to pay them pensions, they come out to protest in front of Government House and carry placard with inscriptions “Okowa Pay me my money”. Okowa is not owing any of them, yet Okowa is supporting to make sure they’re paid because he has human feelings. I think we should be thanking him instead of castigating him. The previous governments never did what he has done. If the government before him did half what he have done, Pensions liability must have been cleared by now. Workers were owed a lot before Okowa became the Governor.
Every day the Local Government teachers are being paid. Go to the Bureau you can verify it. Go to the Pensions Bureau (state and Local government) at the Secretariat they would tell you the same thing. These are facts and figures that are there for you to see. They are being paid every month. But the Governor is making frantic efforts to clear all backlogs of pension of State and Local governments’ workers before he leaves in May 2023. I think we should acknowledge him; we should thank him instead of castigating him.
I think this Pension thing that the opposition is using as a campaign tool is a very weak tool because it’s either they don’t have facts about it or they are weeping out sentiments. And that is why it’s good for those of us who know what is going on should speak up so that people are not misled. We shouldn’t mislead people. If you want to campaign do that with developmental issues.
Your unions, TUC and NLC in Delta State have been accused of compromising with the State Government
How? Do you need to compromise with somebody who is already doing well? We’re not owed salaries; allowances are paid; our Pension Arrears are being cleared; we get car and housing loans through the office of the Head of Service; the Government helps us with our cooperative societies; whatever we asked for that is due us he gives us. So, what’s the compromise we need? As I’m talking to you now, I’m the first TUC chairman who have served out my first tenure, this is my second tenure; I don’t have official vehicle as TUC State Chairman. My predecessors had; government gave them vehicles. I and the NLC chairman we don’t have. Any time we go to the Governor we don’t ask for personal things; we only ask for that of the workers and he has always obliged us. He has a listening ear. We don’t go cap in hand asking for favours instead, we ask for the welfare of the workers. And I think the workers in Delta State are not faring badly at all. We meet with other States and we know what their problems are but we don’t have such here. Look at the new Secretariat he built very conducive for workers.
He never owes us salaries even during COVID-19 when other States in the country were paying percentage and owing salaries. Delta State Government didn’t owe us. I mean, we should acknowledge him.
The same Pensioners say you as the Labour Leader defend the Government on electronic media, either TV or Radio. Have you found time to meet with them one on one and address this issue?
I have, severally. That is why you see the Pensioners from the State where we have jurisdiction hardly protests because we dialogue with them all the time. As I’m talking to you now they have a meeting tomorrow (Tuesday 10th January). They invited us to their meeting. What we usually do in the state is that we invite them, they come to the meeting, we meet with them and they tell us what their problems are, we take it to the Governor and the Governor responds. They’re still our members whether retired or not retired. Pensioners union is under NLC. So, they’re still our members and members do not stop at those who are just working. Whether you are retired or not we take their issues to the Governor and he has always responded. So, those protesting are from the local government but if people want to be sincere they’re the same set of people all the time, and yet things are going on and they are not acknowledging it. That is political.
Are they being used by opposition?
Well that’s what you have said and that’s what we think. I must tell you, that’s our thinking. Because you cannot be saying the same thing at the same time, meanwhile the facts are there and nobody is looking at the facts. I don’t know why those who carry on with Governor Okowa’s campaign has refused to talk about it. May be they don’t want to join issues with them. But where it touches us as Labour Leaders is that our people are being used as pawns. Leave us alone, do your campaign, we know who we support. The man who is paying our salaries as at when due; the man who pays our pensions; the man who gave us good Secretariat; the man who is attending to our issues and paid us our promotion arrears when he was not even the one that accumulated it; the man who listens to us anytime we cry out to him, is the man we’re supporting. As simple as that! You don’t need to use us as pawns to bring one or two of us, give them something and say they should come and say that the man is not doing well when we know he’s doing well. For me as a Labour Leader I will encourage the Delta State workers to support whoever they want to support. But please remember that Governor Okowa deserves our votes from what he has done for us.
What will you now advise the Pensioners that are being used?
My advice to them is to go home. Our people used to say, ‘thank the man who is doing well for you and he will do more”. Instead of allowing yourselves to be used why not come out and say ‘Governor Okowa we thank you for the one you have done, please do more for us’. He will do more. I know him, he has always done more and he’s determined to always doing more whether they thank him or not. He has human feeling.