THIS DAY, 8 May, 2019
Emmanuel Addeh writes that the controversy surrounding the proposed Pensions Law for Bayelsa lawmakers may have been laid to rest, but the dust raised by the incident lingers
Conversations on the Pensions Law for Bayelsa lawmakers by the state House of Assembly, continues because it was a novel case and an action that did not meet the country’s basest standards.
How a group of 24 elected representatives, without a thought for the implication of their action, sat down to pass a bill which will entitle them to a pension for life, remains a subject for the present and the generation of unborn Bayelsans.
There was no public hearing; no form of consultation with their constituencies. The action was taken in absolute disregard for the feelings of the people they represent.
However, the resolution met with stiff opposition. The consensus was that there was no justification for such a huge additional financial burden on a state whose socio-economic indices are not flattering.
For example, in the just released figures from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Bayelsa ranked third among its peers in terms of unemployment with about 32.6 percent.
Yet, weeks after, there has been no statement from the house as to how they intended to boost employment by the quality of people-oriented laws to remedy the situation.
The brouhaha over what many regard as the latest indiscretion by the lawmakers who the state is still struggling to pay a loan of over N3 billion which they approved to buy cars for themselves, brought the different strata of state together in complete condemnation of what observers say was a self-serving law.
For the first time in a long while, the young and the old in the state, were in agreement that the law would not only further impoverish the people, but would substantially jeopardise the struggling economy of the state for generations to come.
At first sight, the law seemed considerate and reasonable given the amounts listed, but a closer look at the proposed retroactive law included the payment of pension to lawmakers, from the old Rivers state (out of which Bayelsa was created), current ones and future lawmakers.
With each of the lawmakers meant to earn N100,000, principal officers N200,000 and the Speaker entitled to N500,000 and stretching from over 20 years when the state was created, it is believed that the state would have been expending billions of Naira to care for legislators who served roughly between two and 12 years, as spelt out by the proposed law.
When condemnation of the proposal started pouring in came, the lawmakers had to beat a retreat.
Elders from different divides spoke with one voice: that a state yearning for development, could not afford to shoulder unnecessary expenses, not only in the short term, but for life.
Coming under a non-partisan group, ‘Embasara Foundation’, the elders rejected the proposed law and advised Governor Seriake Dickson to decline assent to the controversial bill passed into law by the members of the state House of Assembly.
At a meeting with journalists along with eight civil society groups in the state, at the NUJ Press Centre in Yenagoa, the elders vowed to carry out a protest in the state capital to demonstrate their disapproval for the bill if the governor didn’t decline assent.
Chairman, Media Committee of Embasara Foundation, Dr. Ayakeme Whisky, disclosed that the assembly members erred when they failed to conduct a public hearing to get input of the people, as it was customary.
“Under Nigeria’s constitution, pension is the exclusive preserve of civil servants, not political office holders.
“This new dimension to law making in a state where successive administrations have failed to settle years of backlog of pension and gratuity to genuine pensioners and mostly senior citizens, is unacceptable.
“Government has shown a clear lack of respect to the civil service as a vital institution, an erosion of moral values and a disturbing sense of entitlement amongst political officers. The people of Bayelsa state will not accept that.
“That is why we join countless citizens from Bayelsa state to urge Governor Seriake Dickson to side with the people and decline assent to the bill, which is a bad piece of attempted legislation passed with indecent haste and revealing secrecy,” the group said.
The All Progressives Congress (APC), Bayelsa State kicked against the bill which was spearheaded by leader of the house, Peter Akpe.
Akpe had argued that the bill, when assented to, will provide reasonable financial security for the beneficiaries and shield them from economic uncertainty in the future.
According to him, those qualified to benefit from the bill must be indigenes of the state who have served in the state as well as in the old Rivers State for a minimum period of two years.
Publicity Secretary of the Bayelsa APC, Mr. Doifie Buokoribo, said the proposed law was not only ungodly and self-serving, but wicked in a state regarded as one of the most impoverished in the country.
“The party has also observed how the strange idea, which was proposed as a bill and passed by the house on Wednesday, has set the public pulse racing. APC Bayelsa completely rejects this life pension bill for members of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly,” the party said.
APC said it was unsympathetic for members of the House of Assembly to seek to enhance their own lives at the expense of the vast majority of Bayelsa people living in pain and penury.
Buokoribo described the life pension bill as an unspeakable crime against the people.
He added, “Regarding this latest move by the House of Assembly, we again say that the idea is avaricious, wicked, and insensitive. By proposing such a law, the lawmakers have merely portrayed themselves as a people who feel no concern for the feelings of their suffering constituents.
“APC advises the legislature to withdraw the obnoxious pension bill and avoid the appalling crime against the people of Bayelsa State.”
The anti-corruption advocacy group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), was not left out of the cacophony of voices mounting to stop the bill.
SERAP urged Dickson not to give assent to a bill proposing life pension for the principal officers of the state House of Assembly.
SERAP Deputy Director, Kolawole Oludare, said the proposed life pensions for the lawmakers was an abuse of office.
The organisation warned that it would take the governor to court should he give assent to the bill.
“The lawmakers are clearly the major beneficiaries under the proposed legislation. Therefore, by passing the life pension bill, the lawmakers of Bayelsa State House of Assembly have violated the constitutional and international prohibitions on conflicts of interest,” the group added.
Chairman of the state’s Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO), Nengi James, was not left out of the fray as he insisted that the bill was against the collective wish of the people.
He described it as draconian and murderous, boasting that it will be resisted not only through public protest but through intellectual discourse and other means possible.”
Also, the former secretary of the CLO, Morris Alagoa, said a protest was necessary to tell the government that all was not well with the bill.
It was only a matter of time before the governor bulged, given the outcry against the bill and the devaluation of the PDP government’s political capital in the state, against the backdrop that it will face a major election in about six months.
As tension continued to build and screaming headlines appeared in the newspapers daily, the governor summoned the lawmakers to his country home in Toru-Orua, Sagbama. There was only one agenda on the table: how to douse the looming tension.
In the end, Dickson declined assent to the bill. He did not only describe it as illegal, but he ended up being the hero of the entire saga.
In a letter to the Friday Kombowei-led Assembly, Dickson explained that he refused to sign the bill into law because it was inconsistent with Section 124 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.
He said that he was of the view that the State Assembly lacked the powers to expand the categories of public servants who should be entitled to pension.
He stressed that he had to withhold assent to the bill because the state which was bedevilled with a lot of challenges in spite of its low Internally Generated Revenue base and unstable earnings from the oil economy was the only state out of Nigeria’s 36 states to come up with such a bill.
The governor maintained that his decision was guided by the principle that government should not be for a select class of the privileged in the society.
“The provisions of this bill granting pension to members of Bayelsa State House of Assembly and the extension of same to former members of the Assembly and Bayelsa indigenes who served in the old Rivers State House of Assembly, is inconsistent with Section 124 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.
“I am not convinced about the legality of this bill which seeks to expand the categories of persons entitled to pension. While I agree that the Assembly can adjust the quantum of pension payable to persons entitled to pension, I am not convinced that the House has powers to add to the categories of pensionable public officers.
“Evidently, there is no record of any other state in this country that has expanded the categories of pensionable public officers to include lawmakers. I do not agree that Bayelsa which is coping with all the myriads of issues and challenges, with our low Internally Generated Revenue base and the unpredictable oil economy, should be the first to initiate this.
“Honourable members of this Assembly, Bayelsans and other Nigerians following our progress as a government would clearly attest to the fact that my entire public service, actions and decisions are marked by what is in the public interest, particularly the interest of the vulnerable, ordinary people.
“It is my philosophy that government should not be for a select few. In the last seven years, my actions and decisions which have sometimes elicited opposition from the elite who have been feeding fat on the resources of our state, have been marked by this singular disposition of mine.
“And I do not intend at this point to abandon that. Rather I intend to do more and to consolidate on the policies and actions which have been taken to protect the vulnerable. Therefore, I am unable to assent to this bill which in my view aims to expand and consolidate the class interest of a privileged few,” he said.
But beyond the sections of the bill which had become problematic, there are emerging arguments that the existing law which also included benefits for the governor and his deputy outside government should be reviewed totally, to tone down the benefits accruing to the number one and number two citizens of the state.
Nestor Binabo, a former Speaker of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly, urged the governor to halt the ongoing payment of monthly pensions for former governors and their deputies in the state.
Binabo, who commended Dickson for mustering the political will to withdraw his assent on the controversial pension bill for state lawmakers, said the governor’s action would be complete if he stopped ongoing pensions for his predecessors.
“In 2003 the then House of Assembly passed the Pension Bill for governors and deputy governors, which was signed into law by the then governor of the state.
“It has come to my notice that the recent development is an effort by the current members of the House to repeal the 2003 Law and to make a new law, which would include their pensions as well as enhance the pension benefits of the governors and their deputies.
“Fortunately following the outcry of members of the public, Governor Dickson rejected the new bill. This means that the state will revert to the subsisting 2003 pension law.
“This is still immoral. The right thing to do is to repeal the 2003 pension law for governors and deputies.
“I have maintained the view that no political office holder including governors and deputy governors should be pensionable,” he insisted.
Binabo added, “There may be a need to provide security to former governors and their deputies, but they should not be paid pension. Pensions are the exclusive rights of civil servants, who use significant number of their years to serve their states.
“We have had a crop of politicians especially governors and their deputies, who already leveraged on their elective positions to prepare a better future for themselves and their families.
“These politicians within their periods in offices acquired exotic cars, mansions in different parts of the country and abroad as well as assets in companies.
“It will be a disservice and in fact a double jeopardy for such persons to continue to impoverish, under-develop and fleece the state in the name of pension.”
However, as the dust seems to be settling, observers believe that those who fought against the bill must be on the alert before it gets approved through the backdoor.