The signing of the Public Office Holders Pension Bill into law by Governor Rotimi Amaechi has become controversial in Rivers State. CHUKWUDI AKASIKE reports
DEMOCRACY has proven to be the best form of government for most countries seeking to develop at a fast pace. Separation of power, which is one of the features of this form of government, adds colour to democracy and makes government structures in the countries that practise it a delight of the people.
Many are of the view that Nigeria operates a pseudo-democracy that has separation of power only on paper. The three arms of government appear to be dependent on each other in carrying out their functions. This is why most of the State Houses of Assembly in the country are seen as mere rubber stamps of the executive.
In Rivers State, the handling of the Public Office Holders Bill, which is targeted at paying pensions and other fringe benefits to public office holders in the state, failed to invalidate the fact that the legislature in the country’s democracy is an extension of the executive.
The bill, which sailed through all the roadblocks, was recently passed into law by the state assembly.
Apart from receiving 100 per cent of their basic salaries as pensions, the bill, which recently received the assent of the governor, will provide two houses each for former governors and deputy governors in the state.
One of the houses will be built in Abuja, the nation’s capital while the other will be constructed in any part of the state. The buildings, according to the document, will be furnished by the state government.
Other benefits are three cars each for the ex-governors and their deputies, which will be replaced every three years, free medical treatment for former chief executives and members of their immediate families; provision of cooks, drivers, stewards, gardeners and other domestic workers, who are also expected to earn pensions after retirement.
On the security of former governors and their deputies in the state that prides itself as Treasure Base of the nation, over eight security operatives, including employees of the State Security Service will be provided for them.
The state is not alone in the provision of pension for governors and deputies’ as the Kwara State House of Assembly also passed into law similar bill for the benefit of former governors and deputies in the state in 2010, while Dr. Bukola Saraki was still in power.
The passage of the Pension Bill in Kwara was sequel to a unanimous decision of the lawmakers. Saraki had in a letter urged the House to extend entitlements under the payment of pension to all democratically elected governors and deputy governors of the state since 1967.
Gombe State is not left out as former governor, Danjuma Goje, had also ensured that a pension scheme that would last the lifetime of former governors was worked out for him and his deputy at the end of their tenure.
Goje was said to have paid himself and his deputy the sum of N300m as executive pension benefits.
The National Assembly had also approved a new and comprehensive pension package for past Nigerian leaders. The beneficiaries include past presidents, heads of the government of the federation, prime minister, vice presidents, presidents of the senate, and speakers of the House of Representatives.
President of the Senate, David Mark, had said the pension scheme was aimed at discouraging coups.
In Rivers, controversy began the moment the motion for the pension was moved by the House Leader, Mr. Chidi Lloyd. It was passed without much ado that usually follows bills that could directly affect the ordinary masses. The Petroleum Industry Bill is still with the National Assembly since 2008, while the Freedom of Information Bill was passed into law after spending about 11 years in the Legislature.
The state Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, Mr. George Ukwuoma-Nwogba, defended Amaechi’s action, saying it was in order because it would prevent chief executives from short-changing the state.
He said, “What the governor has done by giving his assent to the bill is a welcome development. We have seen former chief executives getting very poor after they left their official positions. The law will prevent any governor in the state from stealing while in office. This is because while in office, the chief executives will have it at the back of their mind that they have something to gain after their stay in office as governors and deputy governors.”
Also, the Chief Press Secretary to the governor, Mr. David Iyofor, explained that there was nothing wrong in giving assent to the bill. Iyofor pointed out that contrary to the opinion in some quarters, the document on Public Pension was not an executive bill. He said the bill originated from a member of the House and was passed into law before it was brought to the governor for his assent.
The governor’s aide noted that the bill would have been vetoed into law if the governor had refused to give his assent to it, adding that the document was not the only one that got Amaechi’s endorsement. “There were other bills among the five bills that are directly beneficial to the people and the governor approved them alongside the Public Pension bill. Again, the bill is not an executive bill; it was sponsored by a member of the House.”
But a chieftain of the All Nigeria Peoples Party, Chief Asukewe Iko-Awaji, described the House as a rubber stamp of the executive.
Iko-Awaji argued that for the House to have thought of paying governors pensions and other benefits after leaving offices was an indication that the legislature in the state was an extension of the executive.
Iko-Awaji, who is the former National Vice Chairman of the ANPP, South-South, said the new bill would be challenged in court.
He, however, doubted the ability of the judiciary to handle such petition because the third arm of government had not proved that it was independent.
He said, “The problem we have is that we don’t have a House that is in support of the masses in the state. What we have is a rubber stamp House. We were happy when the National Assembly said it would raise a bill to make state Houses of Assembly in the country autonomous. How many times has the House passed a bill that would benefit the people of the state?”
Also dissatisfied with the handling of the bill, the Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform charged the House to begin the process of repealing the new law on Public Office Holders Pension.
The NDCBP coordinator, Mr. Ken Henshaw, who described the law as obnoxious, undemocratic and anti-people, said the state legislature should abolish the law in the interest of the people.
He said, “The provisions in the law are unsustainable and will put further pressure on the already weak economy of the state. We observe that the passage of the bill into law is coming at a time when Rivers State Government has at various times admitted that its financial situation was precarious.
“Politics is supposed to be a part-time venture and it is not pensionable. Youth unemployment is an admitted problem in Rivers. The money that would be used to cater for former governors should be used to address the problem of unemployment. The wealth accumulated by former governors and deputy governors while in office is enough for them. Adding pension and other benefits to it will affect the polity,” Henshaw added.
While the controversy on the new law appears to be unending, there is no doubt that the economy of the state will be sapped in the next 20 years when many ex-governors, their deputies, drivers and the retinue of domestic workers continue to draw funds from the state treasury.
Currently, not a few have likened the recent development in the state to the proverbial “taking coal to Newcastle.”