By Jonathan Agu
I am not a regular commentator on happenings in Imo State. I stopped commenting on the affairs of the state more than a decade ago, after witnessing the pillorying of a government that should have taken the state to greater and enviable heights. But recent events have compelled me to pay attention to the brewing danger in the state. It is a pity how a once vibrant and promising state has been turned to a banana republic, and, as usual, Imo political elite maintain unedifying silence. Leaders in Imo State have the penchant and reputation to be unnecessarily silent in the midst of serious challenges, but when things turn sour, they will start pointing fingers. That is not what Igbo people are known for. The Igbo man is known for his courage and outspokenness against blatant evil.
On Friday, May 21, the media space got busy with the news that Governor Hope Uzodimma of Imo State had assented to the bill abolishing the pensions for former governors, deputy governors, speakers and deputy speakers in the state. As usual and out of ignorance, some citizens joined the bandwagon of condemning the pensions for this category of public office holders in the state. The law that provided pensions for former governors in the state was enacted during the tenure of Chief Achike Udenwa. I used to run a business along Okigwe Road at the time. I was conversant with what was happening in the state. Two decades after the law came into being, Governor Uzodimma has abolished it on excuses that are totally bizarre. It appears that Governor Uzodimma knew about the sensitivity of what he was doing and what he wants to achieve. That was why he scurried for justification for his new gambit, deliberately designed to shore up his fast dwindling image.
Governor Uzodimma claimed he abolished the payment of pensions to former governors on two major grounds. The first was his claim that the law providing for pensions for the category of former office holders listed above is fraudulent, unconstitutional and unacceptable to him. The second ground was his baseless assumption on how long the former public office holders could live – as if he wished them death – and the baseless fear that the state might have about 20 former governors and others in that category to pay pensions to. “At the age our Governors and Speakers are leaving office, it will not be out of place to assume that many of them will be alive and kicking in the next 15 years or more. This will mean that, by then, the state will have more than 20 governors and Speakers qualified for Pensions and Privileges”, said the Governor.
Contrary to the Governor’s assertion, the law that provided pensions for former governors and their deputies in the state was not a jamboree. Sitting governors do a lot in rendering service to their people. They do what no one else could do. For example, most people do not know that a death sentence passed on a criminal must have the imprimatur of the governor of the state before it could be executed. The reason why many criminals who have got death sentence from the courts across the country are still in jail is because their governors shy away from appending their signatures on the court verdict for years. They fidget at the thought that someday they would leave office and become defenseless like the ordinary person. Then the criminals might regroup and come for their heads. On the other hand, Nigerians have this erroneous views about their governors. Most Nigerians believe that a former governor must have stolen so much money to keep him in comfort, all his lifetime. This view leaves these former public office holders open to attack by criminals. Even while out of office, former governors continue to render services to their states, oftentimes on pro bono. The pensions for former governors, therefore, makes provision for their security, driver, gardener, steward and for medicals. If adequate provision is not made for their lives after service to their state, these former governors might be killed or die of one medical condition or the other.
By the way, how much is the pension of a former governor in Imo State? How many former governors receive pensions in Imo State? How much does their pension amount to in a year? Have the former governors been paid their pensions in the last 9 years? Answers to these questions will help Imo people to know whether the claim of N1.3BN for the pensions of the former governors is true or a blatant lie. I don’t really think that Governor Uzodimma believes that the pensions for the former governors amounted to N1.3BN annually. This figure is outrageous and exists in the imagination of the person who conjured it up. From the copy of the law before me now on this matter, a former governor in Imo State received N600,000 as pension while his deputy got N300,000. A former governor in Imo State takes home N7.2M annually and that takes care of his security and personal aides. Even if four former governors were drawing pensions, in ten years it would amount N288M, not N1.3BN as is being bandied by the Uzodinma regime.. The claim that the former governors received N1.3BN pension is, in my view, a classical example of giving a dog a bad name, in order to hang it, and setting his predecessors up for public lynching, harm and opprobrium. This is nothing but destructive politics, designed to achieve meaningless populism. Since 2011, how many former governor in Imo State have been paid their pensions ? At the moment there are only two former governors in the state that qualify for pension: Chief Achike Udenwa and Dr. Ikedi Ohakim. Former governor Okorocha has not been captured yet because he is a serving Senator. The immediate past governor, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, is also not in the loop yet for reason of his ouster from office. So what are we talking about?
Imo State pays far less in pensions to former governors than my state, Abia. It also pays far less than Enugu, Ebonyi and Anambra states. Yet, these states have not abolished the payment of pensions for their former governors. What motivated Governor Uzodimma to rush to append his signature on a bill that callously dumped pensions for former governors in his state? What was the motivation for sending an executive bill to the State Assembly which received both first and second readings same day without the opportunity of lawmakers studying the implications of the bill? Reports show that the bill was passed by the House the second day, and was rapidly signed only few hours after. No consultations and no public hearing were conducted or allowed. No law in the history of democracy had travelled this fast, as fast as this one. The rush with which the pensions for former governors was abrogated in Imo State raises serious doubt about the real intentions of the governor and the lawmakers. With the kind of stories emerging in the media about the Imo State House of Assembly for years now, it will not be shocking to hear that just six persons passed the bill into law. The state is notorious for such rascality. With the Speaker, Chiji Collins, battles to save his name and office following his alleged certificate forgery scandal, he could do anything to remain relevant.
If the motivation for the abrogation of pensions for former governors in the state was to gain popularity, why did the governor not rather do what Governor Ben Ayade did recently by excluding the ordinary from taxation. If the motivation was to save costs, why not do what Governor el-Rufai did in Kaduna State by reducing the number of state ministries and commissioners and other appointees. Kaduna State used to have 18 ministries, but they have been reduced to 8. In Governor Uzodimma’s Imo State, the number of ministries have rather skyrocketed to 24. And there are over 100 special advisers and senior special advisers. The cumulative cost of one commissioner in Imo State in a month, for example can write off the annual pensions of the former governors. It seems to me, therefore, that political warfare, rather than cutting costs, was the primary reason for the abrogation of pensions for former governors. Governor Uzodimma is somewhat obsessed with pursuing a political vendetta against his predecessor, and in doing this he seems not to weigh his actions. By abrogating pensions for former governor in the state, he has declared war against those who contributed to making him governor: the Buharis, Tinubus, Oshiomholes, etc. He has also, perhaps inadvertently, declared war against his colleagues at the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), the Progressive Governors’ Forum (PGF) and the Southeast Governors’ Forum (SGF).
If Governor Uzodimma wants to impress Imo people, he has more serious things to do and give more attention to. Thinking big and planning big are better than playing to the gallery. Adapalm Palm Nigeria Ltd, for example, is one area that needs urgent attention. I am not persuaded by the shenanigan going on in that palm industry. Planted in 1974, Adapalm is still a 4,000 hectare investment with no meaningful production and no noticeable transformation. Efforts to revamp that industry in 2010 was opposed by the political class who like to play to the gallery, as well. While Imo state still wallows in confusion of what to do, Cross River State has overtaken it with 75,000 hectares of palm plantation. Rivers State which used to have about 2,000 hectares of palm in 2011 now has 35,000 hectares of palm plantation. As I write this, Cross River State has become famous for its deep-sea port investment, a similar project that was destroyed in Imo. The garment factory in Cross River State is also an exemplary project. The list goes on. In the next 2 years, these states may no longer depend on federal allocations to improve their the quality of life of their people. Where does Imo State stand in all this?
It is worrisome that while some governors are taking proactive steps to position their states, Imo State is still playing their usual morbid politics and blame game. By this insensitive abrogation of pension for former governors, Uzodimma is destroying democracy in the country. I am not a lawyer but i am certain that the court would easily throw away this obnoxious, vindictive and not well thought-out action. The political elite in the state should, therefore, not stand akimbo, folding their hands and watch the daylight rape of their state by policies that cannot stand the test of time. They should not repeat the mistakes they made during the Okorocha administration which absolutely made Imo state a huge joke and a laughing stock. This is really how tyrants are made.
– Engr. Agu is an Entrepreneur based in Owerri.