Retirement hell: BBC Africa Eye uncovers corruption in Nigerian pension system

 A new investigation by BBC Africa Eye into pensions in Nigeria has uncovered an unfair and corrupt system that leaves some elderly people sick and penniless, with government workers soliciting extra payments before paying out pensions, people arbitrarily being declared ‘dead’ and having to prove they are alive before their pension is reinstated, and politicians being offered outrageous retirement packages.

The five-month investigation began when Africa eye was approached by Obaji Akpet — a reporter/producer from Cross River state (southern Nigeria) — who told us that his mother, a nurse, did not start getting her pension payments, as would be normal, when she retired and that she was being asked to pay cash directly to an official working in the pension department before they would pay out her pension.

Via a hidden camera, Obaji filmed a civil servant accepting money for herself, and suggesting senior managers in the department also needed to be paid before the pension paperwork would go through. Despite these payments being made, Obaji’s mother’s pension didn’t arrive until four-five months later — a delay that caused her extreme financial problems and left her feeling like she was “in hellfire” and “no more a human being.”

Africa Eye also uncovered a list of over a thousand people in Cross River state whose pensions had been stopped because the state had decided they were no longer alive. Many on the list spent months trying to prove they were alive, often travelling long distances to the state capital, Calabar. And this doesn’t just happen in Cross River state but is replicated in states throughout the country.

Africa Eye hears first-hand testimonies about the extreme hardship caused by being arbitrarily declared ‘dead’, and trying to survive without a pension. One man told the investigation he had travelled to the capital five times to prove he was alive, and sometimes stayed there for up to two weeks, with no resources. He says: “At times, we sleep outside while the rain is falling, that is why I’m sick until now and my body is not like before.”

Others said that once they arrived at the pensions office, they were subjected to treatment they describe as ‘dehumanising’.

Ekpenyong Ewa was declared dead and when her pension was stopped, after months of writing letters, visiting the offices and begging for it to be sorted out, she took an active part in a public sit-in outside the Auditor General’s office. She tells us she was then intimidated into making an apology, which was filmed and put on the internet to further humiliate her.

‘Ghost Pensioners’, a term used to describe people who don’t exist but are somehow ‘receiving’ pension payments, are a real problem in Nigeria and according to Jerry Uwah, a finance journalist, sometimes, there are more fake pensioners than real ones on the pension books of a state.

But creating fake or ghost pensioners is not something ordinary people can do. He says: “The people at the top, they will pay those ghost pensioners immediately, and the money goes in their pockets. It’s not something that a clerk can do because it would be discovered.”

At the other end of the scale, we found politicians awarding themselves huge pensions and additional perks and, in some cases, trying to change the law to give themselves even more. As one politician told us: “What a typical state governor takes home as pension can settle the wages of over 3-4000 teachers. Why should the state dedicate such sort of money to former governors?”.

Kolawole Oluwadare is the Deputy Director of SERAP, an organisation that advocates for more transparency in government. He says: “technology should be available to identify pensioners.” He has been trying to find out through the courts exactly how much retired politicians receive.

The government set up a Pension Reform Taskforce in 2003. In 2015, the chairman was accused of laundering 2.3 billion naira from pension funds for which he is currently on trial for.

The government alleges members of the Pension Reform Taskforce opened fake accounts and were using them to launder money that was stolen from pension funds.

Despite the president’s assurances to pensioners that the system will be sorted, Africa Eye found a pensions system still hampered by corruption causing devastation in the lives of elderly and vulnerable Nigerians, while allowing the rich to retire even richer.

We put the findings of our investigation to Mrs Angela Etta, Mrs Franka Inok, and Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State and asked for a comment but they declined to respond to the investigation.

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