Bucket Of Flour, Not Bouquet Of Flower
DURING a chat recently with a friend, he expressed his concern about the inability of the elderly to stay out of active politics in Nigeria. Why are they not retiring from active politics to the ranks of respected non-partisan statesmen? I laughed and asked him to think again. My friend did not realise that in Nigeria we have long lost the tradition of deep reverence for elderly. Gone are the days when the saying was true that “the words of our elders are the words of wisdom”. We are holding the wrong end of capitalism and have embraced utilitarianism. The saying that gray hair is an honour from God is no more useful. We throw away our experiences and prefer to make new mistakes. The elderly have to struggle for space in order not to be forgotten in the dustbin of history. I told him of a recent interview granted by former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme to a newspaper. He complained of not being accorded the respect he deserves as a former Vice-President. He complained of the marginalisation by the younger generation of politicians who no longer value the contributions made by him and others of his age.
Every year we celebrate Armed Forces Remembrance Day. Public servants, politicians and top government functionaries are made to wear the Armed Forces Remembrance Emblem for almost a month. The Remembrance Day celebration culminates in the laying of wreath, release of many pigeons to signify peace and inspection of guard of honour, on January 15. That has been our practice since the Nigerian Civil War ended officially on January 15, 1970. Very colourful ceremony I must admit. This ceremony is always at the national or state arcade, before the statue of the Unknown Soldier. I always look around to see who will be present. Everyone is always present except those who truly deserve to be present, the retired military men! The current security challenges would always exclude them from what should be their day of honour and glory. This should be their day when they are expected to sit around themselves and ruminate with pride their exploits in the wars in Congo, Burma and Lebanon. This should have been their day to congratulate each other for how they fought to keep Nigeria one. This would have been their day to receive delegations of goodwill from Sierra Leone and Liberia to thank them for restoring peace to those countries. But that is not always the case. To a large extent they are forgotten. For God’s sake, the fallen heroes were their colleagues!
The irony of it all is that during the celebration this year, the retired armed men had planned a nationwide demonstration to press home their demand for a better condition of life and payment of the backlog of their pension. It was an irony that on the day the president and other top government functionaries were busy honouring the dead armed men, laying flowers in their honour all over the country, the colleagues of those dead men who are still alive are here begging for flour for their tables. I consider it a national ridicule for the government to organise such an elaborate ceremony in honour of the dead armed men while the living ones are left hungry.
The plight of retired persons in Nigeria is not restricted to those in uniform. It is even worse with retired local and state government staff. A little boy was asked in the class; ‘what do you notice in a person to show that he or she has retired from service as a class teacher?’ The little boy answered; “stroke”. The men and women who have served our nation well are never properly taken care of. It is so scary to retire from active service in Nigeria. One is never sure of what to expect. That is why civil servants falsify documents and age, swearing to all sorts of affidavits to remain in service. Those who have access to government funds and can steal, do so with the hope that it will become their insurance when the reality of retirement dawns on them. But after one to two years they realise that what they have stolen cannot pay for all they need. Then they join a political party and struggle to contest an election or remain close to power. For such, the politics they play is not for the interest of the nation or community but just a survival tactics. That is why political parties have complicated and unnecessary structures to take care of all characters of people that populate the parties. The Board of Trustees (BOT), National Executive Council (NEC), the National Caucus, Regional Caucus, Tribal Caucus, State Caucus and Elders, Zonal Caucus, Local Government Caucus, Ward Caucus, Village Caucus, family Caucus, etc. All these categories of party structures must be well serviced by contracts, board appointments, statutory allowances, etc. How can a nation survive and progress with such a clumsy organogram of party men and women, who by every means contribute almost nothing to national development after elections?
The government has well laid out programmes and projects for every category of persons and organisations. The big problem is that we do not strengthen the structures that take care of the needs of these programmes and projects and they end up becoming conduit pipes of corruption. Take for instance, National Pension Fund. It is a government establishment that is well thought out to take care of the retired person. But see what we have done to it. The National Pension Commission should have been the ‘retirement savior’ for civil servants. But see what happened to the pension fund. I wrote in February 2013 about the Pension funds. Read this extract from it:
“Watching the live broadcast of the Nigerian senate discussing Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina on the 13th February, 2013, my mind raced back to that carton as my stomach turned in revolt. Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina is a deputy director in the federal civil service, the embattled Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT) accused of stealing billions of Naira who refused to honour the invitation of the senate committee charged to look into the activities of that Task Team. The President of the Senate said the sins of Maina are many and could not be counted. Contributions by individual senators on the floor showed signs of a nation losing the necessary war against corruption. Both printable and unprintable terms were freely used. Senator (Prof) Olusola Adeyeye representing Osun central, Osun State, describing Maina said, when God was giving out manners to people, Maina decided to be absent. Senator Aloysius Etok, Akwa Ibom North West, summarized it all; “If we have five people like Maina, Nigeria will collapse. He is a fraudster. He is riding two bulletproof cars while pensioners are hungry. He spent N1 billion to verify 29 pensioners abroad. He goes around with 38 security men and every week, he spends N8 million on his personal security”. Waoooh! Senator Abaribe Abia South asked a pointed question that couldn’t be answered: “Who is behind Maina?” Remember that this man is an ordinary deputy director in the federal civil service. Has he no Director and permanent secretary he reports to?” With a personnel like this, how can there be money for the retired pensioners? The interesting thing is that this case went up to the High Court in Abuja and the Judge gave him a funny jail sentence and an option of fine of Seven Hundred Thousand Naira. It was reported that one of Maina’s aids just walked out of the court room into one of the cars in his convey, opened the boot of the car and brought the money in cash and paid. He would have walked out of the court almost a free man and indeed he is a free man today. At that time Nigerians cried foul and it was a big national embarrassment. We were informed that the case was sent back for retrial or another process, but nothing seems to be happening there now. Nigeria seems to have developed bigger problems than Maina’s minor wahala. So we have moved on, leaving him behind to enjoy his loot.
It is time in Nigeria for us to begin to cherish those who made it possible for us to have a nation. Look at the life of our teachers, agricultural officers, village dispensary staff, Local and State government staff but serving and retired. They have lost pride in the work they do and their remunerations are paid once in a long while. We are gradually sliding to a level whereby payment of staff salaries and retirement entitlements will be regarded as dividends of democracy. The staff members do not take pride in the work they do and so they see their function only as an avenue for money making. At every opportunity they have, fraud is committed and promptly covered up because no one is sure of tomorrow. If we have a well-organised retirement process and insulate it against fraud and cantankerous fellows who believe every kobo in the government purse can be stolen, it does our system a lot of good. In that way, every retired person will not be going into politics as a way of survival. Our aged person in Nigeria will be happy to be called elder statesmen instead of party elders and caucus members. This has really ridiculed our system and our elders are not smiling. That is why they would love to remain in the winning party in order to be close to action where they can also call the shots.
In the spirit of the Armed Forces Remembrance Day, as a nation it is better we settle our citizens who are alive by making it possible for them to buy their yam, cassava and maize flour than we organizing a phony remembrance day and lay wreath flowers in their honour. Saint John Chrysostom, a renowned early Christian preacher said “It is only right that honour given to anyone should take the form most acceptable to the recipient not to the giver”. In our clime the reverse is the case. It is in this light that I strongly advocate that we strengthen the policy we already have to take care of the elderly and retired. They should not regret serving this nation. We should not be afraid of becoming old. It is only by that will they retire to the quiet life and peace that retirement is supposed to give. They do not need flower bouquet in their honour but buckets of flour for their kitchen while they are still alive.
Rev. Fr. Ojaje Idoko is Director of Pastoral Affairs Department, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria