Letter from Africa: The looting of Nigeria's pension funds

Ex-civil servants protesting in Abuja, Nigeria (October 2012)

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sola Odunfa in Lagos writes that many elderly Nigerians are battling to survive after their pensions were stolen by corrupt officials.

The compulsory retirement age for public officials in Nigeria is 65 years, after which one is expected to settle down to an easy life of contentment and leisure.

But don't you believe it.

The reality is that you may spend your old age running after government contracts if you have the wherewithal, or tending chickens in your backyard to eke out a living.

It is not that the pension cannot sustain you. Far from it.

The state pension is big enough to encourage you to seek rejuvenation, even by taking a new wife and starting life all over.

After all, you could be as young as 60, the age for voluntary retirement.

Nigeria has two classes of government pensioners. One consists of those who took insurance for their old age by either stealing as much as they could while in the public service, or collecting as many bribes as they were privileged to do by their offices. Members of this class have no need of their pensions.

The second class is made up of the honest, self-righteous ex-public official who would not touch one kobo of government money beyond their salaries and allowances and to whom bribe-taking was contrary to their religious beliefs and family values.

Investigations suspended

This second class had calculated their pensions and concluded that they and their spouse would live in comfort until death.

But they stepped out of the public service into the embrace of discomfort and hunger brought on them by former colleagues who had stripped the treasury bare.

Image caption Police offices cannot be sure of a comfortable retirement

In the past three years, several official investigations into Nigeria's pension funds have revealed theft on an unimaginable scale.

Newspapers reports of the hearings convey the impression that the funds were stored in open rooms to which officials had unimpeded access. Apparently, officials were free to walk in and loot as much as they could.

A junior clerk allegedly had 12 million naira (about $75,000; £49,000) in his bank account. A deputy director in a ministry allegedly had 500 million naira ($3m) in one account and $2m, in hard currency, in another account.

Nigeria's police officers, themselves not immune to the temptations of corruption, are not guaranteed a comfortable old age either. The investigations have revealed that the Police Pension Fund has also been ravaged.

The list is endless. Yet, the investigations have been suspended without covering all ministries and parastatals.

One of the cases that was pursued caused yet more controversy in January when a high court judge imposed a fine of $4,600 on an official who had pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal $142m from the police pension pot - instead of opting for the harshest sentence available, a two-year jail term with a fine.

The judge was subsequently suspended for a year without pay by the National Judicial Council for failing to exercise "discretion judicially and judiciously" in the case.

Government pensioners, wherever I meet them, now cut a sorry image.

They spent their working years serving the public, despite poor pay, in the belief that their old age would be well-cushioned by a generous pension for life.

Now they live by the day in the forlorn hope that a cheque may come in unexpectedly. Many of them regret their honesty in service.

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